Lower Mustang Nepal
Lower Mustang, Nepal must be one of the remotest parts of the planet we’ve ever visited. After a short flight from Pokhara to Jomsom we’d trek for three hours along the Kali Gandaki plain to the little town of Kagbeni situated at 2800m above sea level. This would be our home for the next few days.
We were up with the sparrows and at Pokhara Airport by 6:30am. Our adventure to Lower Mustang, Nepal was about to begin!
After finally receiving a boarding pass, we were ushered through various check points and then across the runway by gentlemen in very military looking attire. You don’t have time to be nervous as everything happens so quickly. They’ve got to drop passengers in Jomsom and get back as soon as possible to collect the next lot. There is only a window period of around 3 hours each day to fly before the weather turns nasty or the winds become too strong. Flights are often delayed or even cancelled, so on arrival at the airport it’s never guaranteed your flight will actually take off. If you’re thinking of visiting Lower Mustang, Nepal it may be a good idea to factor in a day or two extra around your trip for these eventualities.
On boarding you are greeted with a friendly “Namaste” by an air hostess who is hardly able to stand upright as the plain is so small. She hands you a sweetie, you find a seat, the engines fire up and you are bumping along the runway in no time.
The flight is in itself an exhilarating experience. For all of 20 minutes your senses are taken to new heights. If you can imagine a noisy, shuddering, shaking bus with wings, you’re pretty much getting the picture. But this “flying bus” gives you the most spectacular views over the Annapurnas. As a result of the high mountains between Pokhara & Jomsom, our plane is required to fly through the Kali Gandaki River gorge. You’re flying at around 4000m which is half the height of some of the peaks surrounding you. With Jomsom airport located at the head of the gorge, high terrain surrounding the airport makes it one of the world’s most dangerous airports to land at. The runway is a mere 500m in length and 19 metres wide. Remember the sweetie the air hostess gave us when we boarded? You are literally still chewing it by the time you land in Jomsom. A good distraction for the nerves!
The first thing that strikes you after landing in Lower Mustang, Nepal is the sheer, stark beauty surrounding you. It looks a bit like the back side of the moon, or as a friend mentioned when she saw one of our photos on Facebook, “the Karoo on steroids” The second thing you notice is the drop in temperature. Coming from the almost hot, humid Pokhara, you disembark to temperatures near the 0 degree mark. You can definitely feel you are at nearly 3000m above sea level again.
Jomsom is very much a dusty one horse town. It basically serves as an administrative capital for the area as well as a gateway for treks into Mustang. The single road running through town is lined with hotels, a few shops and some restaurants. It honestly felt as if we were in the wild wild west. We also knew we were in woolly cow country, the telltale sign, our fist display of yak horns on the roof of someone’s home. It was before 8am, so the town was pretty much still waking up, but we found a wonderful German bakery (yes, these are a big thing up in the mountains.) After a hot cup of coffee, a cinnamon bun, and a last double check that Maps.me was working, we hit the road, or should we rather say, flood plain to Kagbeni.
Our 3 hour walk to Kagbeni basically followed the course of the Kali Gandaki River valley. Although there is a dirt road at a slightly higher elevation, huge chunks of it are missing due to landslides, so for the most part you walk in the flood plain of the river. At times you have to balance precariously on pebbles so as not to get your feet wet. Where the river becomes too wide to cross, you make your way up the cliff side for a while again.
I can honestly say that this is some of the most remote, stark and beautiful scenery we have ever found ourselves in.
We got to Kagbeni just as the wind was starting to pick up. No, it’s not an urban legend that the wind speeds in this valley reach enormous strengths. They do, we experienced this first hand. The trick is to be out and about until midday, and then find a cozy sunny nook indoors to spend the rest of the afternoon. The gusts of winds are so strong, that it is virtually impossible to stay upright.
We arrived at our beautiful accommodation, the Red House Lodge for the next few nights. We’d read so much about this beautiful restored building dating from around 1860, and we can honestly say that we would highly recommend the Red House Lodge to anybody wanting to visit Kagbeni. It was the absolute highlight of our stay in Nepal. One can hardly get lost in this tiny village, but if you do, the distinctly painted red and white stripes on the outer wall will be the tell tail sign that you’ve arrived.
