A western route in Upper Mustang or the classic route
We set off from the near deserted winter township of Tsarang we arrived in yesterday by 5pm from Geling and Ghami. This afternoon we would arrive in the Kingdom of Lo or rather Lo Manthang. There was a drive to reach such a fabled destination that somehow made my tiredness of the last two days vanish. If I wasn’t taking so many photographs, notes and GPS data I’d being doing better. But this was a working trek for me rather than recreational so I was collecting as much research as I could from every nook and cranny.
If I was just trekking, things would have been so much more relaxed. So much so I briefly questioned if we could or should take on the Western route in Upper Mustang to Lo Manthang and the Easter Route!
My own personal goal was to secure our route back via the Eastern Upper Mustang route was still not confirmed. K had stayed in another teahouse that night and there was no opportunity to discuss it with him. My guide had agreed in principal to the eastern route but was worried about the winter weather. All this was making me think that if the east fell through then maybe we should now be taking the western route rather than the classic route to Lo Manthang.
By skipping the western route we’d miss the Drakmar canyons and the dramatic red cliffs. Moreover we’d also miss the 8th century Lo Gekar or Ghar Gompa which is said to be the oldest monastery in Upper Mustang. The route was not technically difficult however it meant bringing a packed lunch and an extra overnight stay. Thus setting us back a day. This single day could possibly cost us the entire eastern route back due to the Upper Mustang 10 day permit restrictions. It was an emotionally tough but calculated decision to make …
As part of my guidebook research I later returned and visited Western Upper Mustang. Below are photos from the region. You can read the full itinerary in my guide to Upper Mustang. Later, I may also add some posts about the trek here. Meanwhile the full trek continues on here …
Drakmar and Ghar Gompa legends in Western Upper Mustang
To weigh up my decision I went back to history. What would I miss by skipping the western side for a chance at the eastern side – it’s a question trekkers often have to ask when trying to work out if they have enough time for a trek.
Drakmar’s red cliffs and valley are meant to be visually stunning. Given our fantastic weather and blue skies so far this was a no brainer.
The legend behind Drakmar’s cliffs lies with the self proclaimed oldest monastery in Mustang, Ghar Gompa. It’s linked with Guru Rinpoche whose image is found there. It’s also linked with a shrine in Samye in Tibet. Apparently when Samye Monastery was being built it was destroyed every night by magical demons. In the Lama’s dream the building was saved which meant Guru Rinpoche could help them so he sent a request to him. Guru Rinpoch came to Tibet and destroyed the demons but told the monks that Samye could not be completed until a monastery was built in the Lo Gekar in Mustang.
There was also a demon in Lo Gekar who Guru Rinpoche killed whose blood spilled on the mountains. Hence Drakmar’s mountains are so red. The demons intestines were then used to create a long mani wall.
The monastery was then built there. It’s a nice legend to visit. However my gut told me there must have been a lot of demon blood spilled in Upper Mustang as there were many red cliffs. Perhaps Drakmar’s would be more vivid, perhaps not. The pendulum of decision fell to Ghar Gompa. Did I really want to visit what was likely to be another red block building that was probably locked up for the winter? Again, I’ve research plenty of monasteries throughout Nepal. It would be nice to visit but not at the expense of losing out on the Eastern Upper Mustang trek.
In hindsight my choice to continue with the classic Upper Mustang route was the right one on that day as documenting the Eastern route was my priority. If I had less time and was only doing the Classic route then yes, including the Western Upper Mustang route is a must.
For those contemplating both the Western, Classic and Eastern routes within ten days then yes it is possible but you will need to be fit and you’ll have one day less in Lo Manthang for explorations and you’ll need to exclude some nice side treks – the eastern side will also depend on the weather.
Meanwhile back on the main trek we were about to meet a woman in the middle of nowhere. But first, the classic route had some more treats for us to enjoy.
A huge chorten (Sungda Chorten) out on its own between Tsarang and Lo Manthang
There was a slow and steady incline to our trek all morning. Moreover this part of Upper Mustang has a decidedly desert feel to it. The trail was indeed the dirt road but the arid conditions had swept sand and dust over it with ease. Maintaining this road will not be easy. Given Nepal’s track record of road maintenance it may well vanish before it’s even built. I cry no tears over that one.
Below us a shallow valley began to appear. In the distance old abandoned mud villages crumbled in the wind. These Ghost Villages are the result of water migration. Hundreds of years ago a river would have flowed nearby. Over usage, climate change or man-made obstructions caused the water levels to vanish. With that the irrigation systems ceased and the villagers simply got up and moved away.
As we passed this huge chorten standing by itself it’s not hard to imagine that the surrounding valley may once have been fertile and even housed a village or town. Today all that remains is this structure. Alone in the arid surroundings the Sungda chorten doesn’t seem to look lonely. Possibly because it’s natural construction blends so well with the natural surrounds it’s become one with them. Or possibly because nearly everyone passing it stops by for a photograph!
More caves with evidence of life
We trek up and around a bend. The grounds incline bring us closer to the fabled kingdom. In the distance I spotted the rather garish glare of green metal rooftops. My guide informed me this was a new army base. Why they didn’t use brown or even yellow rooftops I don’t know. Well camouflaged these buildings are not. An friend of mine in the army later told me it was simply because this is what was donated by China … I suggested they got some Nepali paint and camouflage them a bit better. I think the penny dropped.
To our right is an outcrop cliff face dotted with the now familiar caves of Upper Mustang. Do read more about the caves of Upper Mustang from my post on day 1 and later near the caves of Upper Mustang. These caves were sightly different. There was indeed a modern wooden ladder reaching up to a large lower cave. I suspect the army might have investigated them at some stage.
