Exploring the city of Lo Mantang
After arriving into Lo Manthang yesterday we took a rest in the evening in preparation for exploring Lo Manthangs castles. We stayed at Norling Guesthouse run by the very likable Prema who has hot water showers that are better than most places in Kathmandu. K visited me that evening to confirm he also wanted to visit Eastern Upper Mustang on the return journey. With that I confirmed with my guide that we would indeed go that route. Mission accomplished … well, the theory part anyway.
K’s guide was none too happy at the prospect of the Easts legendary strong winds and narrow paths. My guide had come around to the idea and also to exploring more of Lo Manthang than he had done previously. We only had two days to explore the sights around Lo Manthang due to the annoying Upper Mustang permits which still gave us a days leeway in case the weather disrupted our path east. Tomorrow we’d head out to the Jhong caves to the north of Lo Manthang along with a monastery built into the cliff. We’d also do it all on Mustangs famous horses.
Today was about Lo Manthang itself and exploring the area nearby it. Although most peoples priority are the fabled three monasteries of Lo Manthang, mine was to visit the palaces sitting atop the conical hills behind the city. Moreover, I wanted to debunk and research them. My guide and the locals called one a “Palace” where a former king lived. But to me it made little sense. The hills were fortress like steep, overlooked the city below and the buildings on top were small. They bore all the likeness of a “fortress” or “castle” and not a royal palace.
The castles of Lo Manthang
The imposing conical hills with crumbling mud structures about them are 2km to the north of Lo Manthang to the west of the small village of Namgyal. The route there is well marked with a dirt road used by farmers, cows and horses leading most of the way. It was well worth it to pack enough food and water for the half day trip that I continuously extended.
Before my trek to Upper Mustang I researched it quite well. However many books focus on the monasteries and to a point the caves of Upper Mustang. Fewer focus on the lost history of Lo Manthang. Few only writing about decaying fortresses in side notes. It was only upon my return to Kathmandu that I truly dug into the history of these “fortresses” and “palaces” which is a shame because having this information beforehand would have added to the excitement and fervor of visiting them.
Locals and guides refer to the taller of the two mud walled structures as a “palace” and the one on the shorter hill as a monastery. The taller one is in fact a former kings castle. The term castle may well be lost in Nepali translation as a palace. However the difference is important as one is a royal residence and the other is an armed fortress where a member of royalty may reside. The other structure on the lower hill was not a monastery per se but rather the Queens castle. As we approached them all this became more evident.
Visiting the Kings Castle in Lo Manthang
As one approached the Kings Castle its sheer vertical height becomes apparent. The last part of the climb is near on 85 degrees upwards. It’s not difficult but I would imagine in a time of war or battle the castle was indeed perched at a very good vantage point to fend off attackers. In Europe one would nearly think of it as a large lookout tower.
The castle is in poor condition. The roof has long since vanished and the thick foot thick mud walls are broken in many places. Given that, it’s particularly poignant that the outline of at least three passages or doors allow entrance to the center of the structure. It’s here that one feels that at least someone still remembers the kings abode as the whole area is decorated with prayer flags. It’s also here that you can get a fantastic 360 degree panorama of the Tibetan border all the the way south past Lo Manthang to Lower Mustang.
History tells us the castle was once occupied by 15th century King Ame Pal who in later years became a monk. However despite being a monk legends tell of how he still ruled with ferocity and had many a person assassinated. At least we now know that the castle is at least this old. Unless there is some form of restoration the castle will most likely not survive another 20 years. Given the mud walls it would not be hard to add layers to them at the very least rather than let them wash away every year during the monsoons.
The Queens Castle in Lo Manthang
To the west of the Kings castle stands a lower conical hill with another mud walled castle at the top. There’s an easy to follow trail linking them both. One could even visit the Queens castle before the Kings if need be. The Queens castle is in an equal state of disrepair which doesn’t distract from the joy of climbing up the short but steep trail leading to it. Moreover, the queens castle still has a passageway leading through one of the walls.
