Upper Mustang: the Forbidden Kingdom Awaits past Pokhara to Kagbeni
Back in 2007 I first completed the Annapurna Circuiit trek in the middle of a punishingly cold winter. I trekked across the Throngla Pass, down into Manang and then entered the stone village known as Kagbeni. As we turned a corner in Kagbeni village late in the afternoon I spotted a sign next to an armed army guard.
Restricted Area: Permit Required – Upper Mustang
I asked my guide at the time what this place was. He replied just like the sign wrote. I first thought the restricted area was all about the army given the military presence at a junction. My guide then explained that we were already in Mustang but the area beyond the sign was restricted to protected the isolated culture and the King of Lo near the border with Tibet.
If you’ve been reading along here since then you’ll surely know that my curiosity was irked. What was all this about Kings and a place called the Kingdom of Lo? Could we get a permit and visit now? No chance. The permits even back then were expensive and hard to get. It meant going all the way to Kathmandu and then back again. We continued on along the Annapurna Circuit and endured the howling winter winds that took us further then than it does today.
Today the Annapurna Circuit is on it’s last legs as a “circuit”. Only a good guide can take you around and avoid the ACK – the Annapurna Circuit Killer – dirt road that now cuts it up. However, Kagbeni still stands defiantly as it seems to have done centuries ago.
Being a stone village has helped it look virtually untouched over the years. Not to mention the road bypasses the old town. Kagbeni still marks the physical border between Lower Mustang and Upper Mustang. The difference now was that I had all the permits need for Upper Mustang and was prepared to enter. Pokhara to Kagbeni was for the new world, but Kagbeni is still an old school trekking village.
Take a jeep to Lo Manthang or Trek from Kagbeni?
There are now shared jeeps and buses from Kathmandu to Jomson. You can even take a shared jeep from Pokhara all the way to Lo Manthang. There’s also private jeep hire from Pokhara to Mustang. In all cases it’s a bumpy squashed affair along the 159 kilometer broken road from Pokhara to Jomson. Pay no heed to the idea or rumors that it’s a black top road. The idea of either didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to trek in Upper Mustang not take a jeep or bus!
Trekking agents and guides differed repeatedly in their opinion compared to guidebooks and online accounts. They described a terrible dusty road with nothing to see. Fierce winds and hoards of Nepali tourists who partied along the trail. I was quite surprised by all this.
There was no “trekking sales pitch” as there usually is in Nepal. This time the sales pitch was that it was better to take a jeep or bus all the way to Lo Manthang as part of a “tour”.
Now pardon my negativity here but Nepali tours are not that great. They are simply far below the tours you’ll find in Europe or indeed even in Thailand. Basically a guide sits with you in a jeep, points out at some mountains and rock formations along the way while adding up a nice little bill on his mobile phone for you later. No thanks. Maybe in 5-10 years when the road is black topped and actual bog standard tours start to Lo Mangthang but for now it’s not worth it. Besides all that, I wanted to trek.
Upper Mustang is a stunningly unique trekking region you cannot find anywhere else on earth!
That does it for me.
I’m very glad I didn’t listen to the majority and did indeed trek! This trek to Upper Mustang started on foot in Jomson and indeed ended on foot in Jomson and it was an incredibly great trek that easily rivals Everest Base Camp.
Moreover my plan was not just to do the standard Jomson to Lo Manthan Upper Mustang trek either. I wanted to explore the west of Upper Mustang and the little explored eastern side. A tall order. To this I needed the right guide.
Trekking or taking a flight or bus to Jomson?
I relied on own experience to review trekking agents, guides and used my contacts to choose a guide for Upper Mustang. He’d been on several occasions and was one of the few to actually like the idea of trekking to Lo Manthang and to explore the other routes to the West and for me more importantly to the east of Upper Mustang.
My next choice was to simply choose how to reach Jomson from Pokhara for the start of the Upper Mustang trek. I could trek there. Take a bus to Jomson. Or fly there. I’ve trekked from Jomson to Pokhara before on the Annapurna Circuit and was well aware of the current road development from Jomson to Pokhara as part of the regular updates I give. It’s why my guidebook to trekking in Nepal is rated so highly.
The “local” bus would take 11 hours. As per usual in Nepal the “newly constructed road” was falling apart already and needed to be repaired so there were delays. Much like the flight from Kathmandu to Lukla for the Everest Base Camp trek I was secretly aiming at a domestic flight from Pokhara to Jomson rather than a bus. It meant a 13 minute flight versus an 11++ hour bus ride. No competition really. We flew.
Pokhara’s domestic airport
The domestic airport in Pokhara is not exactly state of the art. Which is very nice when you consider the hassle of security in most other countries domestic airports. The odd water bottle, extra batteries and so forth doesn’t faze anyone.
We entered into the terminal strolled up to a Tara air kiosk and presented our tickets. My guide met the other guide or rather my “permit partner”. As you may have read getting a solo permit to trek in Upper Mustang involves finding another trekker. We had no intention of trekking with them but we had to enter Upper Mustang more or less together so we also shared the same flight. As it turns out, we would indeed end up meeting each other enroute which was a great thing for him in hindsight. More on this little adventure later.
