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OUR Himalayan Travel BLOG

Welcome to our blog and Social Media Page

 

As well as features about our Nepal & Bhutan tours, we'll also include articles of interest about Nepal& Bhutan too.

By Snow Cat Travel, Dec 19 2019 11:26AM

Don’t miss this!



Top Gear Nepal Special
Top Gear Nepal Special

Top Gear sets out on perhaps its toughest road trip ever – a high-altitude voyage from Kathmandu, capital of Nepal, to the Forbidden City of Lo Manthang, a secretive kingdom perched high on the Tibetan plateau, on the far side of the Himalayas. It is a five-day expedition through the highest mountains, deepest gorges and harshest terrain on the planet.



The arid high altitude landscape of Mustang
The arid high altitude landscape of Mustang

On their journey, the Top Gear presenters battle river crossings, mudslides and dizzying mountain passes on a trip that would test even the hardiest new 4x4s on the planet to the limit. But Paddy, Freddie and Chris aren’t crossing the Himalayas in new 4x4s. They are crossing the Himalayas in a very small old Peugeot, a very small old Renault and Nepal’s first (and only) home-built car.


Broadcast on BBC 2, 29th December 2019


Source : BBC


Well, if you watched the Top Gear Nepal Special, you’ll have seen Paddy, Freddie and Chris cavorting in the Himalayas on their epic road trip adventure into the “Forbidden Kingdom of Mustang” to Lo Manthang in some fairly dodgy vehicles.


To us, this was nothing new as we’ve been operating private jeep tours into Upper Mustang and to Lo Manthang for years. And we don’t use clapped out 4×4 vehicles either. We use the best Land Cruiser type vehicles in Nepal for this real adventure road trip.


The impossible is now possible. A private journey by 4WD vehicle into the forbidden kingdom of Mustang and to the fabled, remote walled capital of Lo Manthang. Now you can discover the land behind the Himalayas without trekking.


Read a Snow Cat Travel clients account of her Mustang Road Trip Adventure


Into The Forbidden Kingdom


The fabled walled city of Lo Manthang, capital of Mustang, has enticed intrepid adventurers since tourists were first allowed to enter the forbidden Kingdom of Mustang. An unforgiving, arid and high altitude mountain desert landscape along with the necessity for challenging trekking and costly special permits to enter Upper Mustang were still sufficient to deter most people.


Now with the advent of a rough and ready jeep road that extends up through the spectacular Kali Gandaki Valley, between Annapurna & Dhaulagiri, it is possible to travel between and beyond the Himalayas onto the Tibetan Plateau and reach Lo Manthang by 4WD vehicle. Some things haven’t changed though. The ochre coloured, wind eroded, untamed wildness of Mustang remains the same, as does the need for a special permit.



Fording the Kali Gandaki River is all part of the adventure in Mustang
Fording the Kali Gandaki River is all part of the adventure in Mustang

But, what has changed is that on this Mustang Jeep Tour you can now reach Lo Manthang and explore this once forbidden mountainscape without having to trek hard and long. Our Mustang Jeep Tour from Pokhara to Lo Manthang over land is very much an adventurous Nepal cultural tour. The landscape has not been tamed and the journey is on a bumpy dirt road, which remains at the mercy of the mountain gods and the climate. However, for those who dreamt of travelling into Mustang and were deterred by the need to trek arduously, a whole new possibility now exists.


See our Mustang Jeep Tour to Lo Manthang for more




This article was originally publsihed on the Snow Cat Travel WordPress Blog




By Snow Cat Travel, Jul 17 2019 10:38AM


Charang (Tsarang), Upper Mustang, Nepal
Charang (Tsarang), Upper Mustang, Nepal

If you like high, wild, remote and authentic then the village of Charang in the former Kingdom of Mustang, Nepal more than ticks these “becoming harder and harder to find” boxes.


Sometimes spelled as Tsarang, the Tibetan influenced village of Charang lies at an altitude of around 12,000 feet on the sparsely populated Tibetan Plateau of Upper Mustang.


lthough Mustang is in Nepal, this high altitude desert wilderness that lies “behind” the mighty Himalayas is one of the last places on Earth where Tibetan Buddhism flourishes and even vestiges of the ancient Bon Po faith still exist.


Upper Mustang itself is definitely not a mass tourism destination. Less than 3,000 tourists per year venture into this arid landscape of weirdly wind eroded cliff faces and high mountains. Compare that with the 80,000 that set off on the Everest Base Camp Trek each year. Or the 47 million that visit the English Lake District!


For those wanting to get off the beaten track, Mustang and the village of Charang is most certainly that.


ABOUT CHARANG


Charang is actually the second largest village in the entire Mustang region. But, with just 130 or so homes and around 700 inhabitants…..that’s hardly large.


