Portals to the Past

Trekking in Upper Mustang

Lakshmi Ranganathan

On my Annapurna Circuit trek way back in 2003 as I descended to Kagbeni located on the banks of the Kali Gandaki I saw a board at the edge of the town that read – ‘STOP- You are now entering the restricted area of Upper Mustang’. Looking beyond I saw waves of seemingly barren brown and ochre scree slopes. What caught my eye though was that some of them had dozens of high close set caves and I wondered if they were natural or man-made and whether they were inhabited. There did not appear to be even a pith of a path leading to them. Upper Mustang was again brought into my consciousness when I read Michel Peissel`s fascinating book1, where the picture of the author`s landlady at Lo Manthang gave me the creeps.

Early history

Pronounced ‘Moos-thang’, meaning fertile plain, Upper Mustang constitutes about two third of the Mustang district and was opened to trekkers as late as 1991. Lower Mustang was well trodden though housing the famous Hindu shrine Muktinath and part of the Annapurna Circuit trail. With records of its existence as early as the 8th century, Upper Mustang was originally a part of the far western Ngari region of Tibet. Untouched by the political travails of mainland Tibet by the Chinese invasion and the Cultural Revolution it remained one of the last bastions of true Tibetan culture and lifestyle. Ame Pal (1380-1450) is considered the founder king of a united Mustang kingdom. Around 1795, after the Gorkha kings came to power and conquered the adjoining kingdom of Jumla, by a strange twist of historical fate or fortune depending on how one looks at it, the Kingdom of Upper Mustang was also peacefully and loosely annexed by Nepal. The Mustang Kings however had considerable autonomous power, ruling the province from its capital, Lo Manthang (Plain of Aspiration). The present much loved and respected ‘King’, Jigme Dorje Trandul, also known by his Nepalese name Jigme Parbal Bista still resides here and is said to be the 25th in a royal line that began with Ame Pal.

The Government of Nepal however ended the monarchy as late as October 2008 the year it became a republic.

Due to its strategic location Upper Mustang was an important outpost on the salt and wool trade caravans between Tibet, Nepal and India. After the Lhasa uprising and Dalai Lama`s escape to India in 1959, this border was sealed and Upper Mustang turned into the hideout of the Khampa soldiers who were secretly trained in modern warfare by the CIA directed against the Chinese. However after Henry Kissinger`s secret visit to China 1971, paving the way for Sino-American treaties and China and the Dalai lama putting pressure on Nepal to disband the secret army network, Upper Mustang gradually opened up. Nevertheless it had its fair share of visitors in the guise of scholars, historians, explorers, and surveyors since 18682 who entered its portals either ceremoniously or surreptitiously, notable among them being the Indian pundit-explorers, W.J. Kirkpatrick, Ekai Kawaguchi, Sven Hedin, Toni Hagen, David Snellgrove, Giuseppe Tucci, Herbert Tichy, Peter Mathieson, Thomas Laird and Michel Peissel. In 1999, the construction of a motorable ‘Trans Himalayan Highway’ on this ancient trading route right from Kore la on the Nepal- Tibet border to Jomsom began, thereby invoking the quip –‘Now you can ride from Katmandu to Mustang in a Mustang’! The same year also saw the escape of the Karmapa from Tibet to India by this very same route. Tucci appropriately described this route as ‘used over the centuries by pilgrims and apostles, robbers and invaders’.3

In Sep 2012 two friends and I decided to trek to Upper Mustang after waiting nearly for a decade with the futile hope that the exorbitant restricted area fee would be either reduced or waived! Another fear was that the new road would render the trekking trails defunct. It was a sad sight to see small road signs marked with arrows on the now largely motor Annapurna Circuit trail that read ‘Original Annapurna Circuit route’ and before we saw similar signs in Upper Mustang, we decided to hit the tracks. The wait had its reward though as it was now possible to do a light weight basic tea house trek instead of a bulky camping trip. The news that one could also visit some recently ‘discovered’ ancient caves was an added lure. We used the services of a trekking agency at Kathmandu to arrange for all the paperwork and other logistics. We had with us Mek Bahadur (guide) and Bimal (porter).There was however one unexpected surprise.

