Notes on Itinerary
Although we try to follow the itinerary below, it is ONLY a guideline based on years of experience trekking in the Himalaya. At times local trail, river or weather conditions may make a deviation necessary; rivers may be impassable, snow blocks passes, and landslides wipe out trails. The trekking itinerary and campsites may also vary slightly depending on the group's acclimatization rate or sickness.
The Himalaya are our passion, and we take trekking seriously. Although everyone is here on vacation, please come with a dollop of patience and compassion added to your sense of adventure ...
Day 1 - Arrive Kathmandu 1340m
You'll be met at the airport by a representative from the Kathmandu Guest House, so look out for a Kathmandu guest house sign when you leave the airport. They will bring you back to the Kathmandu Guest House, where your rooms are booked.
Kim will meet you at the guest house and introduce you to Thamel, the main tourist area of Kathmandu. Thamel is a myriad of banners, signs, music shops, bakeries, internet cafes, restaurants, bars, hotels, shops of all imaginable varieties and eccentrically clad backpackers. Over dinner we'll get to know each other over a beer at the Roadhouse Cafe.
Day 2 - Kathmandu
A free day to explore exotic Kathmandu and the mythical Kathmandu valley. Options: Climb the many steps to Swayambhunath (the monkey temple), with its commanding views of Kathmandu (at 1420 meters), its whitewashed stupas and its unique synthesis of Buddhism and Hinduism. The striking Buddha eyes of Boudhanath Stupa watch over a lively and colorful Tibetan community and attract pilgrims from all over the Himalayan Buddhist realm. In the midst of traditional gompas, and hung with long strings of multi-colored prayer flags, Boudhanath attracts Sherpas, Tibetans and tourists alike for daily circumambulations (koras) of the stupa. Durbar Square, one of the old capitals of the Kathmandu valley, is a synthesis of Hindu and Buddhist temples, stupas and statues, and is often the site of festivals, marriages and other ceremonies. Hindu Pashupatinath and its sacred temple complex on the banks of the holy Bagmati river. Here, monkeys run up and down the steps of the burning ghats, and trident-bearing saddhus draped in burnt-orange and saffron sit serenely meditating - when they’re not posing for photos-for-rupees.
We'll have time for a bit of gear shopping in Thamel for anyone who needs to do this, and in the evening will head out for dinner - perhaps a few cold beers and a wood-oven pizza at the Roadhouse Cafe ...
Day 3 - Fly Pokhara 815m
Up early for our short but scenic flight to Pokhara, 198 kilometers west of Kathmandu. You will fly high above the north-south rivers flowing down towards the Terai from the Himalaya and Tibet, over terraced villages and green hills with the Ganesh, Langtang, Manaslu and Annapurna ranges in the distance, to balmy, sub-tropical Pokhara. We stay at the lovely Lake View Hotel with a cafe overlooking the lake. We have the afternoon to wander the shore of Phewa Lake, drink fresh juice, do some shopping, have a massage or sit and relax at the hotel. We will go to Moondance Cafe for dinner and drinks in the evening, an atmospheric restaurant just near the hotel.
Day 4 - Fly Jomsom 2750m. Trek Kagbeni 2850m
Up early for our spectacular mountain flight to the district headquarters of Mustang, Jomsom. Once on the ground, at 2720 meters, we are greeted by the sound of jingling horse bells as the Mustangi people pass by with their pony caravans. After sorting out gear and loading our porters, we trek up the windy Kali Gandaki valley to Kagbeni. Another early breakfast after which we head to the Pokhara Airport for our spectacular mountain flight to the district headquarters of Mustang, Jomsom. From the airport we have a fantastic panorama of Himalayan peaks: to the far west, Dhaulagiri, followed by Annapurna South, Hiun Chuli with Annapurna I in back, the sacred Machhapuchhre (Fishtail), Annapurna III, Annapurna IV, Annapurna II, Lamjung Himal, Himlung Himal and perhaps, on a clear day, Manaslu, Peak 29, Himal Chuli, Boudha Himal and Ganesh Himal to the distance to the far east.
