Upper Mustang: Travel to The Hidden Kingdom
Upper Mustang in a nutshell:
Upper Mustang is the area that used to commercially connect Tibet and India. Originally, it consisted of a number of small kingdoms which were united with the seat in the royal town of Lo Manthang. Since 1790 it is part of Nepal and Mustang’s autonomy was abolished in 2008. Upper Mustang remained a restricted demilitarized area, allowing hardly any visitors until 1992 which makes it one of the most preserved regions in the world, with a majority of the population still speaking traditional Tibetic languages.
Upper Mustang officially begins after the central entry point in Kagbeni. Foreign tourists need to obtain an entry permit (at the steep price of 500USD, valid for 10 days) as well as be accompanied by an official guide. It offers a very different trekking experience from the rest of Nepal, in sometimes Moonlike landscapes and unfamiliar customs. The trek in Upper Mustang isn’t very strenuous, hovering between 3,000 and 4,200 meters. Mustang lies in the rain shadow of the Dhaulagiri massif, creating a ruggedly arid land surrounded by rocks in all kinds of colors and impressive formations. This barren landscape is dotted with settlements of whitewashed houses, barley fields and prayer flags which add a splash of color to the landscape. Buddhist monasteries and temples along the way provide the whole journey with a pleasant spiritual dimension.
The main hydrographic feature of the Mustang is the Gandaki River. The river runs southward towards Nepal Terai, bisecting Mustang. Routes paralleling the river once served as a major trade route between Tibet and India, especially for salt. If you are lucky and have sharp eyes, you can still find fossils of plants and animals on its banks.
Lift off: the flight from Pokhara to Jhomsom
Our experience started with the flight from Pokhara to Jhomsom, a 25 minute breathtaking experience flying between the snowy peaks. The plane passes through the deepest gorge in the world, the Kali Gandaki, which runs between the Dhaulagiri and the Nilgiri mountains. Try to get a seat at the front, so you can enjoy the same view as the pilots.
We opted for an eight day hike, making a loop to avoid coming back the same way. On average, we walked around 5 hours a day. We spend four days going up, one day of rest and exploration in Lo Mantang and then three days back. On Day 1, we walked from Kagbeni to Chele. The next to Syanboche and the third to Dhakmar, which was one of the highlights of our trip with its red cliffs and caves. During the 1950’s bands of guerilla fighters against the Chinese occupation of Tibet allegedly hid in the caves. The fourth day we went from Dhakmar to Lo Mantang, along the way you can find the oldest Tibetan monastery in the world, the Lo Gekar Monastery. The Lo Gekar Monastery was built in the 8th century by the famous Tibetan magician Guru Rinpoche. It is said that he killed a powerful demon and the blood of the demon has painted the rocks around Dhakmar bright red.
Lo Manthang is the capital of the ancient kingdom of Mustang. It offers some interesting Gompas, a royal palace (affected by the earthquake and not open for visitors), narrow streets and traditional houses. While it is possible to see most of the town in half a day, the surroundings offer activities, even for several days, depending on how much time you have. We opted to rent bikes to go to the impressive Shija Jhong caves, near Chhoser village, a bit to the north of Lo Mantang. For the way back, we first went to Yara, and then another night in Tangye. From there was the longest day walking, 8h to Chussang. After having registered our departure from Upper Mustang in Kagbeni, we made a detour to visit Mukthinath, which has the highest Hindu temple in the world, attracting many Indian visitors.
There are plenty of comfortable guesthouses along the way and no need to carry much. We had wisely opted to hire one porter for the three of us, which meant we could unburden ourselves of 7kg each, which meant we mostly just carried water and a day pack. Different from other trekking routes, one does not climb for several days straight to reach the destination, Lo Mantang in our case, but every day involves going moderately up and down, which means the muscle groups used are rotated, which feels less exhausting. Doing the hike in June was ideal, as Mustang is not affected by the June-September monsoon rains, which render other hiking areas inaccessible. The permit price and remoteness meant we hardly saw other tourists, maybe five during the entire trip and we could wander through these magical places almost alone. Though with road infrastructures being improved and this region opening up, this might change in the near future so it is best to go quickly.