In part one of three, we follow our guide into the ancient and achingly beautiful Himalayan region of Mustang.
Part 1: The walk to Kagbeni
I gaze out the window at the impossible, ice-capped mountains of Annapurna. Drenched in sun and snow, and scarred by countless centuries of caustic wind, the complexity of their towering forms seems too great to process. Unable to take their full measure I am filled with a primitive sense of awe.
I am seated in a small propeller plane bound for Jomsom, a transit hub in the Himalayan region of Mustang, Nepal. Though we cruise at an altitude several thousand metres above sea level we are nonetheless dwarfed by the passing peaks, many of which exceed six kilometers in height. Even when utilising one of mankind’s greatest achievements, we are still condemned to fly in nature’s shadow.
Mustang is an area that has long occupied my daydreams. While its lower valleys are regularly transversed by trekkers on the Annapurna Trail, the upper region boasts some of the most isolated and well-preserved Tibetan cultures in the world. Those who brave the arduous trek northwards are the lucky few to lay eyes upon the Lost Kingdom of Lo, behind whose ancient walls flourishes a way of life unchanged for centuries.
Sadly on this visit I’ll have to confine myself to the lower region. My lack of experience with high altitude — when considered with the hefty $500 USD price tag for a permit to Upper Mustang — places the Lost Kingdom outside my grasp for the time being.
Our aircraft has perhaps twenty seats. Though I’ve been on smaller planes (and I’ll never forget my low altitude, six-seater flight over the Caribbean) I’ve reason to believe this is one of my riskier flights: a few weeks ago a plane on this route slammed into the cold earth, killing twenty-three people. The flight path from Pokhara to Jomsom, complicated by difficult terrain, strong winds and thick fog, is notoriously difficult. My own departure was delayed four hours due to poor weather conditions.
Still, we seem to soar over the valleys and lesser peaks without issue as the terrain beneath us alternates between dense snowfields, high altitude desert and occasional bursts of greenery. Every so often I spot a village that has managed to carve out a life for itself in this harsh landscape. It can’t be easy. In such conditions, men can be but interlopers. That the Tibetan people have managed to survive so long in such an unforgiving environment speaks to both their ingenuity and perseverance.
I’m woken from my musing when the plane lurches violently to the left. We circumambulate the face of a mountain in mid-descent before unexpectedly touching down on the runway of Jomsom airport.
As I step out onto the tarmac I can’t help but break into a big, dumb grin. The view is stunning. To one side stands a huge mound of scarred, soft clay. Behind it lurks larger earthy forms spotted with sparse shrubs of reddy-brown which seem to shoot out at gravity-defying angles. Opposite, a few layers of lesser mountains precede the majestic form of Nilgiri whose peak stands a full seven kilometres above sea level.
After reclaiming our luggage my guide Raju and I begin our trek toward Kagbeni, first passing through the quiet streets of Jomsom with its whitewashed houses and cobblestone lanes. At the edge of town, the land opens up before us in an immense valley. This is the domain of Kali Gandaki, “The Black River”, whose source is an enormous glacier up against the Tibetan border and whose ultimate destination is the holy Ganges. Rich in fossils and gemstones, this 80 million-year-old stream has existed longer than the Himalayas. While at this time of year the river’s flow is mild, its glacial-blue waters still cut a beautiful contrast against the grey riverbed of alluvial sand and pulverised stone.
As we walk along the valley floor I begin to notice distortions in both my sense of time and space. Though we’ve taken hundreds of steps, the sheer immensity of our surroundings makes it seem as though we haven’t progressed an inch. The monotony of visual and auditory stimuli — the regular crunch of gravel, the clinking of stones, the infinite number of rocks of various shapes and sizes, the towering mountains — work to dislodge my awareness of the passage of time. Our path seems boundless, infinite.
Every so often, a gust of wind viciously whips through the canyon, carrying with its dust to sting my eyes and face. The mountains on either side seem to intensify its rage. The surrounding rock walls bear heavy scars from the wind’s fury, giving shape to intricate, alien designs. Taking Raju’s cue, I cover my face with my scarf.
A family of deeply tanned Thakali people — local inhabitants who superficially resemble the Tibetans to the north — trudge past us, each member wrapped multiple layers of rough cloth. With downcast eyes and the wind biting at their faces, their disposition is anything but mirthful. They stop to signal before a small, rough-hewn stupa before continuing their sullen journey.
After an indeterminable amount of time (was it two hours? Three?) the small town of Kagbeni begins to emerge in the distance; a green oasis amidst the barren wastes. A murder of crows gather in a barley field on the town’s outskirts. One by one they rise up in the strong wind, hanging suspended in the breeze for a minute or two before gliding effortlessly back down to the earth.
Following the path we pass a grove of apple trees, their skeletal pink frames giving no hint of the post-monsoon bloom to come. We soon come to a simple guesthouse on the edge of town built with mud brick walls traditional to the area. My room looks south over the barley fields, back towards Jomsom where Nilgiri’s epic peak towers in the distance.