Once on the ground in Jomsom at 2750 meters, we are greeted by the sound of jingling horse bells as the Mustangi people pass by with their pony caravans. After sorting out gear and loading our porters, we trek up the windy Kali Gandaki valley to Kagbeni. The wide trail along a sandy, saligram-filled riverbed provides views of the surrounding peaks of Dhaulagiri, Tukuche and Niligiri, and to the south the entire Annapurna Massif. Kagbeni, spectacularly situated atop a cliff overlooking the confluence of the Kali Gandaki and the Jhong Khola rivers, is the last village in Lower Mustang and guards the entrance into Upper Mustang, visible across the Kali Gandaki riverbed. It is an oasis of green, patchwork fields in the midst of rocky, arid mountains, with Niligiri looming grandly behind it. This ancient, partially ruined citadel town provides us with a taste of scenes to come in upper Mustang, with its narrow alleyways and tunnels, irrigation canals, green fields of barley and its massive, newly-restored brick-red Sayka gompa, 800 years old. We'll also wander past the ancient, crumbing, 100-room King's Palace. At the police check post at the north end of the village where a sign reads 'Restricted area, tourists please do not go beyond this point', we will complete our paperwork to enter Upper Mustang tomorrow. We'll stay at the New Annapurnas Lodge for the night, with time to explore the village. Enjoy the fantastic views down-valley to Niligiri in the late afternoon, the alpenglow coloring it a lovely pink hue ...
Day 5 - Trek Chungar 3755m
Leaving historic Kagbeni and heading east, we trek along the Annapurna trail to beautiful and traditional Jharkot (3350m), which has an old monastery at the top of this ridge top village. From here we take a small trail leading north from the main trail, drop to the Jhong Khola and then climb back up to Jhong (Dzong), with its fortress-like monastery. It's a short trek to our idyllic campsite just behind Chungar village, which is relatively missed on the Annapurna circuit. The views of the Annapurna & Dhaulagiri massifs from this campsite are breathtaking!
Alternative Muktinath Route:For those wanting to visit the sacred pilgrimage site at Muktinath, it is do-able the same day, probably part by jeep. You would continue on another 30 minutes from Jharkot to Ranipawa, and then another 15 minutes to the Muktinath complex. Muktinath is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists and Hindus situated in a tranquil grove of trees, and contains a wall of 108 waterspouts in the shape of cows heads spouting sacred water, the Jwala Mai temple with a perpetual spouting flame and the pagoda-styled Vishnu Mandir, all of which make up the auspicious combination of earth, fire and water.
Day 6 - Trek Tetang 2995m or Chhusang (2955m) (cross Gyu La 4080m)
After many years of experimentation we've decided that this is the best route into Upper Dolpo, starting with a climb to the small Gyu La (4080m).
Leaving camp, we drop to Chungar and hike through the main route through the village, stunningly beautiful in the bright morning light. Prayer flags flutter in the wind from the flat Mustangi rooftops, sending prayers out into the world. Once through the village we drop to a bridge over the intersecting river and start climbing gradually up towards the pass. In approximately two hours, after several long contours with increasingly spectacular Himalayan views, we crest the flat pass and take a rest at the cairn which marks the border between the Annapurnas & Upper Mustang.
Descending into a green grazing valley peppered with local doksas, we pass a verdant spring, soon afterwards reaching a slightly exposed section of trail on good scree. The landscape becomes more Mustang-like as craggy canyons open up ahead of us, and we continue to descend steeply on a sandy trail. Once past the large willow tree and stream where we will stop for lunch and cool our feet we have our first views of Tetang, which sits 1000 meters below our pass.
