IT is not easy to prise yourself away from the Annapurna, not after you have glimpsed the sun’s rays spotlight her sparkling snowy crown. But we had no time to linger; we were breathless at 13,000 feet (3,900 metres), where the oxygen level is depleted. We had to descend rapidly before our condition escalated into full-blown acute mountain sickness. Besides, we also had, in a moment of recklessness, included in our itinerary Upper Mustang, one of the two Tibetan provinces in Nepal, which stretched our trek to an insane 24 days: insane because none of us were habitual trekkers even if we were reasonably fit.
Upper Mustang is not connected by road or air and can only be accessed on foot or on mules over a rutted dust track. Occasionally, a daring four-wheel-drive vehicle might brave the odds to drive to Lo Manthang, the capital. Such isolation held out the possibility that Upper Mustang might be home to some unsullied original Tibetan culture. It is inhabited by the Loba and the Khampa. The residents of Lo are known as the Loba. The Khampa were originally fearsome warriors, sometimes referred to as bandits, who held out the longest against the Chinese advance into Tibet.
The province used to be an independent kingdom within Nepal until 2008 when Nepal itself became a republic and the Mustang king lost his title. Lo Manthang is a walled city tucked away in the folds of high mountain ranges far and away from intrusive crowds and even Nepal’s administrative reach. Since Upper Mustang happened to be in the Annapurna Conservation Area, we had decided to combine it with the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) trek.
Our travel agent, Suman, who is in his forties and an avid trekker of yesteryear, sits in distant Kathmandu. He probably forgot how altitude could play havoc with travel plans. Being younger, he could not visualise how exhausting it might be for three senior women to go on tramping for 24 days. He had put together a trek that would take us to Upper Mustang cresting several mountain ranges all the way from ABC to Jomsom. As the crow flies, that would have been the shortest route, except that we were not crows and the route entailed going up and down one mountain after another until we reached Jomsom. This was the scenic Ghorepani-Poon Hill-Tadapani route for the able-bodied and the hardy, hardly for us, already out of breath and longing for level ground.
If we had followed Suman’s original plan, there would have been no respite from boulders, rocks and slopes for the next eight days. As we were nearing Chumrung, our group of three began to experience the first rumblings of a mutiny. I was the first to announce that I would much rather go back to Pokhara and fly to Jomsom to commence the Upper Mustang trek from there than continue on this treacherous high-altitude trail all the way to Lo Manthang.
Suhasini would have preferred us to stick to our original plan but was outnumbered when Parvathi endorsed my suggestion. So we ended up retracing our steps to Pokhara over the next three days. In Pokhara, we gorged on delectable cheesecake and plum pudding and got our pile of clothes laundered in one of the many laundromats that line the streets. Only when we marched to the Yeti Airlines office to buy our tickets to Jomsom did we find out, to our dismay, that all flights were fully booked for the next eight weeks. Neither Dinesh, our guide, nor Suman had remembered to educate us on the impossibility of getting flights from Pokhara to Jomsom at short notice. Only a tiny 19-seater aircraft flies from Pokhara to Jomsom daily, and even this shuts down when the weather in Jomsom turns moody and misty, which is often. Other airlines that used to fly to Jomsom diverted their services to the Everest sector owing to increased traffic there. Jomsom had found its way onto the aviation map of Nepal primarily to service pilgrims headed to the Muktinath shrine. And there were hundreds waiting to get there.
The prospect of bouncing about again in a bus bound for Jomsom for 12 to 15 hours stared us in the face. In fact, there are no regular bus services to Jomsom; one has to go hunting for the odd tour operator willing to risk his bus on the route. There is no road; the mountainside has been blasted, and it is up to vehicles to plough through and level a path in the process. It is not even a dirt track but a boulder- and rock-strewn unpaved road prone to landslides. Of course, we did not know this when we decided to hire an SUV, at extortionate rates, to get to Jomsom. All seven of us piled into the vehicle. As it rattled along dusty dirt tracks with the Kali Gandaki hurtling down the slopes dangerously to our right, we had a full 14 hours to rue our decision to exchange the trek for this roller-coaster ride. All those heaps of rocks that we would have climbed seemed like a model’s ramp compared with this ride. When we were finally dropped off at Jomsom, our bodies felt like sacks of dislocated bones.
