The air up there: Inside Upper Mustang

Posted on May 19, 2011

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So there I am in Kagbeni, the southern-most town of the District of Upper Mustang, about to cross the border with my two friends into the “restricted” area of northern Nepal, and I’m wondering, “What the heck will I find in this desolate land? By the time I’m done, I’ll have spent over $1,000 and roughly two weeks of my life just traversing over rocky wasteland. Will it really be worth it?”

Sign marking the beginning of the "restricted" area.

About 3 hours into our trek, I was inclined to think “No. Not worth it.” My feet were already cultivating such painful blisters from my hiking boots that it took my full concentration to keep walking. The scenery was similar to what we’d already seen in the unrestricted area. It was horrendously windy, and the Kali Gandaki riverbed, which we were hiking up, felt terribly flat and monotonous. Where was my return on investment?

I finally started to feel a little better after our lunch in the totally medieval-looking town of Chusang. It was just a cluster of whitewashed, box-like mud houses, built in the Tibetan style. The town was built on three or four different levels or terraces. Narrow trails wound its way around tiny stables made of stacked rock and between a tight network of houses. In a cosy guesthouse, I was fed a home-cooked meal of veggie momos (similar to pot stickers) and french fries, and finally, I began to see the charm of this far-flung region.

Tiny pony in a tiny pen. (Chusang)

Man making the wrapper dough for momos. (Chusang)

Coming out of Chusang well fed and rested, I decided to stop paying attention to my wretched feet and instead pay attention to the world around me. And I slowly fell in love, like Elizabeth Bennett finally coming out of her critical haze and seeing Mr. Darcy’s charms for the first time (Austen lovers, you feel me).

I realized I was walking along a natural corridor as old as time, and to my left and right were walls of red rock sculpted into impossible, finger-like ridges. A solitary chorten, or Buddhist monument, stood sentry along the trail. Wind buffeted us and it. The chorten was undoubtedly centuries old. It looked so forlorn weathering the wind and time all alone against the vast, rocky landscape. It was even a little eerie. “Holy smokes,” I thought. “What am I doing here?” And then, in the back of my mind, “What century am I in?”

The sight that made me fall into a troubled kind of love with Upper Mustang.

And so it went. The farther north we traveled, the more I felt I was being transported into a faraway, forgotten universe where rock and sky are the dominant elements and people are mere specks scratching out a little-known and little-noticed living. The land seemed to have a personality, will, and charisma all its own. It was fascinating and alluring, but troubling too. In such an extreme environment of soaring heights and dry, unapologetic rock, without a single tree or car or sign of modernity in sight, one’s sense of identity and importance seems to slip away.

That was, until we reached the little towns that dotted the trail, where we encountered 15th-century homes with TV satellite dishes on their roofs. These incongruous signs of modernity made me feel like the human race was holding its own against time, but then again, that satellite dish would be framed against the backdrop of a several-million-year-old mountain, and I began to question how significant our little advances as a species were.

The remains of an eagle over the town of Chele.

Monument at a high pass.

Human advancement vs Planetary advancement.

The Kingdom of Lo (which is what Upper Mustang used to be called until 2008) stretched on and on, farther north and farther back in time, it seemed. Past the town of Samar, electricity lines disappeared. The mountains grew higher, the land dryer, the sky bluer, and the air thinner. By the time we reached the town of Tsarang, where one of the king’s summer palaces stands abandoned, I was pretty much convinced I had been transported back in time by some two or three hundred years. And my blisters had just become another part of this primitive existence.

Big, primeval-looking chorten.

A clay stove in Chele. This was about as advanced as domestic comforts got in the Kingdom of Lo. But this is even nicer than most--it actually burns wood, rather than cow and goat dung.

The biggest chorten in Lo marks the entrance into the town of Tsarang. The wooden scaffolding is a recent addition.

