Mustang: Beyond the Himalayas
Lifetime experience in the plain of aspirations
June Mukherjee, 22-6-2022
Earlier a forbidden kingdom, covered by some of the world's tallest peaks, including Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, Mustang, one of the 77 districts of Nepal still maintains strict Nepalese-Tibetan traditions as far as tourism is concerned. Mustang was an important route of crossing the Himalayas between Tibet and Nepal. Once famous for its salt trading route, is still popular for mainly two reasons - trekking and the famous pilgrimage site Muktinath.
The last king of Mustang was Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista whose lineage dates back to Ame Pal, who founded the Kingdom of Lo (Mustang) six and half-centuries earlier. Bista died in 2016 after living a retired life in Kathmandu since 2008 when Nepal abolished its own monarchy.
The name 'Mustang' is derived from Tibetan meaning, 'Plain of Aspiration'. As part of Gandaki Province in northern Nepal, it straddles into the remotest part of the Himalayas and extends northward onto the Tibetan plateau with very little population. It is a vast and arid valley, distinguished by eroded canyons, vividly coloured stratified rock formations and barren high-altitude deserts. The entire district is included within the Annapurna Conservation Area which is the largest protected area in Nepal. The Kali Gandaki River is the main river of Mustang. The region between the Tibetan Plateau and Himalayan Mountain is called Trans-Himalaya. The Kali Gandaki Gorge or Andha Galchi, measured by the difference between the river height and the heights of the highest peaks on either side, is the world's deepest canyon.
Another fascinating feature of the district are thousands of cliff dwellings, some of them are highly inaccessible, the locals call them Sky Caves. These Mustang Caves or Sky Caves are a collection of some 10,000 man-made caves dug into the sides of valleys in the Mustang. Several groups of archaeologists and researchers have explored these stacked caves and found partially mummified human bodies and skeletons that are at least 2,000–3,000 years old. Explorations of these caves by conservators and archaeologists have also led to the discovery of valuable Buddhist paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, pottery and numerous artefacts belonging to the 12th to 14th centuries. According to theory, many of these may date back to 8–10,000 BCE when Mustang was much greener. Mustang is rich in trans-Himalayan biodiversity, where rare species are spotted. Mustang is the habitat for the snow leopard, musk deer, Tibetan wild ass Tibetan gazelle and a few endemic butterflies.
Many people in Mustang depend on agriculture, sheep and mountain goat rearing for their livelihood. Though agro-pastoralism still provides the socio-economic backbone of the Mustang, alternative livelihoods like tourism are an emerging trend.
Panchgaon (five villages) lies between the trading town of Tukche and the pilgrimage site of Muktinath. Beyond the five villages — Marpha, Chhairo, Chimang, Syang and Thini — this area also includes more recent settlements such as Jomsom, Drumpa and Samle. Marpha is very popular for apple orchards and apple brandy.
The temple of Muktinath is located in the trans-Himalayan locale of Nepal at the foot of the snow-covered ranges at an altitude of 3,800 metre near Ranipauwa village at the foot of the Thorong La mountain pass in Muktinath Valley. Mukti Kshetra, or where the temple of Muktinath is situated, is mentioned in the Hindu Scriptures such as the Ramayana, Barah Purana and Skanda Purana. It is considered to be 106th among the available 108 Divya Desam (premium temples) considered sacred by the Sri Vaishnava sect. The temple houses the Saligram Shila, considered to be the naturally available form of the Hindu Godhead Sriman Narayan. and it is also one of the 51 Shakti Peeths. The Buddhists call it Chumig Gyatsa, which in Tibetan means 'Hundred Waters'. Although the temple has a Vaishnav origin, it is also revered in Buddhism. For Tibetan Buddhists, Muktinath is a very important place of Dakinis, goddesses known as Sky Dancers, and one of the 24 Tantric places. They understand the murti to be a manifestation of Avalokiteśvara, who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. It is a five-hour walk from Jomsom to Muktinath. Regular buses running between Pokhara and Beni in the Kali Gandaki Valley complete part of the journey for you. A road connecting Jomsom with Beni has recently been constructed therefore, travellers will be able to find bus services going all the way to Muktinath. There also are five helipads in Muktinath, Thotong Phedi, Ghermu, and Bahundanda.
The ancient walled city of Lo Manthang is surrounded by terrains and its main attraction is the King's Palace and many restored monasteries The village is different in its looks for its tall white-washed mud-brick walls, gompas and the King's Palace, which is a nine-cornered, five-story structure built around 1400. Choprang Gompa, which is popularly known as the 'New Gompa' is noted by scholars as one of the best-preserved medieval fortresses and a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The most famous festival here is Tiji, which generally happens in April/May, with costumed Lamas dancing in the village square for three days.
Mustang is quite rich in medicinal and aromatic plants with very high economic and ethnomedicinal values. Local people use a number of plants for food, spices, fibre, medicine, fuel, dye, tannin, gum, resin, religious purposes, roofing materials, handicrafts, etc. Traditional herbal medicines are the popular mode of medical care and Amchis (traditional Tibetan healers) are the local medical experts in Mustang. Local Amchis use 72 species of medicinal plants to treat 43 human ailments. They use different forms of medication including pastes, powders, decoctions, tablets, pills, cold infusions, and other means, administered through oral, nasal, topical and other routes.
Trekking in Upper Mustang is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If you are trekking toward Upper Mustang, you will see a sign that says, "Now you are entering the restricted area of the Upper Mustang". It is not allowed to proceed further from here without holding a special trekking permit issued by the Department of Immigration, Government of Nepal. However, you can be prepared to be awestruck by the breathtaking landscapes and meet the people of one of the world's most culturally preserved regions.
Mustang was closed to foreigners, with rare exceptions, until 1992. Although it is now open on a restricted basis to foreign travellers, tourism to the region is still strictly controlled. Foreign tourists are required to acquire special permits, pay fees, and be accompanied by an authorised guide. But when tourists come, they are mesmerised by the beauty of the place. Most tourists travel by foot over the same trade route used in the 15th century. August and October are the peak visiting months. Now that Upper Mustang is open to foreigners on a restricted basis, the Lopa people have increased the number of horses kept in the hopes of benefiting from tourism. Trekkers are required by government regulation to porter in all food and fuel, thereby minimising environmental impact.
The old capital of the Upper Mustang, Lo Manthang, can be reached in four days, but at least one extra day should be spent here to take in the sights and sounds of this unique walled settlement. Ponies can be rented if you desire. During the return trip, you can take the same route you took to enter or a different route along the eastern bank of the Kali Gandaki River.
As many trekkers from all over the world come to Mustang to scale the rugged terrain, Hindu pilgrims from Nepal and India visit Muktinath to worship Lord Vishnu while Buddhists from many countries pay tribute to Avalokiteśvara. There are decent hotels to stay in Jomsom and other small towns, some homestays as well with basic modern facilities, but if you expect high-end luxury, this is not the place for you. The cool atmosphere and beautiful picturesque landscape will fill your memories with warm local food served hot and fresh. Mustang is a place for tourists who would prefer to travel slow, take a deep breath, take long and short walks and cherish the place and its people. Nearby is a temple called Jwala Mai considered sacred and worshipped by all where an eternal blue flame keeps burning to celebrate humanity over centuries.