Trekking Upper Mustang: Day Two – road construction & cave monastery

Omadmi-Padmi-Hum wall leading out of Chhusang
Om-Madmi-Padmi-Hum wall leading out of Chhusang on Day two of the Upper Mustang trek

The second day brings the first tough trek in Upper Mustang & our first encounter with the infamous road constuction

It was always going to be a long day. But somehow that doesn’t quite sink in until the day actually starts and you realize it will end after about 8 hours of trekking. This would also be the the first day (and only day) we’d come face to face with the dreaded Upper Mustang road construction. How bad was it? So far the road was no more than a dirt track. Very manageable.

K, the Japanese 75+ year old, was slow to start that day. Yesterday’s side trip to Tetang seemed to have left him sore and tired. I don’t blame him. The man was great for what he was accomplishing. He left Chhusang after us with his guide and porter. It was 7.30am and we were not alone. A large group of porters were heading off at the same time. Their baskets filled with trekkers bags and equipment.

Porters in Upper Mustang carrying baskets for trekkers
The day started with these Porters carrying baskets for the trekkers we’d yet to see

From the canyon on up to view the incoming group of trekkers

We entered a large picturesque canyon with rather prudent rock fall warning signs. Beyond the suspension bridge I could see a neat line of small caves. We then began a steep trek up the canyon wall. The ground was stone turning to grit. Not hard to get a footing. But it certainly was steep and took nearly an hour. From the top we caught a glimpse of every trekkers worst nightmare. Not a road being built but a large trekking group following us. At least 12 people in bright colored trekking gear. Their porters already ahead of us.

Rock Fall sign in Upper Mustang
Considering just how high the cliff faces are … a pebble would likely cause damage let along a rock!

I’m not against other trekkers. Far from it. But large groups anywhere in the world tend to spoil the atmosphere for everyone else. Usually they’re the same nationality, speak the same language and don’t talk with others. They fill entire teahouses up, use all the hot water (or ice water) and eat all the food. They are given priority by teahouse owners as they bring more money at one time.

What worried me was that our last stop was a small village with only 4 teahouses. If the group got there first, they’d snag the best accommodation. This wasn’t the worry so much as there was only one tea house with solar charging for my camera. So it was likely to be their priority too.

More caves just ourside of Chhusang Upper Mustang
We past this neat row of high caves … again it’s not hard to imagine that 3,000 years ago wooden bridges could have linked them …. inside they are just like a normal house with doors etc

Entering Tesel town in Upper Mustang

At the top of our first ridge was the small but pleasant town of Tesel. A wood and mud brick gate marked the entrance to Tesel with what seems to be a Upper Mustang tradition of a sheeps skull above it. In this case it looked more paper than bone.

Tesel village in Upper Mustang
Tesel village in Upper Mustang was as quite and rustic as every other we would encounter

Colorful prayer wheels lined the steps up through the town where a lovely white Upper Mustang horse stood elegantly. Aside from goods this was the first  horse we’d come across. Later we’d discover just how wonderful these creatures could be.

Ahead was a giant 20 foot prayer wheel you could spin and then the trail started again. Always upwards. Ahead in the distance we saw a large plume of brown smoke rising up. Dread. The Upper Mustang road construction was underway ahead.

Trekking along Upper Mustang’s road construction

It’s the road that leads to the most common questions about Upper Mustang these days. Is the road construction in Upper Mustang that bad? Has it destroyed the trek like it did the Annapurna Circuit? Why did they build it? Can you still trek there?

I was ready with a dust mask. We all were. K had caught up with us. We trekked on. The huge dust clouds were over to the left. As we trekked around a corner we could see why they were so large. A single dumper truck was emptying the dry top soil from the road construction down into the valley below. It seemed whoever was building the road was not at all inclined to side with the environment. The result was a large brown cloud of dust that started from the top of the valley all the way down and back up again.

Plumes of dust from Upper Mustangs road construction
Plumes of dust from Upper Mustangs road construction were caused by dumping and not actual road building …. the dust stayed in the valley below

Bizarrely the dust really didn’t effect us physically as it was on the other side of the valley. We trekked through no more dust than what arid Upper Mustang already contains. However the physical image of the dumpster, the devastation to the valley below and the lack of any restraint was the most unpleasant of aspect of the day by far.