Finally we reach the many multi-hued chortens which mark the entrance to Tetang and are treated to expansive views down over the terraced fields and the ancient Tetang Dzong. After stopping for photos we follow ancient mani walls (over the new road) to the maze of Tetang village.
Tetang is an endlessly fascinating, fortified village with massive houses pock-marked with old scaffolding holes. The ruins of an ancient, crumbling dzong stand majestically on a crest at the northern end of the village, with several families living in this ancient monument. Years ago we witnessed a village women's council arguing over the use and shortage of water, a heated discussion. It is an extremely photographic village, but loses the sun before 5 pm. Our campsite is either just down river from Tetang towards Chhusang (15 minutes, sandals for crossing the river usually) or another 10 minute in Chhusang village.
Day 7 - Trek Paha 4075m
A spectacular day ahead of us, and a longer and relatively challenging one. Leaving camp at Tetang (or hiking 15 minutes up valley from Chhusang) we ascend on an impossible trail hewn into the sedimentary hillside of baked sand, passing through a world of hoodoos, often on exposed but safe trails and always far above the valleys below us. We spend the day trekking on top of a roller coaster of a ridge line trail which follows the Siyarko Tangk Danda, the cairns being recorded as 4015m, 4080m and 4165m. There is no water along this route, so be prepared. We crest several small cairn-topped ridges, stop for many photos breaks, eat lunch in one of Mustang's spectacular outdoor cafes and finally reach our shaded and chilly camp at Paha doksa mid-afternoon.
Day 8 - Trek Tangge 3360m
It's a shorter and much easier day to Tangge, starting with cresting a small ridge pass (which we call the Paha Tangge La originally - 4185m) topped with more Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags, and continuing with a steep descent most of the way to the Tangge Khola far below. Tangge is an incredibly stunning village, with monumental ochre and white chortens, long mani walls and a traditional village, surrounded be terraced barley fields. To reach the village we have to contour north to a bridge spanning the river and then hike another 15 minutes to camp at the upper reaches of the village. The tents have been set up at Tip Top campsite, just above the mani walls, a site sheltered from the unrelenting Mustang winds.
Tangge is a village of twenty houses, many sheep, goats and large mastiffs and the largest chorten in Mustang, over 50 feet high. There was a massive mud slide some years ago which wiped out many of the houses and barley fields on both banks; an elder of the village told us there were over a hundred houses in Tangge before this disaster. The culture now that we've reached Upper Mustang becomes even more Tibetan; sheep horns adorn the houses, and there are protective amulets in the shape of a cross on the walls of the houses, similar to what we find in the old Tibetan villages in Ladakh and Zanskar. These 'zor' do what the look like they might do, capture evil spirits in their web and protect the inhabitants of the household, and date from the pre-Buddhist Bon religion. You will also see woman wearing the Tibetan decorative turquoise, coral and amber as well as 'dzis', ancient protective amulets of agate, which Mustangis believe came from lightening when it falls onto the mountains.
At the far end of the village is the high route to Yara. Look to the south for views of the snow-peak called Ka Karru by locals.
Day 9 - Trek to Dhe 3930m
Leaving Tangge heading northeast, we climb briefly out of the village and continue on an undulating trail through a fantastic moonscape, colored by ochre, weatherworn rocks which have been sculpted by centuries of wind and water erosion. We stay high, climbing gradually until we reach a small pass which we called the Dhe La (4245m), decorated by a cairn of saligrams, a tribute to Vishnu and the local gods. A short descent through another bit of contorted landscape, past tricolored chortens, leads to the remote village of Dhe, one of the most isolated in the Himalaya. The inhabitants are planning to leave their village in a few years to relocate just northwest of here as there are serious water issues in Dhe. Still, it's a lively village with an old gompa to explore, and the villagers are friendly and welcoming as trekkers here are scarce. Enjoy the afternoon and get out to explore this beautiful village.
There is a new documentary about this village and its plight made by a Nepali film-maker.
