The famous caves and cave monasteries of Lo Manthang
The previous day had been filled with discovering the castles and fortresses of Lo Manthang along with exploring the four monasteries of Lo Manthang. Today it was about venturing out to the north of the former kingdoms capital. It’s here that you can find the famous Jhong (Chhoser) and Garphu caves which are said to be over 3,000 years old.
If you’ve been reading about my treks in Upper Mustang then you would have come across me exploring more caves in Tetang. These were “less famous” but I’d soon discover far more exhilarating than the ones in Jhong just past Nyphu. Indeed it’s hard not to miss the caves in Upper Mustang as the whole landscape seems dotted with them. Given an extra day or so you could easily make a side trip to any number of them. Though there is a element of danger given their age and crumbling condition.
One thing that added to our day was the decision to reach the Jhong caves by horseback. We could have equally hired a motorbike or a jeep as so many do. However last night in Lo Manthang seeing a group of Nepali “domestic” tourists ride around noisily on motorbikes completely put me off the idea. Instead Prema from Norling guesthouse arranged Mustang horses for the day along with a horse handler.
Riding Mustang Horses to Chhoser
There were four horses waiting for us. Two for the guides and one each for K and myself. Two local horse handlers stood smiling at us as my guide climbed his black stallion.
“This one is the strong horse,” the main handler beamed. “He like to kick people off’“.
My guide jumped down. The horse handlers laughed. It was a good start to the day.
My own horse was a gorgeous teak color with a golden mane and a very quiet demeanor. I had expected the horse to smell strongly like a lot of livestock in Nepal. However these Upper Mustang horses were in immaculate condition. Their coats shone with a silky texture and their manes were plump and radiant. We didn’t have leather saddles per se. More like a mixture of blankets, reigns and stirrups. I’d ridden horses before but this was far easier than I remembered.
We took off on horse back through the old town of Lo Manthang. Down a steep trail and up another. Then it was past the King and Queen Castles of yesterday before sticking with a dirt road. Similar to riding down a canyon in an old western movie. The whole experience was wonderfully quiet and relaxing.
The one thing that stood out was my horse handlers whistling.
(See a video of the Upper Mustang Horse Whistler)
The horses were docile and friendly as we meandered down the surrounding canyon which offered great views of mud fortresses, broken chortens and the wonderful colorful rock strata Upper Mustang is known for.
Arriving to the Chhoser Caves in Mustang
It was too early for lunch by the time we arrived in Chhoser where we dismounted near a small restaurant. This was a miscalculation. We should have eaten first for two reasons. The first is that Chhoser is larger than it appears. There are not only the Jhong caves to explore but also Lo-Gurfu Gompa, Lo-Nifu Gompa and the more distant Chema-concholing cave. The latter of which is quite far away. The second reason is that the restaurant did not serve up fresh food later in the day rather than the mornings food reheated.
Surprisingly there’s a 1,000 rupees charge to enter the area. Another one of ACAPs initiatives despite already paying for a hefty restricted area permit, an ACAP permit and a TIMS card. Apparently ACAP have been instrumental in “preserving the area” and empowering local women’s initiatives. To be fair there was at least one sign post in Chhoser compared to the 3 in total we’d seen so far in Upper Mustang …
Ahead we could see dozens of caves dotted throughout the earth tone strata of the cliff facing us. These caves are known as the Cave of the Sun or Nyphu caves and looked a little different to the others. More “well-kept”. It also looked as if someone had put white double-glazed windows into one cave and possibly made a house out of it. Similar to the caves in Goreme in Turkey it didn’t look so much out of place but was far from natural looking. A coat of brown paint would helped tremendously. Along with a greater explanation as to why people were living in a “protected” heritage caves we’d essential paid double to enter as opposed to the countless other ones in the area.
Visiting the Jhong Caves
The Jhong caves stand at the end of a 30 minute walk from the ticket counter. A towering bright sandstone colored cliff face stands out at a confluence of sorts along the currently dry canyon base. From the base to the top there are dark dots where the caves are. There’s a small rocky platform you need to climb up before an open area that leads to of all things a sandy colored staircase leading up to one of the main caves.
