Trekking to Lo Manthang in Upper Mustang (2017, 2018)

Trekking to Lo Manthang in Upper Mustang (2017, 2018)

Travelling to Lo Manthang, probably the most isolated kingdom in the world, is not for the weak-kneed, literally!  Apart from a good dose of foolhardiness, you need a pair of sturdy legs and even sturdier boots to plough through miles of dirt tracks to reach this remote jewel hidden away on the roof of the world. At 4000 odd meters (13000 feet) above sea level, the terrain is as intimidating as it is spectacular. Fine talcum powder sand, knee-deep in places, tries to swallow your boots; swirling dust storms send you scurrying to wrap up like the Bedouin in the Sahara; vertigo is your companion as you teeter on the edges of some of the deepest gorges on the planet through which a gurgling Kali Gandaki meanders.

If you brave all these and more for five or six days, you will catch a glimpse of that tantalising paradise – Lo Manthang, the legendary capital of the Kingdom of Upper Mustang. The dozen or so villages that comprise Upper Mustang province in Nepal are home to less than five thousand native Tibetans unsullied by Chinese, Nepali or Indian DNA. Not only do they thrive in inhospitable and inaccessible lands, but are today the sole custodians of original Tibetan culture and traditions, especially after Tibet came under Chinese rule and the Potala was turned into a museum.

For us three women from India all on the wrong side of sixty, the 5-day trek to Lo from Jomsom, a mere 100 kilometers away, seems never-ending.  Our knees cringe with every step, our lungs whistle in exasperation at the thin air, our decades-old friendship frays into tatters with every obstacle in our path.  The only consolation is, you are not alone on this seemingly insane expedition.  The mountain ranges echo with curses and swear words in multiple languages: a motely bunch of a dozen or so trekkers, drawn from lands as far away as Reunion Island, Malta and Norway were also huffing and puffing up the sandy slopes, enticed by visions of priceless Buddhist art hidden within the dimly-lit interiors of Lo’s ancient Gompas and caves.  These days, the indolent can hire 4X4 Scorpios, Toyotas and Tata Safaris to reach Lo from Jomsom. It takes the better part of three days to reach Lo even by 4X4 and will leave your wallet rather emaciated.

We had elected to trudge at least on the way up, albeit at our senior pace. But on day three, when the going gets tough, we seem no longer tough enough to get going. So we too hire a SUV at extortionate rates,  but take it slowly, staying in picturesque villages and visiting gompas and chortens along the way. When we finally sight Lo, it seems more like an epiphany born out of our hallucination rather than a living settlement where real people reside. After all, the surrounding wilderness is so overwhelmingly barren that no life seems possible in this arid expanse.  There is nary a blade of grass nor a single tree, leave alone wild animals or birds.

Nestling in a bowl of dust surrounded by the most magnificent mountain ranges streaked in vivid rainbow hues ranging from ochre to deep blue, the 170-odd households of Lo have now become a magnet for the cognoscenti from all over the world who undertake the arduous journey to glimpse the last remaining vestiges of a glorious ancient culture. The walled kingdom of seemingly modest mud dwellings hoards some fantastic treasures – Buddhist cave paintings, vivid murals in vibrant colours, aesthetic architecture and exquisite statuary – and harks back to a period when Tibetan artistic sensibilities defined the entire expanse from Xinjiang to Sichuan, Lhasa to Lahaul-Spiti.

For some, especially the motorbike-borne adrenaline junkies and four-wheel drive enthusiasts, Lo’s attraction lies in its location, not to mention the thrill of driving on pebbly or rocky river-bed every now and then.  All you can survey from Lo lies beneath you.  In front of you to the north stretches the endless Tibetan plateau.  On both sides, also abutted by Tibet, are some snow-flecked bald peaks while behind you is the treacherous winding path you traversed over the past five days.  Dhaulagiri, Manang, Nilgiri, Annapurna, Machupuchare – all those snowy eminences which followed you from Pokhara seem to have gone into hiding bowing to the grandeur of this stark landscape.

The scenery is not monotonous though. The landscape offers a mosaic of variations – deep canyons, lofty cliffs, rough ravines, snowy crests, sandy plateaus, layered rocks in rich hues that only nature can conjure up. Yet, the villages en route are veritable oases – of apple and apricot orchards, terraced barley and buckwheat fields nourished by the waters of Kali Gandaki.

A plaque at the entrance to Lo says the town was founded by King Ame Pal in 1380. Lo used to be ruled by a king – Jigme Palbar Bista – until he was disenfranchised by Nepal’s transition to a republic in 2008.  But Bista lived out his last years in Kathmandu where he passed away last year.  His son, also revered by the residents of Mustang, now runs a fancy resort, the priciest in all of Mustang. The original palace, a three-storey mansion in the middle of the village, is off-limits to visitors.

But the warrens that make up Lo make for an interesting detour that provides a glimpse of day-to-day life in this remote outpost. Yaks, miniature cows and ponies roam the alleyways. An occasional wrinkled old man dawdles by, swirling his prayer wheel while a monk in maroon robe hurries past. Virtually all the men are attired in elegant traditional chubas while women sport long skirts and an apron. Invariably, women are adorned in exquisite turquoise and coral necklaces, bangles ear and hair ornaments.

The three gompas in Lo – Choedhe, Jampa and Thubchen – are the jewels of the walled city.  Their interiors painted with exquisite murals depicting Buddha’s life. Once painted in gold and encrusted with turquoise, coral and other gemstones, these priceless art  works are somewhat in disrepair now. Seepage of water and earthquakes have taken their toll and in some places, the painting has come off in flakes. But where they are intact, the colours are brilliant enough and the details, exquisitely clear.  Luigi Fieni, an Italian conservationist is restoring the paintings with funding from American Himalayan Foundation.

On day two, we visit the cliff-top caves which were home to meditating monks. The dungeon-like caves need a bit of acrobatics to explore. On day three, we hire a SUV to take us to Lo Ghyekar, also known as Gar Gompa, the oldest in the kingdom in Marang village.  Legend has it that this stunning gompa came up on the spot where a fearsome demon was felled by Guru Padmasambava himself. The body parts of the demon lay scattered all over Mustang. Near Ghemi, a hamlet on the way, a long and colourful Mani Wall was built over the intestines of the demon. The wall is a stunning piece of art which looks more like modern-day art installation than an ancient religious relic.

Lo is shrouded in legend and lore and intertwined in myth and mysticism so much so it is difficult to tell reality apart from faith and superstition. The advent of Buddhism in Tibet in the seventh century did not smother the original Bon faith. The extant features, symbols and practices of the Bon faith have been incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism. Demons play a central role in Tibetan culture and annually, there is a ritual to exorcise evil spirits to protect the people. Lo is also known as the forbidden kingdom since no outsider was allowed to travel to Mustang until recently and even now, the inflow is restricted to 2000 a year.

(Published in National Geographic Traveler dated March 8, 2018)

1 thought on “Trekking to Lo Manthang in Upper Mustang (2017, 2018)”

  • Its been a few years gap i read the Blogs from Foot Loose Indian. I forget the date but it was in 2014 i get know about Ms. Sudha Mahalingam, that was during my educational tour of india. As i dive deep into tourism and exploring on my own Your Travel Blogs, Educational article and featured interviews makes me happy and update every time.
    Your photography of Upper Mustang with the content always make me ready to go there again and again.

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