Snow Trekking at Sweet-Sixty

As three women in their sixties face Lo Mathang's snow-sand-storm maze, only faith and robust health see them through.  
Snow Trekking at Sweet-Sixty 2
Mustang’s erstwhile capital, Lo Manthang, was once a forbidden kingdom, closed to any foreigners. Today, it remains one of the last enclaves of Tibetan Buddhism in the world. Photo by Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

Travelling to Lo Manthang, one of the most isolated places in the world, is not for the weak-kneed. Apart from a good dose of foolhardiness, you need a pair of sturdy legs and even sturdier boots to plough through dirt tracks to reach this remote jewel of the Upper Mustang region of the Nepalese Himalayas. At 13,000 feet above sea level, the terrain is as intimidating as it is spectacular. Fine talcum-powder-like sand, knee-deep in places, tries to swallow your boots; swirling dust storms send you scurrying to wrap up like the Bedouin in the Sahara; vertigo is your companion as you teeter on the edges of some of the deepest gorges on the planet through which a gurgling Kali Gandaki meanders.

If you brave all these and more for five or six days, you will catch a glimpse of that tantalising paradise—Lo Manthang, the legendary capital of the erstwhile kingdom of Mustang, formerly known as Lo. The dozen or so villages that comprise the Upper Mustang province are home to less than 5,000 native Tibetans. They thrive in these severe conditions, and are also custodians of ancient Tibetan culture and traditions; more so after Tibet came under Chinese rule and Lhasa’s Potala Palace was turned into a museum.

For my friends and I—three women from India all on the wrong side of 60—the five-day trek to Lo from Jomsom, a mere 100 kilometres away, seems never-ending. Our knees protest with every step, our lungs whistle in exasperation at the thin air, our decades-old friendship frays into tatters with every obstacle in our path. The only consolation is that we are not alone on this seemingly insane expedition. The mountains echo with curses and swear words in multiple languages: a motely bunch of a dozen or so trekkers, drawn from as far away as Réunion Island, Malta and Norway were also huffing and puffing up the sandy slopes, enticed by visions of priceless Buddhist art hidden within the dimly lit interiors of Lo’s ancient gompas and caves that awaited them at the end of this journey. These days, it is possible to hire 4×4 vehicles to reach Lo from Jomsom—it takes about three days this way and will leave your wallet rather emaciated.

We had elected to trudge at least on the way up, albeit at our senior pace. But on day three, when the going gets tough, we seem no longer tough enough to get going. So we too hire an SUV at extortionate rates but take it slowly, staying in picturesque villages and towns and visiting gompas and chortens along the way. At the town of Kagbeni, the entry point to Upper Mustang, we strolled past buckwheat fields and visited the Muktinath temple. We stopped next at Samar, a small village of less than 10 houses and one guesthouse with views of lofty snow-clad peaks, before moving on to Tsarang. One of the region’s biggest towns, it is home to the dzong, or fortified palace, which is a repository of ancient weapons. For lunch, we stopped at Ghemi, and lingered in the little shops selling some of the most beautiful Buddhist artefacts including brightly coloured thangkas.

The pastoral region (top left, ) is deeply connected to its religious festivals—Tenchi (bottom left) ; Tiji celebrates the triumph of good over evil; Tenchi (top right, bottom right) is celebrated to dispel demons. Photos by Matteo Colombo/Getty Images, Taylor Weidman/Stringer/Getty Images, Grant Dixon/Getty Images.

The pastoral region (top left, ) is deeply connected to its religious festivals—Tenchi (bottom left) ; Tiji celebrates the triumph of good over evil; Tenchi (top right, bottom right) is celebrated to dispel demons. Photos by Matteo Colombo/Getty Images, Taylor Weidman/Stringer/Getty Images, Grant Dixon/Getty Images.

When we finally sight the walled city of Lo Manthang, it seems more like a hallucination rather than a living settlement where real people reside. After all, the surrounding wilderness is so overwhelmingly barren that no life seems possible in this arid expanse. The villages dotting the land are the only spot of green in an otherwise arid expanse of sand, rock and dust. There is nary a blade of grass nor a single tree in the desert landscape stretching out for kilometres.

Nestling in a bowl-like valley surrounded by the most magnificent mountains streaked in vivid earthy hues ranging from ochre to deep blue, the about 170 households of Lo have now become a magnet for the cognoscenti from all over the world. They undertake the arduous journey to glimpse one of the last remaining vestiges of a glorious ancient culture. The walled town of seemingly modest mud dwellings hoards some fantastic treasures—Buddhist cave paintings, vivid murals in vibrant colours, traditional architecture and exquisite statuary—and harks back to a period when Tibetan artistic sensibilities defined the entire expanse from Xinjiang in northwest China to Sichuan in the southwest, from Lhasa to Lahaul-Spiti.

For some, especially the motorbike-riding adrenaline junkies and four-wheel-drive enthusiasts, Lo’s attraction lies in its location, and the thrill of riding or driving over pebbly roads and rocky riverbeds. All we can survey from Lo lies beneath us. In front, to the north, stretches the endless Tibetan plateau. On both sides, also abutted by Tibet, are snow-covered peaks, while behind us is the treacherous winding path we traversed to get here. Dhaulagiri, Manang, Nilgiri, Annapurna, Machapuchare—all those snowy eminences which followed us from Pokhara seem to have gone into hiding, bowing to the grandeur of this stark landscape.