From our vantage point the caves were clearly inhabited quite recently. There were mud bricks dividing some caves by way of walls. What’s more one cave even had some whitewashed mud bricks forming a balcony of sorts. In a central cave clear Tibetan script could be seen on the back wall.
The biggest complaint trekkers have in Upper Mustang is the ten day permit simply does not allow one time enough to explore the region. Otherwise, a month would easily suffice. That said, nothing is close in Upper Mustang nor easily reached either.
The nomadic female monk living in Upper Mustang
We were about to get another surprise. After passing the garish army camp we noticed a lone figure up ahead by the side of the trail. They were busy moving things from one side of the trail to the next.
The maroon garment they were wearing made me think it was a monk building a mani wall or even the early stages of a chorten. Where else would you build something like that but in the middle of nowhere. As we got closer it became more clear it was indeed a monk but they weren’t building a Buddhist structure but moving what looked like junk. Like most people in the arid land we were on the monk stopped work and greeted us. The monk was a she and happy to see us.
My guide spoke with her at length spurred on by my curiosity. We were not that close to Lo Manthang so what was she doing here? The answer was quite mind-blowing, moreover I could understand her Nepali quite well. She said that she’s been living in the deserts of Upper Mustang for seven years. During this period she’d taken pilgrimages to Dhaksankali and Swayambhu in Kathmandu. It’s with these words and my own studies in the Kathmandu Valley that I could converse with her a little better than I expected.
A fascinating lady she was back in the desert rebuilding her temporary house. Indeed that pile of “junk” was the base construction of her abode for the next while. Water, food and anything else was often donated to her by passerby’s. Meeting this monk in the desert of Upper Mustang was a jolt to the system. Her attire and wind hardened skin backed up her claim. This was no “monk” in Kathmandu living in “hardship” for the cost of a 50 rupee photograph or donated DSLR. I don’t imagine anyone of those monks moving out to Upper Mustang in the middle of nowhere to make a living or rather live a lifestyle of owning little like this. This monk it seems was on a genuine Buddhist pilgrimage the likes of which is truly rare to find these days.
The last pass before Lo Manthang
Spurred on by the female nomadic monk we climbed up the last pass that would lead us to Lo Manthang. There was a dirt road spiraling up the mountain we could have taken. But like others before us, in defiance, we took the “new” trail that cut through it as if like a papercut wound to a giant who decided to sit on your dinner plate. At just under 4,000 meters it was the second highest pass on our trek. Not hard, but tiring after a long morning.
We reached the top where prayer flags fluttered wildly in the wind. A road digger sat abandoned beside them. It made a good place to pee. A costly permit, another fee for ACAP who issued no signs but at least someone left us a machine that could do with a wash.
We rounded a valley corner on a descent as the afternoon winds picked up. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I anticipated the next bend would bring the Kingdom of Lo into sight. We had reached the pinnacle of our journey of sorts. A veritable sangri-la awaited us. The fabled Lo Manthang.
Lo Manthang Appears
Ones first view of Lo Manthang is not of a charmed hidden city. There’s a brief introduction by way of a shiny new monastery being built in the valley. Then the tell tale visuals of red painted monasteries surrounded by white washed town houses appear set atop an outcrop in a valley. Behind the buildings and valley there’s a huge wall of mountains. The infamous border of Tibet which blocks most of the rain clouds from coming over.
To the right there were the winter browns, oranges and reds of barley, apple and pasture fields lying in slumber for the winter. Their colors blending like camouflage in what was once a forbidden hidden kingdom. To the left the valley rises up a little and one can just about make out Lo Manthangs legendary walled boundary.
The trek down to Lo Manthang is a little longer than expected. We dodge the new dirt road and take the old winding trail down. Winter winds greet us with a battering. One wonders if this was once part of the ancient kingdoms old defense that kept it isolated for so long.
Arriving into Lo Manthang
K had caught up with us by now. The Japanese mid septuagenarian was excited yet tired. He still had energy though and we let him go ahead with his guide as I made my own guide suffer a little longer in the battering winds. I enjoyed taking my time over the last downward valley trail to a river before the short outcrop Lo Manthang stands upon.
At a first impression Lo Manthang was much smaller than I had anticipated. With a population of only 800 it looks no more than a large village of sorts. However there are tell tales signs that this is no mere village. Standing behind the town are two large pointed brown hills with mud fortresses atop. Or rather an old palace and a monastery. In either case they offered the first insight into the history of this former hidden kingdom.
We trekked down and up the last few feet to Lo Manthangs city walls. A large concrete gateway welcomes you. It’s a jarring sight. Far too modern for its surroundings. Legend states there was a wooden gate here back in the day. In my opinion rebuilding that would be far more conducive to the cities ancient aesthetics. The gate welcomes one to “Lo-Manthang Rual Municipality” another modern bureaucratic let down of sorts.
Strangely behind the gate is one of the very few ACAP metal signs we’ve encountered on the trek which more appropriately welcomes you to …
“The Ancient Walled city of the Kingdom of Lo”.
Finally we had arrived in the fabled Kingdom of Lo! There was much to explore here and much to set right when it comes to inaccurate information in some guidebooks. The one thing that had me salivating were the two crumbling buildings atop the two towering hills overlooking the city. I asked my guide if we could visit them? He wasn’t too keen to see “nothing” as he put it. But where some see mud and sand others see the uncovered past. I’ve glad he soon saw it differently.
Little did he know, but there was no chance I skipped the western route just to skip delving into the real history of this ancient cities past. Like it or not we were going up to visit the towering structures to really explore the Hidden Kingdom! The next phase in our Upper Mustang trek had arrived.
It was time to discover the undiscovered in Upper Mustang.
The following links about Upper Mustang may help you:
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