This was “progress”. Marketed by officials to locals much as the Annapurna Circuit Killer road was over a decade ago.  Back then the road was deemed to bring more trekkers than ever to the region. It did not. Nowadays locals and sightseers drive by what’s left of the teahouses. Nobody stays the night. What was sold as being a great road of connection to locals cut the second most famous trek in Nepal into one third of its original length.

Road from Kagbeni to Chhusang
This is what the road from Road from Kagbeni to Chhusang looked like in August 2019. All other “roads” are no more than a trail. It’s a dirt road and like all other roads that cut though treks with no provision for trekkers. The good points are that it’s years away from being complete. Do read Vanishing Kingdom of Lo for more on this.

Today the road from Pokhara to Jomson to Lo Manthang to the Chinese border of Tibet is the new goal. Nobody is even telling lies about how will help the local people. It’s all about bringing imports from China to Nepal.

No signs to Samar on the way to Ghyakar

The second revelation about Upper Mustang today is the distinct lack of Annapurna Conservation Area trail signs. During the entire trek I counted only five. Other signs had been constructed and paid for by local communities. Later we’d discover that ACAP had not been to any village along the Upper Mustang route for over 2 years.

Trekking up an old mountain in Gyakar Upper Mustang
We trekked up this steep area on the old Samar trail only to find it was no more … a casualty of the “new road”.

The little known side-effect of the road construction is not so much the dust over a short stretch but rather the sheer amount of missing trail signs

The suspension bridge to Ghyakar
The suspension bridge leading to Ghyakar

In our case my guide made his way up to the old trail leading to Samar rather than taking a left to Ghyakar. It would have resulted in us taking a 90 minute short cut. Instead after 30 minutes we discovered that not only had the new road blocked the old route to Samar but had in fact destroyed the valley ridge trail. The entire experience would set us back two hours that day and leave a lasting impression on ACAPs lack of care nor signage. Perhaps they’ve abandoned Upper Mustang altogether. Much like UNESCO.

So, if you are on this trek, don’t take the old route (short cut) to Samar. Cross the very obvious suspension bridge to Ghyakar which nature has protected from both road and the ACAP by a very deep valley!

From Ghyakar to Samar

The village of Ghyakar is very small. There’s one lunch place which we decided not to use as we were delayed already.

Moreover the large trekking group were now ahead of us … Our solace was that the terrain was a low incline for now. A barren desert of sorts with two bright red rock pinnacles acting as beacons of sort ahead. Desert is a fairly apt description as the sun’s heat was strong in the open lands.

Red pinnacle shaped rock formation near Ghyakar in Upper Mustang
Red pinnacle shaped rock formation just past Ghyakar in Upper Mustang

By 12.20pm we walked into the whitewashed town of Samar for lunch. Tactfully my guide had found a tea house away from the large trekking group. A welcome relief as we tucked into double servings of dal bhat.

Tea House owners making us lunch in Samar
Tea House owners making us lunch in Samar

There was no time to waste if we were to reach Sangbouche before the evening and find the fabled cave monastery on the way.

More steep climbs

We climbed a ridge with little difficulty. Then descended down to another valley below where there was a small stream. I’ve long said that the second and third days of a trek are the hardest. Now, this was coming into play. My shoulders were sore from my new backpack and to be honest I probably wouldn’t have said no if there was teahouse nearby for the night.

Climbing up rocky paths in Upper Mustang
The heat of the day was very apparent when we moved in to the sun … then in the shadows the cold wind batters you

Instead, a 90 degree incline awaited with little view of the top. It was long slog. Not helped by the heat of the afternoon sun which was harsh. My guide didn’t seem to struggle. Maybe it was just me. I turned and at the other side of the valley I saw K being pulled along by his porter using two trekking poles as a towbar of sorts.

Although he was 75+ K was incredibly fit. Which made me feel even more tired for some reason. I have a feeling the weight of a ten day permit rush and the group ahead were the main disruptives to my current state of mind.