The village was once an important halt for the ancient caravan trade that once perilously plied their way between Tibet and India carrying large amounts of salt.


Nowadays Charang is a peaceful, serene sort of place……the kind of place where you can “feel the spirituality”.


With precious little rainfall and at such high altitude it’s a wonder that anything grows up here. Yet, the village is akin to a desert oasis, with carefully tended terraced fields adding greenery to an otherwise barren mountainscape with shades of brown, ochre, yellow and black. Indeed other than a little bit of passing tourist trade, agriculture is the main source of income here and the locals have ingeniously and with back breaking hard work managed to eek out what little water there is up here through irrigation channels.


Brightly coloured prayer flags waft on the cool breeze. Tibetan Buddhist Chortens and Mani (Prayer) Walls surround the village of typically “Mustang style” homes, which form a maze of narrow stone flagged alleyways and whitewashed mud and stone houses with flat timber topped roofs that blend so perfectly with the surrounding landscape.



Chorten, Charang, Mustang, Nepal
Chorten, Charang, Mustang, Nepal

Most tourists coming to Mustang are heading to Lo Manthang, the fabled “walled city” and capital of the former Kingdom of Lo. With Charang being only 2 hours by 4WD vehicle from Lo Manthang, less and less people are now bothering to stop and explore Charang. Whereas when trekking was the only way to travel in Mustang, Charang was an ideal overnight halt before hiking to Lo Manthang the next day.


This has meant that Charang has become “less touristy”, which for any traveller seeking the more experiential and genuine aspect of travel is big plus.


THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN CHARANG


Visit the Palace & Museum



The ruins of Charang Royal Palace
The ruins of Charang Royal Palace

Once the home of the Raja of Mustang, the ruin of the former palace is strategically located astride a hill. It’s a steep, short hike up to the palace and although it is now dilapidated, there are great views from here and the small chapel and armoury (now a museum) are open to the public. On display are the blackened, macabre hands that are said to belong to the Master Builder of the palace. As a mark of respect they were cut off after his death and placed there in his honour. Another story says that they were cut off while he was still alive so he would never build another.


Meet the Locals



Friendly Charang Villagers
Friendly Charang Villagers

Perhaps the true “jewel in the crown” of Charang are the people of Charang, whom are most welcoming and friendly towards vistors. To meet the locals, all you need to do is step outside your guest house and walk around the village. Who knows who you will meet and strike up a conversation with, or get invited into a local home for tea. You’ll also discover numerous Stupa’s and Chortens too.


Charang Gompa



Charang Gompa, Mustang, Nepal
Charang Gompa, Mustang, Nepal

The “local monastery” and around 500 years old. The inner walls of the main temple are painted with murals depicting the deities of the Medicine Buddha mandala. The Ani Gompa to the rear looks like it’s falling over a cliff and is in fact a “nunnery”.


Sky Caves



Mustang Sky Caves
Mustang Sky Caves

An hour or less hike from the village to the opposite side of the river leads to some spectacuarly located sky caves hewn out of the cliff face thousands of years ago. Whilst it is not yet fully understood why these caves were built (there are believed to be around 10,000 sky caves in Mustang), it is possible there were initially used as burial chambers, from as early as 1,000 B.C. In times of conflict they may also have been used as places of safe refuge, then homes and later places of meditation and even military look outs.


Look for Saligrams



Kali Gandaki Saligrams
Kali Gandaki Saligrams

Head down to the Kali Gandaki River bed and you might just come across Saligrams (or Shaligrams). if you look hard enough. Saligrams are fossilised Ammonite like sea creatures around 400million to 600 million years old and it’s quite something that they are found here 12,000 feet above sea-level! That’s because at one time before the Himalayas were formed, Mustang was the sea bed of the Tethys Ocean. To Hindu’s Saligrams are an iconic symbol and reminder of the God Vishnu as the Universal Principle.


Visit Lo Gekar Monastery



Lo Gekar, Mustang, Nepal
Lo Gekar, Mustang, Nepal

Just a 30 minute drive, or 2 hour walk away is the ancient Lo Gekar Monastery. Dating back some 1200 years, Lo Gekar is one of the oldest and most important monasteries in Mustang. The interior of the monastery greets the visitor with tiles of Buddha Sakyamuni and Bodhisattvas. The Gonkhang is situated before the main room, the different protectors are covered with sheets and shown only once a year during a special festival. Dozens of butter lamps illuminate the main room, making the many statues even more beautiful. The main statue is Padmasambhava, to each side are his two Yoginis Yeshe Tshogyal and Mandarava. A statue of a Green Tara may also be found in a smaller room.


