Tired of being taken for a stranger in my own land, for Nepalis rarely walk for pleasure, I don a baseball cap instead of the usual wide-rimmed, string-under-the-chin affair. But within hours of flying in to Mustang District’s nondescript headquarters of Jomsom (altitude: 2,800 metres), the Kali Gandaki Valley’s notorious wind devils snatch my cap off my head and fling it down to the river. We scamper behind a rock for shelter and survey the medieval town of Kagbeni and its hulking monastery, just behind us.
Ahead, the Kali Gandaki glints dully in the sun, grey serpents winding sluggishly across a vast expanse of sand. A trail hugs the ochre cliffs rising above the valley floor, disappearing into the distance. This was the road to Lo Manthang, the walled city of Mustang in north-west Nepal. Once forbidden to outsiders, and plagued by political instability after the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Lo Manthang is now welcoming tourists (US$500 [Dh1,837] for a 10-day permit). In 2013, it was chosen as a top 10 travel destination by the Lonely Planet, which noted that the road is set to change things fast. Visitors have the option of a two-leg Jeep ride along the 75-kilometre trail or a truck that pierces a gorge that is infamous for falling rocks. My partner and I had decided to attend May’s Tiji Festival (which starts this month on May 25) in Lo the hard way: we’d walk in the tracks of the yak caravans that once traversed this famous trans-Himalayan trade route. And now I’d have to do it bareheaded. I resign myself to a skinning in the thinning air, 10,000 feet above sea level.
It’s hard to believe that this valley was once at the bottom of the Tethys Sea. In this high-altitude, wind-scoured desert of crumbling rocks, nothing seems farther than the ocean. Yet the evidence is everywhere. Colossal slabs of sedimentary rock folded over each other tell of the collision 50 million years ago between the Indian subcontinent and the Tibetan Plateau that pushed the Himalayas nine kilometres into the sky. Pilgrims comb the riverbed for shaligrams, the black, ribbed fossils of sea-dwelling ammonites prized as symbols of the Hindu god Vishnu. And though there is scant flora and fauna here, the landscape is a geologist’s dream. Take the late Nepalese geologist and politician Harka Gurung’s description: “The track north of Kagbeni traversed across a gravel terrace of black shales, dark sandstones and red quartzites ... the pebbles and sands on the river bed were of dark lacustrine shale, black slate, grey and green sandstones.” You don’t have to be a scientist to see the rainbow in the rocks.
Accustomed to Nepal’s verdant middle hills, I feel like an explorer on an alien planet. As inhospitable as it seems, however, this vast vista of desiccation is punctuated every few hours by sudden green oases of lush wheat and barley, churning like waves in the wind, heralding the flat-roofed huddles of villages. Chorten (Tibetan for stupa) shrines and monasteries, daubed an ashy slate, chalk and ochre that mirror the landscape, mark these regions as Buddhist. And though depopulated by emigration, these settlements provide welcome relief from the wind, which around noon begins to howl down the Kali Gandaki Valley like something possessed. We end a dusty day at Chuksang (2,950 metres). After a hot shower, we settle down for an excellent meal of rice, curried vegetables and lentils in front of a huge glass window framing the sheer cliff opposite us, composed of an impressive battery of deeply fluted columns the colour of a sunset.
The Jeep track ends here, and we continue walking along a narrow, vertiginous trail to Samar (3,290 metres). We take the right fork to Chungsi Cave, which sets us on a course of canyons no less extraordinary than the one that looms over the Colorado River. But after the underwhelming cave, it’s a long, cold haul to Syangboche (3,650 metres). Here we greet the sight of a Jeep with relief: exhaustion and the uncertainty of our hotel booking in Lo convince us to cut out a day’s walk by hitching a ride to the town of Tsarang.
This first encounter threatens to derail the ideal of trekking in Mustang’s open spaces. Being confined to the metal cabin behind the seats is bad enough. But when the dust and the smell of diesel and humans are added to the sight of a woman vomiting into a plastic bag, I follow my fellow travellers onto the roof with alacrity. Once more delivered unto the landscape (and holding tight), I’m exhilarated.