My guide checked our main bag in and I placed my day pack and camera on the security scanner complete with two full water bottles. All sorts of beeps and warning lights flashed. More so again when I went through the scanner with keys,wallet and phone in my pockets. Not one security person batted an eyelid. Then it was through a grotty curtain for a one on one search with airport security.
“Do you have lighter,” the guard asked.
“Nope,” I replied as the guard waved me through without so much as a pat down. I sure wish Kathmandu Airport was this efficient.
A short 30 minute delay later and a voice squawked over an intercom and my guide bounced up while instructing me to sit on the right side for the best views.
We barged through a door leading directly to the landing strip and promptly marched across the runway to the tiny 13 seater twin engine plane.
The flight from Pokhara to Jomson
The plane was reminiscent of the Kathmandu to Lukla plane. The cockpit had no door and you could see both pilot and co-pilot at work. It meant I can bring great news on the progress of Nepali aviation. The strapped on Garmin GPS system of many years ago has thankfully been replaced by an actual in built dashboard! It also seemed a little more sturdy.
Still the fact my guide nabbed the first seat in front of the cockpit did add to the whole excitement of the flight. The Nepali chap behind me however didn’t seem to realize that that there was a backrest separating the rows as be bent over everything to stick his mobile between the pilot and co-pilot. Neither of whom seemed to care less.
The views from the right of the plane were indeed impressive. The plane doesn’t fly over the valleys on the way to Jomson because it flies through them. Meaning you are often eye level with the magnificent Annapurna mountains range. Indeed you fly right over the Khopra Danda trek ridge.
Aside from the mountain views I found the peering down over the tiny valley trading routes to be quite fantastic. There’s also nothing quite like looking up and through the cockpit to see the sheer wall of mountain up ahead either! Jomson airport is wedged in between a valley and makes for quite a spectacular landing. A quiet landing at that too.
Trekking from Jomson to to Kagbeni
Oh my has Jomson changed over the years! Over decade ago it was a sleepy stone village. Today it’s a bustling trail head and weekend get-a-way for Nepali youth. It pales compared to Lukla in terms of emanating a trekking feel but the crates of fresh Marpha apples and dried apple along with the odd buffalo, horse and rider meandering thorough the township still gives it a rustic feel.
We started immediately on our trek to Kagbeni. A place I was surely hoping survived the onslaught of this dreaded road everyone talked about. Moving into Old Jomson the mid morning winds were starting to pick up. Jomson to Kagbeni is famous for the long river valley and screaming winds that appear post mid-day. We were early and the blustery gusts merely cooled us down from the blue sky heat above.
From old Jomson on we took the new road. Such as it is. No more than a dirt track rather than a road. To be quite frank it felt no different than any other trail head at the start of many other treks throughout Nepal. Indeed during our four hour trek from Jomson to Kabeni that morning only about 4 vehicles passed us by. No big fuss at all.
The trail/road itself runs along a river valley. Upper Mustang has a different climate to the rest of Nepal and is considerably drier. We followed the collection of trickling streams along a wide expanse of smooth grey stones. Further to the left the Mustang mountains are barren, roughed and etched in history. A few of the famous Mustang cares are clearly visible throughout this area of Lower Mustang. Just a subtle hint of what we would discover later in Upper Mustang. Meanwhile to the right the towering sheer valley rock wall kept us protected from the sun.
Kagbeni – possibly the nicest trekking town in Nepal
I like Kagbeni. I liked it over ten years ago and meretriciously it only seems to have improved as a trekking village. The town or rather citadel has managed to avoid the severe “build everything in concrete” mentality much of Nepal has taken on in recent years. The buildings in Kagbeni are nearly all stone or have stone and then mud walls. Short little tunnels or stone arches link the winding cobbled streets together in among whitewashed walls. Some of the newer buildings seem to have followed a similar approach in keeping with the look and feel of the ancient little town.
I write ancient as Kagbeni contains what they state is the oldest Monastery in Mustang (we’ll see another one with a similar claim later in the trek). Built in 1429 the Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling Monastery still stands today though other contest there other monasteries from the 8th century in Upper Mustang. Similarly the old stone and mud fortress which may well predate the monastery still stands in among tea houses and the odd cake shop.
It’s in this region of the town you’ll hear Lamas recite mantras or more likely be woken from your slumber by the clash of cymbals, drums and the odd blast from a musical horn.
Our preferred tea house was quite full. Annapurna trekkers making there was down. We could have stayed but to be honest with you I really wanted to enjoy the silence, memories and prepare for the days ahead. We walked past the impressive Yak Donalds Hotel. A red painted favorite among independent trekkers in Nepal. It was also quite full and looked on the verge of being quite a happening place if you were to be there alone. Instead we settled on a quiet tea house called Shangrila lodge right beside my favorite Chorten (Tibetan style stupa) which is somewhat ironically called the Chorten of Kagbeni. It is said that if you pass underneath it then all your sins will be removed (a sign randomly appears with this note).
That evening we walked through the old town. I was searching for a memory. A sign. We found it a the end of a Om Madi Padi Me Hum Wall of prayer wheels. Or in modern terms right next to Applebees cafe. A warning sign that told you the beyond the boundaries of Lower Mustang’s Kagbeni lay the restricted area of Upper Mustang. Ominously there was no guard there. What lay beyond was tomorrows destination.
Helpful links found on this site about Upper Mustang:
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