GHT Blog

Mustang – Himalaya’s Best Kept Secret

November 4, 2015

The beauty of the scenery as we approached Jomsom airport was rivalled only by the incredulity that a plane could possibly land there. Flying into the deepest gorge in the world requires a complex U-turn manoeuvre, potentially disconcerting for a nervous flyer, but fortunately a routine procedure for our experienced Tara Air pilot. In any case, it was well worth it to have arrived in Mustang, one of the most stunning and intriguing sections of the Great Himalaya Trails.

Our party, a group of photographers and Instagram influencers, was headed for Lo Manthang, the heart of the rugged and spiritually rich world of Upper Mustang. Hidden behind the soaring peaks of the Annapurnas and Dhaulagiri, this remote and isolated part of the Himalayas remains very much the forbidden kingdom of its past.

Mohan Duwal

Upper Mustang lies hidden behind the towering Annapurna massif. Photo by Mohan Duwal

Mustang, or the Kingdom of Lo as it was known back then, was once an independent fiefdom closely tied by geography, language and culture to Tibet. Its strategic location on an ancient trade route enabled the kingdom to control the commerce between Tibet, Nepal and India, amassing substantial wealth from the taxes levied on the traded goods. Foreign visitors to the region were few and far between and the Upper Mustang region remained a restricted area as late as 1992. Its relative geographical and political isolation from the outside world has contributed to a highly preserved Tibetan culture and unspoiled nature adding much to its allure as a travel destination today.

Mustang's relative isolation from the outside world has contributed to a highly preserved Tibetan culture and unspoiled nature. Photo by Mohan Duwal

Mustang’s relative isolation from the outside world has contributed to a highly preserved Tibetan culture and unspoiled nature. Photo by Mohan Duwal

While the region has been open to foreign tourists for over two decades now, tourism remains limited and regulated. Trekking permits are expensive ($500 for the 10-day permit) and limited to a certain number each year. Until recently the area was only accessible by foot or mule, making it one of Nepal’s most exclusive trekking areas with only a few thousand tourists passing through each year.

Today the main tourist entry point to Mustang is by air through Jomsom. Most visitors start the trek from the airport and travel the 80 or so kilometers to Lo Manthang by foot, along the same route that has been used for centuries. In April every year it’s also possible to run the circuit with Trail Running Nepal: a highly recommended trip for those who like sightseeing at a faster pace.  

Fortunately for us a well-trodden goat trail was recently widened to accommodate 4×4 vehicles which, since we were on a tight schedule, became our transportation of choice. The 7-hour journey took us on a very bumpy, sometimes alarmingly narrow, dirt track from the bottom of the Kali Gandaki gorge to the top of 4,000 meter mountain passes, through sparsely scattered Buddhist villages, along the rim of steep canyon walls carved out by the rushing waters of the river below, past hidden caves, red-walled monasteries, colorful chortens festooned with prayer flags, all the while with the dramatic backdrop of impressive 8,000 meter peaks.

Neha Shrestha

A well-trodden goat trail was recently widened to accommodate 4×4 vehicles. Photo by Neha Shrestha

At every resting point we were greeted by friendly locals offering delicious Daal Bhat, chia and Tibetan fried bread. Not keen on attempting the precarious jeep track at night we settled down for the night in one of two guest houses in Samar. Rising with the sun we admired the stunning views of the snowy peaks of Annapurna Himal in the distance and the canyon landscapes in-between.

Stunning views from the village of Samar. Photo by Shikhar Bhattarai

Stunning views from the village of Samar. Photo by Shikhar Bhattarai

The drive from Samar to Lo Manthang was one of ever-changing beauty. After kilometers of arid high-altitude desert lands the village of Tsarang magically appears as an oasis with colorful buckwheat fields and waterfalls overhead drawing water from the Dolpo glaciers. We stopped to admire the longest mani in the world and marveled at the grey, red and yellow cliffs towering above us.

The final pass before descending into Lo Manthang offered a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the walled capital and the Tibetan plateau 50 kilometers yonder. Ancient monasteries, royal palaces and ruins of fortresses surrounded by a 6-meter white-washed wall reveals a history of prosperity and grandeur.

The forbidden city of Lo Manthang. Photo by Mohan Duwal

The forbidden city of Lo Manthang. Photo by Mohan Duwal

The walls also protect some 200 earthen households, built close together, creating a labyrinth of stone-walled tunnels and passages. The city seems almost frozen in amber, untouched by time and modern development. Street life within the gates grow more active in the late afternoons with children and young monks playing games of cricket in the courtyards and farm animals causing occasional traffic jams in the narrow streets upon returning from a day of grazing in the fields.

On the streets of Lo Manthang. Photo by Madeleine Dolling

On the streets of Lo Manthang. Photo by Madeleine Dolling

We were also sharing the confinements of the city with a few hundred Mustang ponies and their riders. Unaware of our luck, we had perfectly timed our visit to Lo Manthang with the yearly Yartung Festival. The festival takes place every August to celebrate the end of the summer season. The highlight of the three-day celebration is the horse races which brings in locals from all around the region. Riders and their spirited steeds gallop back and forth down the main pathways of the city, trying to impress the judges with speed and daring stunts, often coming perilously close to the spectators. The event was a special and rare insight into the local culture.

The highlight of the Yartung Festial is the horse races which attracts local riders from all around the region. Photo by Mohan Duwal

The highlight of the Yartung Festial is the horse races which attracts local riders from all around the region. Photo by Mohan Duwal

While there are not that many frontiers left to discover in this world, trekking along the Great Himalaya Trails gives adventurous travelers a rare opportunity to encounter hidden gems like Mustang. Before it is unlocked to the rest of the world, be one of few travelers fortunate enough to experience this remote and seldom visited corner of the Himalayas.

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