clickUpper Mustang


“I have been fortunate in having been able to explore one of the last uninvestigated corners of our planet... a land where the soul of the man is still considered to be as real as the feet he walks on; a land said to be ‘barren as a dead deer’ but where beauty and happiness abound in spite of hardships.”
- Michael Peissel, 1964.

Upper Mustang, a small enclave, north of the Annapurnas, which projects into Tibet, is one of the last wilderness areas on the planet. The region is still largely untouched by Western civilization. Here, in a beautiful world of crumbling canyons, verdant oases, soaring snow-clad peaks and gentle people, the ancient culture of Tibet has survived unspoiled. The land is peppered with ancient cave monasteries, armories, chortens, prayer flags, mani walls and art-works of inestimable value.

    Very few South Africans have been there. Figures published in 2008 showed that only one South African had visited Mustang in 2007, and prior to that, only three in five years! During 2008 and 2009, however, Summit Ventures sent three groups into the area, totaling 24 people. Another trip is planned for September 2010.

    Our route takes us into the Kali Gandaki, up and over windswept passes at altitudes exceeding 4270 meters (14,000 feet), through narrow canyons, and across desert plains to the legendary walled city of Lo Manthang – an ancient city virtually unchanged since the 14thcentury. From there we explore the surrounding areas: “ancient castles and fortresses, citadels and temples, mountain caves adorned with religious relics, and monasteries rich in art – all with colourful prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.” (Frommer’s Guide to Nepal.)

    We return on the eastern side of the Kali Gandaki, visiting Lori Gompa – an inaccessible cave monastery built 600 years ago. Perched like an eagle’s nest halfway up a crumbling cliff at 4105m/13,500 feet, the shrine contains a huge, round, beautifully crafted ceramic-glaze chorten. The chorten itself, the interior walls, and the dome above are covered with finely crafted paintings, executed with great skill. The surfaces are bright and clear, giving the artwork a ‘fresh’ appearance. This is because, like many of the art treasures of Europe, they were frescoed – i.e. plastered and painted while wet! Luri is the only place outside of Europe where this special technique was used – and explains why the paintings have withstood the test of time! And this in a remote cave monastery high on a crumbing cliff face!

    Those who have put ‘pen to paper’ in an effort to describe Mustang, usually struggle to find words that will adequately express its wonders.

“The landscape is so rugged that it looks as if it was formed by somebody playing around with clay and stones in a sandbox”. - Carsten Nebel in My Himalaya.

“Mustang is home to the infamous snow leopard, the endangered bharal (blue sheep), and the mythical yeti… a landscape of indescribable vastness and beauty with gray and yellow rolling hills eroded by the winds that howl across the plains most afternoons. The buildings are sun-baked and brightly painted in earthy shades – amber and ochre, vermillion and variegated rusty-reds.”
                                - The Last Forbidden Kingdom, MUSTANG, by Clair Marullo   

“This colourful landscape with ancient castles and temples embodying the culture of a beautiful people, and the outer-worldly terrain, make for indelible memories that will never be erased.”    
- Trekking in the Annapurna Region, by Bryn Thomas


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A comprehensive 12-page route description of the trek has been written by Summit Ventures, and is available to readers on request.

See also “Report on 2008 tour” to follow – a report on our 2008 venture into the area.  

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The research we have done into Mustang, and the personal experience we have gained there (four trips!), make it easy for us to advise clients and customize expeditions for them.

Currently, we have a trip taking shape for September 2010, which is open for people to join!

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clickReport on 2008 tour


Magical Mustang!

    Nothing on the Internet, or in the published literature, could ever have prepared us adequately for our journey to Upper Mustang! Surprises awaited us on every turn …

    Upper Mustang (governed by Nepal, and therefore untouched by the Chinese) is an enclave where true Tibetan Buddhism has flourished for over 600 years, and where Western influence has hardly penetrated. Until recently, the people there believed the earth to be flat, and hadn’t discovered the wheel. Even today, many families practice polyandry – a woman marrying more than one husband. 

    Geologically, Mustang consists of a maze of crumbling canyons, deep gorges and mountain ridges, with the earth ranging in colour from chalky white to yellow ochre, from bronze to steel grey ... and even blood red - a land of vibrant colours, reflected in the brightly painted chortens, shrines, mani-walls, monasteries and private dwellings of the local people. A photographer’s paradise!

    In many places, the ground (now an eroded alluvial plain raised 6,000 meters above its original sea bed), is strewn with ammonite fossils - sea creatures that lived 100 millions years before the Himalayan mountains were formed – thus being three times as old as the mountains themselves! These fossils were there for the picking.