Day 10 - Trek to Yara 3610m
Again we are trekking along a little-used route on the far eastern fringes of Mustang, leaving remote Dhe and heading west along a somewhat rough trail. Climbing out of the village, we pass over more eroded gullies and stay on a high trail for a while, soon passing through an old mud slide which resembles a muddy glacier. To our right a distant trail heads east to Damodar Kunda and ancient clusters of cave dwellings appear dramatically in the cliff faces far above us. The trail crosses a small river and has a few ups and downs before it descends rather steeply to the riverbed below at just over 3400 meters. We wander down the small Dechyang Khola, collecting saligrams as we go and jumping or wading across (sandals would be a good idea) for an hour. To our right, near the end of the river at a settlement called Phangyakawa (where the Dhe-pa want to resettle), is a steep, switch backing trail which we ascend.
Upon reaching the plateau, we're treated to a feast of eroded canyons and hoodoos, so take some time to admire the scenery and take a few photos. We cross the plateau on a little-used trail, following it through more fantastic landscapes, and eventually spot the lovely, green village of Yara below, across the Puyung Khola. We descend to the rocky river bottom, cross the river and head for the village. We camp for the night in the courtyard of a local guest-house in the lower section of Yara, a bustling campsite full of Mustangi life. Have a walk above the village in the afternoon, lovely with the sun shining through the willow leaves which brighten the village. We sponsor a young girl from Yara, Tenzing Kondo, for a hearing problem, so we'll hope to get a visit from her and her family ... And perhaps a cultural dance in the evening, so be ready for a Mustangi party!
Day 11 - Trek to Ghara 3930m (Visit Luri Gompa 3985m)
After breakfast, heading northeast out of Yara, we pass fantastic, sculpted canyons with the remains of a network of ancient caves, now eroded enough to be inaccessible. We have a walk of less than an hour along the rocky, saligram filled riverbed to the Tashi Kumbum cave complex, accessible via a narrow ledge of a trail. Tashi Kumbum is a newly discovered group of six cave dwellings dating from the 15th century, with fantastic Buddhist murals and a large exquisitely painted chorten. Gary McCue, who went there over fifteen years ago, wrote that the approach is very difficult/dangerous although though only an hour from Yara. We discovered last year that our lodge owner was actually the one who discovered the ancient Tashi Kumbum, and then went there with Gary McCue. Exiting stuff and really one of the most amazing works of Buddhist art I have ever seen.
Another hour along the Puyung Khola brings us to the fabled Druk-pa Luri Gompa and its complex of Tibetan Buddhist caves, some of which are accessible others now 'closed' forever. One of the older Kings of Lo married a Bhutanese princess, thus the Druk-pa influence. The main Luri Gompa is situated down near the riverbed; the teacher, kids in tow, will lead on a crumbling trail us up to the upper prayer-room and the fifteenth century 'Kabum Stupa', made of highly polished stucco and painted with intricately detailed Newari-styled Buddhist frescos of the Kagyupa saints Tilopa, Naropa and Marpa. Historians estimate them to be from the 13th or 14th century, and linked to the Tashi Kumbum caves, one of a group of connected cave dwellings throughout this particular region. Unfortunately, or fortunately, most have been rendered inaccessible due to the intense erosion in Mustang, so will remain hidden throughout history.
It's an easy half-hour hike from Luri to the green oasis of Ghara, with its ruined gompa and old, winding walls, where the staff have set up our camp just above the village, in a walled enclosure with the village tap just below. We'll have many villagers as visitors, both adults and kids, all of whom will bring some of their ubiquitous saligrams and Mustangi artifacts to display. We'll be treated to fantastic mountain panoramas down-valley towards the Kali Gandaki at sunset and sunrise.
