Trekking in Upper Mustang: The Grand Canyon of Nepal

“Visit Upper Mustang before it’s too late”

The Lost Tibetan Kingdom of Mustang’ – soon it will be lost forever.

Upper Mustang, the ancient Kingdom of Nepal is in reality the most miraculous valley that exists in Nepal. Mustang literally hides behind the soaring snowy range of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna. This ancient kingdom of Mustang was closed to all foreigners until 1992. Mustang has very successfully managed to retain their culture without any influence from the outside world and modernization. Without doubt, its people have accomplished to preserve this magnificent trans-Himalayan kingdom.

A Journey to Upper Mustang is a journey of remarkable contrasts with vast and barren Tibetan landscapes. This beautiful kingdom offers, century’s old cliff hanging monasteries, cultured settlements with lush rice fields, and timeless traditions. Upper Mustang, a forbidden kingdom and a source to the world’s deepest gorge, Kali Gandaki is simply phenomenal.

Very popularly known as a desert of Nepal, Upper Mustang indeed has a mystical presence. It is very unique, fascinating and spiritual destination with legends and mystery among other trekking destinations of Nepal. However, every village in the upper Mustang is more like a mirage with lush green that unexpectedly surfaces in the middle of nowhere. However, the construction of COROLA highway connecting Tibet and Nepal is in some way purging the genuine fun of trekking in Mustang. Nevertheless, the charm of being in mystical Mustang and to experience its culture will remain intact. Below we lay few really good reasons on why visit Upper Mustang now – it’s Now or Never.

the 14th century royal palace in upper mustang

Visit Upper Mustang For:

  • Fascinating History
  • Exceptional Topography
  • Unique Culture and People
  • Amazing Attractions

1. Sky Caves.
2. Ancient Chortens.
3. Prehistoric Monasteries.
4. Royal Palaces

  • Ruined Forts, Impressive Hills and houses:

Fascinating History

Upper Mustang has rich history buried in legends and myths. To the local inhabitants of Mustang, this barren rain shadow, Tibet like region is ‘Lo’. Legends state that Ame Pal the first king of Lo founded mustang in the early 14th century. He built the Walled City of Lo during the same period which is now very popularly known as Lo-Manthang.

This city is considered to be the best preserved ‘Medieval Walled city’ in the world. History states that this enormous wall around the palace was built for security and to separate Royals from non-royals. Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista was the last king of Lo who was the direct 25th descendant of Ame Pal who died at the age of 86 on the 16th of December 2016.

The Fact:

During the Shah rule in Nepal, King Prithivi Narayan Shah in the 18th century began to consolidate Nepal into one. During which time the Gorkhas Army never actually seized Mustang, in-fact they recognized the rule of the Mustang king. However, in course of time Mustang became a part of Nepal yet the King retained his title and mustang maintained its sovereignty.

Mustang or Lo was an independent state until 1951. However, during the rule of King Tribhuvan Shah Mustang was consolidated further to Nepal. As per the agreement the king of mustang was automatically granted the honorary rank of Colonel in the Nepalese Army.

With the Chinese invasion in Tibet in the 1960’s Mustang became the center for ferocious Tibetan guerrilla soldiers known as ‘Khampas’. The secret operation of Khampas in Lo fighting against the Chinese ended sometime around 1970’s. Though after obtaining special permission many travelers visited Upper Mustang but this forbidden Kingdom started allowing legal foreign trekkers in March 1992.

It is still a restricted area for which foreigners require special permits from the immigration office of Nepal. The book ‘Mustang – The Forbidden Kingdom’ by Michel Peissel caters anyone with vivid information about Upper Mustang.

why visit upper mustang - picture of the late king of Upper Mustang - Nepal

Special Topography:

Upper Mustang has been proven to be under water for many years and with the folding of mountain the water shifted further to the South. So the landscape formation in Upper Mustang looks much like dried-out ocean. It’s arid, dry and very strong wind howls through the valley almost all through the year. Being a rain shadow area Mustang receives very little or no rain than to the rest of the areas of Nepal. However, it snows in winter. Being a rain shadow area Mustang has always been a great place to trek during the monsoon in Nepal. Hills around Mustang are very picturesque and colorful. The enormous wind eroded hills stand resilient with unique designs which are simply phenomenal.

Upper Mustang is a source to river Kali Gandaki which is older than the Himalayas – 80 million years old. Kali Gandaki further cuts the valley to the south of Nepal forming the valley as the World’s Deepest Gorge. Besides, the Kali Gandaki Route has well served as a significant route during Salt Trade Era between Tibet and Nepal. The water resources at an interval of couple of hours distance gave way to beautiful human settlements which looks like a mirage in the desert.

Unique Culture and People:

In this region of ‘The Lost Tibetan Kingdom’, one can observe the interesting influence of Tibetan Buddhism. The abundant spiritual ancient Chortens, Prayer walls, paintings and monasteries sincerely demonstrates the Tibetan Buddhism influence. Significantly, this route has been used by the Indian saint Guru Padmasambhava (750 – 810 AD) to reach Tibet.

