Partha S. Banerjee

Wild, windy and harsh, yet stunningly beautiful

IT’S like Tibet as it was. Tibet before the Chinese occupation. The last true Shangri-la.

<< Most houses in Mustang are flat-roofed, mud-brick structures
--- Photo by the writer

Sure, there is no Potala Palace or Drepung Monastery in Mustang, but this arid ancient land tucked away in the far north of Nepal, beyond the snowy Himalayas, is like a flashback to the Tibet of the 1950s and before, when the Dalai Lama still reigned in Lhasa. Untouched by modern civilisation, isolated in its rugged mountain terrain, a way of life persists here in Mustang that is fast disappearing in Tibet proper. And unlike Tibet proper — overrun by China in the 1950s — Mustang’s ancient Buddhist monasteries haven’t been desecrated or destroyed and religious leaders haven’t been thrown into prison.

So if it’s pristine Tibet you wish to experience, don’t think of Lhasa. Visit Mustang instead. But remember, it’s a six-day trek to Lo-Manthang, the capital of Mustang, from the nearest airport. And it doesn’t come easy on the pocket, for the Nepal government imposes a US $700 fee on all foreign visitors (including Indians) to this remote outpost of Tibetan civilisation.

Indeed, only a decade ago, Mustang was completely off-limits to tourists; only explorers like David Snellgrove, Guiseppi Tucci and Michel Piessel had been allowed in and it was their accounts of this rugged, forbidden territory, ruled by a hereditary king, had whetted the appetite of many travellers. Wild, windy and harsh, yet stunningly beautiful, it was a land of myths and legends, of monks and monasteries, of an ancient culture but without a mile of paved road. All adventure tourists touring Nepal yearned to visit Mustang but the Nepalese government zealously kept this slice of Shangri-la closed to all foreigners, admitting only the occasional scholar.
That changed in March 1992. Relaxing its strict restrictions, Nepal opened Mustang to organised trekking groups, with an upper limit of 1,000 tourists per year. The restrictions were largely a holdover from the time of the Khampa revolt when Mustang became a base for Tibetan rebels who, aided and trained by the CIA and also India, fought the Chinese in the 1960s.

Mustang is a rugged and forbidding area
--- Photo by the writer >>

Today, for a steep permit fee of US $700 (about Rs 33,000), visitors can wander across the windswept, treeless mountain country inhabited by the Lo people or Lobas (Lo-pas), close cousins to the Tibetans, step inside crumbling, dimly-lit monasteries in isolated villages, peer at old, priceless religious paintings and even seek an audience with the Raja of Mustang, His Highness Jigme Dorje Trandul, in his palace in the quaint walled city of Lo-Manthang.

We weren’t lucky though; the Raja was not in town when we visited Lo-Manthang. But the palace itself was impressive: an imposing four-storey building built in the traditional Tibetan style with small windows. There was a stable with good horses in the palace; the Raja is a keen horseman and inside the walled town, only he may ride horseback; all others must walk. The Raja, whose queen hails from an aristocratic Lhasa family, is today a largely ceremonial figure but still much respected and consulted on all issues by the local administration.

Raja Jigme Dorje Trandul, also known by his Nepalised name Jigme Parbal Bista, is said to be 25th in a line that began with legendary king Ame Pal who founded the Mustang kingdom in 1350. According to legend, Ame Pal was a reluctant king. He was on his way from Tibet to India on a pilgrimage when a wizened old villager had a prophetic dream. At noon next day, he recounted, the future ruler of their land would arrive from the north.

So when Ame Pal reached the village of Kya Kya Ghang that afternoon, he was persuaded by the villagers to become their king. "He tried to excuse himself," said Chandra Thakali, secretary to the present king, "but they wouldn’t listen. So he became king, built a fort and palace."

Close to the palace today, rising above the city’s grubby unpaved lanes, is the Champa Lakhang temple, built around 1420 and believed to house the largest collection of 15th century Buddhist mandala murals (most of those in Tibet were destroyed by the Chinese). There is also a huge painted clay statue of Maitreya, the "future Buddha", inside the temple. Not far from the Champa Lakhang stands the red Thugchen gompa which has a big assembly hall, decorated with painted frescoes, statues of the Buddha’s various avatars and one of Padmasambhawa, the saint who brought Buddhism to Tibet.

