Malika Browne treks through the Buddhist kingdom of Mustang and decides this remotest region of the Nepalese Himalaya is almost as good as it gets
We first spotted Ram, or barber-ji, shearing a moon-faced boy in Kagbeni. With his burnt cocoa skin, bouffant hair and moustache, Ram looked like an Indian Charlie Chaplin.
He was a Hindu from the jungly Terai in southern Nepal and, like us, he was making the five-day trek up to Lo Manthang. Unlike us, however, his aim was not to observe a lost Tibetan kingdom whose language has 14 words for mud. For him, this trip was pure business: he was going to cut hair.
Kagbeni is a fortress village on the invisible frontier between Lower and Upper Mustang in northern Nepal, where the steamy Hindu foothills of the Annapurna region spread themselves out to dry and become Tibet’s arid Central Asian Plateau. In Kagbeni, flat, adobe roofs with prayer flag masts replace the sloping thatch of the south, water buffalo turn into horses, and vermillion-smeared shrines to Ganesh vanish along with tourist traps called ‘Yakdonalds’.
As we left Kagbeni, a large sign warned us not to go any further unless we had a permit for Upper Mustang, available only in Kathmandu. Upper Mustang has only been officially open to outsiders since 1992 and conservation rules are strict. Once the permit checks had been made, we stepped into the rain shadow of the Himalaya and onto the plateau that sticks into Tibet like a thumb. This was Upper Mustang, or Lo – a Buddhist kingdom within a Hindu kingdom.
Buddhism brought new smells after Kagbeni. The monasteries were cloaked in juniper smoke and the rancid aroma of butter lamps. Suddenly everything from beliefs to trade flows changed direction; everyday goods originated now from China above rather than India below.
Having arrived in Jomsom via a 25-minute, white-knuckle flight, it took us – six friends, 12 mules, ten trekking staff and an iPod – five days to walk from there, via Kagbeni, to Lo Manthang.
Our trek began on a rocky riverbed in the world’s deepest gorge, the Kali Gandaki, before cutting through a gap in the Himalaya to enter a mineral-rich lunar landscape. As we came over saddles of hills, fluted rock faces melted from mustard yellow to cinnamon red; behind us loomed the northern face of the Himalayan range in widescreen. We walked through villages with names such as ‘One Teahouse’ or ‘Red Fort’, where we paused for lurid-orange sea buckthorn juice and sat admiring posters of Lhasa’s Potala Palace.
At the top of mountain passes our Buddhist guide, Nima, would fire off thanks to the mountain gods in semi-quavers: “Sooooooola-sola-sola”, and toss a stone onto the cairn. We sometimes managed an ‘Om mani padme hum’ (or “Oh mummy, take me home” as it came out in the first few days), and if we had more energy we would string up lines of brightly-hued prayer flags. Multi-coloured roadside chortens (Buddhist shrines) alternated with walls of prayer-carved mani stones in the desert landscape.
Two or three times a day we allowed red-plumed mule trains carrying panes of glass, kerosene bottles and washing powder to overtake us.
Our first glimpse of Lo Manthang came two hours before we actually reached the cinnabar-walled city and its emerald barley fields. We staggered through the entrance stupa in the late afternoon sunshine, holding scarves to our mouths against the daily dust storm. For a few rupees more we could have been extras on a Sergio Leone film set. Dried goat skulls and kite-shaped crosses interwoven with coloured thread hung above doorways to trap evil spirits and desiccated dung lay scattered in the narrow streets. Peeling Kollywood posters, from Nepal’s tiny movie industry, were the only reminder of which country we were in.
Only the very young and very old were about – the middle-aged inhabitants of Lo Manthang were working in the fields. In back alleys, toothless grandmothers sat in pools of wild-haired children with wind-burnt, crackly cheeks. The grannies wore stripey, green-and-pink wool aprons tied at the front in the custom of married women, and bobble hats with a Nike ‘swoosh’ in the centre, like a Buddhist third eye.
They carded yak’s wool with metal combs, edging along the lanes to keep up with the fading sun’s spotlight. The children chanted “Hello chocolate!” and “Hello pen!” while the grannies demanded cash, hands held out, before we had even lifted our cameras. We handed out Dettol soap and Dalai Lama postcards, which were touched to their heads before being tucked into their aprons.
