May 29, 2012
We have just returned from our longest, hardest and most rewarding trek of our journey. Mustang (pronounced Moo-stang) was once an independent kingdom, known as Lo, with a strategic location that facilitated trade between India and Tibet through one of the lowest passes in the Himalayas. Mustang has been part of Nepal since the end of the 18th century, but it still identifies closely with Tibet in terms of language and culture.
Located adjacent to the popular Annapurna mountain range, Mustang remains remote to this day. With an overall population of about 14,000 people, it has only been open to foreigners since 1992 and has a current $50 per person per day permit cost (and minimum 10-day trek duration). The number of visitors averages only about 2,000 per year.
We opted for a 12-day trek which took us through 14 villages. The highlight is the walled city of Lo Manthang, in the northern portion of the former kingdom. We covered about 91 miles and traveled over 15 mountain passes of at least 11,811 feet (3,600 meters) in elevation. Our crew included a guide, cook, cook’s assistant, porter, horse handler and five horses. We carried our own packs with water, snacks, jackets and cameras while the crew took care of the rest. We camped most of the time in a tent. While we anticipated the difficult physical effort associated with the trek we were not prepared for the other challenges that came our way during this time.
The easiest way to get to the start of the trek is to take a 20 minute flight from Pokhara to Jomsom. Although the trek officially begins in Kagbeni, five miles (eight kilometers) north of Jomsom, many people hike from Jomsom to acclimate to the starting elevation of 8,760 feet (2,670 meters). So we flew at 7:30am to Jomsom on a 20 seat plane that seemed to pass almost too closely to the sides of the mountains as it flew up a narrow valley. Back on solid ground in Jomsom, we ate breakfast and then proceeded to leave town at about 9:30am to begin our hike to Kagbeni.
Just as we crossed the river on the outskirts of Jomsom, our attention was diverted back towards town. Planes only fly in the mornings, due to wind conditions, and one of the last flights of the day had just crashed in the hills above Jomsom as it was trying to land. We watched helplessly, being several miles away, as we could barely make out the rescue efforts being made toward the downed aircraft. We found out later that 15 of the 21 crew and passengers had perished, with six people surviving. What made it especially sad was that our guide knew the pilot who was killed and that our cook was supposed to be on that very flight but had been able to change his ticket at the last minute and fly with us.
There was nothing we could do but continue our hike along the Kali Gandaki River toward Kagbeni. We spent our first night there and then continued down the river the next day to the village of Chhoumnang. About two hours into that day’s hike we were walking high above the river and heard someone yelling in Nepali from below us. A man had fallen the night before from the path down to the river and had broken his leg. Our guide and cook left us on the trail and climbed down to bring the man up to safety. They were able to find someone heading towards Kagbeni who could take him for some medical attention. It brought to life just how remote this area was as that man had spent the night without any help.
As we hiked, we passed through several villages. They are characterized by mud buildings and dirt or cobblestone streets. Herds of cows, goats and sheep are common, as they are raised through the year and then driven down to Pokhara and sold during the cold winter months. Many villages also contain Tibetan monasteries and we visited several of these during our time in the region. We saw several that were 500 to 600 years old.
On the third day we began to climb from the river and encounter the first mountain passes. In all, we gained about 2,100 feet (640 meters) that day to an elevation of 11,876 feet (3,620 meters) at the village of Samar. That night, Sandy got very sick with food poisoning and spent a restless night in the tent. In no condition to tackle the next’s day schedule of three more mountain passes, we all agreed to take a rest day in Samar and shift the itinerary. After the day’s rest, Sandy felt better, but had little appetite. We set off to continue the hike north towards Lo Manthang, with the additional challenge for Sandy of completing the trek in a weakened state, knowing that there was over a week of high altitude walking to go.
As we hiked three more days to Lo Manthang, the landscape became more spectacular and the villages more rustic. In the village of Gheling, we spoke at a school and had an amazing time with the students there. We tried to complete these daily walks as soon as possible, as the wind rose early each afternoon, making the conditions akin to walking in a sandstorm with gusts as high as 40 miles per hour.
Finally, on the seventh day of the trek, and after passing over the highest point of our journey, at 13,878 feet (4,230 meters), we descended into Lo Manthang for three nights (elevation 12,598 feet / 3,840 meters). Here, we opted to pay about $8 a night to upgrade to a basic guest house and take a break from camping. At this altitude Darren had trouble sleeping and woke up every night gasping for breath, so being indoors helped.
Lo Manthang, located less than 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the Chinese border, looked unchanged from the 14th century, when Ame Pal founded the kingdom. The walled city contains three monasteries and we spent one of our days visiting them. Two of them are undergoing extensive renovations, funded by groups from the U.S. and Europe, and it was interesting to watch the wall fresco hand painting taking place. We also visited a school in Lo Manthang and spoke to about 40 of their 10 to 14-year old students.
On the second day in Lo Manthang, we walked about three miles (six kilometers) out of town to a series of caves that people used to live in when defending themselves against marauders centuries ago. In the late afternoon we were fortunate to have a private audience with the former king, who is a direct descendent of Ame Pal. Mustangs’s monarchy was dissolved by Nepal in 2008, concurrently with its own national monarchy, but the former king still lives in the palace and is recognized by many Mustang residents in a symbolic role. He speaks Tibetan, so we had two translators (English to Nepali, Nepali to Tibetan). The former king expressed support for our journey and asked that we pass along the need for qualified teachers to come to Mustang to teach (if anyone is interested in learning more about this, contact us here).
It had taken us six days of actual hiking to reach Lo Manthang, and now, with two days’ rest in the city, we planned to go back south in only three days. We took a slightly different route but still climbed over six passes and covered 40 miles in total. One of the days included a side-trip to a cave monastery, located in a deep gorge, which required a hike up to a steep pass once we left it. The final day we walked again down at the river level with strong winds in our faces until we were back at Kagbeni and the end of the trek. One of the hardest things to do was to board the plane in Jomsom the next morning to fly back to Pokhara, given the crash 13 days before.
We were happy to complete the trek and experience the culture and beauty of this area. The fact that Mustang is located in a relative low point in the Himalayas has not been lost on others and, in fact, a road is almost complete that will link the Chinese border with Jomsom and Pokhara and even India below. During our trek we hiked on foot paths used as trade routes since the 15th century and also spent time walking on the actual road. While the road is dirt and in poor condition, once it is completed later this year, it will surely change life here in the future.