Day 1: Jomsom-Kagbeni-Tangbe-Chhusang-Chele

Our trek started at Jomsom into which we flew from Pokhara. The next stage, Kagbeni, still had its charming old world ambience with its protector deities. Although the trek route largely followed the motor road, the numbers of vehicles were few and far between, thus making it a pleasant walk. We ascended on a high trail along the eastern bank of the Kali Gandaki slowly sinking in the spectacular scenery that unfolded at each bend even as the typical noon wind blasted grains of sand on to our faces. The mysterious caves, the holes in the hills like numerous eyes were everywhere as if watching us. Complementing the brown slopes were the dazzling white Nilgiri North, Central and South peaks towering above Kagbeni in the southern horizon. Ruined forts and dwellings on the crags and red, white and grey coloured chortens typical of the Sakya Buddhist sect that largely prevails here dotted the landscape.

Painting in Tashi Kumbum. (K.Mahesh)

Painting in Tashi Kumbum. (K.Mahesh)

Soon a green patchwork heralded the village of Tangbe which has an organic apple farm on its outskirts. Just after Tangbe, the trail led through a stunning section of the Kali Gandaki canyon whose fluted red and orange ‘organ pipe’ walls were pitted with numerous caves. The next village Chhusang lay below these cliffs at the confluence of the Kali Gandaki and the Narsing Khola. As we walked past its narrow alleys and mud plastered houses we truly felt transported back a few centuries. Crossing the Narsing Khola over a log bridge the trail continued along the river bank. The canyon soon narrowed just below the village of Chele where one channel of the Kali Gandaki flowed through a narrow tunnel formed in a talus cone that has broken off from the cliff. A pedestrian steel bridge also spanned the river near this tunnel and after crossing it, the trail climbed high to Chele where we halted for the night in a lodge. Although the jeep track ends currently at Chhuksang, it is possible to drive across the river to Chele when the water level is low as in winter.

Protector deity in Kagbeni. (K.Mahesh)

Protector deity in Kagbeni. (K.Mahesh)

Day 2: Chele - Samar - Chungsi Cave - Shyangmochen - Geling

Chele, with its wood stacked terraces and goat head skulls and spirit traps adorned houses and chortens and mani walls at different levels truly has a medieval mien about it. We walked out of it to a large steel suspension bridge spanning the deep canyon walls of the Ghyakar Khola. We did not cross this bridge but ascended a steep narrow scratch of a trail along the very edge of this canyon with great views of the picturesque village of Ghyakar across. Past two passes Taklam and Dajori la, the trail descended past mud walled fields to the historic village of Samar, the hotbed of the CIA trained Khampas in its heydays. From Samar the trail forked and we took the lower rough trail that switch backed through two side valleys of Kali Gandaki, the Samarkyung and Jhuwa Kholas to reach a high pass, the Chungsi la. The descent from here to the Chungsi caves was spectacular as the sandy trail contoured through narrow pleated canyon walls with amazing rock formations pitted with giant caves. The sacred Chugsi Cave was well hidden deep in these walls and its main attraction was a giant ‘self-risen’ stalactite in the shape of a chorten (according to the Buddhists) that is said to be still growing.

After Shyangmochen we were back on the high road. Just above the village from the road pass, Shyangmochen la, the highest point of the day we got a panoramic view of the Annapurna Range and I was surprised to see a vaguely familiar giant of a mountain, besides the Nilgiri and Tilicho peaks. It was none other than the rarely seen north face of Annapurna I, with its prominent ice cliff that Maurice Herzog had called ‘The Sickle’. ‘The Grand Barrier’, that massive wall of cliffs that confused the French climbers in 1950 and blocked the entry to the base of Annapurna I was also seen in its full fluted glory. This visual treat was so unexpected and I knew that it could only get better as we trekked further north.

