Trekking in the Upper Mustang
In the district of Mustang in northwestern Nepal lies the once-forbidden ancient Tibetan kingdom of Lo. Now called Upper Mustang, the region is no longer a formal kingdom. Upper Mustang encompasses the northern half of the Mustang district bordering Tibet. The region is dry and mountainous, and is often referred to as a desert.
Upper Mustang is home to the Lobas, people of Tibetan descent whose culture also resembles Tibetan culture. The region’s capital, Lo Manthang, is only about 20 kilometers south of the border with Tibet, and Tibetan Buddhism – from the many religious structures like chortens and mani walls along the trails, to the chanting that can be heard through the walls of village monasteries - is a defining characteristic of the region. Closed to foreigners until 1992, the region remains restricted and foreigners are required to obtain a special permit to travel to Upper Mustang. In many ways Upper Mustang’s geographical and political isolation are what has helped preserve its unique and largely unspoiled culture, and many cite traveling through the region as a chance to go back in time to an ancient Tibetan land, replete with centuries-old monasteries, medieval relics, colorful prayer flags and people on horseback.
The spring (April-May) and fall (late September-early November) are the most popular times to go visit Upper Mustang. During the spring many foreign visitors like to go and experience springtime festivals in the region, while the fall is the most popular trekking season for all of Nepal because after monsoon the climate is dry and the temperatures are very comfortable. The summer is a less-known but ideal alternative time to visit Upper Mustang. Because the region is surrounded by mountains to the south that block many storms, Upper Mustang is said to lie in a “rain shadow” and is therefore dry for most of the year. Although it does see the occasional rains and storms, these are by no means as frequent or long-lasting as in the rest of Nepal, and actually make for a special visit to the region by turning a few normally dry and brown areas bright green. Mid November is another possible though lesser-known season when travelers can visit Upper Mustang, although the harsh cold and winds mean travelers must be well prepared to keep warm. Later in the month and during the winter much of the region empties out as Lobas migrate south to other parts of Nepal and India for the winter, so travelers are not advised to go to Upper Mustang during the winter.
In the villages along the main trekking route there are lodges built to accommodate trekkers. Trekking has not been around in Upper Mustang for as long as in the Annapurnas or Everest region, so in general there are fewer lodges/per village on average and not as many luxury options, though all are comfortable and at least basically outfitted with working bathrooms, dining facilities, beds, and often showers and even wifi. Lodges can sometimes fill up quickly in popular seasons; so large groups often bring camping supplies just in case. However, as the region grows in popularity more lodges are under construction.
On the eastern route that begins outside of Muktinath, trekkers must camp for 2-3 nights before reaching the village of Thangye that has a lodge. Other villages along the eastern route also have lodges – though fewer than on the main route because they do not see as many visitors.
There are few health check posts in Upper Mustang, so when travelers become ill or injured the best option is to take a jeep back down to Jomsom. Cell phone coverage is spreading in the region and some villages have landline and/or satellite (Ghemi, Kagbeni, and Lo Manthang) telephones that can be used to place calls. There is also a police check post in Lo Manthang.
In case of emergencies, helicopters have rescued travelers with insurance coverage, and it is also possible to charter a helicopter independently from Lo Manthang.
Upper Mustang is well known for its numerous monasteries, caves and stunning palaces. Lo Mangthang has two of the most famous monasteries in Upper Mustang, Thubchen and Jampa, believed to have been built in the 15th century. Luri Gompa, another famous monastery in the region, is thought to be even older. Luri Gompa is a cave monastery – a unique attraction in Upper Mustang. Over 10,000 caves are estimated to exist in Upper Mustang, some estimated to be over 2,000 years old. Many of the caves have been used – and are still in use today – as meditation chambers or small monastaries. Others have historically served as storage spaces, military lookouts, and shelters in times of war. Still others are complete mysteries, and archaeologists come to Upper Mustang to investigate the caves and try and discover their purpose and their previous inhabitants. Many caves are somehow dug hundreds of feet off the ground into loose, crumbly rock – and the mystery is what keeps bringing National Geographic archaeological missions to the region.
One of the biggest festivals celebrated in the region is Tiji, held in the spring often in early May. The festival celebrates the victory of one of the incarnations of Lord Buddha, Dhorji Sonam over a demon, and takes place over a few days with dancing and various religious rituals in the center of Lo Manthang. Tiji is very popular with tourists for its colorful displays, dancing, and elaborate costumes. Yarthum is another important festival in the region, celebrated in August/September as summer ends. Also known as the horse festival, yarthum takes place over about three days with various sporting events on horseback, feasting, and dancing. Lo Manthang’s yarthum is the most famous of the region, but in recent years other villages have started to host their own Yarthum festivals – namely Ghami.
Pokhara is regularly called the gateway to the Annapurnas and the greater Mustang region – namely Upper Mustang and Manang. There are regular flights and buses to take people to and from Kathmandu and Pokhara. From there, travelers going to Upper Mustang can either fly to Jomsom – where the Mustang district’s regional airport is located – or they can also take a long bus or jeep ride up to the town. Treks to Upper Mustang begin either in Kagbeni (for the main route) or Muktinath (for eastern routes), but all must first check in at the checkpost in Kagbeni before crossing into Upper Mustang. Kagbeni and Muktinath can be reached from Jomsom on foot, bus, or jeep.
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