Day 12 - Trek Chodzong Gompa Camp
This morning we enter a lost world of contorted canyons, muted earth-tones and narrowing passages, the wonderful world of 'lost' Mustang filled with mustard and blood-orange stained rocks and salt-drips. A quarter of an hour of river jumping (sandals) from camp in the direction of Lo Manthang we reach the river intersection. We take the right fork which heads to the 14th-15th century Chodzong Gompa which Peter Mattheissen wrote about in his book, 'East of Lo Manthang' and which houses some of the most important Buddhist artwork in Mustang. Unfortunately the main cave entrance has now crumbled away and is inaccessible.
After about half an hour of jumping the snaking river along the flood plain, we suddenly ascend dramatically, climbing on a steep trail of loose scree to a ridge which affords us incredible views up and down the valley. Soon afterwards we crest a small pass with an dramatic chorten and are treated to the dramatic site of the 14th - 15th century Chodzong Gompa 'castle of the faith' nearly at our height in the cliff-side ahead of us. Another translation, Chos Sung, translates as 'books' 'listen to' after the tradition of taking the books out of the gompa, walking them in a 'kora', and reading them to the nomads or villagers who would come for the readings. This is from local nomads.
We'll spot our horses unloading below, and the staff setting up our campsite in this idyllic spot, not a Westerner in sight. Welcome to Matheissen's hidden Mustang.
Have a quick scramble up to Cho Dzong, which Peter Matheissen wrote about in his book, 'East of Lo Manthang' and which houses some of the most important Buddhist artwork in Mustang. The main gompa has a lock on the door but you can hike up to a smaller gompa in back of the main one, possibly unlocked. Unfortunately the main cave entrance has now crumbled away and is inaccessible. Notice the tangle of antlers on top of the gompa roof, and the tsatsas in several of the caves. There is also an odd 'baby yak', stuffed, in one of the caves, but only some of our intrepid staff will be able to reach this dangerously situated cave. In the back of the cliff, now crumbling and inaccessible, is some of the most important artwork in the Tibetan Buddhist world. Unfortunately we won't be able to see it, but the Italian art restorer Luigi Fini is making a book of the murals from this cave, perhaps the only ones that will ever be taken.
Day 13 - Trek to Nomad Mesa Camp 4785m
Another remote route today as we head high up to the plateaus near the border of Tibet where some of the last nomadic families in Mustang used to live. They have since moved down closer to Lo Manthang but still live in their traditional Tibetan tents, herding their yaks and tending their Pashmina goats and sheep.
We leave camp heading in the same direction as yesterday, following a long, ancient mani wall painted in red and many large chortens, all signifying the importance that this gompa enjoyed in years past. More caves, and an old mill site at the intersection to a small mill further indicate an importance now hard to imagine. Quickly we start to climb, and climb. As we ascend some of the world's largest peaks come into view: Dhaulagiri, Niligiri, Thorung & Tilicho Peaks, Annapurna 1 and other 7000 and 8000 meter peaks rise impressively in back of us when we finally reach the top of the windy nomadic plateau.
Camp is half and hour away, but we can hike first to the nomadic settlements just north of camp first if we decide. Our campsite is the one pictured in Peter Matheissen's book 'East of Lo Manthang', with nomads and their yak-haired tents backed by a towering Dhaulagiri, a fantastic spot. A prayer wall protects us from the north, and the border of Tibet is just an hour's walk away, locals have told us.
Day 14 - Trek to Sam Dzong - Exploratory!
These next two days are exploratory so enjoy the adventure as we trek from the high plateaus down to Sam Dzong, another village which will probably soon relocate because of lack of water. Sam Dzong is located along the Sam Dzong Khola at around 4000 meters.
Day 15 - Trek to Lo Manthang 3820m
The start of another partially exploratory day, we climb away from the small river and contour for a few hours until we reach the lower Chosar valley. From here we'll have a dusty walk to Lo Manthang, probably along the road unless the locals know an alternative route. We may decide to camp somewhere in this valley for the night.