Past a giant chorten, the sprawling green oasis of Geling came into view with a red gompa high above the village. Taking the right fork (the left fork was a direct route to the next major village, Ghemi) we descended to the village.

Day 3: Geling-Ghemi- Dhakmar - Ghar Gompa

We visited the Geling gompa on our way out of the village. Women were not allowed inside as it had a blackened chopped palm, presumably belonging to a thief. However the views from here of the Annapurna range were great. We gradually ascended above Geling alternating between the road and short cuts to top two passes Nyi la and Ghemi la where the views especially of the Grand Barrier got grander. Soon verdant fields heralded the village of Ghemi in the valley of the Ghemi Khola and towering above it were stunning deep red streaked hills.

Dhakmar village. (R.Lakshmi)

Dhakmar village. (R.Lakshmi)

Ghemi, with its historic mani wall was the third largest village of Upper Mustang after Lo Manthang and Tsarang. Two routes lead from here to Lo, the motorable one was via Tsarang and the other roundabout but more vivid trail was via Drakmar, which we took. We headed north past the longest mani wall in Nepal, about 200 m in length. From here to the next village Drakmar (meaning Red Cliff) was an incredible trail of flame red convoluted conglomerates with its caves and crannies that towered over green fields and willow trees. Crossing the bridged Drakmar Khola we ascended steeply above the village to the Mui la from where more views of the snow peaks and ‘ripped’ weathered crags could be had. On our descent and traverse to the Ghar gompa we could see Tsarang on the eastern horizon snuggled below slopes that strangely had a giant right footprint pattern on it.

Ghar gompa, situated high above the Lo Gekar (Saukre) village was an 8th century Nyingma monastery. Legend has it that this monastery had to be constructed first by Guru Padmasambhava to subdue the demons that were preventing the construction of the Samye monastery; the oldest one in Tibet.

Gangapurna (extreme left), Annapurna 1 (centre), Tilicho and Nilgiri peaks seen enroute Kore la (K. Mahesh)

Gangapurna (extreme left), Annapurna 1 (centre), Tilicho and Nilgiri peaks seen enroute Kore la (K. Mahesh)

Day 4: Ghar Gompa – Lo Manthang / Around Lo Manthang

Descending from Ghar gompa we crossed Ghyung Khola and ascended to the Choga la. A gradual descent past the ruined forts of Samduling brought us to a vast plateau. Below infinite ‘silky’ beige and purple ranges, past irrigation channels and fields appeared the fortified walled capital ‘city’ of Lo Manthang. About 150 houses are contained within its gated, L shaped walls, 750 m long and nine m high with 14 towers. Very Tibetan in culture, its people are known as Lobas and the the walled city is very intriguing. We visited the intricately frescoed Jampa, Thubchen and Chode gompas and the King’s palace. Ascending north to the village of Chhon up from Lo Manthang, we saw two small sandy hills looking like volcanoes both of which had ruined castles on their peaks. The higher one was the historic Ketcher Dzong4 the castle of Ame Pal, with its oval shaped ramparts. The lower one was that of his queen, which is now used as a burial site. The views from this castle were incredible. In the vast plain that stretched below us with its patch worked fields, encircled by a chain of peaks was, in the western side, the King`s summer palace at Tingkhar village, Phuwa and Kimaling villages with ruined castles and the Namgyal village with its gompa and southwards was Lo Manthang dwarfed by the Annapurna range.