Visit Charang School



Yes, do pay a visit to the very small village school. The children in particular would be delighted and honoured to meet you and maybe practice their English with you too.


There are around 15 pupils between the ages of 4 to 11 studying Nepali, maths, writing, reading and English (to some degree). Sadly the school has no blackboards, no desks, no pictures on the walls, no books, just some rough desks and benches and is in a poor state of repair. But with some help from friends of Charang things are going to get better!


But, please don’t let this put you off visiting. What the school lacks is more than made up for with a welcome. You’ll find the children (and the teachers) exceptionally hospitable, cheerful and a lot of fun too.


Indeed, if you do visit us the children would readily welcome any pens, exercise books, colouring books etc


HOW TO GET TO CHARANG


Gone are the days when the only way to reach Charang was on foot, involving many days of arduous trekking at high altitude. Although intrepid trekkers still do enjoy the challenges of trekking in Upper Mustang.


But, nowadays you can reach Charang by 4WD vehicle as a “rough and ready” jeep road extends all the way up the Kali Gandaki Valley from Pokhara to Lo Manthang and beyond to Tibet via the Kora La, although foreigners are presently not allowed to cross into Tibet from Mustang.



Flat topped roofs in Charang, Mustang, Nepal
Flat topped roofs in Charang, Mustang, Nepal

For both tourists and locals alike the advent of the jeep road has made a positive impact in many ways, yet traditions hold fast and strong up here in Upper Mustang, so other than we are now better connected to the outside world in Charang, we’re still the same and the wild, spectacular landscape of Mustang has not been tamed!


Of course most tourists visiting Upper Mustang come to see and experience the region as a whole, but spending a night or two in Charang before heading to Lo Manthang is a good idea. If nothing else it helps you get used to the altitude!


But, don’t forget that Upper Mustang remains a restricted area, so a special permit is required (see further below) to enter Mustang beyond the village of Kagbeni.


By Air



Landing at Jomsom Airport, Nepal
Landing at Jomsom Airport, Nepal

The nearest airport is at Jomsom. There are daily flights (usually early morning) between Pokhara and Jomsom. Flight time is a mere 18 minutes! From Jomsom it’s a full days drive by 4WD vehicle to Charang.


By Road (well...a sort of road)



Mustang by Road
Mustang by Road

It’s a spectacular two day drive by 4WD vehicle up through the Kali Gandaki Valley from Pokhara to Charang. You can come by mountain bike too! Travelling between the mighty peaks of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna then across the Tibetan Plateau must surely rank as one of the greatest road trip adventures on the planet.


See: Into The Forbidden Kingdom – Himalayan Road Trip Adventure


Trekking



Mustang Trek
Mustang Trek

Of course there remains the traditional way of travel in Upper Mustang…..trekking! Most trekkers fly up to Jomsom from Pokhara. From Jomsom it’s a 3-4 day hike (with acclimatisation along the way) to reach Charang.


Upper Mustang Special Permit


Until as recently as 1992 the Kingdom of Lo (Upper Mustang) was famously off limits to foreigners, earning it the unofficial title of “The Forbidden Kingdom”. Even now, Mustang remains a restricted area and a special permit is required to venture beyond Kagbeni.


The combination of cost, permit restrictions and not least the challenges of travelling across a high altitude desert deters most tourists. Not least the independent “Nepal On a Shoestring” backpacker hordes.


A special permit to enter the restricted area of Mustang beyond Kagbeni costs in excess of $US 500 per person for ten days. The permit (minimum of two persons) can only be obtained through a licensed tour operator. You must also be accompanied by a licensed guide. The permit is for a minimum of two persons travelling together. If you’re travelling solo you will have to pay for two Mustang permits and a little extra to “facilitate” the permit process.


WHERE TO STAY IN CHARANG


The village of Charang has a couple of welcoming guest houses, although because Charang is in the restricted Upper Mustang it is likely that your Mustang Tour Operator will book your Charang accommodation for you as part of your Mustang trek or Mustang jeep tour.


Lumbini Guest House


This friendly family run guest house has just 9 cosy and comfortable rooms. All have proper beds and provide clean linen and blankets. There are communal hot showers and toilet facilities, although 6 rooms here have private, en-suite facilities.


Telephone: +977 9867 608 325


Maya’s Inn


Owned and managed by “Princess Maya”, the daughter of the last King of Mustang, there’s certainly a palatial feel to Maya’s Inn. Photographs of the Royal Family of Mustang adorn the main rooms in this distinctly Tibetan style accommodation, The guest house also has a camping site for the more hardy.