From the bottom of the cliff we peered up at the near five-storey rows of caves. At the top was a group of shouting Nepali tourists with selfie sticks hanging out from one of the cave windows. Given the fact that the area is not exactly teeming with tourists and slightly cramped inside I wanted to wait until the selfie tourists with sticks might either lean harder against the old walls and plummet out or simply walk out and take the hoopla somewhere else.
It only took ten minutes before the group of five Nepali stumbled shouts that echoed around cave entrance. It’s worth letting people leave the caves before going in due to the cramped confines. That said, Nepali domestic tourism is currently booming and it suffers from the same recourse many other “new” tourist nationalities plague others with. Such statements seem to ruffle peoples feathers these days so I’ll direct such folk to this article on the Lo Manthang: the Vanishing Kingdom of Lo. During the wait we had a chance to try and converse with the lady who insisted in checking our tickets at the cave entrance. I might add she was one of only two ladies employed in the area under ACAPs women empowerment initiative.
Inside the Jhong caves
Stretching up over five-storeys there are over 40 rooms within the Jhong cave complex alone. Almost like an apartment building the caves have long corridors with single dwelling cave rooms running off them. There are intersections which often contain large caves with vague pits, shelves and the odd smaller sub-cave. To go up a level wooden ladders have been placed which go up through holes to the next level. The small cave windows have stunning views of the canyon below, over Chhoser and the mountains beyond.
These caves have been dated back over 3,000 years by archaeologists. There’s very little inside the caves to actually confirm any of this. One of the very first large caves has a small collection of pottery found inside the caves though nothing with written information to let you know either what they are, where they were found or when. Perhaps ACAP could use at least one entrance fee to print something off about them?
Going through the caves is not that difficult albeit crammed. I wouldn’t want to bring a backpack inside. A head-torch helps in places but there is a lot of light coming in from the cave windows. However the back caves are a little dark. That said, they are empty. What you will see are scrape marks from when they were carved out along with black ceilings caused by cooking and heat fires used over the years.
History of the Jhong caves
Again, if you’d like to know more about the history of the caves do read about we caves we explored in Tetang. These particular caves have their own legend to them though. To understand it we briefly go back 3,000 years. The rock here is made of round stones, clay, grit and sand. It’s very easy to dig through. There’s no doubting the fact that early settlers would have taken up residence in them for shelter from the elements and wild animals.
Back then the area would have been vastly different. The fact that evidence of mammoths and fossils were found here largely leads one to believe it was a very fertile area and forested. With such a food source the caves would have made an excellent place to both spot animals for hunting or indeed to shelter from them. Given the caves in Tetang and the townships pertinacity for keeping livestock within their abodes there’s little doubting this would have happened here too. A chain of wooden bridges and ropes linking these caves together on the outside is not impossible to imagine – though there’s little evidence to suggest so. Although the lack of stairs within the caves meant close quarters were an issue to get around with ease given the sheer number of caves.
Excavations in similar caves near Mehbrak have revealed the burial sites of a mother and baby with food offerings dating to 450 BCE. Indeed over 60 bodies have so far have been discovered with similar food items in vessels indicating that at one period the caves were used for ritual burial. In other caves (Makchung) evidence of 13th century paintings and manuscripts made from gold and silver was found.
In all likelihood throughout the millennia the caves here and in other locations in Upper Mustang were highly likely to have been used for different purposes. In Jhong there is a historical legend that tells of one such usage. It’s said that back in Arya Pal’s time settlers came from a war struck Tibet to this fertile canyon to found a village. They brought with them gold, silver and many precious gems from Tibet. Bandits, hearing about the wealth, came in search of the town. The people moved into the caves protective walls for shelter from the bandits. Not to be outsmarted the bandits decided to out wait the villagers thinking that they would eventually have to come out to drink water from the nearby rivers.
While this was true, the bandits underestimated the size and complexity of the caves. The villagers had brought in large containers of water. Stubborn, the bandits continued to wait and were aghast that the villagers could survive so long.
What the bandits did not know was that the villagers were indeed running low on water so they made a plan. Everyday the villagers would stick their heads out of the upper cave windows and wash their hair in mustard oil (some accounts say urine). The bandits below mistook the liquid for fresh water and assumed the caves must have had a fresh source of water inside. Frustrated and battered by the elements outside the bandits left in disgrace with promises not to tell of their failure. The village and its inhabitants disappeared into folklore.