Day 5: Lo Manthang- Kore La – Nyiphu-Jhong Caves- Garphu- Lo Manthang

Setting off early in a vehicle, we headed north of Lo Manthang on the very bad non metalled road leading to what is called the Chhosar valley along the Nhichung Khola,a tributary of the Kali Gandaki. On the eastern horizon across the river were the villages of Nyiphu and Garphu abounding in cave dwellings. All along the road were chortens, ruined forts and other crumbling structures of yesteryear civilisations. Fording the Nhichung Khola we started ascending steeply. As we ascended higher we could see the entire Annapurna range rise in its fully panoramic glory. Crater like summit ridges rose to the left of Annapurna I. The summits of Annapurna II, III and IV, apart from Gangapurna and Khumjungar and other peaks were seen. Just before the Kore la welcome arch (4400 m) was one of the stunning viewpoints from where all the four Annapurnas could be seen in one frame. Soon the steep ascent gave way to a flat traverse across a broad desolate pasture land. In another 10 minutes we were at the Kore la border (4660 m) where we saw a long fence with a locked gate at the road head stretching for kilometres on the vast plain. A border pillar, # 24, 1962 with Nepal and China written on either side stood on the Nepal side. This plain is called Ghoktang, the terminus of the 102 km Jomsom-Ghoktang road. Seasonal trading takes place here regularly between Mustang and China accounting for the deluge of Chinese goods in the whole of Mustang5,6. We were told by the locals that although Nepali vehicles or people were not allowed to cross that fence, the Chinese regularly opened the gate and drove all the way to Lo Manthang, hung around for a while smoking their cigarettes and then went back.

North face of Annapurna I. (K. Mahesh)

North face of Annapurna I. (K. Mahesh)

On our return, we forded the Nhichung Khola twice to reach the village of Nyiphu with its cave gompa. Close to it were the more intriguing Jhong caves. We were now actually entering the ‘caves in the hills’! The Jhong caves system was about 2500 years old, with five stories and 44 inter connected rooms. These caves like many others around here were once part of an ancient civilization. One postulate suggests that these caves were initially used as funerary chambers, which is supported by the discovery of human skulls and bones in some of them. Later as wars and invasions became commonplace, they were used as dwellings as safety became a prime concern. Later in more peaceful times, coupled with the lack of water forced people to move into valleys while the caves themselves fell into ruins or gradually transformed into places of worship, storage chambers, graves and military hideouts.

First view of Lo Manthang. (K. Mahesh)

First view of Lo Manthang. (K. Mahesh)

Days 6, 7: Lo Manthang – Dhi – Yara / Yara – Luri Gompa – Tashikumbum - Yara

We heard about a deep canyon trail to Dhi that led southeast of Lo Manthang along a hill called Udi Danda that sounded too good to miss. As we skirted the range we could see the road deep below and the Annapurna range in the south. We descended steeply into the dry canyon where at some places the towering walls were less than six m apart. Just as we came out of it, the terrain opened out suddenly to reveal the verdant valley of the Mustang Khola, as the Kali Gandaki is called in this region with the villages of Dhi and Surkhang on its true north and south banks respectively. The petite village of Dhi looked crushed under talus columns that towered above it. Crossing the Mustang Khola the trail led along the banks of a tributary, Puyon Khola for a short while before we climbed steeply to the village of Yara. From Yara a high ridge trail led to the village of Gara and further on to the Luri cave gompa. We had great views of the imposing north face of Dhaulagiri and Tukuche peaks from Gara. The 14th century cave gompa belonging to the Drukpa-Kagyu sect was effectively a retreat centre for the monks of the actual Luri gompa situated a little below the trail. From here a trail led further east to the Hindu pilgrimage site of Damodar Kunda, a group of small lakes. While mythology claims it to be the source of the Kali Gandaki, a major tributary of the Ganga, some reports (Wikipedia) indicate its source as the Nhubine Himal glacier, west of Kore la.

‘Organ pipes’ scree slopes near Yara village. (K. Mahesh)

‘Organ pipes’ scree slopes near Yara village. (K. Mahesh)

From Luri gompa, a Buddhist nun reluctantly escorted us to the Tashi Kumbum, another cave gompa that was not open to the public. Following a different route back to Yara, along the Puyon Khola river bed was an indiscreet looking crag with many caves about 50 m above the river. We had to scramble to reach the locked door at the entrance of the cave. Just as in the Luri, here too was a chamber with a vandalized broken chorten, extremely beautiful wall and ceiling paintings, tsatsa moulds and scattered scriptures in Tibetan script.