Telephone: +977 9847 788 897


The village of Charang now has its own website too. Visit www.charang-mustang.com




This article was originally published on the Snow Cat Travel WordPress Blog























By Snow Cat Travel, Oct 26 2018 03:00AM


Upper Mustang, Nepal
Upper Mustang, Nepal

Stuart Butler – Author of the Rough Guide to Nepal and Lonely Planet Trekking in Nepal recently went hiking into Upper Mustang, Nepal with Snow Cat Travel


His account of this Mustang trek has now been published in The National Magazine, UAE, and this article is reproduced below…


On one side, the palm-sized rock was smooth, flat and uninspiring, but turning it over revealed a hypnotic swirl of circular patterns criss-crossed in ribs. It was the fossil of an ammonite, and scattered haphazardly across the ground around me were others. An ammonite is a type of a long-extinct marine mollusc that disappeared from planet Earth about 65 million years ago. So, what was it doing in this unlikely spot 4,000 metres above sea level?



Upper Mustang Trek
Upper Mustang Trek

That I was able to hold in my hands signs of life from the age of the dinosaurs was remarkable enough, but what made it even more astounding, was the realisation that the spot at which I now stood had once been the bottom of a tropical ocean. I took in a deep, laboured breath, and looked around me at towering sandstone cliffs rising hundreds of metres. They were pocked with caves like some kind of fairy fortress. Some of these caves had frayed old rope ladders leading up to them, and inside were galleries of ancient Buddhist art. Above and beyond these castles of sand were the black frozen walls of the Himalayas.


The story of the formation of the Himalayas, and the reason I was holding a marine fossil in my hand, is all to do with plate tectonics. About 50 million years ago, the northward-­moving Indian plate crashed into the Asian plate, and in the process, formed a belt buckle of mountains that now stretch (as the Himalayas and neighbouring ranges) halfway across Asia. The desolate, wind-blasted valley in which I stood had once been at the bottom of the sea that had separated India from the rest of Asia.



Trekking in Upper Mustang
Trekking in Upper Mustang

We were in Nepal’s Upper Mustang region and halfway through a three-week trek. A restricted area requiring special trekking permits, Upper Mustang is a little thumbnail of Tibet in Nepal. Unlike Tibet itself, where the Chinese have done much to suppress traditional Tibetan culture, in Upper Mustang, the culture has been allowed to thrive. After several days walking through desert canyons where the rock is tinged with natural primary colours, we’d reached the near mythical walled “capital” of Lo Manthang. With its narrow alleyways, high whitewashed walls and numerous monasteries painted in blood red, this is a town of dreams. A town where red-robed monks read from 100-year-old parchment texts, where wild-faced nomads gallop up to the city walls on white stallions, and where a royal family still lays claim to the central palace.



Lo Manthang
Lo Manthang

From Lo Manthang we’d walked southward again through a landscape of wrinkled cliffs with fluted chimneys and past oases of poplars coming into leaf. We hadn’t just walked with single-minded focus, though. We’d allowed time to be tempted off the main trail by minor side paths that led to high-altitude yak pastures. We’d visited cavelike Buddhist monasteries where the air smelt of burning juniper. We’d ridden stumpy and hardy mountain ponies over grasslands where marmots stood on sentry and blue sheep scarpered up distant scree slopes. We’d sipped salty yak butter tea in the black felt tents of Tibetan nomads and followed scientists as they’d scoured remote valleys looking for signs of one of the most mythical of Himalayan creatures: the snow leopard.


Eventually, we’d crossed a half-dry riverbed full of ammonites and then clambered right up into the mountains themselves, where we’d crossed dauntingly high passes and joined up with groups of other trekkers on the popular Annapurna Circuit. Then we’d veered westward to the remote, half-frozen Tilicho Lake before crossing down to the regional centre of Jomsom, via a difficult, rarely trekked pass that had required ropes, crampons and basic mountaineering skills. Although we traversed many different landscapes and climate zones and met a broad cross section of people, the stories they told us were always laced with a sense of the impossible.



The arid landscape of Mustang
The arid landscape of Mustang

Even that ammonite I’d held in my hand had been rich in Himalayan folklore. A couple of days after picking up the fossil, we found ourselves in the Muktinath temple complex. Like so many places in the Himalayas, Muktinath is holy to both Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists. The reason for this reverence is the presence of an eternal flame, 108 sacred water springs and the numerous shaligrams, or ammonites, found in the area, which are considered a representation of the Hindu god Vishnu. One of the most important pilgrimage spots in the Himalayas, Muktinath attracts scores of people every day. Lakshmi, a bearded Indian sadhu (holy man), whom I met at the temple, was one of the more devout. “About 35 years ago, when I was around 12 or 13,” he explained to me, “I left home and started travelling from one holy place to another. I haven’t seen my family since I left, but I don’t believe in blood relations, so I’m not bothered.”


