The scenery changes in Upper Mustang every day
After a reasonable nights sleep in the ever colder Upper Mustang and a hearty double breakfast of porridge I felt slightly more prepared to take on today’s trek. Yesterdays trek from Chhussang, Ghyakar, Samar, Chungsi Ranchung Cave and Syanbouche had been tiring. We began with an inclined hill leading up above Syanbouche. K had recovered well from our trek from Chhusang to Synbouche, skipping the cave, and had left 10 minutes ahead of us. We atop a ridge by 8am and could see the large trekking group heading off once again to bite at our heels.
If there’s one constant you are guaranteed when trekking in Upper Mustang is that everyday the mountain terrain changes. Yesterdays valleys, caves and canyons were exchanged for illuminating hills, yellow soil and a large well preserved chorten.
Skipping Geling on the Classic Upper Mustang trek
The previous night over dinner I had won my guide over in my determination to take on East Upper Mustang for my guidebook. But the laborious payment for such an attempted endeavor would be not taking a side trek to the town of Geling. A place well-known on the Classic Upper Mustang trekking route. Geling is renown for its 15th century monastery known as Geling Gompa. Founded by Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo.
The Monastery houses several statues including one to Mahankal (Shiva) which is a rare find in Upper Mustangs mainly Buddhist surroundings. Geling is only about an hour from Syanbouche but it was an hour that would have meant arriving into Tsarang at night or having to stop off in Ghami for the night to make it a shorter day. We needed the days for the east.
Having already covered hundreds of monasteries in my book on heritage walks in the Kathmandu Valley and knowing Upper Mustangs propensity for no photos inside such a monastery. Or even not finding a key to visit the monastery I took the choice of bypassing Geling.
All the same we did get a great vantage point by avoiding the road across the valley from Geling. Here we could see the monastery, town, school and an old fortress with east.
Little did I know but I’d soon be returning to Upper Mustang sooner than expected and indeed would get to visit Geling
In fact in someways this was a great vantage point as it showed how Geling was built between to rock outcrops in the valley wall. More over the school to the right was even more isolated between more outcrops. My guide, who had visited before, explains about the water shortages in Geling and how the school had none and how the valley was drying up. This would later become even more evident the higher up we went though Upper Mustang passing through what I dubbed the Ghost Cities of Upper Mustang.
A woman in need of electricity
At the top of a dusty plain stood two farm houses. We walked by in preparation for the long stretch ahead. A woman appeared at the doorway of one and greeted us before asking my guide if he knew what water to use for a solar battery inverter. A random question to ask it may seem but one that is very relevant in a land with little electricity despite vast sums of trekker permits to help it.
Luckily my guide had his own solar system at home and stepped inside the house to help the woman. She was confused between her old faded bottles of distilled water and regular bottled drinking water. In only 5 minutes my guide had her system working again. A minute price of time to help someone have electricity for the night or indeed that week or month thereafter.
It’s hospitality and trust like this that still makes Upper Mustang a special place something we’d discover more of the further we went
A lunch time confession in Ghami
We stopped in Ghami for a lunch of Dal bhat at 12.30pm. K was right behind us and for the first time since the start of the trek joined me to eat. However our first lunch time conversation was interrupted as the gate to the teahouse garden swung open and the large trekking group piled in. K was in the bathroom and I was left to defend his chair at our table as three attempts were made to take it by the group despite a fairly loud “Some one is using it” from me each time.
Like a parasitic swarm they took over the entire garden. Trekking boots off, cigarettes and even cigars out they they set up shop. I was only grateful we’d ordered food before them. 12 trekkers plus what seemed like a porter for each plus three guides meant we’d be there for two hours waiting for food if they had arrived first.
When K returned things got no better. He seemed very concerned.
“My guide is cheating me,” he whispered over dal baht.
I nodded concerned. But all the while really not wanting to hear a story I already knew the answer to.
“We have same permit and two guide. He is cheating me.”
I explained the Upper Mustang permit situation to K more clearly than his guide obviously had and that we were both with two separate trekking companies and only listed on the permit because it was a mandatory requirement. K seemed to grasp this. But there was more.
“He’s lazy. Drink too much.”
I wanted to avoid this conversation. K was nice and if things got bad we’d help. Yes his guide drank a few beers in the evening. K had trekked many times in Nepal. He should know that if you don’t want a guide drinking you just have to say so before agreeing on the trek beforehand. Right now, on the trek, was not the right time to be bringing all this up.
Once again, I can’t elaborate enough how good trekking preparation can make things so much better in the long run.
“I want go east side, but he don’t want …” he said with a determined Japanese accent.
Bingo. Just like that everything fell into place once K mentioned he too wanted to do a full loop to the east of Upper Mustang.
“I’ll speak to my own guide about this later,” I replied. “This would be good place to visit“.
K’s old eyes lit up and we shook hands. A plan was forming.
Ghami to Tsarang
We left long before the trekking group had even been served their pastas, pizzas and steaks. K opted for the dirt road while we opted to trek across a long wide open desolate barren area on the way to Tsarang. The result was trekking over miles of rubble like rock and dried up bushes. It was positively desert like under the hot sun. In someways the new dirt road might have been a better option along this stretch but such as it is, we avoided the road.
The afternoon was again long. Not so steep until the end but long. We reached Tsarang by 4.30pm just as the freezing afternoon winds kicked in. We stayed at Maya’s hotel which is owned by the niece of the former Upper Mustang King who passed away.
There was still time for quick look around the town.
Tsarang town, the palace and monastery
Chortens, whitewashed walls and an empty town. Tsarang at the start of winter sees a lot of people leave for the lower and warmer areas of Upper Mustang. In truth, many people these days go to Kathmandu or Pokhara. What’s left behind are tiny colorful doors with little locks. Houses and shops loosely locked up for the winter. It may seem eerie but Tsarang had a rustic farm house style charm to it.
We zig zagged through the long wide streets, down some narrow lanes with the odd horse or cow walking along it until we came to the end of the town not far from Mayas. Perched on top of a hilllock is the block like former kings palace known as Samdrup Gedphel Palace.
The palace is in rough shape these days with a little wooden door that seems oddly out of place. The caretaker disappears early. Inside there’s not much to see unfortunately. It resembles a small museum. There are some statues of monks and of Phagpa Lokesvara who is linked to Srongsten Gampo who founded the Tibetan state.
Standing impressively across the palace hillock is the large 16th century Thubten Shedrup Dhagyeling monastery. Another case of the lights are on but there’s little chance anyone will answer the door. All the same the monastery has been recently renovated and in better condition than many others in Upper Mustang.
A dinner served by the Kings niece
Maya is the niece of the former King of Upper Mustang. A nice lady she also runs her own expanding lodge in Tsarang. It’s here life as a royal in Upper Mustang becomes a little less glamorous.
Technically there is no more royalty in this part of Nepal. Even so, one must detach oneself from the notion that a Upper Mustang royal family member would be as affluent as a European or Asian royal. Keep in mind the population of Lo Manthang is only about 800!
What is evident is the old house itself is teeming with Tibetan and Upper Mustang relics, paintings and decor. Probably more so than any other accommodation we stayed at in Upper Mustang.
Dal Bhat was cooked by an excellent chef from Pokhara working here for the winter. His quick hands were deft at slicing potato, stirring dal and preparing the hefty portions of rice for us all. Served by Maya we obtained a lot of information about the journey and situation in Lo Manthang at the moment. Primarily the telephone network was down. But the solar generator there was still working.
This information was all the more important as tomorrow we would reach the fabled lost, forbidden and vanishing Kingdom of Lo!
The following links about Upper Mustang may help you:
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