Unlike the kings castle there are no prayer flags here. Nor are the panoramic views as spectacular. However this in turn leads one to enjoy the actual natural beauty of the old structure with its sandy colored walls merging and disintegrating into the earth tone rock below.
A single short but tall wall still stands defiantly like a monolith with stunning views of Lo Manthang before it. Below the queens castle is another mud structure which has a least two chortens still standing. With little evidence one might surmise that this may have been a smaller monastery at one time. Hence locals call them a palace and a monastery. Though to reiterate the monastery is most likely beside the queens castle and not the fortified building itself.
Why did the king and queen each have their own castle? Well, that one’s lost in the sands of time. However given the rather small size of the castles, the warring nature of the kingdom back then it would not be surprising if the king and queen had their own residences. It may well be that the King similarly named the other military lookout castle as the Queens castle to appease his wife. There is of course another legend.
Castle of the Dragoness
Zhangzhung was an ancient culture and civilization in western and north western Tibet before Tibetan Buddhism where they practiced the Bon religion. It’s dated roughly around 500 BCE – 625 CE. The civilization predates Tibetan manuscripts and its history is a mix of folklore rather than many scriptures mentioning them. What is known is that the civilization was built from a network of castles and fortresses in its heartland and along the borders of its lands. Borders where Lo Manthang now stands.
Among the noted scriptures that mention the Zhangzhung civilization are notes describing the “Castle of the Dragoness”. The exact location of the Castle of the Dragoness was never revealed apart from descriptions of the surrounding landscape. Artists Roberto Vitali and Robert Powell shed some more light on this when they discovered an old manuscript mentioning a kingdom known as Serib where the “Castle of the Dragoness” was located. The description of the nearby town opposite was not of Tibetan cubicle style buildings that were spread out. Instead it mentioned multistory buildings with streets that were narrower than an outstretched arm. Before the queens castle today stood a city that could easily be described in with the same words.
Is it possible that the “Castle of the Dragoness” was once located where the queens or even kings old castles stand today in Lo Manthang? Before the Kingdom of Lo was the area known as the Kingdom of Serib? Is it possible that 700 hundred years later King Ame Pal knew this and either relocated the Castle of the Dragoness to the Queens Castle or built his own queens castle over its ruins out of respect or lore? Pure conjecture. However there’s no evidence to suggest otherwise either.
Ghost towns of Upper Mustang
As you may have guessed by now I was very satisfied my confirming visits to Lo Manthang’s castles. The entire of Upper Mustang is filled with citadels, fortresses, monasteries, palaces and chortens crumbling away. Few people seem intent in saving them let alone documenting them. There’s a history here filled with mythology, knowledge and culture that will soon be lost forever. Sooner still once the Chinese border is opened just 20 km away.
The ghost towns made of mud dotted around Upper Mustang give an insight into migration born of water sources in this fabled land. Again, there is little documenting them. I’m not sure if there’s an interest in why a towns population one day decided there wasn’t enough water left to survive so they got up and migrated to a neighboring town. Indeed there’s one such ghost village to the east of Lo Manthang.
I asked locals what had happened to the town for confirmation. They did indeed confirm the nearby farming town ran out of water to irrigate their crops and so the families moved to Lo Manthang. However the story doesn’t end there.
The families who came to Lo Manthang were not welcomed with open arms. There were arguments over food supplies, ownership of land, culture differences and indeed disruption about having enough water to accommodate the migrating families. Such a story is a rare find these days. But in finding it and documenting it we get a unique image of life in Upper Mustang for migrating families forced out of their homes and not being welcomed by their neighbors. Something that is still mirrored in today’s modern world. Is it any wonder royalty would want a fortress like castle to watch over the land and apparently keep things under their reign of influence.
Returning to Lo Manthang
We returned back to Lo Manthang for a well deserved lunch and dare I say a welcoming piping hot shower which did wonders to remove the layers of Mustang dust. Truth be told I could have spent all day or even a week exploring more of Lo Manthangs surrounding ruins. However our afternoon would be filled with exploring the old walled kingdoms inner walls, streets, building and indeed monasteries.
It’s here another travel guidebook misconception would reveal itself. There are more than three fabled monasteries in Lo Manthang.
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