We stayed in Tsarang the third night of our trek. The next day we would reach Lo Manthang, the former capital city of the kingdom, where Taylor had already been living for three weeks and was waiting for us. I was excited by the thought of seeing him again and decided it was worth it to take a “shower.” After trekking five days without bathing, it would be a treat to get clean. But without plumbing, the closest you can get to a shower is buying a big bowl of hot water (heated by a dung-burning stove, of course), taking it into the outhouse with a bit of soap, and washing yourself as best you can in the frigid outdoor air. This done, I went back into our guesthouse where our lively Tibetan hosts were serving everyone chang (Tibetan barley beer) in the little communal kitchen. I was happy and full of anticipation for the next day, so there was a lot of merrymaking that night and I went to right to sleep, aided by the chang.

It was noon when we finally reached Lo Manthang, which we had walked four days to reach. Taylor stood on a little overlook at the edge of town, waiting for us. I was so excited to see him, I felt like a puppy. And all together we walked around the ancient fortress city.

Life in Lo Manthang is a contradiction in terms. As a capital city, it is the most cosmopolitan town in the whole area that stretches from the Tibetan border to the Annapurna Range. But this “metropolis” comprises roughly 15o houses and a population of just over a thousand people. There is no consistent running water, no plumbing, no cars except the visiting freight trucks that bring in goods, no pavement, no modern construction–the town was mostly made up of just mud-brick houses and stables and prayers wheels. One or two guesthouses offered a hot shower (a truly newfangled concept) and a few shops offered a mish-mash of goods: shoes from Kathmandu, toilet paper from China, pirated Bollywood movies. The crown jewel in all of Lo Manthang was the brand-new “Korean store” that offered such imported luxuries as canned coffee and gourmet instant noodles. I set to work asking questions and writing.

Many of the people we talked to in Lo Manthang said that life in the Himalayas needed an upgrade. These people have no access to modern hospitals, and they have no industry. Most families have a plot of land in the surrounding fields, which they plant with wheat, barley, peas, and potatoes. A few families run guesthouses and shops. Another small group still deals in the wool trade every wool season in India. But aside from that, there is no work, and men sit in the town square, counting prayers on their prayer beads.

“In Europe, people don’t live like this,” said one old man who had a surprising command of English. “Everybody has work. No money, no honey.”

Riding horses through a fantasy-like meadow just north of Lo Manthang.

Cave monastery close to the Tibet border.

In the land of nomads.

Our nomad hostess preparing Tibetan tea for us.

Baby goat daycare.

Yaks in the morning mist.

Lo also holds other mysteries indicative of an ancient way of life: cave monasteries, nomadic herders, local stories (and genuine fear) of yetis, talismans to ward off evil spirits, etc., etc., etc. We traveled a little further to see the first two. The cave monasteries we only saw from a distance, but the nomadic life we experienced up close and personal. We stayed with a nomad family one night up in the grazing lands above Lo Manthang. The way of life was harsh–from dawn until dark, the nomad family works, including the two children. They keep several hundred animals, including sheep, goats, yaks, and horses. The family lives in a one-room tent made of yak wool, and they travel with the herd according to the seasons. This is their life. Unlike many Americans, the soil and the wind are more real to them than the New York Stock Exchange.

“What a difference time makes”—is that from  a song? Whatever the origin, it’s true, and you can witness it physically in Lo. It’s certainly the oldest way of life I’ve ever seen, and though it’s a tough life, there are beautiful elements of it that are worth preserving. In just one word, it’s unique. The Loba (people of Lo) have their own language, their own myths, their own art and architecture and aesthetic. They have a long history of being Loba, and no matter how many cell phone towers and electricity lines and modern imported goods penetrate their lives, they should for all time be Loba. I hope this is possible, and I hope Taylor and I will be able to contribute in some small way to this preservation. We’ve decided to write a book on the Kingdom of Lo. In just a few days, we’ll travel back up to Upper Mustang to collect more material and, fingers crossed, we’ll self-publish a full-color, hardcover book by the end of this year. We’ll let you know how it goes.

Here’s to the beauty of being human!

Our group after the trip, a little weather-beaten and maybe a little wiser from the experience.

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