Frank Husslage explores the once forbidden Kingdom of Mustang in the remote Nepalese Himalaya. He finds monks, seashells and shamanism and wishes he could better capture on film the vibrancy and beauty of the area.
Today my body feels like it has changed a bit. At sunrise my kidneys were somewhere under my lungs, like in any normal human. Now, with the sun setting over the Himalaya, my kidneys are somewhere between my ears. Maybe the mystical atmosphere I encountered on entering the Kingdom of Mustang made this happen.
Or maybe it is the result of being shaken for eight hours while travelling the 160km between Pokhara and Kagbeni by car. It’s one of the disadvantages of going on a trip these days: you have to have a job to pay for it, but this job also reduces the amount of time you can spend in the outdoors. It’s not only that it would have been better for my kidneys, but I would have loved to have walked this leg of the journey. Travelling over land between Pokhara and Kagbeni, the gateway to Mustang, leads through the deepest gorge on earth. The tiny river Kali Gandhaki was here long before the Himalaya started to grow. But it cut through the rocks faster than they rose. These days the 8000m+ summits of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri tower more than 6000m above this river, which separates the two massifs. I would have loved to discover this valley on foot.
The Kingdom of Mustang
We travelled along this river from the green, rainy side of the Himalaya to the dry, high-altitude desert on the northern side. In the space of a few kilometres the world changes from green to brown. This is where Mustang starts.
Mustang, one of the world’s most mystical places. Mustang, a kingdom along a caravan route between the barren Tibetan plateau and the lush green plains of India.
Until about 20 years ago, Mustang was closed to all foreigners. Very few westerners had visited the kingdom up until then. Perhaps the most well known of them was Michel Peissel, who describes his visit in the book Mustang, a lost kingdom. Although he made his trip in the 1960s, his book is still a very useful cultural guide to the kingdom.
These days Mustang is open to visitors. Permits cost US$50 per person per day for a minimum of 10 days, in addition to the obligatory Annapurna and Tims permits. This, together with the poor infrastructure, is sufficient to keep most people from going further than Kagbeni.
Altitude, acclimatisation and, erm, appendages
Two good nights’ rest in Kagbeni does a world of good to my kidneys. It feels like they’re more or less back where they belong. And that’s good news, because I need them badly for acclimatisation. From Kagbeni (2800m) the journey into Mustang climbs swiftly to almost 4000m. Yesterday, to aid our acclimatisation, we hiked up to Muktinath (3800m), a very important and sacred place for Hindus, before returning. Today we head north, further up the Kali Ghandaki. As we leave Kagbeni and enter the real Mustang, we’re blessed by the Khenis of Kagbeni. The female statue is at the entrance to the oldest part of the village. The male statue, with a huge sword and wooden penis, chases the spirits away from the northern entrance. On entering Mustang, we enter a medieval world of ghosts, gods and mysticism.
Deities, devils and demons
This country is filled with powerful deities, devils and demons. Most of the time they might not be harmful, but people don’t even contemplate tempting them because the results might be disastrous. Evidence of this way of life can be seen everywhere: prayer flags are abundant, skulls of rams and dogs are nailed to the walls to protect houses from evil from the sky and the earth, and where shamans once worked you find diamond-shaped ghost-catchers. Perhaps the most picturesque of all are the ringsum gonpos. You see this trinity of red, white and grey in any form and any material, from tiny pebble constructions to painted ram-horns, from big chortens to brightly coloured rock-faces. These ringsum gonpos evoke the most powerful gods from Tibetan Buddhism and protect people against evil from the sky, ground or water.
Since I am already starting to acclimatise, the walking is easy. Maybe a bit too easy. I had hoped to walk only on small tracks for a fortnight, but we follow a broad, dusty road. The Chinese are helping their neighbours into their bright, admirable future by building a road from the Tibetan border to Pokhara. You see this kind of ‘help’ everywhere in Nepal these days. Good for the Nepalese, bad for tourism. On the southern side of the mountains the scenery is being destroyed in many places. On this side, completely barren and with no forests to mask it, the visual effect of every road is catastrophic. As Sanu, our guide, explains: ‘Many of the old tracks are being destroyed. Other tracks are not in use anymore and therefore not maintained. The traditional infrastructure will be gone in a few years, erased by erosion.’
Not nameless beauty-spots
Soon the road leads just above Tangbe. Like almost all settlements, Tangbe is built in a bend in the river. In this way the people and the fields are protected from the daily fierce afternoon storms, which blow warm air from the Indian plains into Tibet. The last autumn leaves of the apple orchards are a bright, colourful accent in the browns of the surrounding rock-faces. We’re lucky we extended our permits, so we have time to look around.
Most tourists try to reach the capital, Lo Mantang, as quickly as possible, this city being the highlight of their running-up-and-down-the-kingdom-on-a-ten-day-permit trip. They don’t have time to explore these more or less nameless spots. Tangbe isn’t nameless; its name should be written in capitals.
Together with the nearby village of Tetang, it’s possibly the most beautiful, picturesque gathering of buildings in Mustang.
The alleys are narrow, to keep the winds out. Almost every pebble is painted with one of the innumerable shades of ochre found in the vicinity. Perhaps the most scenic spot is the gate of ancestors on the north-western side of the village. As in Kagbeni, a mud-made great-grandfather guards the village against intruders and blesses travellers leaving his village.
