The “lost and forbidden” kingdom of Upper Mustang, tucked away in northern Nepal, is an arid and ancient land, like a flashback to the Tibet of the 1950s, when the Dalai Lama still reigned in Lhasa.
Virtually untouched by modern civilization and isolated by rugged mountain terrain, the old way of life of the Lobas (people of Mustang) still exists, while its ancient Buddhist monasteries are still intact.
It was led by King Jigme Palbar Bista until 2007, when Nepal was declared a republic.
Trekking in the Upper Mustang is comparatively less known as the region was only opened to outsiders in 1991. Bad weather scuppered our original plan to take a half-hour flight from Pokhara in central Nepal. Instead, nine of us did a jeep journey via rough unpaved “roads”. After several nerve-wracking and bone jangling hours, we finally arrived in Kagbeni (in Lower Mustang, the entry point to Upper Mustang) at midnight.
From there, we trekked upstream along the banks of the sacred Kaligandaki River, passing the towns of Chele, Syangboche, Ghami and Tsarang. The landscape was treeless except for small shrubs and thorny bushes adorned with very fragrant white flowers. Sections of the trail were steep and rocky. Loose gravel made each step tricky but our trusty trekking poles helped keep us upright. Strong, howling winds in the afternoon were like an orchestra entertaining us lonely trekkers.
The landscape was a visual feast for our eyes. The vivid backdrop of a weird and wonderful semi-desert featured vast desolate mountain slopes where nomadic shepherds herded their flocks.
The eroded mesas (conglomerate cliffs), were coloured brown, blue, yellow and red by natural earth pigments and sculptured by the wind and snow, as if they were carved by men. Surrounding us were some 35 mountains ranging from 2,800 to 3,800 meters, some with shining, snowy peaks. It was almost like the American Grand Canyon…but more mystifying, indeed, breathtaking.
We came across the longest, most colourful mani wall (of prayer stones) I had seen in Nepal. The colours represented the “five impacts of Buddha”: white, the teachings to remove ignorance; blue – immortality; yellow – treasure; red – the Buddha of life; green – success.
Villages comprising of white painted houses built using rammed earth or sun-baked bricks, were a common sight. Dotted across this quiet, dry and dusty land were Tibetan monasteries and other religious structures such as prayer walls, mani walls and chortens (Tibetan Buddhist stupas). I really felt that I had been transported back to ancient times.
Agricultural fields laid low in the valley, often giving the illusion of an oasis in the desert, surrounded by barren mountains. The villagers farmed buckwheat, barley, wheat and mustard using traditional methods. It was entertaining watching herds of cows and goats coming down the mountains too.
We enjoyed some trails that were used only by trekkers. This was much more pleasant than sharing the dirt roads with passing jeeps and dirt bikes which stirred up mini sandstorms that stung the eyes.
The trails were also very deserted. Two holy men in bright orange robes, and six other Europeans were the only trekkers we encountered. We discovered later that we were only the second Malaysian group on the trail this year!
At the end of each day, sand covered the exposed parts of our body, as well as our clothes and bags. Fortunately, guesthouses provided comfortable beds, blankets and hot water. Squatting toilets were the norm and electricity was rationed, which made it difficult to charge our mobile phones and gadgets.
After six days of walking, our weary group arrived at Lo Manthang, the capital of Upper Mustang. We had clocked approximately 32 hours of trekking over a distance of 83 kilometers. For us, it truly was a one-step-at-a-time kind of exertion.
I also lost two toenails due to severe blisters but our spirits were always kept alive by the encouragement and singing of the porters.
At Lo Manthang, a six-meter-high earthen wall with square towers (dzong) on the corners, surrounds the settlement.
Within the walls, there is a compact settlement of earthen structures. The main monument is the very long, four-storey, 108-room palace of the Raja Bista and Rani. Its sheer size makes it hard to maintain and the last earthquake left big cracks in the facade.
Under various stages of restoration are three monasteries (gompas). There are also several rows of chortens and mani walls within the settlement.
At first sight, Mustang looked like an inhospitable and desolate place, but it had its own beauty. Older men thumbed prayer beads as they sat, talked and spun prayer wheels. Women chatted and spun wool or checked each others’ hair for lice.
But behind their smiles and laughter were faces which had endured rugged living. Some monks have disrobed and put their talent for painting into use, opening shops selling mandalas (religious images).
We followed some “Rooftop View This Way” signs and ended up with the promised spectacle. The houses were pretty with whitewashed walls, and flowers on the balconies and roofs. The black, red and white stripes of the dominant Sakya Tibetan Buddhist sect, adorned the walls. Windows were framed in black to keep away demons.
Local Mustang coffee, mixed with chhang (an alcoholic drink made from barley) is a must-try. However, our coffee craving was satisfied only with Illy and Lavazza coffee - a slow but sure sign of modernisation.
¦ C.F.Leong, a microbiologist turned accountant in her 20s, lives by what the Dalai Lama advises: “Once a year, go some place where you have never been before”.