Mustang - The Last Forbidden Kingdom in the Himalayas
Beyond the 8,000-meter ranges - Annapurna and Dhaulagiri - near the Tibetan (Chinese) border and inside Nepal lies the forbidden Kingdom of Mustang. Mustang stretches deep into the Tibetan plateau. Technically, it is no more a kingdom. In 2008, Nepal abolished the Mustang's monarchy.
Mustang was opened to tourism only in 1992, which meant it survived on its own for long, making it possible for Mustang to keep its culture almost intact.
Ame Pal founded the Kingdom of Lo (Upper Mustang) in 1380 and built Lo Manthang, a walled city that served as its capital. Lo means south in the Tibetan dialect. The most recent King of Mustang retraced his lineage 25 generations back to Ame Pal.
Around 1795, Mustang became a part of Nepal but retained its status as a separate principality as recently as the 1950s, when it was finally consolidated into Nepal. The records show that David Snellgrove, a British Tibetologist, visited Mustang to study the temples and monasteries in 1956, 1960–61, and 1978.
Tibet became a part of China in 1950, and the Tibetan administration labeled it a Chinese invasion of Tibet. Eventually, Upper Mustang became a base for CIA and Tibetan Khampas-backed guerrillas, from where they would raid China's People's Liberation Army. It continued till the 1970s when Richard Nixon visited China and withdrew support from Tibetan guerrillas. Due to these reasons, Mustang remained "The Last Forbidden Kingdom”, and travel to Mustang was heavily restricted.
The mysterious Mustang
Even before 1850, Nepal imported rock salt, wool, powdered gold, horses, and yaks from Tibet and exported grain, spices, knives, fabric, and handicrafts. Among these, rock salt was the most important import. Mustang provided the easiest path to Tibet. Thus, this trade route served as a link between Tibet and Nepal. When transportation improved, iodized salt from India entered Nepal, gradually diminishing this trek route.
Mustang has desert-like vegetation, which is most unique in the whole of Nepal. The desert landscape looks red, and through its ocher land flows the Kali Gandaki. Due to altitude, the wind blows consistently throughout the day, and, as a result, you can find red-colored cliffs here. The rocky highlands provide opportunities for rock climbing.
Lo Manthang invested the wealth Lo generated as a salt trade route in Buddhist art and artifacts. Hence, Mustang is home to the most revered and ancient Buddhist monuments. The remoteness of Mustang protected these gompas (monasteries) from modern influences.
The local population, with beliefs in traditional Tibetan culture, still uses two earthen gompas - Thubchen and Jamba. Jamba is known to contain at least 1,500 mandalas (Buddhist spiritual diagrams) and is the only monastery entirely painted with these types of mandalas.
Mustang is also known for its mysterious sky caves - around 10,000 in number. These caves are dug into the cliffs of the mountains. Researchers have conducted several kinds of research on these caves, but experts are still unsure who built these caves and or for what purpose.
From some of these caves, valuable Buddhist paintings, manuscripts, and artifacts, along with mummified human bodies, have been excavated. These sky caves have been featured on National Geographic, and archeological studies are ongoing.
Lo Manthang Palace:
In addition to monasteries, you can enjoy the views of ancient palaces in Mustang. The five-storied Lo Manthang Palace, constructed in 1442, and painted with white lime, is the main palace. The wall around the palace used to act as a fortress. There are three monasteries, twelve chortens, and a mani wall near the palace. The fortress walls have 60 spouts and 25 doors.
Some parts of this palace are still functional. This palace was severely damaged by the Gorkha earthquake in 2015 and has since been restored.
The current situation:
Mustang is the second least populated district in Nepal after the neighboring Manang district. The locals are engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry. Mustang forms a part of the Annapurna Conservation Area and is divided into four geographical regions - Thak Sastsae, Panchgaon, Barago, and Lo Tsho Dyun. The Thakali, Tamang, Bhotia (Tibetan), and Lopa (Bista and Gurung) ethnicities call Mustang their home. Currently, Lo Manthang is the only walled town in the whole of Nepal.
The recent changes have been rapid. The mud houses are being replaced with concrete structures. The hotels are equipped with television sets. Mustang is internet-connected, and the local shops carry a range of items, from cigarettes to electronic goods.
How to get there?
The upper Mustang trek starts from Pokhara. If you are in Kathmandu, you can drive to Pokhara or take a 25-minute flight.
From Pokhara, you can either fly to Jomsom or take a public bus. You can also rent a jeep if you wish. After you get to Jomsom, you need to trek to Kagbeni - the gateway to the upper Mustang. From Kagbeni, you will hike north to get to the upper Mustang.
You will also need a special restricted area permit to travel to the upper Mustang. The cost per person for the first 10 days is USD 500, and USD 50 per additional day.
Additionally, you will need an Annapurna Conservation Area Permit (ACAP) that will set you back around USD 30. SARRC citizens can acquire this permit for NPR 200.
If you love the reddish wind-eroded cliffs, desert-like terrain, the hogbacks, ancient culture, and mysterious caves carved in the cliffs, you must trek to the upper Mustang.
Discovery World Trekking has been conducting treks to the Upper Mustang for over a decade. Call/Viber/WhatsApp at 977-9840055491 or email [email protected] to book your next trek to the mysterious Mustang.