10 Feb Mustang – Off the Beaten Track Nepal
The most extraordinary trek for me, was a journey accompanied by my guide Duti and Gopi the porter in the lower Mustang region of Nepal. My brother had captured my interest in Mustang many years ago when he spoke about Nepal and its various regions. He had already made the trek to base camp on several occasions.
The Flight to Jomson
Many years later in the wee hours of the morning Duti and I hopped onto a small propeller plane at the Pokhara airport. The Yeti airways leather jacketed pilots resembled top gun film characters as they swaggered along the runway before climbing into the plane. As the propeller plane launched into the sky for the twenty minute flight we hung on for dear life, there was a sigh off relief from the six passengers that we had made it into the air at all.
The plane coasted over mountain ridges, zoomed through a rocky gorge buffeted by the wind following the Kali Gandaki river. It felt like you could reach out and touch the tops of the mountain ridges with your hand.
Landing on the short runway of the frontier town of Jomson, we disembarked with our luggage.
The plane never stopping its engines, immediately reloaded, roared down the short runway and was soon a mere speck against the mountains.
The window period for flying is very short between Jomson and Pokhara due to the instability of the flying conditions.
As we left the airport on foot I gazed in awe at the bleak beauty of the wispy cloud enshrouded snow capped mountains. To wander the cobbled streets of the frontier village observing the start of a new day was incredible. It was hard to believe that I finally had set foot in Mustang.
The Trek begins
The Trek route followed the Kali Gandaki river ( Black River) which is famous for spotting golden eagles. We were making our way to the ancient town of Kagbeni for the night.
On the way we encountered herds of goats and sheep brought down from the Tibetan border by their shepherd, heading to a market in the lower villages. Strings of Ponies laden down by goods, crossed our paths on many occasions. The only means of transporting goods to remote villages.
We ascended the mountains, which on some days left me physically depleted and tested my endurance.
On one particular day, my shoelace had came undone. I was stationary staring at it, thinking do I have the energy to bend down to retie the lace. When Gopi laden down with bags strides up , bends down with his load still intact on his back and ties up my shoelace. Gopi stands up gracefully as if no load was on his back, gives a big grin strides off into the distance. It was a truly humbling moment for me.
I found at night heating was limited in the tea houses, in fact they placed under the tables tin buckets of glowing embers to keep away the chill. It was surprisingly effective way of keeping warm. Before snuggling into the sleeping bag I would layer more clothes on. I was ever hopeful that my feet would thaw and warm for sleep to follow. When I woke at dawn it was so cold that the water had frozen in the taps and the frost was inches thick outside. Luckily I had warm water in my stainless steel drinking bottle to wash my hands. There was no hope of bathing if in fact you were brave enough to undress.
This region is the last stronghold of Bon Buddhism, particularly in the village of Lubra. Bon arose in the 11th century established it’s scriptures from the termas and visions of teachings from Loden Nypingpo. Its learnings are the same overall as Tibetan Buddhism. I discovered that the ancient Lubra Bon Monastery named Yungdung Phuntsok Ling has a five day masked dancing festival. The festival occurs in September/ October dependent on the lunar calendar.
It is high on my bucket list to return to see this festival.
For the Love of Dogs
In the ancient village of Jharkot, in the tea house where we were staying for the night, I sat exhausted, a 11 km ascent over 1000 meters.
I sat watching with a cup of tea, the sunset over the bleak rocky snow peaked mountains, tones of golds, magenta and pink splashed across the sky resembling an artists palette.
The villagers returning at dusk were laden down with baskets of manure for lighting the fires and leading their hardy ponies laden down with firewood carried in giant baskets.
This gorgeous Tibetan Terrier sat with his master on a rock wall soaking up the last rays of warmth of the day before the cold of the night descended.
The Tibetan Terriers (Tsang Apso) were originally known as the Holy dog of Tibet. In fact approximately 2000 years ago this ancient breed was kept by the Tibetan Monks in the lost Valley of Tibet . The monks considered them as good luck charms and prized companions not to be sold. The monks often gifted them for good deeds. The dogs are not a member of the Terrier family but named due to their resemblance to the terriers by an English traveler.
During my journey, we found fabulous weavers working on simple backstrap looms creating gorgeous woollen textiles from the wool of goats and sheep. I purchased for my own collection two woollen blankets, one in tones of red and the other blues. I cant part with them, the workmanship is superb.
In Kagbeni, I observed ladies leaning against sun warmed stone walls spinning the wool onto spindles and chatting as the afternoon turned to dusk.
Apricot and Apple Brandy
We sat relaxing on the roof top of the Tukche village tea house on the last afternoon sipping on homemade Apricot brandy.
The last rays of the sun warmed our bones and gazing at the mountain view reminded me of my travels through the vale of Kashmir when I was a young women.
Duti had explained that Marpha and Tukche villages were famous for the production of Apple and Apricot brandy.
I remembered seeing the incredible orchards and the distilleries closed for the season we had walked past that morning.
The village of Tukche’s particular claim to fame Duti revealed is the production of an orange brandy from fermented orange juice.
The Hardy Mountain Ponies
The mustang Ponies in fact have played an important traditional historical role in the lives of the people. These tough hardy creatures are much loved and revered in Mustang.
Why, in fact transportation of goods and people, but historically the ponies were used in war. The Tibetan Khampa warriors who escorted the Dalai Lama to India when he escaped Tibet rode these hardy ponies.
There is a wonderful book if you would like to learn more about the mustang horse culture and the region written by an American anthropologist Sienna Craig who spent a year in the Mustang region.
“Horses Like Lightening” by Sienne Craig — Highly recommend this book.
Travel the Paths least traversed
I felt for myself a sense of achievement that I completed the trek. My hip issues 9 years ago had left me incapacitated , I could barely walk along a flat let alone a hill .
I felt that the tranquility in Mustang left me deeply touched and on my return to Pokhara left a strong yearning to return. The Horse culture, love of dogs, simplicity of life , the aura of those snow clad mountainous peaks captivates the soul. Kagbeni and Jharkot these villages ancient and rich with history.
In the planning stages is a return trip utilizing ponies for a trek to the mystical high Mustang region .
The Journey out of Mustang
A journey to remember is that of the death defying road travelling from Mustang to Pokhara.
An eleven hour road trip in a decrepit local jeep to Pokhara over rugged mountain roads.
This experience was not for the faint of heart.
This is a story for another time.
I Love Nepal, its generous people and rich diverse culture.