Sunday, August 18, 2019

Trekking in Nepal's Mustang region - 15 Things You Need to Know When Planning a Trek

Upper Mustang is one of the most stunning corners of the Nepal Himalaya. If you've ever been drawn to Tibet, Ladakh or the remoter parts of Nepal, the chances are you'll love the barren beauty, traditional Transhimalayan villages and Tibetan-style monasteries and cave murals of this former Buddhist kingdom. Simply put, it's one of the world's great treks.

But it's changing. Fast. A lot of information in print and even online is now outdated, so here are 15 things you need to know about planning a visit to Mustang now. Anything from more than a couple of years ago is now invalid.

Trekkers on the road near Ghemi, dwarfed by the Annapurna range to the south.

1) Roads The main thing to know is that there is a dirt road now from Jomsom to Lo Manthang up the western side of upper Mustang, via the villages of Kagbeni, Samar, Syangboche, Geling, Ghemi and Tsirang (Charang). Traffic is light but there are at least a dozen jeeps a day, all of which will cover you in choking clouds of dust if you are walking along the dirt road. Of less significance is that the road now continues from Lo Manthang north to Choser and on to the China/Tibet border at the Kora La pass.

Walking on a road always sucks, so you really want to avoid the road as much as possible by making the following detours. The flipside for glass-half-full types is that you can now hire jeeps to cover all or part of the journey to Lo Manthang, shifting the trip from a trek into an adventurous 4WD or overland motorbike option.

Setting off on the upper Mustang trek from Kagbeni

2) Detour to the Chungsi Cave from Samar. The footpath detour from Samar village involves some climbing, a steepish descent and then a gradual climb, but it's worth it for the dramatic scenery and for the interesting cave of Guru Rinpoche, where you can do a small kora around an earth chorten covered in votive plaques, with several naturally arisen statues hidden in the darkness. Oddly the cave is looked after by two Hindu priests. It's wild and remote, and best of all it avoids the road. Overnight at guesthouses in Syangboche.

Descending to the Chungsi Cave

Admiring the cave chorten at Chungsi

3) Detour number two is from Ghemi via an impressive set of chortens to the dramatic red Drakmar cliffs. From here a steep switchbacking trail climbs over a pass to descend to overnight in Tsirang. The next day you can head up valley to visit Ghar Gompa, the oldest in Mustang, before climbing another pass to descend to Lo Manthang. This avoids the fairly dull road walk from Tsirang to Lo Manthang via the Sungda chorten.

Chorten en route to Drakmar
Caves burrow into the red cliffs of Drakmar

4) Budget some time in Tsirang (Charang). There's plenty to see in this charming traditional village, including the 16th-century Thubten Shedrup Dhargyeling Gompa and an old fort that was once home to the royal family and doubles as a small museum.

Descending to the oasis village of Tsirang, one of Mustang's largest settlements

5) If possible budget three days in Lo Manthang. You'll need one day inside the walled inner town to see the three amazing temples restored with Italian assistance. Day two can take you on a day hike northwest to Tingar, looping around to a cliffside cave retreat and then up to the fort above Lo Manthang. Day three could be a day trip to Choser or to Konchokling. With your own transport you could even drive to the Tibetan border at the Kora La.

Rooftop view of Lo Manthang
Cliffside meditation retreat across the valley from Tingar

6) Overnight in Choser. There are a couple of guesthouses in the village of Choser, a couple of hours walk north of Lo Manthang and almost no tourists stay there, so you'll get the place to yourself. Visit the monastery and the two cave complexes above town.
Inside the Nupchokling Caves above Choser
Climbing up through the four-storey cave complex of Jhong, near Choser

7) Visit the caves of Konchokling. This isn't an easy trip but if you are not afraid of heights it's well worth it. Firstly it's a hike (or 4WD drive) up a side valley, then a switchbacking climb to the end of the dirt road. Then the real hike starts on a sometimes fairly exposed path down and then up to a ridge top ruin. The trail then drops through eroded gullies before you lower yourself down a yak hair rope to finally reach the caves. Magic.

Eroded landscape around Konchokling
cave murals of Konchokling

8) Walk back via the east valley path. Road don't really connect the east valley path. It's a wilder, more remote and much less visited section that ended up being our favourite part of the trek. The scenery is wild and the villages are stunning. Note that there is one exposed section between Tangye and Chhusang that can be a bit hairy if you are afraid of heights.

Trekker descending to Dhi

9) Spend two nights in Yara and make the day trip to Luri Gompa. Yara is a lovely village with a series of photogenic wind-eroded cliffs to the west. Best of all is the day hike to the Tashi Kabum caves and on to Luri Gompa for some stunning examples of Buddhist cave art. A teahouse offers a chance to break before arriving back at Yara. 

Sensuous eroded cliff and caves of Yara
Scenery around Yara

10) Budget some time in Tangye and Tetang villages. These are two of the most atmospheric villages in Mustang. Unfortunately most trekkers arrive late and leave early but if you can arrange things to spend at least an hour poking about, you'll be happy.

Tangye village

11) You don't need to camp. There are guesthouses in every village, including Chele, Samar, Syangboche, Ghemi, Tsarang, Lo Manthang, Choser, Yara, Tangye, Tetang and Lubra.
Advertising, Lo Manthang

12) Finish off the trek from Tetang, leaving upper Mustang via views of the Thorung La and Nilgiri peak at the Gyu La, before dropping down to the Hindu pilgrimage site of Muktinath. Muktinath has become very busy in recent years so consider overnighting in Jhong or Jharkot instead. The next day continue to Jomsom via the roadless Lubra Valley.

Scenery around Jharkot in lower Mustang

13) Hire a jeep between Jomsom and Kagbeni. It's an unpleasant walk, windy and dusty and with hundreds of jeeps headed to Muktinath. Don't do it. 

Descending the Lubra valley from Muktinath at the end of the trek

14) For a really wild expedition-style camping trek, walk from Kagbeni to Dolpo; or from Tangye over the 5595m Teri La to Nar-Phu, or from Yara to peak climbing in the wild Damodar Himal. For these you'll need full agency help.

Trekkers leaving Yara village
15) Do Your Research Before visiting the restored murals in Lo Manthang be sure to watch the following documentaries: Lost Treasures of Tibet by Nova/PBS, Lost Caves of Tibet and Sky Caves of Nepal by National Geographic; and Mustang: A Kingdom on the Edge by Al Jazeera.

Stunning Buddhist mural art at Luri Gompa


Classic Pamiri Scenery of Gorno Badakhshan

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