Jomsom is a windswept, desolate outpost in northern Nepal in the shadow of the Annapurna range, which stops all rain-bearing clouds. This town, with a resident population of around 15,000, has a single high street that runs its entire length, a few hotels and the odd shop or two, all watched over by the magnificent Nilgiri and Dhaulagiri peaks. It is also impossibly windy, and unless you are careful, the vicious wind could knock you off your feet.
On our early morning walk through this street, we spotted Dhaulagiri Boarding School and an attached hostel where girls were getting ready for school. Yellow school buses were plying on this single street, presumably bringing children from surrounding villages. We plunged our feet into the cool waters of the Kali Gandaki before returning to our hotel, which faced the Nilgiri (well, all the hotels in Jomsom do). We feasted on buckwheat pancakes dripping with mountain honey as our eyes feasted on the Nilgiri wrapped in a gossamer scarf of mist.
The trek to Kagbeni started around 11 a.m. The sun was already up. This is a dry high-altitude desert where dust storms swirl and seek out orifices in your face and crevices and creases in your body to deposit sand particles. The wind whistles eerily. The ABC trail was cool most of the way, thickly forested, with jaw-dropping scenery—gurgling streams, flower-carpeted valleys, rhododendron slopes and bamboo bushes—whereas the trek from Jomsom to Lo Manthang must be one of the most barren stretches on the planet, with nary a blade of grass, no tree offering shade, no grass to tickle your feet, just sand everywhere, two-feet deep in places, trying to swallow your boots. The sun, which just the other day was seductively golden over the Annapurna, was blindingly silver and hot, as if out to burn everything in sight. It must have been 40°Celsius. We were wrapped up like a mummy in a tomb, and yet grit got into our eyes and mouth and blocked our nostrils too.
The path to Kagbeni is along the riverbed, mostly dry, with an occasional crystal stream meandering over the grey pebbles. At some point, the river must have been wide and flowing; now all that remains is a splayed creek on a bed of rocks and pebbles. Kagbeni is the jumping-off point for the Upper Mustang trek and Muktinath. We had decided to leave Muktinath for the return journey. In a couple of hours, we crossed Ekla Bhati village with a single dwelling and a fancy Roc Cafe, which advertised espresso and apricot crumble, but was locked. This was to be the easiest part of the Mustang trek.
After a few hours, we reached Kagbeni, one of the bigger villages in Upper Mustang, at a height of 2,810 m. It is home to 1,600 people living in 229 households. We visited the local gompa and the attached monasteries where young monks were being schooled in Buddhist scriptures.
Despite the harsh surroundings, villages in Upper Mustang seemed like veritable oases. Buckwheat had just been harvested and left out in the fields to dry. A few young boys and girls were threshing some of the harvest. There were apple and apricot orchards and alfalfa fields. We stopped for a bite at the Yak Donalds restaurant. Kagbeni is also where your permit to trek to Mustang is checked. It costs $500 and is valid for 10 days’ stay in Upper Mustang and has to be obtained in Kathmandu or Pokhara ahead of travelling to the region. Every additional day of stay costs $50 a day. Only 2,000 permits are issued every year, and most of them during the Tiji festival in May.
The following day, we set out after breakfast, trudging through the pebbly riverbed. The dun-coloured dunes in the foreground contrast with the rainbow-hued rocks in the distance. It is a stark landscape, where nature has wrought some stunning mud sculptures in vivid colours. To our left was the Kali Gandaki, gurgling and content. Chuksang village (2,965 m) en route was ripe with apples, plums and apricots. The chortens (temple) were crowded with garlands of rocks inscribed in Tibetan. We moved on, to Tsaile across the river where we would have our lunch and halt for the night.
The Kali Gandaki widens considerably just before Tsaile, and we crossed a tiny metal bridge at the foot of a massive canyon with a line of caves up on a 155-foot-high (47 m) cliff. Called “sky caves”, they harbour secrets from a distant past. Explorations by National Geographic revealed remnants of human skulls and bones, animal remains and artefacts of the earlier Bon culture, which preceded Buddhism in these parts. If monks lived in these caves and meditated, how did they access them? Two National Geographic explorers were seriously wounded in the attempt to access the caves. Perhaps the river reached up to that height in the distant past? The cliffs were spectacular, far more stunning than any we had seen.
