Upper Mustang Part 1: the journey begins
Upper Mustang is
– a series of craggy, high-altitude desert valleys and ridges in the rain-shadow of the great Himalaya range;
– an ancient kingdom bordering another that was destroyed by a global giant;
– a historic trading route on the verge of modernization;
– a place of few resources and little wealth;
– a centuries-old Buddhist enclave.
Upper Mustang is a forgotten corner, a highway dead end, the “wild west” in a northern pocket of the Nepal Himalaya.
With a landscape and culture almost nothing like the rest of Nepal, Upper Mustang is a prime example of Nepali diversity. As compared to the middle-hills regions and southern terai plains, the people of Upper Mustang have distinct physical features, distinct clothing, distinct housing construction and aesthetics; the landscape is arid and rocky, the fields are planted with buckwheat and barley instead of millet and rice, and almost everyone is Buddhist instead of Hindu – resulting in the ever-presence of prayer wheels and stupas instead of shiva temples. How did this pocket of diversity come to pass? Ever curious about human settlements, I set out on a ten-day trek through Upper Mustang with four friends in April of 2014 with this questions and many others on my mind. The resulting experience was densely rich – so much so that to limit it to a single, concise blog post would not do it justice. And so I present to you this four-part series chronicling my adventure and observations. If you’re interested in ancient cultures, high mountain passes, declining civilization, Buddhist practices or simply have an adventurous spirit, I invite you to read on.
DAY 0: Getting There
The journey begins before you even reach the trail head, for in order to reach the entry of Upper Mustang, one must first traverse Lower Mustang, a distinct region and popular trekking route in and of itself. By Helicopter, one may reach the entry city of Kagbeni in a matter of hours from the capital Kathmandu. But by road it takes two to three long days across bumpy, land-slide ridden highway. I happen to live about one long day’s ride away. Our journey began with me oversleeping the alarm, barely waking to my companions multiple phone calls. “Where are you? Our bus leaves in 15 minutes.” “Shoot. I’m coming!” I muttered as I hastily jumped out of bed to wake my friend visiting from the US. “Didn’t you hear my alarm?” “I thought you meant to ignore it,” he grumbled back. We scrambled to pack our things, paid our bill and hustled across Beni Bazaar to the bus park.
Stage one of our transit was a four hour bus ride to Ghasa across what is the worst stretch of dirt highway I have seen in Nepal. In fairness it’s difficult to imagine something better-built here, on a dirt road desperately clinging to the side of a narrow canyon. One section traverses high along the deepest gorge in the world; as measured from the top of the mountain ranges on either side (Annapurna and Dhaulagiri). No, we could not see the bottom. Over four painful hours we rocked back and forth several feet with each turn and hit our heads on the ceiling as the bus lurched over giant bumps and ditches. The back seat certainly amplifies the experience, putting even the toughest iron stomach to the test.
Ghasha is the entrance city to all of Mustang. Per local regulation, no commercial-passenger vehicles from outside the district may enter; instead, everyone must disembark, purchase a new, more expensive bus ticket, then wait to load the next four hour bus ride to Jomson. Why twice the price for an equal distance? The answer is simple, if unwelcome: because we were foreign, judged by the fact that we were white. This is fact, not some sort of paranoia of mine. I informed my US companion of this and he was outraged. He didn’t believe me, so I inquired with the other bus riders to prove it. The Nepali riders were unaware of the discrimination – I asked them how much they had paid, then told them how much we had been charged. They were astounded too. But, as the locals say, ke garne? (what can you do?). There was only one way to get to Jomsom and it was on that bus. We didn’t have much time to make a fuss – we needed to get there.
Another four hours later we reached Jomsom, the unassuming headquarter city of Mustang district. The town essentially consists of a bus stop, airport (small plane), a mile long dusty strip of hotels and a jeep park. We had but one stage left to our intended destination of Kagbeni: a quick 1.5 hour jeep ride. After our experience with discriminatory prices on the bus we wised-up and had our Nepali companions buy the tickets for all of us at the local price. We piled into the jeep – a 20 year old, double bench four-wheel drive holding 15 passengers, quite common in the hill and mountain regions. It was fully loaded and ready to go when the driver turned around to deliver a quizzical look. “Let me see your ticket.” We handed it over. “You need to go back to the ticket counter.” “Kina?” we inquired (why?). “There’s a different price for foreigners.” “Kina? This isn’t public transit. Why should we pay more for the same private service?” “Because it costs more for tourists,” he replied flatly. After a good fifteen minutes of arguing with him (in Nepali) it became clear that he would not break loyalty to the rules of the local transit monopoly. So – we got out. I climbed onto the roof to untie our packs, my friends refunded our tickets and we hit the road on foot, leaving the jeep behind to wait for five new passengers. With ten days’ hiking ahead of us, 2.5 hours felt like a fair warm-up. Welcome to the wild-west.
DAY 1: Wind The medieval city of Kagbeni acts as the crossroads for pilgrims headed north into Buddhist upper mustang, and pilgrims headed East to Muktinath, a highly sacred Hindu compound. The path north continues up the Kaligandaki river gorge. At this point, the gorge is a wide, gravel expanse bounded on both sides by tall, steep, barren hillsides. Directly south sits the snowy Niligiri range. As we exited town, formally embarking on our journey, my companion commented “This feels like Arizona.” At first it really did. Aside from the sheer grand-ness of scale (and notable looming peaks beyond the gorge walls), the initial landscape wasn’t particularly enthralling. But as we continued north the landscape gradually transformed; a new and interesting erosion pattern emerged around each corner. Distance made the river below appear small as it feathered and wove across the gravel expanse. The hillside frequently revealed clues of its past: all of this high-alltitude desert, these grand himalayan mountains, was once under water. 1000 feet from the current river bed we could see clearly petrified sedimentary layers. The region is well known for the fossils the litter the landscape, saligrams in particular.
The best part about a desolate landscape: one can truly hear the wind. From 11AM to just passed dusk the wind owns this landscape. The steep canyons channel it into a ferocious roar that dominates the senses. Each ridge plays a distinct tone creating a collective chorus. Turn a corner at the wrong time of day and the headwind will slam and sand-blast you. But under lucky circumstances its force can be your ally, literally pushing you up a hill. For a lunch & tea break, we stopped in the tiny town of Tangbe. Quiet but immaculate, it felt like stepping into a deserted medieval city. Our journey coincided with the very end of cold season and many of these towns simply had yet to fully re-populate. A large portion of the inhabitants migrate seasonally in the interest of both comfort and economics, especially in these towns farthest to the south that have easy access to Jomsom. Tangbe is made of an intricate network of narrow walkways between wall-to-wall mud houses. All are washed in white or red clay and lined with bramble along the roof edge. After circling town, a man found us and led us to his tiny hotel for tea and a bite to eat.
While the others rested I explored a bit further, quickly reaching the “city limits.” The town sat about 1500ft above the gorge floor, and a half dozen chortens sat precariously on the cliff edge. A chorten is a stupa form particular to this region ( and possibly Tibet) that bears religious significance for Buddhists. Facing town, the chortens showed well maintained carvings in bright warm, earthy hues. Stepping around I notice the sides facing the canyon were barren, badly scarred from daily sand-blasts of wind. A bit further south the crumbled wall of a long abandoned fortress reflected in a small green pond. Whether war or the weather had a greater impact on its condition is anybody’s guess.