In Lo-Manthang, as in other Mustang settlements, most houses are flat-roofed, earth-brown, mud-brick structures, crudely plastered and seemingly crumbling. Fierce Tibetan mastiffs, chained to the walls, keep guard over the entrance; sheep horns strung over the doorway ward off evil spirits. The living quarters are on the first floor, reached sometimes by no more than a notched log; the barn, stable and cowshed take up the ground floor. The rooftops are stacked with neatly arranged piles of firewood.

Firewood is a scarce commodity in this arid land, and the stacks on the rooftops are largely a show of wealth; fried yak dung and goat droppings serve as fuel for cooking on most days. The scarcity of fuel is one reason why the Lobas, like most Tibetans, bathe so infrequently. "In winter, it’s just once a month," admitted Jabjang Bista, 30, who leads caravans out of Lo Manthang. "But who can spare fuel to heat water?" Indeed, Lobas sometimes do not even wash the dishes after dinner, they just lick them clean.

If the Lobas are no sticklers for conventional cleanliness, their idea of family is also unconventional. Polyandry is still widely prevalent, a practice once common in Tibet. Brothers share a single wife, and it seems to create little domestic discord. Despite their strange customs and remote homeland, Lobas haven’t been totally isolated from the outside world. Every winter, hundreds of them descend to the plains of India to sell thick woollen sweaters in the big cities. Indian buyers lap them up, thinking the sweaters are hand-knitted by the mountain folk. In fact, the Lobas procure the woollen garments from the wholesale markets of Ludhiana.

Lobas, in fact, have always been skilful traders and hardy travellers. One of the major trade routes between Tibet and India runs through their land and before the 1950s, caravans laden mainly with salt, wool and foodgrains plied the mountain trail. The trade route is believed to date back to the pre-Christian era and recent archaeological studies suggest Mustang was home to a prehistoric culture as far back as the 8th century BC. Dozens of mysterious cave temples are testimony to it.

Some of these cave temples fall on the trek route up to Lo Manthang. The trek begins at Jomsom, the little town with an airstrip beyond the main Himalayan range where small planes from Pokhara in central Nepal bring tourists and other visitors every morning to this remote region. Beyond Jomsom (9,000 ft) stretches the vast Tibetan plateau and after breakfast, trekkers head for Kagbeni (about three hours), a village with tall mud-brick houses and a gompa with fluttering flags where the restricted zone begins. The journey continues next day to Chele (10,000 ft), the trail following the Kali Gandaki river and passing small villages with gompas: the scenery is spectacular at places, especially near the village of Chhuksang with fluted "organ pipe" cliffs.

The real climb begins beyond Chele on Day 3, with the trail following a steep canyon to reach a pass at 11,500 ft before descending to a grove of poplar trees where is located the village of Samar. Next morning, we climb a ridge above Samar, ford a stream, then climb again to 12,500 ft before descending to Shyangmochen from where one can take a diversion and visit a cave where statues are believed to "grow": it is said that if any part of a statue is broken, it grows back by itself. We didn’t however have the time to visit the cave and proceeded to Ghilling (11,800 ft), a little village amidst barley fields.

Next day we headed for Tasarang, a large village with a five-storey gompa and then the day after, reached Lo Manthang (12,370 ft). It is a tough six-day trek where you mostly camp overnight and carry all your provisions. But it is an experience you won’t ever forget.

Mustang: Basic Travel Information

The trek is a two-week affair and expensive. Individuals are not allowed; permits are given only to groups of four and above. Contact Nepal Tourism Offices in Delhi or Kolkata for list of tour operators serving Mustang; the tour operators will organise permits, which cost US $ 700 per person, and other formalities.

All provisions, including kerosene for cooking, need to be carried for the two-week journey. Kerosene is not usually available in Jomsom and must be carted from Pokhara on muleback (a week’s journey) since planes do not allow fuel to be taken on board. So it all becomes pretty expensive and requires a lot of planning. Tour operators, of course, take care of such things; the trek is usually a fully-equipped camping expedition with tents being pitched at night and food prepared by cooks provided by the tour operators.

From Kathmandu, fly or take a bus to Pokhara. Flights from Pokhara to Jomsom usually go full, so seats need to be booked well in advance. Also remember, the flights are sometimes cancelled because of bad weather, so allow for a day or two extra when planning the trek.

Carry warm jackets, leather gloves, woollen socks because it can get very cold. Also carry windcheaters since the entire stretch is extremely windy after about 11 am and fine dust particles permeate into clothing, food, camera and even mouth.

Good rucksacks, warm sleeping bags and tough trekking shoes are essential.