The scenery is not monotonous though. The landscape offers a mosaic of variations with deep canyons, lofty cliffs and snowy crests, sandy plateaus and layered rocks in rich hues that only nature can conjure up. Yet, the villages en route are veritable oases. There are apple and apricot orchards, and terraced barley and buckwheat fields nourished by the waters of Kali Gandaki.

A plaque at the entrance to Lo says it was founded by King Ame Pal in 1380. Lo used to be a monarchy, ruled last by JigmePalbarBista until he was disenfranchised by Nepal’s transition to a republic in 2008. Bista’s son, also revered by the residents of Mustang, now runs a resort, the most expensive in all of Mustang. The royal palace, a three-storey mansion in the middle of the village, still stands but is off limits to visitors.

In contrast, the warrens that make up Lo provide a glimpse of day-to-day life in this remote outpost. Yaks, cows and ponies roam the alleyways. An occasional wrinkled old man dawdles by swirling his prayer wheel, while a monk in a maroon robe hurries past. Almost all the men are attired in elegant traditional chubas while women sport long skirts and an apron. Invariably, women are adorned in exquisite turquoise and coral necklaces, bangles, ear and hair ornaments.

On our first day, we visit the three gompas in Lo, Choedhe, Jampa and Thubchen, the jewels of the walled city. Their interiors are painted with exquisite murals depicting Buddha’s life. Once painted in gold and encrusted with turquoise, coral and other gemstones, these priceless artworks have now fallen to some disrepair. Water seepage and earthquakes have taken their toll and in some places, the old paint has come off in flakes. But where they are intact, the colours are brilliant enough and the details exquisitely clear. Luigi Fieni, an Italian conservationist is restoring the paintings with funding from American Himalayan Foundation. He lived in Lo for a while training locals, and his students now have taken up the responsibility of restoring these historical works of art.

Lo Manthang is often considered as one of the world’s best preserved medieval fortresses

Lo Manthang is often considered as one of the world’s best preserved medieval fortresses

The next day, we visit the Chosar caves, an hour’s drive away, which were once home to meditating monks. Exploring these dungeon-like caves need us to be nimble and rather acrobatic. Day three is spent in Marang village, a two-hour drive away. We hire an SUV to take us to Lo Ghyekar, also known as Gar Gompa, the oldest in the kingdom. Legend has it that this stunning gompa came up on the spot where a fearsome demon was felled by Guru Padmasambhava, considered the founder of the Nyingma school of Buddhism. The body parts of the demon lay scattered all over Mustang. Near Ghemi, a long and colourful wall, known as Mani Wall, is believed to have been built over the intestines of the demon. The structure, made of rocks and pebbles painted in vibrant hues, is gorgeous and looks more like a modern-day art installation than an ancient religious relic.

Lo is shrouded in legend and lore, and so intertwined in myth and mysticism that it is difficult to differentiate the real stories from those of faith and superstition. Festivals are also deeply rooted in myths. Demons play a central role in Tibetan culture and there are rituals to exorcise evil spirits to protect the people. The victory of Buddha’s reincarnation, DorjeeSonnu, over a demon, Man Tam Ru, is celebrated during the Tiji festival every May. For three days of the month, gompas and villages of Lo are doused in colour and the deep music of festivities fills the air.

The advent of Buddhism in Tibet in the seventh century and its spread to modern-day Nepal did not smother the original Tibetan Bon faith prevalent in Lo. The extant features, symbols and practices of the Bon faith were incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism. With Mustang being opened to non-Nepalese travellers only in the early 1990s, and the entry restricted to only 2,000 people a year even today, Lo has held on tight to its traditions and is often also known as the forbidden kingdom.

Essentials

Getting There There are no direct flights from India to Pokhara. Flights from most major Indian cities go to Kathmandu. Pokhara is 30 minutes from Kathmandu by air. By road, Pokhara is about six to eight hours away from Kathmandu. Tourist buses also connect Pokhara with Kathmandu. From Pokhara, Jomsom can be accessed by road or air. Small 19-seater airplanes fly between the two places; however, flights are often cancelled due to unpredictable weather. It takes between 12-14 hours to reach by bus or on a 4×4 vehicle. The trek from Jomson to Lo Manthang is completed over five to six days, usually walking for about six to seven hours a day. A 4×4 vehicle takes about three days.

Getting Around All foreigners, including Indian citizens, must obtain a pass to travel to Upper Mustang, and travellers are required to carry their passports for the same ($500/Rs32,000 for 10 days; $50/Rs3,200 for each additional day of stay). Other permits needed are the Annapurna Conservation Area Permit and Trekkers Information Management (TIMS) card (NPR 2,200/Rs1,375 each). These permits can be obtained from Kathmandu or Pokhara and are usually arranged by the guide or the trekking outfit. Foreigners can travel only with a registered guide. Only 2,000 permits are issued each year. Once in Lo Manthang, the best way to get around is trekking. SUVs and 4×4 vehicles are also available albeit for steep rates.

Where to Stay and Eat Every hamlet in the region, however small, has modest guesthouses and homestays, with comfortable beds for trekkers and travellers. These little settlements are usually a 4-to-5-hour trek away from each other. The stays and eateries around usually serve very good local fare including Tibetan tenduk or thukpa, momos, Nepali dal-bhat and even the occasional chow mein, pizza, and apple pie.

  • Sudha Mahalingam is a compulsive backpacker masquerading as an energy economist. She often finds herself blundering through difficult situations in alien lands.

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