We wound our way up the wooden staircase in the central courtyard. Colourful ethnic decorations swayed in the wind almost as if to welcome us. Our room was simply gorgeous, with the most beautiful views over the rooftops of Kagbeni and the surrounding mountain peaks.
The wind had now come up in full force. The mere thought of venturing out into the dusty deserted streets was just not that appealing. So in true lounge room lizard style, we found the sunniest spot where we could chill for a bit. We planned our next few days over a cup of freshly brewed ginger tea.
The morning’s walk was taking its toll on us now and we were ravenous! We decided to head down to Hotel Yac Donalds to have our first ever yak burger. It was super delicious, but I think it’s the yak cheese that really did it for me. We were in foodie heaven, and I don’t think a beer tasted this good in a long time either! We also had a tot of Seabuckthorn juice. It’s a popular sweet drink, known for its medicinal properties, rich in vitamins A, C, D, E and K, beta-carotene and omega-3 fatty acids.
We decided to brave the wind for just a bit and do a walkabout through the little medieval village with its maze of alleyways lined with mud, stone and wood buildings. Tangled webs of Buddhist prayer flags, bleached by the sun and worn by the mountain winds flutter in the wind and the only traffic jam you’ll encounter is that of sheep or goats.
The development of Kagbeni dates back to the 15th century when the region was an important transit point on the salt trade route, between the dry saline lakes of Tibet and the large markets in the Indian subcontinent.
Being very near to the Tibetan border, the landscape, building style and culture have a definite Tibetan influence. It’s as if time has been frozen here. Traditional artisanal and agricultural methods that are generations old are still in use. Winters reach sub zero, the entire village covered in snow, and often time families are unable to leave their homes for weeks on end. Storing wood and supplies is of top priority.
This figure is a Kheni or the ghost eater. A remnant of the ancient Bon religion, and painted in the characteristic red, white and grey, it was strategically placed at the entrance to the once fortressed village to ward off evil.
I totally lost my heart to some baby yaks and felt bad about potentially having eaten their mother earlier at Yac Donalds.
We decided to do a little day hike to the ancient village of Lubra. Founded around 1200 A.D., this is the only village in Mustang, where Bon (pre-Buddhist) religion is still practiced. Somewhere along the way we must have taken a wrong turn, and my oh my did this day turn out to be one of the scariest adventures ever. We found ourselves balanced precariously on a mountain side with wind speeds of around 50km/hour and not even one little scrub to hold cling on to to prevent ourselves from tumbling off the cliff side. I’ll admit I ugly cried. We decided it would be safest to pack it in and turn around. We’re sad that we never made it to Lubra, but lucky to have come out unscathed. It was still a beautiful hike though with not another human in site except one little nomadic family of three, who did give us a puzzled look when we met them along the way.
The Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling Monastery with its distinct red colour is built at the confluence of two rivers, which in Buddhism signifies a holy place. It was founded in 1429 by a renowned Buddhist scholar from Tibet. It’s still a working monastery and the monks are more than happy to show you around for small fee. Each morning at the break of dawn, the most haunting sounds of the ceremonial horn ring out from here.
We’d so badly wanted to visit the sacred Muktinath temple situated at 3700m but it was not meant to be. It seems the gods were not been favourable and ironically trying to get to such a sacred site, we were conned on both of our attempts to visit. (Total lowlight of the trip.) Sadly we had to make our way back to Jomsom for our flight back to Pokhara, so attempt 3 was not going to happen. Below just a few images from the scenery in the area.
Sadly it was time to say good bye to beautiful Kagbeni. We took the jeep back to Jomson – a rather bumpy ride to say the least! We had some time to kill in in the afternoon, so we did a walk across to the village of Thinigaun. It really felt like a ghost town. The dusty deserted streets were quite eerie.
Our time in Lower Mustang Nepal had come to an end. One final view of the majestic mountains from Jomsom airport before boarding our flight back to Pokhara.
It is better to travel well than to arrive – Buddha