For a generation of travellers to the Himalaya, Nepal was adventure enough and few were inclined to venture into the remoter corners of the world’s greatest mountain range. The ‘hidden kingdom’ of Mustang was the stuff of legend; foreigners were prohibited until 1992 and even now no more than a few hundred tourists a year venture into this semi-autonomous area of Nepal. A nervous local population have begun to tentatively welcome visitors, albeit with a steep permit cost for the privilege.
Your starting point is Kathmandu and if you have never been then the much over used term ‘culture shock’ is never more apt. On arrival you will be suddenly immersed in one of the world’s most culturally diverse cities. Give yourself a day to acclimatise; not just to the modest altitude, but the sights and sounds of a mix of religions and a rich heritage. Observe worship at a Buddhist temple and an hour later you can be watching a Hindu cremation at the riverside, a display of family unity and harmony with death that is alien to most of us in the West. With my group we rounded off our first day with a beautifully prepared and traditional Nepali meal, anxious at what was to come.
Tucked away in the far north of Nepal, Mustang province used to be a part of Tibet and you would be forgiven for thinking that it still is. The faces of the people, the squat thatched houses and towering monasteries, all reveal a Tibetan culture and heritage that is very different to the rest of Nepal. This is the realm of the determined and independent traveller and for a group to visit is very unusual. Our journey just to get there was a challenge in itself, especially in the monsoon conditions that prevail during July. We were promised a mountain flight from the lakeside city of Pokhara to the high mountain outpost of Jomsom. What should have been a 22 minute journey through the world’s deepest valley never took off and instead we found ourselves on a succession of rickety jeeps as our journey lengthened to a bumpy 13 hours. The frequent vehicle hops are necessary with washed away bridges and landslides constantly blocking the route into the mountains. Below us thundered the Kali Gandaki river, laden with silt and boulders as it flows between two of the world’s great mountains, Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, towering some 6000m above the valley floor. The road was exhilarating, at points cut into the cliff several hundred metres directly above the river. All of us endured the journey with fixed smiles and the odd expletive, quickly learning to assess where the nearest exit point was in each new vehicle. The drivers were cautious; after all their livelihood depended utterly on their judgement. They laughed when at certain points we insisted on walking around some of the more exposed corners and perilous bridges.
At Jomsom we were all glad to be trekking at last, albeit with our pace checked by the altitude and the dust laden winds that sweep this area in the afternoon heat. Our destination, some six days walk away was the ancient walled city of Lo-Manthang. This was the route followed for centuries by generations of pilgrims and traders, but seldom tourists such as us. We soon began to witness how untouched this corner of the world was, both by technology and external influence. We stayed in local accommodation where electricity and outside communication were unheard of and ate fresh local produce straight from the terraced fields, untouched by processing and chemicals. A succession of high passes, each more demanding than the last brought us closer to our final destination. Our Sherpa team were fantastic as guides cajoling us along and then waiting on us attentively as we collapsed with tiredness at the end of the day. In the evenings we explored the local villages and visited monasteries, even enjoying a game of football with the local monks and snapping hundreds of photographs.
The final descent into Lo Manthang revealed the ancient and walled city that had barely changed since medieval times. Outside our resident teahouse women washed clothes in the river channel that had been guided along the main street and we went in search of a café that much to our delight had discovered Western coffee. A renovated coffee machine was linked to a generator that had to be fired up for each cup. As the sun went down we explored the walls of the city boundary and marvelled as the intense light at this altitude threw the pastel shaded buildings into sharp contrast against the desert bleakness. Much to my surprise we were granted an audience with the King. Mahendra, our chief guide was anxious to renegotiate with him the cost of the permit charged to Western tourists, stressing that allowing more tourists in would increase the income level for all Mustang residents, whether directly involved in tourism or not. The King nodded cooperatively but we could sense his reluctance. How long this little corner of the Himalaya could resist the ever-increasing pressure of tourism was the only question. That we were about to see the end of an era and the erosion of an ancient culture was inevitable.
After a blissful day’s rest of no walking we were back on the trail, taking a different path for our return. The catch was an ascent to the high point of our journey at some 4500m. High cloud prevented the best of the views but we stood in awe as the mountain of Nilgiri Himal (6839m) revealed itself through gaps in the mist, and that a mere satellite peak amid the Annapurna massive. Frustrated by the views we pressed on with the group tiring and each morning seeming harder than the last before our return to Jomsom. This frontier town had seemed like the back of beyond two weeks earlier, whereas now it seemed to offer every convenience. If we had learnt nothing else it was that comfort is a relative concept and how much we can all live without. We all knew that our visit to this corner of the Himalaya was a timely one as well. Many of the group will no doubt return but I fear that when they do the memories of Mustang will be mere nostalgia; it will be a very different place in ten or twenty years time.
Just as our flight into the mountains had been cancelled it came as no surprise that our flight back never took off. After seeing the short and dusty landing strip at Jomsom some of the team were quite relieved, even if it did mean repeating the hair-raising jeep journey back down. This time it didn’t seem so bad – perhaps we were now just hardened to the perils of Himalayan travel?
After enjoying the delights of Pokhara, cold drinks and delicious pizza against the sublime backdrop of Fewa Lake, it didn’t take us long to start resuming our Western ways. A cold sharp shock came from the Dude Khosi river as we enjoyed an exhilarating day’s rafting on our return trip to Kathmandu. That left time for the obligatory market shopping for bargain presents before our flight home. But not before we had visited the famous ‘Rum Doodles’ restaurant and like many groups before us signed and posted a giant Yeti foot on the wall . If you’re passing through be sure to look us up alongside the ever-increasing list of those that have been inspired by this corner of the world.