I asked him about some of the places he’d travelled to. “I’ve been all across India, Nepal and the Himalayas. I spent many years living in a cave and meditating at the holy Mount Kailash on the far side of the Himalayas [in modern-day western Tibet]. In the end, though, I left. There are too many people there now. Too many soldiers, too many police. It was time to move.”



High pass crossing on the Upper Mustang Trek
High pass crossing on the Upper Mustang Trek

The faith that drove Lakshmi to turn away from his family, along with his story of adventure, might seem extraordinary to most of us, but some Himalayan tales require an even bigger leap of faith. Two of our baggage porters were brothers, and one evening, after a long eight hours walking, we set up camp inside a small stone-herder’s hut. After dark, as the temperature plummeted, we all huddled together and shared stories.


The conversation soon moved on to ghosts and magic, and one of the brothers told us about a man in their village who had the ability to transform himself into a type of wildcat. In this feline form, the man would slip like a spirit though the moonlit hills, attacking and eating livestock. In the mornings, he would be found back in his house in a deep sleep with blood-stained hands. Everyone in the village knew about his power, but nobody really knew what could be done about it. Eventually, the man died, but, so the brothers insisted, one of his sons has inherited the same powers and the slaughter of livestock continues.



Snow Leopard, the real "Ghost of the Mountains"
Snow Leopard, the real "Ghost of the Mountains"

I’d been ready to dismiss the brothers’ story as just another tall tale, but then, on the last day of our trek, I saw with my own eyes an object so unlikely, it defied reason. We’d arrived at our camping spot in an alpine meadow after dark and thought that we were the only people there. But, when we woke up on that final morning, we discovered a number of temporary- looking wooden structures and some ancient, weathered tents nearby. The occupants were just waking up as well. A ragtag-looking lot, they weren’t trekkers, shepherds or holy men. They were treasure hunters. The treasure they were after, though, wasn’t of the gold and rubies sort. No, the thing these men and women were after was even more valuable.



Yarsagumba - more valuable than gold!
Yarsagumba - more valuable than gold!

One of the men in the camp called me into his hut and, opening a small cloth bag, he revealed something remarkable: a handful of dry, shrivelled wormlike creatures. It was yarsagumba; half-animal, half-plant, a bizarre fusion of a caterpillar and a parasitic fungus. Highly valued in Chinese traditional medicine as an aphrodisiac, yarsagumba is worth more than its weight in gold, and every year around June and July, hundreds of Nepalese leave their villages to head up into half-frozen alpine meadows in search of it. And if a caterpillar can be a treasure, and the Himalayas the floor of an ocean, then who is to say that up here, in these oxygen-depleted heights, people cannot turn themselves into cats?


Want to know more?


Read about Stuart's latest adventure with Snow Cat Travel as he tackles the Manaslu Circuit Trek and delves deeper into the Yarsagumba trade.


See our Mustang Treks & Tours


This article was oroginally published on the Snow Cat Travel WordPress blog


By Snow Cat Travel, Oct 15 2018 10:23AM



Mustang Jeep tour to Lo Manthang-At Kagbeni
Mustang Jeep tour to Lo Manthang-At Kagbeni

Relishing my authentic Italian coffee and with the free Wi-Fi I check to see if Manchester United won earlier today (they did!).


It’s a bit of a surreal moment, as I’m sitting in a coffee house (complete with real Italian Espresso machine) at over 9,000 feet in the Himalayas looking right into the “Forbidden Kingdom of Mustang”.



Gazing into Upper Mustang
Gazing into Upper Mustang

In stark contrast to “my world” of Italian coffee and Wi-Fi, across the cobbled street a couple of elderly local women with weathered faces and wearing traditional Tibetan style clothing are gossiping, whilst drying apples naturally under the sun….just as it has always been done. The old and the new!


I’m in the Tibetan influenced village of Kagbeni, as far as you can go into Upper Mustang without a special and rather costly permit (which I have) and am heading for the fabled “city” of Lo Manthang.



Having a natter and drying apples in the sun
Having a natter and drying apples in the sun

It’s a journey I’ve made before around 20 years ago. Back then the journey was very different and it’s a fascination in itself to see how some things have changed and some things haven’t.


Way back when, my journey from Pokhara to Lo Manthang had to be on foot. And, what an arduous, tough journey that was. A trek up through the lower Kali Gandaki Valley to reach Kagbeni and then even more challenging trekking over a few 14,000+ foot passes in the high altitude, arid wilderness landscapes of Upper Mustang to reach Lo Manthang. Oh….and then back again of course too.


Back then it took a few weeks to make the return journey following the ancient trade route that saw caravans bringing salt from Tibet to India and with exotic spices going the other way…..now it takes just a few days.