Guru Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rimpoche was the founder of now Tibetan Buddhism. He created a fusion between Buddhism with original Shamanistic Tibetan religion of ‘Bon’. This fusion is the reason why Tibetan Buddhism is so fascinating. His image, idol or painting is almost everywhere in the monasteries, shrines or homes of Mustang. Guru Rimpoche built the first ever Tibetan Buddhism monastery, Ghar Gompa in the 8th century and now happens to be the oldest in the world.

The people of Upper Mustang call themselves Lobas which signifies the ‘people of Lo’. They are the people famous for their hard work and trade efficiency. Besides, they are peace loving people who always bore a beautiful smile on their face. The practice of Polyandry was popular among the inhabitants of Mustang – but not anymore.

Though time and again there has been external influence yet the people of Mustang have managed to retain their culture very well. Every year in the month of May Mustang celebrates one of their major festival called Tiji Festival. It’s a prayer for ‘Peace’. Both local and international tourists visit Upper Mustang during this festival.

Amazing Attractions:

Entry to Upper Mustang itself is very dramatic as you fly through the World’s Deepest Gorge, Kali Gandaki. This short flight is spectacular with the view of the World’s highest peaks of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. We land in the beautiful town of Jomsom, the administrative center of Mustang and popularly known as the ‘Windy Valley of Nepal’. The scenic Nilgiri range dominates the town of Jomsom which is simply remarkable. Visit Upper Mustang for the following significant attractions.

Sky Caves:

As we enter the restricted area of Mustang and trek into its amazing valley we witness ample sky high colorful cliffs at its best. These cliffs are riddled with amazing Sky Caves. Some of these CAVES dates back to over 3,000 years. Legend has it that Lo-Manthang sustains more than 10,000 sky caves carved into these high cliffs. These caves give you the account of prehistoric human settlements.

During early years they were used as Homes, later burial chambers, then space for enlightenment and now they are used as shrines or tourist attractions. Moreover, some of these caves bear the prehistoric paintings of immense worth. The Jhong Sky Cave in Chhosar is very fascinating that has about 42 compartments where ancient Tibetan lived thousands of years ago.

Ancient Chortens:

Every settlements of Upper Mustang are marked by ancient Chortens (spiritual monuments). Every now and then we encounter dramatic Chortens designed with different patterns, symbols and colors. The village of Tsarang is famous as the ‘land of Chortens’. They have great symbolic significance and some of these stands over 30 feet tall. We come across to these mystical Chortens right from the very first day we get to Jomsom. However, there are variation in terms of size and color that signifies diverse religious values.

the spiritual chortens in the region of upper mustang

Prehistoric Monasteries:

Being a land of real Tibetan Buddhism, Upper Mustang delivers you with abundant ancient monasteries. It’s a place were we find the oldest Tibetan monastery in the world, Ghar Gompa built in the 8th century by Guru Rimpoche or Guru Padmasambhava. The monasteries built almost all over upper mustang bear ancient relics and paintings of great religious value. Most of these date back to 13th century. They exhibit prehistoric paintings and mandalas that demonstrates the skills of Classical Tibetan Monastic Architecture of the Sakyapa.

This Classical Tibetan era was indeed one of the most distinguished period in the history of Tibetan Artistry. However, due to poor roofing of these ancient monasteries the priceless paintings are being washed off by rain and leakage. So for the last many years restoration of these paintings are going on in Upper Mustang.

Besides all these the 4 storied palace in Lo-Manthang, the king’s summer palace in Thinggar and the palace of Tsarang are of great significance. They establish great architectural craftsmanship of that age.

Ruined Fortress, Impressive Hills and Houses:

Furthermore, over every settlement you would see plenty of ruined forts. Over the hill ridges you would witness the remains of forts and watch-towers which explain that during some time mustang had numerous constituencies. Each constituency was highly fortified by their armies and these watch towers. Trekking high up to these hills and visit these forts are very sensational.

The landscapes in upper mustang are more like the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Among the multi-color hills some of the hills are blood red color and blue. It is very true that the people of mustang paints their houses with natural color paint that they get from these hills.

The houses in Upper mustang are made from sun-baked mud-bricks, rocks and willow wood pillars. The crafting of all these houses are so amazing that each of Mustang villages’ exists like an amusing maze. It’s a sensational experience to go around these ancient villages. Their structure makes the whole of mustang look very primitive yet very enchanting. The medieval city of upper mustang with all these is simply mesmerizing. All this clearly verifies an answer to the question why visit Upper Mustang now. It indeed a once in a life time experience.

remains of ruined fortress and watch towers in Upper Mustang

‘The Lost Tibetan Kingdom of Mustang’ – soon it will be lost forever.

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