As we are walking down the dusty path through the moon-like landscape, I feel like there is some sound in the air. I can’t really put my finger on it, but it sounds like somewhere in the distance, someone is chanting. After a while I notice my friend, who is walking a bit ahead of me, also turning her head right and left – she is also hearing something. But what is it? There is no-one around us, and the next village is still ten kilometres ahead. I ask my daughter, who is walking with me, if she can hear it too, and she tells me that she can. She thinks it is monks singing in the past to protect the land from demons.
Later we find out that it is actually the noise of the wind blowing through the holes in the electricity poles, but part of me still believes my daughter’s version. Mustang, with all its magic and mystery, really pulls you in, and surely the monks of the past would still be protecting this sacred landscape.
Nepal is a great country to trek with kids, and Mustang is one of the best places you can choose as a family. Due to its special permit restrictions, it is not as crowded as some other trekking areas in the country and the mysteries and legends of the old kingdom are fascinating for young and old. Me and my eight-year-old daughter ventured into the forbidden kingdom last year, and had an unforgettable experience.
We started our hike in Kagbeni, where foreign visitors must show the special permit that allows you to enter the restricted area of Mustang. To be allowed to pass this checkpoint, trekkers need to obtain a permit in Kathmandu, which costs US$500 for 10 days. The first part of the trek follows the road that leads all the way to Lo Manthang and hugs the mountain on the right side of the Kali Gandaki River. Once we left the fertile fields of Kagbeni behind us, the landscape started to look more and more alien – we felt like we were on the moon. My daughter, Miriam, discovered weird-looking rock formations everywhere and started to make up stories around them: a mouse was trapped in a castle, a dragon was guarding the way…
After a couple of hours of easy hiking, we reached our first stop in Chhusang. Because children trekking this route are such a rare sight, the owner of the teahouse we stayed at was super excited to get to meet my daughter, and readily offered to make her favorite food: tea momos. These round momos made entirely out of dough are her favorite, and are a typical food from Tibet. Miriam ate more than I thought could possibly fit in her stomach.
The next day we continued our hike towards Samer. First, we had to cross the river bed of the Kali Gandaki, and with her eagle eyes, Miriam immediately spotted a Shaligram, a fossil that was transported with the river. (She still keeps this on her desk). After another hour along the river, we started our climb for the day, as Samer is 600 metres higher than Chhusang. The trail was exciting, and every turn gave us a better view of the crazy moon landscape that we were crossing. Even though we ate through a lot of our snacks that day, we were in excellent spirits, and Miriam kept finding interesting things along the way that kept her busy. The story of the mouse trapped in a castle had many sequels!
After arriving in Samer, I took an evening walk through the village and witnessed one of the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen. The shadows in the deep valleys and gorges that cut through the plateau grew longer, and the colours became so much more intense before everything faded back to grey. I had to hurry back to the warm guesthouse, as the temperature dropped the minute the sun was gone.
The next day we continued upwards along the road that was carved into the mountainside. Once we passed a frozen waterfall, and in many places, the winter snow was still visible, as we hiked in March and thus very early in the season. My daughter took the chance to pick a snowball fight with one of our porters, who was more than happy to join in. The view towards the mountain range was terrific, and the day was very clear.
After three slow hours, we reached the pass and slowly made our way towards Syangboche, where we wanted to spend the night. Because we were traveling with a child, we had decided early in the trek to take it slow and reserve time for recuperation in the afternoon. Our hosts allowed us to stay around the kitchen fire and we spent a beautiful afternoon playing cards, reading books and just resting after three days of walking.
From Syangboche we continued over another pass towards Ghami the next day. The views from the pass were amazing, with the Annapurna range to the south and the seemingly endless Mustang Plateau and its thousands of valleys to the north. After 12 o’clock, the wind began to pick up, and while we were approaching the village, I was almost scared to let go of Miriam’s small hand – the wind was so strong that I expected her to take off. We were especially glad when we reached the teahouse, which was behind a secure wall, and enjoyed a game of cards in the afternoon sun, sheltered from Mustang’s notorious winds.
The next morning, my daughter was extra motivated – we would be reaching Tsarang, the former home of the king and queen of Mustang, where she would be able to visit their castle. On the way, we passed the longest prayer wall in Mustang – an awe-inspiring sight. It is also part of the legend of the building of the Ghar Gompa Monastery. The legend says that a wise lama had to win a fight against a demon before the monastery could be built. After the demon was killed, his head fell in the spot where the monastery was built, his blood coloured the mountains red, and his intestines formed the first prayer wall. This spooky story was enough to carry Miriam through the day, as she had 1000 questions about it. Luckily, our guide had to answer them, so I could save my breath for climbing the next pass.
In Tsarang we had the chance to visit the old monastery as well as the castle. One of the monks, who had stayed in the village during the harsh winter months, showed us around and even put on a short play to explain to us how the court once looked, and how the people used to act. Miriam was fascinated, and once he showed her the mummified hand of one of the kings’ enemies, she was sold. The mystery surrounding this place made it all the more fascinating for her.
After a rest day in Tsarang, we walked the last stretch to Lo Manthang, the capital of Mustang, the next day. We planned to stay here for three days to explore the city and its surroundings. To get to the walled city we had to cross one last pass – the windy pass. This pass definitely lived up to its name, and again I was scared to let go of Miriam’s hand. Once w e started the descent though, the wind slowed down and the walk was much more relaxed.
We found a guesthouse in Lo Manthang whose owner had a young child herself, and Miriam spent every afternoon watching cartoons and playing with him. Everybody loved Miriam and was surprised that she had made her way to this remote area on foot.
During the next two days, we explored the city, with its three old monasteries and its palace in the middle. After days in the countryside, it was charming to see “city life”, even though it was a very calm city. Miriam met a Thanka painter who invited us to see his workshop. The absolute highlight for Miriam was the next day, where she got to ride to the Chosar Caves on horseback. Once there, we explored the caves and old settlements, and with her tremendous imagination, they immediately made their way into her stories.
After an amazing eight days of hiking in Mustang, we finally took a Jeep back to Kagbeni. Mustang was the ideal hiking destination for us, as the trek was not too hard for a child, and everybody was extremely welcoming. The history and culture of this fantastic area were extremely intriguing for a child, and her motivation for hiking was never an issue. The views and the landscape we got to see were among the most fascinating I have ever witnessed, and its magic cast its spell over my daughter.