The difference being a road (of sorts), one that still seems improbable. Well, to me anyway. But, there it is….a rough and ready dirt road right between the massive peaks of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri and then reaching ever higher and deeper into the wild and hostile landscape of Upper Mustang.



Typical village homes of Upper Mustang
Typical village homes of Upper Mustang

Mustang (formerly the Kingdom of Lo) was famously “off limits” until 1992. Lying “behind” the Himalayas on the high Tibetan Plateau, it remained culturally intact and is very different to the rest of Nepal.


For the “handful” of foreign tourists who venture into Upper Mustang only the purist might rue the coming of the “road”. If you really want, you can still trek to Lo Manthang and by and large avoid the road. Still, the majority of locals I spoke to on my journey were positive about “the road”. Most felt being better connected to the world has greater benefits.


Sure I’m going by road this time (my legs say “no” to hard trekking nowadays), but it’s one heck of a road trip and most certainly still ticks the “Himalayan adventure” box. Being bounced around in a jeep isn’t what I’d call a luxury.



Meeting the locals is the best bit
Meeting the locals is the best bit

The advent of the road may have brought some change, but what hasn’t changed is the spectacular landscapes, nor that sensation of being high, remote and wild. OK, so the monks in some of the isolated Tibetan Buddhist monasteries I visited along the way might have mobile phones and with Internet access we can be “friends” on Facebook (and why not?), but the prayers and rituals still seemed (and are) the same as the ones I witnessed all those years ago.


The “magic” of Mustang, it’s arid and barren scenery with weird, wind eroded rock formations and cliffs remains. The beauty too. The pigmented colourations of the landscape-ochre, brown, grey, red, yellow and dotted with tiny, traditional Tibetan style villages where the locals are still just about able to eek a life in this often inhospitable region.


The ‘jewel’ of Mustang, the fabled, walled ‘city’ of Lo Manthang. It still looks and feels ancient.



Typical Mustang village and landscape
Typical Mustang village and landscape


This is a road trip of countless memorable experiences.


So, let me share this journey from the sub-tropical lowlands, up through Himalayan giants and further into the Tibetan Plateau with you.


From colourful and chaotic Kathmandu I took the 25 minute flight to Pokhara-Nepal’s premier tourist destination. Actually, I was surprised how much Pokhara had grown.…more hotels, cafes and bars than ever seemed to be sprawling and jostling for space along the “Lakeside Strip”.


But, Pokhara still retains that laid back feel and it was good to reminisce and unwind by the lake with a lassi at “The Boomerang”, enjoy those superlative views of Fishtail and the Annapurna range in Pokhara’s balmy climate as soothing music wafted through me.



Pokhara and Annapurna range views
Pokhara and Annapurna range views

At the crack of dawn the following morning I jumped into my Land Cruiser, managed to grunt “Namaste” to my driver and guide as we headed out of Pokhara and “kissed goodbye” to tarmac as we entered the Kali Gandaki River Valley near the nondescript town of Beni.


“This is alright” I thought to myself as we steadily bounced along the dusty road, skirting the river banks. A bit dusty, but not as rough as I was expecting. Very pretty too with the vegetation reflecting the sub-tropical climate, banana trees, oranges and the like.


Soon we began to slowly and steeply climb, climb and climb and are greeted by the sight of mighty Dhaulagiri and the Nilgiri Himal. But, before I knew it the climbing (for today anyway) was almost over as the road became the now broad almost endless cobbles of the river bed.



The arid high lands of Upper Mustang
The arid high lands of Upper Mustang

Perched high above the valley was our overnight halt and some unashamed comfort at the Thasang Lodge. To be honest, I didn’t need to “rough it” any night on this road trip adventure. What had been some pretty dire overnight halts when I’d trekked this route had taken advantage of the road and upped their game.


Using “luxury” would be a bit OTT, but having a proper bed and private shower and W.C. every night was a welcome bonus this time around.


What wouldn’t be OTT would be describing the views from the lodge at Thasang as being anything other than sensational, whichever direction I cared to look. The towering peak of Dhaulagiri and its spectacular icefall and across the valley to the Nilgiri’s and Annapurna.



Dhaulagiri from Thasang
Dhaulagiri from Thasang

What had taken four days walking for this amazing scenery was now just 6 hours. Fantastic!


Awake bright and early to catch the first shafts of sunlight illuminating the summit of Dhaulagiri and a relatively short driving day ahead. Firstly to the village of Marpha, an immaculately clean village and where the first signs of a Tibetan influence become apparent. Apple orchards too, so a good excuse to try some delicious apple pie.


As well as being where Hindu Nepal starts to become more Tibetan Buddhist, it’s around here that you also notice that the previously densely wooded and forested mountainsides start to thin out before disappearing completely.