    We visited ancient cave monasteries tucked away in remote corners, which contained exquisite art; fortresses and castles; look-out towers; king's palaces; ancient armories, where we could handle the weapons from a bygone era; and ‘libraries’ which contained ancient Tibetan religious texts, some of them embossed in pure gold. 

    Each afternoon we reached a remote village where we could overnight. These villages are really ‘oases’ in a wilderness of erosion – each village a thriving, self-sustained community, with terraced fields of buckwheat, maze and wheat standing three to four feet tall. (We were there at harvest time). Irrigation from high mountain streams has made agriculture and animal husbandry possible, and peach and apple orchards abounded. On occasions, fresh vegetables could be purchased. 

    The people were warm, friendly and accommodating - people who, in spite of their many hardships, have laughter in their eyes. Sometimes they gave us apples as a goodwill gesture as we passed through their villages.

    On some occasions, on arriving in camp we were surprised to find our tents pitched on a grassy terrace surrounded by flowers - pink and white cosmos, purple sweet-peas and orange and red poppies! At 4000 meters (13,000 feet), where the air and the water are sweet and clean (and there is yak dung for manure!), species grow to twice their normal size. The huge trees in the villages surprised us too - gnarled old trunks, sometimes with a girth exceeding four meters - evidence that Mustang once enjoyed a wetter climate! Sometimes, in spite of the overall barrenness of the country, we passed through alpine meadows sprinkled with flowers, and crystal clear streams that tumbled down from the heights above.

    Our EcoTrek support team was amazing – always full of fun, efficient and willing to lend a helping hand. Our guide too was knowledgeable and caring. The food was excellent, plenty in quantity and variety. In fact, we marveled at what our cooks could produce on kerosene stoves!

    There were no porters, but we did have a train of some 15 mules to carry the heavy loads. The mules added an element of drama to our photographs as they negotiated the precipitous pathways! 

    After 7 days we entered the fabled walled city of Lo Mangang, built in the 13th century. Here, we spent three nights.  

    Lo Mantang is an intriguing place to explore. The only entrance into the city is through a huge wooden door, located on the eastern side. In earlier times, this gate was closed at night and only opened at dawn, but this rule no longer applies. Tradition still holds, however, that only the King can ride into the city on horseback – all lesser mortals must dismount their steeds while passing through the gate!

     The city was built by the prince who succeeded the Ame Pal – the legendary warrior who in the 1380s conquered the small kingdoms in Upper Mustang, uniting them under his reign. Lo Manthang became the fortress capital of the region, and has served in this capacity ever since.

    Visiting Lo Manthang is like traveling back 600 years in time. The entire city is surrounded by 20-foot high walls with watchtowers in each corner, prayer flags everywhere, dominated by the white central palace and the four large red monasteries.  

    The city recognizes three castes: Bistas (aristocrats and the royal family), Gurungs (commoners), and ‘outcasts’ (butchers, blacksmiths and animal minders). These outcasts must live outside the city walls.

Today, 1200 people live in the city itself in 140 houses, connected by narrow alleys, some burrowing beneath the dwellings. The streets are so narrow in places that one can touch the buildings on either side by simply stretching out one’s arms. Most houses are two-storied; those owned by aristocrats are higher (3 stories), but by far the biggest buildings in Lo Manthang are the monasteries and the King’s Palace.

    To protect themselves from evil spirits, the occupants hang ghost traps above their doors, and decorated goat skulls on their roofs. Others make use of effigies and clay figurines to ward off evil spirits. The people of Mustang are very superstitious, believing that there are spirits with evil intent everywhere, and that these need to be appeased by every possible means.

    On our first day at Lo Manthang we hired horses and went on a long pony trek to a distant village where we visited the Chhoser cave. This man-made dwelling, consisting of 40 ‘rooms’ burrowed into the mountain and standing 5 stories high, goes back 2,500 years! Pottery and utensils, dating back many centuries, were on view in some of the rooms. Shards of broken pottery were to be seen strewn along the pathway approaching the complex.

    On the second day we traveled in a westerly direction to a Monastic Boarding School for young boys aged 5 to 10 years, where we were entertained to tea by a very friendly monk. In the afternoon we were invited to the palace to have tea with the King and Queen – a rare privilege, and one of the highlights of our trip. The ‘crown’ traces its lineage back to the 13th century!

    For the return journey we crossed the Kali Gandaki, and traveled south on the Eastern side of the river with spectacular views of the route we had taken to Lo Manthang. Across the valley, every little village could be seen as if in miniature. The terrain was highly challenging, however. On our third day we climbed a 920 meters / 3,018 feet pass in four hours, only to be told by our guide that our overnight camp was still 20 kilometers away! 

    We estimated the entire journey (15 days of ups and downs) to be approximately 250 kilometers in length - a trek, we all agreed, that was suitable for serious walkers!


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