Tashi Kumbum is one of the many cave gompas that are being discovered either accidentally or assiduously housing valuable historical artefacts. Notable among these are those found near Samdzong and Konchogling in the Chhoser valley. Many discoveries are now being hushed for fear of robbery. What was intriguing about these paintings was that most of them did not have a Tibetan imprint but were more aligned with the Indian style of paintings seen in the Ajanta and Ellora caves, probably indicating the realm and reach of Indian Buddhism before it sublimely merged with Bon and Tibetan influences.

Day 8: Yara - Tangge

Over the next three days, we trudged along a relentless trail that looped back southwards towards Muktinath. Descending from Yara we once again crossed the Puyon Khola and ascended onto a large canyon plateau with the summit pyramid of Dhaulagiri looming over us. Soon we descended into the deep canyon of the Dhechyang Khola, a major tributary of the Kali Gandaki and forded its icy waters to reach the relocated village of Dhye on its south bank. A very steep ascent followed on a hill called Sertang Danda. The trail looped endlessly through the convoluted slopes until we reached the pass Tangge la. A steep descent from the pass followed by a long traverse through sculpted switchbacks brought us to a very large plain. Traversing it, we descended once again down the fluted canyon walls of the Tangge Khola valley, another tributary of the Kali Gandaki with the pretty village of Tangge ensconced at its confluence with the Yak Khola on its south bank.

Day 9: Tangge - Tetang

Crossing the Tangge Khola we forded the tributary Yak Khola and ascended the canyon walls on to mixed terrain as it switch backed over small dry valleys. We came to the prayer flag decked Paha la with great views. A traverse followed after which we reached Paha where there was a herder`s shed in ruins.

A very long traverse followed over alpine slopes after Paha and the path could be seen way ahead. Soon we came to another view point where we could see almost the whole route we had come by all these days. Towards north were the white specs of Kore la, the green patches of Lo Manthang, Tsarang, Ghemi and even the red cliffs of Dhakmar. On our west was the road to Shyangbochen and the village of Geling. A slippery trail descended into the valley of the Narsing Khola on whose banks was the village of Tetang. Taking the left fork, past another small village Chhomnang, we forded the Narsing Khola to reach Tetang. All the houses had very high walls and the whole village looked like a fort. It took us a while to locate a tea house in the fading light.

Day 10: Tetang – Muktinath - Jomsom

Engulfed by scree cliffs all around with great views across the Kali Gandaki, Tetang would be the last Tibetan village on our trek. A short steep climb along the Dhingklo Khola brought us to the last pass, the Gyu la. From here the prominent peaks bordering the Thorung la, the Yakwakang and Khatung Kang were seen, besides the Nilgiri, Dhaulagiri and Tukuche. To our disappointment we could also see a trail descending to the town of Muktinath. The mystical Mustang magic was over all too soon. The holes in the hills, portals to the past had been gracious to our prying presence while trying to hold on to their sepulchral secrets. As it is said, some of the best moments in life are the ones that you can’t tell anyone about.

Trekkers: Mahesh Kumaraswamy, Prakash Nuggehalli and Lakshmi Ranganathan.

Duration: 19 September to 29 September, 2012.

Trek through the Upper Mustang region of Nepal Himalaya.


  1. Mustang - A Lost Tibetan Kingdom by Michel Peissel, Book Faith India,1967
  2. ‘The Survey of India and the Pundits’ by Michael Ward, HJ Vol. 55, p. 99
  3. Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya, Lonely Planet, Edited by: Mayhew, Bradley and Bindloss, Joe, 9th Edition, Aug 2009
  4. ‘The Mustang Beat: Two unheeded historic sites’ by Phillip Sturgeon, HJ Vol. 56, p. 56
  5. ‘The Road to Lo’ by Abisek Basnyat, Nepali Times, Issue # 159, August 2003.
  6. ‘Monsoon in the rain shadow’ by Kunda Dixit, Nepali Times, Issue # 621, September 2012.

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