A top a mountain in Upper Mustang after a long climb with outreaching views
A top a mountain in Upper Mustang after a long climb with outreaching views – this the reward of making it to the top

Once we reached the top of the ridge things immediately cooled down as the wind began to pick up. We descended down the shadow side of the mountain to river below. Once we reached it tiredness had indeed set in. There was a choice. Onward to Sangbouche or take the side trip to a cave monastery …

Chungsi Ranchung Cave

Straight ahead and up a steep rocky trail lay the way to Sangbouche. To the left a narrow grey valley shaded from the sun but not from the strong cold winds channeling down it. A milky stream churned beneath as we scaled the side trail along the narrow ledge leading upwards towards Chungsi Ranchung cave which contained a Buddhist shrine. Stone steps soon appeared my guide left his own bag here.

The cliff side mountain monastery of Chungsi Ranchung Cave
The cliff side mountain monastery of Chungsi Ranchung Cave

Theft in the middle of valley with no one around is not a big thing so leaving ones bags behind for a short climb is quite a privilege in this day and age

It felt unnatural for me to leave my own bag here. An instinct born of big cities, travel and witnessing tourists lay just too much trust overseas. We ascended the steps which soon made a U-turn along the cliff face to reveal a red monastic like cave like structure covered in fluttering prayer flags jutting out from the rock. We entered inside where there was no one in residence though you’d be mistaken for thinking so given the flags, butter lamps, candles, ornaments and even a small kitchen for a resident monk fill the inner cave.

Inside the monastery
Inside the cave Chungsi Ranchung monastery

Though dark, my guide had been here before and knew the way inside. We clambered in darkness over the first rocky obstacle making our way to the rear of the cave where there’s a large stalagmite formation which looks dramatically like a figure. More black statues down the rears side one of which is said to be the sage Atisha.

Back around to the front and there’s an impressive shrine to Guru Ringpoche who was said to have stayed here to meditate on his way to Tibet.

Looking down at a cold mountain stream in Upper Mustang
Outside and below the sun was vanishing allowing cold hard winds to sweep through the valley … it was now going to get harder

The cold trail to Sangbouche

We made it back down to the valley below. K had chosen not to visit Chungsi Ranchung cave and gone straight on to Sangbouche. The sun was already far behind the surrounding mountain and the famous afternoon Mustang winds were wiping at my thin outer layer. We trekked up out of the steep valley which was now bathed in grey evening light. Round stones fit for a sea bed made our progress slow.

As we reached the top of the valley we were greeted by battering cold winds over round mounds of dry soil. To our left a cliff rose up which seemed to bounce the gales back against us from the open space to the right. Although the climb up required effort and I was not cold per-se, I was in shorts and a thin trekker shirt. It’s here that I should have stopped and taken out my windbreaker jacket. Instead I pushed on counting the two minutes I would have wasted.

The village of Syangbochen in Upper Mustang
We arrived into the village of Syangbochen late in the afternoon. Battered by strong cold wins we were treated to the fact there was no electricity here … but there was a small fire

We walked through the bluster for another hour or so arriving into Sangbouche by 5.20pm. A town with indeed no more than 5 buildings and no electricity. There was no sign of the large trekking group in our tea house. My room’s 4 light switches provided no light. I sat there wrapped in a blanket until dinner at 7pm.

Dal Bhat is the staple food of all trekkers in Nepal
Dal Bhat is the staple food of all trekkers in Nepal …. in this case it was the physically the best form of heat that evening.

I noticed the rest of the tea house had solar powered light and made mention of this to my guide. He entered my room searching for the elusive “solar” switch located at the end of a cable behind a curtain. A dim light came on. At least there was that.

It had been a hard day for me since the start. By rights we should have stayed in Samar. But we were pushing for something new on this trek. Along the way today we discussed making it to the east side of Upper Mustang. Exploring a new route for my guidebooks. It was an option but one that trekking guides don’t seem to like.

Tales of longer days than today, stronger winds and no place to eat nor drink along the way dissuaded most.

Despite the long tiring day I felt no dissuasion. It only encouraged me to forge on with my plan to map the eastern part of Upper Mustang. Before that we had a date with the King of Upper Mustang’s niece in Tsarang tomorrow!

The following links about Upper Mustang may help you:

Preparation:

The trek:


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