Tibetan Buddhist influences in Upper Mustang
Tibetan Buddhist influences in Upper Mustang

That’s the thing with a “vertical” road trip..…you go up through climactic zones rather quickly. Yesterday I’d started in a semi-jungle zone and ended up in an alpine forest.


Now it was about to change to a high altitude desert as we approached Jomsom, just a short distance from Marpha. It’s here that the monsoon rains reach no further, hence Upper Mustang is arid from this point.



Nilgiri Peak from the rooftop of my lodge in Kagbeni
Nilgiri Peak from the rooftop of my lodge in Kagbeni

But, it’s pretty mind-blowing to be able to see it visibly and so abruptly. It’s almost like 10 metres down in one direction you can get rain and vegetation, 10 metres up……no rain and just desert.


And into that desert we go. A short and mostly level drive to Kagbeni and that real Italian coffee I started with! I’m amused to find that a local entrepreneur has opened a “Himalayan McDonalds” in Kagbeni….YakDonalds!


Anyway, here I am on the edge of the “forbidden zone” and as we leave Kagbeni the following morning, the sign at the police check post proclaims that “entry is illegal beyond this point without a special permit”.


This special permit costs in excess of $US 500 and it’s a contentious matter as to where that money actually goes, still the police man who checks our permits is friendly and obliging and it is a pleasing sensation to be back in the Kingdom of Lo once again.



The gateway to the Forbidden Kingdom of Lo
The gateway to the Forbidden Kingdom of Lo

We head for the village of Charang and the road surface is pretty good…gravelly, but all in all not too bad to travel on. But, we’ve got to cross the river and there’s no bridge. Thankfully the river level isn’t too high and we’re able to cross with relative ease in the Land Cruiser…..a bit like an Upper Mustang Drive Thru car wash!



Drive Thru Car Wash-Mustang style!
Drive Thru Car Wash-Mustang style!

As we’re making good progress and as we could all do with a bit of a leg stretcher, we take a slight detour and then a hike of around 45 minutes to take a look at the sky caves at Chungsi.


There are maybe around 10,000 sky caves in Mustang and as you might guess from their name, are not easily accessible. They date back around 2,000 years and some were used for burials, but also as safe places to live during troubled times. These ones at Chungsi don’t require climbing skills and ropes to access them (I wonder how the locals managed?), just a head for heights on the rough, stone steps.



Mustang Sky Caves
Mustang Sky Caves

Reaching Charang (Tsarang) at 11,600 feet it’s now time for an essential acclimatisation day. Even though I’m not trekking, there are still some high passes to drive over before reaching Lo Manthang and Charang is far too nice a place to hurry on from.


Charang is very typical Mustang. Just 100 or so traditional style homes with stone walls and flat timber roofs, painted in ochre, red and white and that blend so sympathetically with the surrounding landscape.


There are numerous colourful chortens scattered across the village and it’s dominated by a massive, crumbling five-story dzong, a Tibetan-styled fortified palace.



Mani Wall-Upper Mustang
Mani Wall-Upper Mustang

The following morning I paid a visit to Charang gompa, a monastery of the Sakya sect built in 1395. It hosts the biggest library in the Kingdom of Lo and is adorned with 15th century frescos on the walls.


Wandering around the village with my guide we “discovered” that two families were butchering a Yak and were invited to observe. Fortunately I’m not squeamish. Life here is hard, so nothing is wasted….”nose to tail” is the order of the day. Nothing is wasted.



Yak sausage making….the Mustang way
Yak sausage making….the Mustang way

When we arrived the Yak had already been slaughtered….a female Yak evidently as I noticed a foetus put to one side. The choice cuts had already been made and stacked into two piles. It turns out that the Yak belonged to one family, so they get one pile and the other family helping get the other pile. Both families were now busy making “sausages” from the entrails. The Yak’s head was in a bucket...I have no idea what that would become!



Anyone for Yak’s head soup?
Anyone for Yak’s head soup?

My newly found friends finish their tasks and kindly invite us into their home for some Yak butter tea. It’s fair to say that this is an acquired taste (a bit rancid), but I feel privileged to be invited into their simple abode (I was curious anyway) and my poorly disguised attempt at pretending to enjoy the Yak butter tea is thankfully met with much laughter from my hosts.



Get the kettle on for brew!
Get the kettle on for brew!

The final drive to Lo Manthang itself is relatively short and as we reach the top of a 13,000 foot pass I’m greeted with extensive views as far as Tibet and there, far below lies the “walled city” of Lo Manthang.


City is of course stretching it a bit…..it’s essentially a small village of less than 180 homes, but it is steeped in history as the “capital” of the former Kingdom of Lo. Mustang ceased to be a Kingdom when Nepal became a republic and the last “King of Mustang” died in 2016.