Handicraft shops sold crudely-made souvenirs brought up by mule from Kathmandu, an attempt to second-guess what tourists wanted to find at their destination. The town’s well-stocked general stores told a much more robust story of Lo life. In one that claimed to sell ‘All cheap things get to good price’, there were pleasing rows of cold cream and Lhasa beer, rolls of red felt, flowery Chinese Thermoses, tinned pork, Bollywood cassettes, tongue scrapers, Chinese army biscuits, giant aluminium kettles, exercise books and stirrups.
Lo Manthang’s whitewashed houses were streaked with burnt-orange and battleship-grey ochre. Firewood piled on the roof spoke the wealth of each house owner in a treeless landscape, while car batteries connected to solar panels provided light during the months when the snowmelt is too slow to power the city’s hydro-electric scheme. The king’s white, mud palace dominated the centre of town, guarded by sleepy Tibetan mastiffs that prowled along the building’s balconies.
On our first morning we had an audience with King Jigme Parbaal Bista, the raja of Mustang and 25th king in an uninterrupted, 400-year lineage.
We entered his palace via a series of courtyards linked vertically, like squares on a Snakes and Ladders board; the rungs were glassily smooth from years of ascents, descents and unsteady butter lamps. Stepping over a one-eyed lion dog, we entered the throne room and presented the king with katas (white silk scarves), before taking a seat on a low bench. The king sat in his beige anorak, fingering prayer beads and nodding like a weary toad, a lump of turquoise hanging from his right earlobe.
Two courtiers wearing jaunty hats poured apple tea from a Thermos into flowery, made-in-China cups. The room’s mud walls were painted in blue gloss and the floor was covered in wood-patterned lino. Brightly-painted Tibetan cabinets carved with flowers lined the opposite wall, containing commemorative plates, unopened bottles of Amaretto and other polite tokens from visitors, as well as photographs of the king and queen in all their finery, and a portrait of Nepal’s late King Birendra.
As we sat talking to the king through an interpreter, we could hear the monks in the palace monastery below beating drums and blowing conches. The king told us that the things his people needed most were roads, sanitation, education and monasteries. He confirmed our suspicions that very little of our trekking fee, paid in Kathmandu, ever actually reached the area. Later on, a Nepalese government official handed us a survey about Mustang, in which we were asked to rate our audience with the king, alongside other activities such as birdwatching and shopping for souvenirs.
There are two 15th-century monasteries in Lo Manthang, each with a designated seasonal ‘key man’, or lay caretaker. As we followed Karma, the spring key man, through the mud labyrinth to Thubchen Lakhang, he cleaned his right ear with the key.
Inside, breathtaking giant paintings of Buddhas coloured with gold, cinnabar and lapis lazuli were being cleaned by Italian restorers. A helicopter full of carpenters had just flown in with new wood for beams. Years of soot and butter have preserved the surface of the friezes but water has seeped through, and in some places the paintings hang like curtains away from the wall.
In the morning we left Lo Manthang, and waved goodbye to barber-ji who was still snipping away at an orderly queue of Mustangis. As the walled city was swallowed in a mirage behind us, we spotted the lorry from Lhasa – laden with the month’s supply of Chinese beer – at the roadhead some distance above, and wondered how long it would be before Lo lost its magic. My best advice? Get there before the road does.
Health & safety: Trekking from Jomsom to Lo Manthang is considered ‘medium hard’. Lo Manthang is 3,800m above sea level, and the highest altitude reached on the trek is 4,300m.
AMS (acute mountain sickness) can affect anyone regardless of age and fitness. Be aware of the symptoms (headaches, dizziness, etc) and report them to your guide. Diamox – a drug used to prevent and relieve the symptoms of AMS – is available in Kathmandu, but consult your doctor before travelling.
Second skin for blisters, muscle pain relievers and tubigrips are all useful. Sun block is essential, as is protection for the head and eyes against the strong, dusty wind.
Sanitation is poor, so don’t drink untreated tap water. No vaccinations are necessary but measures against typhoid, hepatitis A and meningitis are recommended. Be sure to check for recent updates regarding health and safety before travelling.