We pass the pretty village of Geling (3,440 metres), then drive along the longest mani wall in Nepal – a stone construction inlaid with slabs of rock engraved with the Buddhist chant Om Mani Padme Hum (“Praise be the jewel in the lotus”). Set in that dramatic landscape, you could well believe what the French explorer/author Michel Peissel was told in 1964, that the wall “represented the intestines of a demon that had been killed many years ago by the saint Urgyen Rinpoche”.
We rattle into Tsarang (3,560 metres), where the landscape is even sparer. The bleached bones of the canyons and ancient moraines make one wonder just what business people had to be settling here. But business must have been good at some point. Tsarang’s huge monastery and half-ruined, five-storey palace, and the sheer size of the brilliantly coloured chortens that mark this quiet town of neat irrigation canals, speak of past grandeur.
There’s no question about how we want to arrive in Lo – on foot. It’s a long crawl, broken only by a weather-beaten goat herder, a huge chorten, meditation caves sunk in the cliffs and, finally, the thrilling sight of Lo horsemen galloping past us. As the day and our reserves of energy fade, we arrive at the Lo pass (3,950 metres) to the view of Manthang, the “plain of aspiration” leading to Tibet, and stop in our tracks. In the midst of a vast, desolate plain, ringed by the rounded snow cones of mountains, is the walled city of Lo (3,800 metres), a compact fortress of habitation. We walk around the forbidding, 20-foot fortifications and past an avenue of modern lodges to find the huge wooden gates. We’re lucky to secure (very basic) lodging within the old city.
We spend much of the evening and the next morning wandering the medieval, gloomy alleys between Lo’s 150-odd whitewashed mud and stone houses and the long, red-daubed walls of its four monasteries. We’re far from the only tourists there, but the locals regard us with a benevolent curiosity. The Loba have been isolated a long time. According to a study of Lo, the kingdom finally emerged in the 15th century as an independent state, after its development as an important Bon and then (Tibetan) Buddhist centre. When Gorkha’s warrior kings unified Nepal in the late 18th century, Lo became a tributary state with a semi-autonomous king.
In Thubchen Monastery, we come across an assembly hall of wooden pillars and beautifully restored murals resounding with the baritone of a praying monk, leading a chorus of his fellows. Shafts of solid light pour in through a skylight as we sit cross-legged in an unarticulated trance, our hearts caught, mesmerised by the monks’ flowing hand gestures. A rattle of cymbals and tenor flutes and bass blasts freeze our spirits. Watched by carved gargoyles in the half-light, I wonder what was the effect on believers?
It’s an appropriate prelude to the three-day Tiji Festival, held annually to purge Lo of its demons. Both believers and non-believers gather in the small square next to the four-storey royal palace. With the crown prince standing in for the octogenarian monarch (who was away in Kathmandu for medical treatment), the rituals begin with the unveiling of a giant thangka painting, unrolled from the top of a building. Monks in elaborate silks and headdresses then perform a long sequence of ritual dances. But most enjoyable are the masked “demons”, whose lurching forays into the crowd are calculated to inspire both terror and laughter.
After we’ve had our fill of the festivities, we saddle up and ride (ineptly) to the caves north of Lo. It’s an atmospheric ride under brilliant blue skies, past the ruins of ancient forts. Our guide regales us with stories of the ghosts that rove across the plains by night. The multilevel caves at Chosar, possibly scraped out as refuges to wait out invaders in centuries past, once more impress on us the astonishing resilience of the Loba. Later that night, I stand in the silence of our rooftop balcony, staring up at the star-speckled sky above the 15th-century city. Indeed it seems, as Peissel put it, that in Mustang “time hangs frozen upon a secret universe”. Despite the change wrought by the road, this place – the looming monolith of the palace, the twin peaks overlooking Lo, the ageless skies – is quite the same then as now, in this empty land away from everyone.
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