Lo Manthang
Lo Manthang

Walking around Lo Manthang, it all seems so very familiar to me and I’m pleased to see that the 15th Century Royal Palace (now former) is still standing having withstood the devastating earthquake that rocked Nepal in 2015. Sure, there are now a couple of rather decent guest houses (hurrah!), but that mystical feeling still remains. Not least as the four Gompa’s; Jampa Lhakhang, Thubchen, Chodey and Choprang are still here.



Kids in Lo Manthang
Kids in Lo Manthang

Wandering through the maze of narrow stone flagged alleyways with whitewashed mud and stone walled homes I come across women spinning their prayer wheels and making braids in each others’ long hair. In a more open area some of the locals are collecting water from the fountain, others trying to wash and preserve their modesty at the same time. An elderly lady sits outside her home combing wool, whilst another is collecting goat dung with a brush, to use as fuel for her stove at home. Not much has changed.



Rush hour in downtown Lo Manthang
Rush hour in downtown Lo Manthang

Later in the evening I follow the locals as they walk around the city walls (clockwise of course), prayer wheels spinning and mantra’s being chanted.


The following day I head out of the city on foot to wander around the painstakingly, back breakingly ploughed fields. Not much grows up here. Winters are bitterly cold and neither is there much water in this dry, harsh climate other than what can be irrigated. A major feat in itself up here.



Making new friends in Upper Mustang
Making new friends in Upper Mustang

Barley and buck wheat look to be the main crops, so not surprisingly buckwheat pancakes were part of tonight’s dinner and with some very welcome buckwheat brandy as my much needed “Mustang central heating” I slept like a tiger, even if it was chilly.


Sadly it was time to turn around and although it is theoretically possible to drive all the way back to Jomsom in one very long, gruelling day I chose to break the journey into two and travelled only as far as Chusang, which gave me time to walk to the very picturesque, ancient village of Tetang.



Tetang, Mustang
Tetang, Mustang

Now, there’s one bonus of having to return from “whence I came”. It may well be the same route, but no longer are the Himalayas behind me, they are in front and what a sight they are as the snowcapped giants form my far horizon as a seemingly impenetrable huge wall of rock and ice.



The Himalayan “wall” comes back into view
The Himalayan “wall” comes back into view

And, rather than bother with the bumpy, arduous two day drive back down the lower Kali Gandaki Vally to Pokhara, at Jomsom I hopped onto the 18 minute early morning flight and although sad to no longer be in Mustang, it was actually rather nice to feel warmth once again.


You really do have to admire and respect those that call Upper Mustang “home” and endure all the hardships that this still remote, isolated, barren mountain wilderness brings.



Mustang is a hard place to live
Mustang is a hard place to live

General stuff about Upper Mustang


Climate and other considerations: Being a high altitude desert it can and does get bitterly cold, especially during the winter months when the region is blighted by cold, strong winds emanating from Central Asia. Don’t under estimate the strength of the sun’s rays up here, even if it’s cold at these altitudes the sun rays are very strong, so use a high strength sun blocker.


When to Go: Unlike the rest of Nepal as Upper Mustang lies beyond the monsoon rain shadow, this is a part of Nepal that arguably is best to visit during the summer/monsoon months, as it isn’t as cold as winter. That said the journey up to/from Jomsom can sometimes be tricky during the monsoon.


Mustang Permit/entry requirements: A special permit to enter the restricted area of Mustang beyond Kagbeni costs in excess of $US 500 per person for ten days, only obtainable via registered operator. You must also be accompanied by a licensed guide. So, you really need to use the services of a specialist Nepal operator like Snow Cat Travel. The permit is for a minimum of two persons travelling together. If you’re travelling solo you will have to pay for two Mustang permits and a little extra to “facilitate” the permit process.


Notes: The author of the article (who wishes to remain anonymous) travelled to Lo Manthang on a custom made Mustang Jeep Tour to Lo Manthang with Snow Cat Travel.



This article was originally published on the Snow Cat Travel WordPress Blog



By Snow Cat Travel, Feb 8 2018 12:00PM

Lo Manthang by Jeep from Pokhara
Lo Manthang by Jeep from Pokhara

As you'll see from this photo taken in Upper Mustang, the "road" through the Himalayas that now extands from Pokhara all the way to Lo Manthang hardly has any impact upon the wild, inhospitable landscapes of Mustang.


It's fair to say that it does have a largely postive impact upon the lives of the people of Mustang though.


Also for those whom have always dreamed of visiting Mustang, but the prospect of arduous, continuous trekking was a deterrent.....well, now you can.


Just take a look at our Mustang Jeep Tour...it's a real road adventure....Himalayan style!



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