A trek through Nepal's upper Mustang region leads to the last Tibetan Kingdom
Tara Airlines’ tiny aircraft cuts through seemingly tiny gaps between towering mountains as it carries us from Pokhara to Jomsom. The last sharp turn near colossal canyons is hair-raising but before we know it, the aircraft has landed safely on a mountain runway that’s just 530-metres long. Several of the passengers congratulate the pilot on his skill and he acknowledges the compliment with a smile.
Remote Jomsom Airport perched at an altitude of 2,700 metres in Nepal’s Mustang district is the starting point of our journey. The next 10 days will see us trekking to upper Mustang and we are well prepared, with all the necessary permits in hand.
Walking northwards on a gently sloping path along the windy Kali Gandaki River valley, we arrive at Kagbeni, a village home to a handful of small hotels and a “Yac donald’s” restaurant. This is the last village in lower Mustang, and the checkpoint for the entrance to upper Mustang.
The US$50-a-day upper Mustang entry fee applies from the moment trekkers travel beyond this village to the once “forbidden kingdom”. I am saddened to learn later that only a small portion of the fees goes to the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) to support local development projects. Most of it ends up in the coffers of the Nepalese government.
With the Nilgiri mountains at our backs, we follow the trail north of Kagbeni passing a brown-and-green patchwork field of buckwheat just before Chusang then walking along the east bank of the Kali Gandaki River towards Chele. We overnight in Shyammochen, pass the red cliffs of Dhakmar and spend the following night at the sacred temple of Ghar Gompa, which at 3,940 metres is one of the oldest temples in upper Mustang.
It takes us four days to reach Lo Manthang, the walled city of upper Mustang. A steep rocky trail up and down the mountains offers glimpses of the Nilgiri, Dhaulagiri and Annapurna rising above the almost barren landscape. A cold wind sweeps through arid canyons kissing the bizarre rock formations. The small villages are like tiny oases in this bare brown land.
Strings of prayer flags flap in the breeze on Chogo-la at 4,230 metres, the highest point in the region and it from here that we catch our first glimpse of Lo Manthang in the valley below. Flocks of migratory birds fly above the mountain ranges creating beautifully complex shapes against the sky.
Inside the whitewashed mud brick walls of Lo Manthang, narrow alleys wind through houses, temples, schools and the palace. Horse gallops past us as we enter the main square and pass the palace. Old women are gathered at the side of a small alley spinning wool while others line up around the public water tap to fill their buckets.
The ancient kingdom of Lo – now known as upper Mustang – remained unexplored by foreigners until 1992. Today, the ancient walled city is the main destination in the upper Mustang region catering to slightly more than 3,000 visitors a year.
Once a part of the western Tibetan region of Ngari, the kingdom of Lo was united and ruled by Ame Pal. Jigme Dorie Palbar Bista, the present king of Lo, is a direct 25th-generation descendant of Ame Pal, the founder of Lo Manthang.
Lo was once a prosperous independent kingdom and virtually controlled all the north-south trade between the dry saline lakes of Tibet and the large markets for salt on the Indian subcontinent. That richness can still be seen today in its magnificent monasteries, palaces and the remains of massive fort known as Dzong to the north of the valley.
In 1950, the region was officially declared politically part of Nepal; and the dry land further above Lo Manthang is now a sealed border between Nepal and China. This change resulted in the king of Lo losing his traditional status as the ruler of the kingdom, but he remains the symbol of a very old and important historical dynasty.
The Crown Prince of Lo Manthang, Jigme Singi Palbar Bista, 56, is in town during our stay, and we are very fortunate to enjoy a brief visit to the palace. Located inside the walls of Lo Manthang, the palace is a whitewashed four-storey structure that was built around 1400, and has been maintained in relatively good condition. Aromatic mint tea is served to all foreign guests in a room that’s typically Tibetan in decor, and soon the prince, clad in a green army jacket, comes in to greet everyone. He thanks us all for visiting upper Mustang and says he hopes we come again.
Jigme Singi Palbar Bista has a fairly ordinary life. Besides owning horses and yaks, he runs businesses in Mustang, among them a tour operator called Royal Mustang Excursions. It is his hope that if the Chinese border opens, visitors in Lo Manthang will be able to trek to Mount Kailash within seven hours. The prince stays in Lo Manthang most of the year though he moves to Kathmandu during the harsh winter.
“People of Lo still love and respect us, though our status now is that of cultural royals ,” he tells us.
The people of Lo are called Lobas, and their language is a dialect of Tibetan. Tibetan Buddhism remains intact and the Lobas are a very religious people. Most of the monasteries in upper Mustang belong to the Sakyapa School, represented by the characteristic coloured stripes of grey, white and red that adorn the monasteries. The grandeur of the monasteries illustrates the position of religion amid a wild environment.
The principal of Lo Monastic school takes us on a tour of the facility to admire the elaborate mandala paintings on the wall, as well as the artefacts at the Chyodi Gompa and Choprang Gompa. A young monk walks us to the brick-red Jampa Gompa, which was built in 1387 and boasts the striking 15-metre high “Jampa” Buddha, as well as to the 15th-century Thubchen Gompa with its Great Assembly hall and intricate gold murals darkened and crumbling with age.
Roads are being built, and it’s not that hard to find a vehicle travelling back to Kagbeni and Jomsom sometime in the next couple of days. Electricity has already been brought to villages, local schools are being revived, and age-old monasteries are being renovated to their former glory through the financial aid and expertise of foreign foundations.
Even in this remote kingdom lying in the rain shadow of the Himalayas, change is unavoidable. One can only hope that those changes will be for the better of the Lobas and their last and remote Lo kingdom.
If you go
_ Upper Mustang is located north of the Annapurna range in Nepal. The nearest airport is at Jomsom and offers regular flights in and out of Pokhara. It’s also possible to take a bus from Pokhara to Jomsom.
_ Foreign tourists must arrange permits to upper Mustang through a registered guide or trekking agency. A permit costs US$500 per person for 10 days, and $50 per day after that. The cost of living in upper Mustang is US$25 per day per person for food and accommodation combined
_ Basic guesthouses are available in every major village on the way from Kagbeni to Lo Manthang, so no camping is required. The best times to travel in upper Mustang are from March to June and from September to December.