Bidding bumpy roads and vehicles goodbye, we embarked on a pair of Tshiring’s 5-passenger helicopters which would be our main means of transport for the next several days… oooh la la la… what a luxury (assuming the weather cooperates which thanks to all of the Buddhist, Hindu and Christian gods pulling for us, it did!). We left early for our best shot at good weather and low winds, and today we flew about 30 minutes due north to the 600-year old capital of Mustang, Lo Manthang, home village of the Crown Prince (who traces his succession to the throne back 26 generations) and supposedly one of the last strongholds of pure Tibetan culture. Closed to foreigners until 1992, and still tightly controlled, the very word “Mustang” conjures up a healthy wave of wanderlust, and visiting this medieval fifedom was well beyond getting “off the grid…” Due to its remoteness (access is via helicopter or an arduous 7-day trek) and the fact that my “Insight Guide” to Nepal only covered the region of Mustang tangentially with 3 pages designated out of 350 to this area confirmed that we were in for something special.
We flew over canyons and terraced fields into a very stark, deeply contoured landscape that vaguely reminded me equally of Ladakh, Cappadocia in Turkey and Oman’s Musandam Peninsula. This is a high-elevation desert – far removed from the fertile valleys further south and just a 4-hour walk to the Tibetan border (which is closed at present). Culturally, linguistically, and geographically, it has far more in common with Tibet than it does with the rest of Nepal. In fact the Dali Lama passed through Lo Manthang when he fled from Tibet in 1952! I was in the first chopper and we landed in a barley field, whose surface glistened in the early morning frost. Now at 12,500 ft, and bundled in extra layers, we set out to explore. There was no welcoming committee and we almost felt like early explorers approaching the stone walls of the village. Mustang has always been known by its residents simply as “Lo” which means kingdom and currently there are just 35,000 inhabitants in the whole region of Mustang, 1,100 of whom live in Lo Manthang (although it seemed that everyone was inside this morning!).
Flat roofed, Tibetan-style mud-brick, two-story houses are the norm here – the ground level serves as a stable for the animals and people live on the second level. Wood, a precious resource in this tree-less environment, is stockpiled on the roofs and cow dung is gathered and dried as the main fuel source. We navigated narrow lanes with mounds of snow still evident from one of their worst winters (obviously Mustang has been channeling Massachusetts this year!). The rest of our group arrived and we proceeded to the palace to meet the Prince for tea. The palace has an unassuming entrance and we ascended to a third story via ladder-like wooden steps where alas, it was WARM, thanks to a very efficient wood stove in the center of the brightly painted room. Pet dogs wandered in and curled up by the fire and I opted for hot chocolate (which I later learned was made with yak milk—delicious nonetheless) and we had crispy delights called “khapsyo,” which I would describe as a hybrid between a cookie and a doughnut made from wheat flour and yak butter.
The Prince (whose father was stripped of his royal powers in 2008, in line with the abolition of Nepal’s own monarchy) is still revered today by his subjects and showed us his father’s prayer room and his library with a priceless collection of Buddhist texts and antique scrolls. When we asked what “keeps him up at night…” it’s the exodus of children being educated in Pokhara and Kathmandu or abroad and with better opportunities elsewhere, not returning to Lo… a brain-drain of sorts, which I suspect is not only Mustang’s, but Nepal’s, biggest challenge.
Afterwards we visited two “gompas” (monasteries), one 14th and the other 15th century, and the treasure trove of the town. In its day, Lo was a renowned center for Buddhist learning and art. Photography was strictly prohibited and the Prince was very proud of the fact that his father had initiated dialogue with private individuals in the USA who pledged assistance in renovating these important pillars of history. As the day warmed up, we encountered 90-year old grannies doing morning rituals and children playing in the streets.
As I mentioned above, tourism is still tightly controlled – visitors are obliged to pay a $500 per person fee to come here, a disincentive to most trekkers, but those who come will be seriously rewarded—it’s like taking a step back in time. There are a few simple guest houses that operate in the main summer season, but the Prince has an exciting plan to open a higher end property in 2016 and his son is spear-heading this initiative.
Knowing that the winds would be kicking up in Jonsom, we took leave of this seemingly mythical Shangri-la and were whisked away in 21st century machines. There was a bit more turbulence on the way back – what the pilots call “shake” – as we rounded the corner into the Jonsom Valley, but we safely landed at the lodge and retreated to lunch. It was hard to believe it was only mid-day – we’d seen and done so much– and while some enjoyed a pony ride this afternoon, I retreated to my room to attempt a bucket shower and to sift through the memories of the morning.