Visiting Lo-Nifu Gompa (Niphu Gompa)
Coming back from the Jhong caves you take a right at the bottom before crossing over the river and following a trail up. To the upper left you’ll see a bright red building almost jutting out of a cliff face. This is Lo-Nifu or Niphu Gompa, a Buddhist monastery that’s partially built into a cliff with yet more caves.
There’s a white, ocre and blue stripped building below the monastery that sounds rather more garish than it is. The two buildings combined are indeed visually and aesthetically impressive. There’s a set of steps leading up to the main mud walled monastery that’s been decorated in red paint. Indeed it’s this red paint which covers the mud bricks that then splashes out over the cliff face that makes it seem as if they are one in the same.
There’s no additional charge to enter the small monastery as it’s covered under the main ticket prices. There’s a statue of the Buddha inside with no photographs allowed. To the rear of the building it opens up into a small cave complex which is off limits.
Visiting Lo Gurfu Gompa (Lo Garphuk Kanying Samten Choeling Monastery)
The trail to the final monastery takes one through the residential area of Nyphu. White washed buildings are set along the cliff face. Mud roofs below are used to dry fodder, apples and cow dung. We walked down from the cliff face, passed a small mani wall to a rather new looking monastic building.
The Lo Garphuk Kanying Samten Choeling Monastery is quite large with an outer courtyard and an inner sanctum. There’s a female attendant here who will let you in without charge. Inside there are several rows of low tables and desks while at the end an image of the Buddha behind glass.
Leaving Chhoser and a glimpse of the future of the area
We headed back to the ticket counter where the restaurant was along with our horses who were taking a day time nap. You might recall I mentioned about we should have had lunch before going to the caves. Lunch was quite bad. Consisting of overcooked rice, yesterdays potato and not so hot dal. I gave it a skip and munched on trekking bars. Inside the restaurant there’s a large shop. Every single one of the items are from China.
Three times a year China opens the border of Upper Mustang letting their goods through. It’s a precursor to when the road is complete and the border opens to let 24/7 trade through. The goods are two thirds cheaper than Nepali products and Indian items. It doesn’t take much thought to know the cultural devastation this trade route will have in this region of Upper Mustang. One more reason to visit it before the gates of commercialism are opened.
As you may have surmised I’m slightly disappointed with the commercial aspect of the Jhong caves. I didn’t like the paid entrance fee considering the fees already paid to enter the area of Upper Mustang. The Jhong caves have all the hallmarks of a “tourist attraction” rather than being historically preserved. Despite claims the fees are used to employ women, we only saw two women employed in the area. The highlight of Chhoser was actually the outside of Lo-Nifu Gompa. Chhoser will no doubt become a highlighted tick-box on the planned jeep tours that lie in Upper Mustang’s future. More in the Vanishing Kingdom of Lo.
For all of the wilds, nature and exploration of Upper Mustang so far Chhoer, for me at least, was the most commercial and thus the largest let down. Others may view it differently. However as we mounted our horses and slowly meandered back down the dirt road a quiet natural calm returned. Somehow the horse ride was the highlight of the day. We rode down the old canyon trail passing the same broken mud chortens, unnamed fortress turrets and migrated ghost villages we’d passed earlier.
We had perhaps just visited the first turning point in Upper Mustang’s commercial and touristic future. Strangely UNESCO have not marked any part of Upper Mustang as a heritage area. I wondered why. I then remembered the devastation UNESCO heritage sites incur after being named. This is largely caused by the tourism industries rush to cash in. Chhosar has not suffered such a fate yet. It’s on the way. But getting there is a thankfully slow process it seems.
We arrived back in Lo Manthang with plenty of time to visit the old city. I asked my guide for some alone time. I wanted to roam the old streets myself. Revisiting some monasteries and to meet some people. It’s here in the evening that I would confirm yet another revelation. Why people keep saying “no photo” in Upper Mustang. The answer was not as expected!
All this will have to wait. Tomorrow would be the start of new segment to Upper Mustang Trek. Finally we would take on the rarely trekked eastern side – which on all accounts would be one of the best parts of this trek.
The following links about Upper Mustang may help you:
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