After a short rest, I decide to explore the village. I walk the narrow cobblestone lanes, snaking under and around crumbling houses of whitewashed stone that seem to have sunk into the earth under the sheer weight of the centuries, occasionally having to step around goats or ragged cows, or else greet the elderly townspeople who sit in their doorsteps whiling away the hours fingering prayer beads or quietly intoning mantras for the wellbeing of mankind.
Near the centre of town, I reach Kagbeni’s Gompa, a six-hundred-year-old, earthen-red temple of mud and stone. The monument makes a powerful impression on me. It seems to perfectly encapsulate the humility and reverence with which the Tibetans regard the natural world. It is imposing without being ornate or gaudy, maintaining a fitting sense of organic origin.
A husky-voiced young monk appears at my side and offers to lead me through the temple. On the walls of the main prayer hall hang a series of terrifying masks depicting animals and demons with crazed expressions. These ritual masks represent the once-wrathful deities of Tibet’s pre-Buddhist, shamanic past. It is said that when the Guru Padmasambhava first introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th Century, he was able to cow these old mountain gods and convert them into defenders of the Buddhist faith.
(Here I pause to observe the similarities with Myanmar, whose local form of Buddhism also absorbed elements of the region’s pre-existing folk religion. Animist Nat spirits have also been relegated to the position of lesser deities, allowing for their continued existence within Burmese Buddhism, albeit in a subservient form.)
Continuing through the town I pass a crude barn with a wooden gate that had been completely covered with yak-skin. Stopping to take a closer look a strange sound fills my ears. Two old men are singing devotional songs from their nearby homes. I sit and listen to the music, gently drifting away to the drone as it reverberates around the stone courtyard. A young buffalo approaches me cautiously and then freezes, too unsure of my presence to pass by.
Doubling back, I trail another lane towards the northern edge of the village, coming to a long line of prayer wheels set alongside several rough-hewn chörten (stupas); its surrounding walls are piled high with prayer stones. Before me stretches a desolate expanse of desert, grey rock, and white stone. This is the gateway to Upper Mustang and the Kingdom of Lo. Once more I feel the pull of this enchanting area, and for a brief moment consider rushing out to embrace that despairing landscape. Instead, I placate myself with a promise to return soon to make the hard five-day trek to Lo Manthang.
As I walk back through town the sun is slowly lowering. I pass a young man driving his herd of buffalo home for the night, lazily stinging the hides of stragglers with a deft movement of his whip.
Yak and buffalo play an important role for Himalayan peoples. In Kagbeni, I see numerous houses with skulls mounted above their doorframes, streaked and dotted with colourful markings and accompanied by woven circles that resemble crude dreamcatchers. In other instances, the decapitated heads of these great beasts are mounted with the hair and flesh still on them. These perhaps gruesome totems are throwbacks to the shamanic, pre-Buddhist religions of the region; mounting the skulls of sacrificed animals represents an offering to protect against the wrath of local deities.
On my way home a weathered old Tibetan man calls to me from the doorway of his shop. Having been cloaked in silence for most the day, the interaction is more than welcome. I walk inside and take my time slowly looking through his wares, being sure to ask about anything that looks interesting or unfamiliar. Finally, I selected a small bronze locket engraved with the sacred Om; a talisman designed to protect the travellers on a long journey.
The man’s son sits nearby, occasionally expanding on his father’s monosyllabic English as I browse. He looks perhaps twenty, though with typically youthful Tibetan features it is hard to be sure. The boy’s name is Tenzin, and we soon strike up a conversation. I learn he was born a few hours south of Jomsom in a prosperous town called Marpha. For a living, he teaches English in the town’s monastery, but has in the past taught down in the flatlands around Pokhara. While his son spoke, Tenzin’s father eagerly showed me postcards that depicted each town he mentioned.
Tenzin began to tell me his father’s story. While most people in the village are Thakali — a group descended from Tibetans, but with their own unique language and culture — his father is one of the few born on the Tibetan mainland. In the late sixties, and at just five years old, Tenzin fled with his family over the mountains on horseback. By that stage, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans had been murdered in the wake of the 1959 uprising against the Chinese.
Before I notice, half an hour has passed. With evening nearing, I thank Tenzin and his father for their hospitality and take my leave. As a parting gift, Tenzin’s father hands me some weathered images of Jharkot and Lo Manthang. I am profoundly appreciative for having met them.
Returning to my guesthouse I am delighted to see Nilgiri’s white peak emerge from behind the mass of clouds that had obscured it most the day. In spite of the buffeting wind I clamber to the building’s rooftop and watch the setting sun cast monolithic shadows over the landscape. When it finally disappears behind the mountains an icy chill to the wind forces me back inside.
Kagbeni is an unspeakably beautiful town. Against the odds, it has retained a strong sense of the traditional Tibetan culture that has occupied the region for centuries — but new roads have made Lower Mustang more accessible than ever before, making the erosive effects of encroaching modernity a very real threat. The sooner you can visit this magical place, the better.
This piece was originally published at The Big Smoke.