We had to clamber on hands and feet to reach Tsaile but decided to move on after lunch to the next camp, in Samar. We soon realised it was a huge risk to change travel plans mid trek, especially in these parts where villages are far away from each other. Dinesh was a bit fuzzy about how long the trek to the next camp was. So here we were going round and round the mountain trails of dust and sand, often losing sight of the Manang range and the Nilgiri, which were our markers. At some point it seemed as if we had lost our way. There was not a soul to ask, no dwelling, no marker, nothing. We just kept on walking in the hope that we would stumble into a village. It was probably the toughest stretch in our entire trek, even tougher than the trudge in the dark to ABC.
Samar was nowhere in sight; all we saw were ridges. With great hope, we would haul ourselves up to one ridge only to find it leading to yet another. There were moments when we felt we could not go any further and might have to freeze under a star-studded sky; temperatures can plunge to minus at night. Samar, at 3,700 m, is a verdant village of just seven households. Namgyal, with whom we were staying, had a lovely cottage overlooking the grand Manang range and the Tilicho peak. He arranged a four-wheel-drive vehicle for us to cover the rest of the journey to Lo Manthang. While that burnt a huge hole in our wallets, after our experience of the previous day we were ready to sell all our possessions, including our homes if it came to that.
Thus began the next leg of our journey. All seven of us squeezed into a jeep with our luggage strapped to the roof. The vehicle spluttered and stalled on the boulder- and rock-strewn mountainsides, roared through waterfalls and hobbled on riverbeds. We crossed several passes, including Nyi La, the highest pass on this route. We also crossed a lone chorten, evocative of the isolation of this wind-swept high-altitude plateau, and a stunning Mani wall. Legend has it that the wall was built over the intestines of a demon felled by Guru Padmasambhava. Gorgeous grey and brown cliffs, looking like exquisite shades of raw silk, shimmered in the backdrop. Structures wrought by the wind and other elements over millions of years and looking like Grecian Corinthian or Ionic columns rose towards the sky. One wondered whether Greek and Roman architecture might not have been inspired by these cliffs and columns.
We stopped in Tsarang, the summer capital of the King of Mustang where his dzong (fort) houses an armoury. The former King of Mustang, Jigme Dorje Palba Bista, died in 2016 in Kathmandu, and his son runs a hotel in Lo. The Ani Gompa, the Tsarang monastery, is a colourful structure painted extravagantly in ochre and red and visible from miles away. Although dilapidated and open to the sky in many places, it houses priceless murals in reasonably good condition. But we pressed on to Lo Manthang.
The view of this town from the bend was impressive. All the mountain passes and peaks we had crossed en route seemed like dwarfs in comparison. There was an unmistakable feeling of being on the roof of the world. Whichever direction you turned, there was nothing but cobalt blue skies. Lo is home to three beautiful gompas with exquisite murals, Choede, Jhampa and Thubchen, all in various states of disrepair. Armed with a torch, we toured the gloomy interiors to catch a glimpse of the vivid and vibrant colours, smudged by seepage in places and peeling off here and there. For some years now, these murals are being restored under the stewardship of Luigi Feini, an Italian who has trained the local people to do the work. Yet, the restored sections are not a patch on the originals. Today’s Loba have little idea of the source of the ancient rich pigments. The modern-day substitutes, albeit made from ground rocks from the region, lack the lustre and sheen of the originals. For a town with a population of just 800, Lo seemed to be bustling with activity. Yaks were being herded to pasture, monks were hurrying about on their daily rounds, women were collecting firewood and storing it for the winter, men were busy with harvests and tourists were clicking away at everything in sight. Mule trains were bringing in provisions needed to cater to tourists and household goods all the way from Pokhara, as they might have brought in tea, salt, silks and precious gems in the past. Everything in Lo has to come from the plains. Occasionally, the villages get access to allopathic medical care, when flying doctors from Medicines Sans Frontiers set up medical camps.
The next day, we drove to the Chosar caves near the Tibetan border to see the many caves on the mountainside that were once home to monks. In these caves, relics from a Bon past were found alongside Buddhist artefacts. Buddhism seems to have been integrated into the original Bon faith. Ghar Gompa, the oldest one in the region, is a living example of this fusion. On our way back, we visit it and the shrine of Muktinath.
The denizens of Lo Manthang are true custodians of a vanishing culture and way of life. It will not be long before roads open up this region and allow it to be swallowed up by “mainstream life”. After all, all that remains unconnected is just a stretch of 50-odd kilometres between the Tibetan border and Jomsom.