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Kagbeni lying at an altitude of just over 2800m is also as far as you can go into Mustang without a (costly) "Upper Mustang permit". The mighty Nilgiri peaks look down on Kagbeni, yet Kagbeni is 'behind' the Himalayas and protected by the mountains from the monsoon. You can literally see for yourself where the Himalayas end and the arid, desert landscapes of the Tibetan plateau begin. This 'other worldly' landscape is nothing short of spectacular. The hills are a multitude of shades, and the strong winds carve the steep sides of the Kali Gandaki into fascinating, natural sculptures. This is the land of the Lammergeir and Golden Eagle. The former is readily seen, particularly in the mornings riding the thermals. As this is also one of the lowest natural crossing points of the Himalayas, birds migrating from India to Tibet use this route in large numbers. Good news for the Golden Eagles.
For centuries, the small Tibetan influenced village of Kagbeni in Mustang has been a 'passing through' place. Lying on the once major trading route between Tibet and India, trading caravans have been stopping off at Kagbeni after crossing the arid Tibetan plateau or before descending the Kali Gandaki Valley. Kagbeni is also a welcome sight for adventurous trekkers whom have just descended from the Thorung La on the Annapurna Circuit.
As well as exploring Kagbeni at a leisurely place, you can also venture onto the vast river bed and look for fossils of sea creatures. We're serious. This river bed at 2800m was once the bottom of the Tethys Sea. Usually your guide will be able to take you into the 'forbidden zone' for a day walk to a tiny Mustang village an hour or so further up the valley. It's on the 'other' side of the valley and as it's neither on the trekking or jeep route to Lo Manthang it's anything but touristy and thus a great place to observe Mustang life unchanged.
An 18 minute spectacular flight from Pokhara to Jomsom and then a short ride by jeep is now all that it takes to reach Kagbeni and the edge of the "forbidden zone". Even if you venture no further, to gain an insight into this very different landscape of what lies behind the Himalayas is definitely worth it.
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The former "Kingdom of Lo", nowadays more often referred to as Upper Mustang was famously off limits to all foreigners until 1992.
Even now a "special permit" is required to enter the "Forbidden Kingdom of Mustang", as Upper Mustang beyond the village of Kagbeni remains a restricted area.
Even now only around 2,000 tourists per year venture into Upper Mustang. Compare that with the 55,000 or so that undertake the Everest Base Camp trek alone. The costly permit (around $US 500 per person) and the stipulation that you must also have a licensed guide helps keep Mustang special and the backpackers out. There's also the relentless high altitude and the wild, unforgiving landscape too. Oh....and the challenging climate too. Winter time up here in Mustang is harsh as the bitterly cold winds from Central Asia blight the region.
However, when the rest of Nepal is being drenched by the monsoon rains, the mighty Himalayas "protect" Mustang from the monsoon and hence the region, which lies on the Tibetan Plateau is essentially arid. A high altitiude desert of weird and wonderful wind eroded landscapes.
Sparsely populated, Mustang is where Tibetan Buddhism still thrives.
The best time to visit Upper Mustang (i.e. beyond Kagbeni and to Lo Manthang) is from late March to early November.
One thing has changed though. No longer do you have to trek "high and hard" to reach Lo Manthang. A jeep track now extends all the way from Pokhara to Lo Manthang. Still "high and wild" and a very adventurous road trip through the Himalayas. But, the impossible is now possible.
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The fabled "walled city" of Lo Manthang is one that many a Himalayan connoisseur has dreamed about visiting. The capital of the former Kingdom of Mustang is actually just a small village of around 180 homes. Even now Lo Manthang feels ancient. A maze of narrow stone flagged alleyways and whitewashed mud and stone houses.
There's the 15th Century Royal Palace and no less than four Gompa's in Lo Manthang. The locals still practice their evening Kora around the "city walls" chanting prayers and life remains very traditional.
Beyond Lo Manthang a day excursion can be made to visit the famed Chossar Caves, one of the more accessible sky caves that are still being discovered in Mustang.
Although foreigners are not yet allowed to cross into Tibet, you can venture as far as the border and the Kora La.
There is of course more to Upper Mustang than Lo Manthang. To venture here is as much about the journey as it is the "jewel of Mustang".
Whether you're coming here on foot or by jeep, you'll pass by several, even smaller attractive settlements along the way, all "typically Mustang" in appearance and very atmospheric.
In this arid, high altitude land precious little grows, yet each village will have a series of cultivated, terraced fields and ingeniously irrigated and the resultant "greenery" of a desert oasis.
Usually each small settlment will also have its own Gompa and of course feature Tibetan Buddhism monuments such as chortens and mani walls.
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