We departed Tiger Mountain, flashlights alit, in the pre-dawn bluish light, still trying desperately to make out the silhouette of the disguised mountains that we knew were so close. It was chilly but we had warmer layers readily at hand for our next destination, Jonsom, the gateway to Mustang (pronounced “moos-tang) situated at 9000 ft. Although just a 20-minute flight away via Yeti Airways, there is a narrow window of opportunity to actually take a fixed-wing aircraft into Jonsom due to the huge winds that build up in the pass between the mountains through which you fly… and the best chances for success are early (i.e. very early) in the morning.
Once above the haze of the Pokhara Valley, the mountains revealed themselves against an azure blue sky. Clusters of wild rhododendron in varying hues of pink were blooming on precipitous cliffs and snow-capped peaks beckoned us (some of the highest in the world!). This was our first genuine view of the Himalayas and it got the adrenalin racing. We landed safely in Jonsom and yes, the wind was blowing a gale! Jonsom is the administrative capital of the Mustang region and has a population of just 1100 people, a third of which are government and military officials assigned there. Down jackets and fleece layers were donned and we set off for the short transfer to the Mustang Mountain Resort where we stayed two nights. It was a gorgeous day – one of the best of our whole trip– and arriving at the 60-room lodge, we could not stop taking pictures and taking in the spectacular view. The resort overlooks the Kali Gandaki River Valley and faces Nilgiri and Tilicho, perhaps slightly lesser known, but majestic peaks nonetheless, at 7061 meters and 7134 meters respectively.
Check-in procedures included a ritual toast with locally-made apple brandy – mind you it was only about 8:30 AM – but all in the name of warmth! The idea was to have a bit of down time in the morning to unpack, rest, acclimate to the elevation, etc. My room, #1202, was a spacious 1-bedroom suite with stunning views of snow-capped Nilgiri, a step out balcony and 1-1/2 baths…the only slight hiccups were that a.) the central heating was not working so we were dependent on electric space heaters (which terrifyingly, tended to go “snap, crackle and pop” in the night) and b.) the pipes were frozen so hot water was non-existent and tepid water intermittent at best, in spite of my good looking plurality of bathrooms. No worries though… I’d packed for every eventuality and temperature swing and the views alone could make you forgive just about anything. I withdrew to the “Sunroom,” which has floor to ceiling windows, big inviting and comfy chairs and much needed, nearby plugs. I happily re-charged devices, downloaded and edited photos and indulged in a few cat naps while basking in the warmth of the morning sun.
Our afternoon excursion was first to the village of Sayang where we climbed a steep slope to look at a few chortens and stupas, all in the name of practicing for tomorrow which would be another 2000ft higher. From there we progressed a bit further south along dusty tracks to the town called Marpha – and we’re not talking Marfa, Texas!! (Although I think there is a great opportunity for some sort of cross cultural exchange or sister city-hood.) We were met at the city gate by the self-appointed mayor of the town, Mr. Bhakti, an elderly gent, who escorted us with admirable pride of residency – picking up infants from mothers’ arms and introducing us to locals along our walk. The cobbled streets twisted and turned in a medieval labyrinth; we scaled a seemingly impossible flight of steps to visit a monastery, we stopped at our guide’s house for a glass of cider (apples, being a local specialty), and bought some local honey for my mother who is a newly anointed beekeeper. We encountered trekkers from all over the world (who spoke flawless English) seeking refuge in Marpha’s guest houses after big days through chest-deep snowy passes. It was one of those days that you were sorry to conclude… but there was more in store…
Tonight we were joined by Tshiring Sherpa, Managing Director of Yeti Airlines and a visionary in the tourism, trekking, aviation and hospitality industries, his business partner and Director of Operations, Hemant Kolachapati, and our special guest, His Majesty, the Crown Prince of Mustang, who just happened to be my dinner partner this evening. Such excitement in the frosty backwaters of Nepal, and this, not even three weeks after meeting the Duchess of Cambridge!! Tshiring and Hemant own the hotel in which we were staying in Jonsom, and are in the process of renovating it from the previous owners. As I chatted up the Prince, we dined on the most delicious Tibetan soup which was served family-style in steaming samovars with hot coals in a center tube that kept the contents boiling (literally) hot! It had glass noodles, chicken, vegetables and deep fried condiments on top… nothing not to like! The Prince was here in place of his elderly father who was ill and has three children: the eldest son has just graduated with an MBA and will be looking after a Guest House project in Lo Manthang, the younger son is a Buddhist monk and his daughter is a sophomore at a university in our neighboring state, West Virginia! He was delightful company, spoke brilliant English and answered dozens of questions we had about Mustang, which only opened to western tourism in 1992. Tomorrow we’d be visiting his home town of Lo Manthang and have tea at the palace!
We retired early to the welcome warmth of electric blankets and hot water bottles in our beds.