Crossing an iron bridge over the Kali Ghandaki brings us back to Peissel’s book. An enormous cliff hangs against its neighbour, leaving just a small cave for the river to pass through. Where Peissel’s black and white pictures show rock and dust, there are now huge, colourful Chinese caterpillars busy spoiling the environment, producing even more dust than there was in Peissel’s time. We’re glad we can leave the road. Having got to know us a little, our guide Sanu knows that the more spectacular the tracks he chooses, the more we’ll enjoy our trip. Unfortunately, even on the narrowest tracks the dust follows us for most of the day.
The undulating track leads us through one of the most spectacular gorges I have ever seen.
It brings us to Chungsi’s cave. It is one of the many caves in this country where hermits used to live, most of these dwellings being more or less inaccessible. The rock-faces are so steep I expect it to be impossible for the track to continue. Luckily, after every corner it turns out to be okay. The cave extends to a small cloister, filled with hundreds of statues and stuffed with prayer flags. As in so many spots in the Himalaya, it’s impossible for me to ascertain whether this should be identified as a Buddhist or a Hindu sanctuary.
Rocks, erosion, hundreds of shades of brown
To travel in Mustang is to marvel at the scenery. The only description is ‘stunning’. Yes, there are beautiful villages and even more beautiful gompas, caves and medieval fortresses. But the never-ending story of the kingdom is in the scenery.
Pictures, however beautiful they might be, cannot tell the story. Only walking here will do the trick.
Even on a dull, grey day, our arrival in the valley of Dhakmar amazes me. In one direction the brown rocks transition into a bluish grey; in the opposite direction is a rock-climber’s nightmare in red. Indeed, Red with a capital letter. In the hours it takes us to get from the Nyi La to the rocks, the clouds disappear, making the colour come alive. Later the setting sun only increases the reds to an unbelievable intensity. It’s easy to understand the local stories, which say that these rocks were painted long ago with the blood of a defeated demon.
Even with a cloudy sky the next morning, the towering red rocks impress us, as we sneak via steep, narrow tracks to the plateau above. A long and more or less level crossing of this plateau leads to Lo Mantang. All day, in the far distance, the white summits of the Mutinath Himal shimmer over the valleys. It’s a long day’s walk via uninhabited slopes. Ghar Gompa, the only building we pass today, might offer a room to stay overnight in future. Now the only thing on offer is a very welcome cup of noodles in a smokey but nice, warm kitchen.
Our arrival above the walled city of Lo Mantang is a bit disappointing – as always, when at last you encounter something you’ve heard and read so much about. But it’s also down to how quickly developments are built. The new buildings around the walled city will increase year on year, and where I think ‘I should have been here 20 years ago’, people coming here 20 years hence will think the same. The city itself is smaller than I expected – less than 1km by 1km. It is also more or less empty. Except for maybe 20 tourists and a few shopkeepers, everybody else has left for the plains of Nepal and India, escaping the approaching cold of winter. The alleys are very narrow, leaving hardly any room to pass the cows that walk back to their stables in the afternoon. The more I try to capture the town in photographs, the more I appreciate the drawings made by Robert Powell in his book, Earth door sky door. As a draftsman using paper and pencil, he chose the best way to depict the buildings in their full glory.
In contrast to the cramped existence within the walls, outside Lo Mantang there’s plenty of room. Two valleys lead to the Tibetan border. The nature of the terrain makes it possible to venture out without a guide, however, being so close to the Chinese frontier guards, no guide will allow you to do this. This frontier country is sprinkled with old and even older fortresses in various stages of decay. The oldest shelters are the cave villages, where the first people who populated the region lived, and where people continue to live to this day. Stories about hermits are plentiful. The many caves being used for sacred purposes are easy to distinguish from the lay ones by the ringsum gonpo colours they’re adorned with. The most famous and accessible cave system is around Choser, where a complete gompa is built around one of the caves.
The monk showing us his gompa is more than proud of his old books, some from the pre-Buddhist era. After he has discussed these books with my two Nepalese companions, I take a picture. Showing him the picture, one of the best of this entire trip in my opinion, he objects. ‘That is not me, it is only my two hands,’ he gestures. The monk presses me to take one more picture, showing him in his entirety, outside, in the full sunshine and a blazing sandstorm.
Seashells at 3500m
One easy day of walking on a rim with a panoramic view, descending via a long, steep and dusty gully into a fossil-laden riverbed, connects the Choser caves to the even more famous cave system of Yara. Living by the Dutch seaside, I love collecting shells.
How strange to be at 3500m, with no sea for thousands of kilometres, spotting shells in the earth.
The Himalaya were once part of a seabed, which rose to its actual height when two tectonic plates collided. The Kali Ghandaki is littered with fossilised ammonites and squids. The ammonites depict the Hindu deity Vishnu and are collected and sold by the thousand to Indian Hindus, who need them on their household altars. While we scramble through the riverbed, we are overlooked by caves. The fairy-tale eroded rock-face overlooking the river is home to dozens of caves. Once these were hidden in the wall, but erosion exposed some of them to the light of day. The original inhabitants have long passed.
Later, as the sun sets over the rim, the actual inhabitants come home for the night. These huge vultures lived here long before the arrival of mankind. They will keep these inaccessible caves after man, in his madness, has destroyed this beautiful part of the world.