On my travels, I have enjoyed many walking and trekking holidays, both at home in Australia and in Europe, South America and the Himalaya. But it is to Nepal that I am drawn, wanting to return. For me, walking in the foothills of the magical and mighty peaks of the Himalaya is one of the best experiences ever. Having trekked a few times in Nepal, a trek through the remote, medieval Kingdom of Mustang was ‘up there’ on my must-experience list...and this trek exceeded every expectation!
Nestled on the border of Tibet, to the north of the Annapurna range and south of the Tibetan plateau, Mustang occupies a unique part of Nepal. Many centuries ago, Mustang was part of Tibet but was annexed by Nepal in the 18th century. From the mid 1960s Mustang was closed to the world, however in 1992, the Nepalese government re-opened the region for a strictly limited number of organized trekking groups. Tourism is still restricted and you can only visit with a special permit. As a consequence, Mustang has been relatively untouched by outside influences and one of the highlights of trekking in this region is being able to enjoy the extraordinary environment with not many other trekkers around.
After meeting the group in Kathmandu, we flew to Pokhara where we had a leisurely day to explore the pretty lakeside town and some time for last minute and great value gear shopping. Following a short 15-minute flight from Pokhara the next morning, our trek started from Jomsom. Our group of seven trekkers, accompanied by Mukund (our amazing local trek leader) and his two assistants and horseman with three ponies [to carry our trek packs] reached Kagbeni in time for lunch and where all the trekking permit formalities were completed. From here, we were off to Chuksang, the first of our village stays.
In each of the villages along the way we stayed in locally owned trekking lodges. All the lodges were clean, and although basic, were very comfortable. Our hosts warmly welcomed us each night and we enjoyed delicious and hearty meals, my favourite being a very yummy vegetable pattie made with locally grown vegies and served with freshly baked Tibetan flatbread.
Leaving Chuksang, we were surrounded by huge red and orange sculptured cliffs with inaccessible caves that dominate the valley. After a day of “ups and downs” and passing a patchwork of emerald fields which give splashes of colour to the mainly barren terrain, we look back to the south where fine views of the Himalayan peaks, including Nilgiri and Tilicho, are revealed.
Over the next three days, we trekked north - ascending and descending - through fields, ravines and valleys to the highest point of our trek at Nyi La Pass (3930 metres). From here it was a gradual descent to Tsarang, a large and fertile village which has a magnificent monastery.
From Tsarang, we continued north, with brilliant views behind of the snow-capped ranges. The trail passed an isolated chorten and more surreal caves etched into the surrounding cliffs. Arriving at a ridge of 3,850 metres, we were greeted with our first views of the fabled walled ‘city’ of Lo Manthang and the stunning scenery of the Mustang Khola and the peak of Mansail in the west.
We stayed three nights in Lo Manthang. This allowed plenty of time to explore inside the old walled city with its 150 houses and 4 monasteries, one of which dates back to the 15th century. Lo Manthang now spills beyond the walls of the old town, which has declined since the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Prior to this, Lo Manthang was an extremely prosperous centre for the salt and wool trade. The dominant building in the centre of the old city is the King’s Palace. The Royal Family are descendants of an aristocratic family from Lhasa in Tibet and today, though their duties are largely ceremonial, the King is a well-respected horseman and breeder of Lhasa Apso dogs. We were hoping to meet the King, who is now in his 80s, but unfortunately he was in Kathmandu during our visit.
On our second day we took a jeep safari to the Chosar valley. Here we climbed up the towering red-cliffs and entered a cellar-like maze of rooms inside the cliff. The caves were inhabited as far back as 2,500 years ago and were allegedly used by the locals to hide from bandits. Our time in Lo Manthang also provided the opportunity to do some shopping and bargaining with the traders for their beautiful locally made handicrafts and jewellery.
Having reached the most northerly point of our trek, we took advantage of the recently constructed (albeit rather bumpy) road and returned south by jeep over the next two days. On the trip back to Jomsom, we stayed overnight at the village of Samur, which was one of our favourite lodges on our trek. It was then back to Jomsom for a night of celebration and farewell dinner with the trek team before returning to Pokhara and ultimately back to Kathmandu.
Over the course of our trek we debated the merit of the road and what it will mean for the local villagers. For us it was very advantageous to be able to enjoy a wonderful 7 days of walking in this remote region and then return in 2 days. Arguably for the locals ,it offers progress and potentially will make life easier, but hopefully this will not be at the expense of their culture and traditions. One thing is for sure: the advent of the new road will bring change as Mustang opens itself to the outside world. For this reason I believe now is the time to visit, as I suspect the next couple of years will provide the last opportunity to explore this relatively untouched and beautiful part of the world.