Finally we spot the ancient walls of the fabled city of Lo Manthang high on the plateau ahead of us. We head directly west following the gurgling, willow-shaded Dokpolo Khola for about an hour until we reach the gates of Lo Manthang This is an wonderfully green section, with grassy river banks underfoot, stone walls bordering the river, and behind, backed by the snow-peaks bordering Tibet, the ruins of the once-imposing Lo Dzong.
We enter the outer walls of the city and head to Pema Bista's campsite right at the walls to the city, under a small grove of ancient, sacred willows. The horses and crew will arrive behind us, so we will start exploring the maze-like alleyways of this fascinating village. Be prepared for the onslaught of tourism in Lo as vendors immediately find us and set up 'shop' next to the campsite. It's not as pristine as it used to be, but just as mystical in the golden, yellow light as the local men bring their sheep and horses inside the city gates for the night. Perhaps, we we'll have a cup of the infamous suija (salt butter tea) at Pema's house in the afternoon, after visiting his shop. And we'll have plenty of time to marvel at the surrounding panoramic views of the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayan peaks bordering Tibet.
In the 1380's, King Ame Pal established his reign in Lo, aptly named the 'Plain of Aspiration', with the walled city of Lo Manthang as the capital and its inhabitants called Lobas. Within the walls of Lo Manthang are about 180 houses built among narrow streets, and some of the largest and finest Tibetan Buddhist gompas in Nepal. The city is quite prosperous due primarily to its past salt and wool trade along the Kali Gandaki with Tibet, and the Lobas themselves are still very Tibetan, living in Tibetan-style dwellings which we'll have a chance to visit. There are even yeti (known here as mehti) prints rumored to be found.
Lo traditionally had a single entrance, through which only the King, Queen and Kempo (Abbot) were allowed to ride. All others must walk, to pay their respects to Chenrizig, the Buddha of Compassion. King Jigme Palbar Bista, called 'Lo Gyelbu' by the Mustangis, still resides at his four-storied palace inside the city walls; that is, when he's not in Kathmandu. He is an avid horseman, and keeps his own stable of horses, some of the best in Mustang. These days, the king plays a somewhat ceremonial role although he is well loved and respected throughout Mustang. The present king is the 25th descendent of Ame Pal.
There are four major temples within the medieval walls of Lo, the 14th century, brick-red Jampa Lhakhang (the oldest gompa, built in 1387, with the striking 50 foot 'Jampa' (Future) Buddha, the largest clay statue in Nepal until a few years ago), 15th century Thubchen Gompa (Great Assembly hall, pillars 30 feet high, the second oldest gompa with fantastic murals in the Dukhang), Chhoede Gompa (where the Kempo lives, with a monastic school) and Choprang Gompa. There is also the Raja's Palace, home to the present King Raja Jigme and Queen 'Rani Sahib' (who is from an aristocratic Lhasa family) and an interesting maze of a village to explore. There are approximately 1100 Lobas within the walls of the city although many lower caste Lobas live outside the walls. Many of the Lobas still practice polyandry.
Days 16 & 17 - Lo Manthang
We have two more wonderful days in this ancient capital. Some options below:
OPTION 1: Spend a day (or both) visiting the famous monasteries, wandering the labyrinthine alleyways of Lo Manthang, shopping for Tibetan and Mustangi artifacts and doing a 'kora' of the large complex. There is an amchi that runs a Tibetan herbal medicine clinic in town, two schools and even a coffee shop along with the increasing number of shops to visit.
OPTION 2: Visit a newly discovered cave complex, which requires a jeep, hiking up a steep hillside and entering the caves by a series of roped-together ladders carried up by local villagers for a fee. More about this on the trek, better to keep the details of these caves a bit quiet. We would also like to visit the cave complexes of Drakphuk and Konchung Ling. We will discuss with villagers the trail conditions and times, and find a guide if we decide to explore.
OPTION 3: Visit the Chosar & Tingkar valleys on horseback
Disclaimer: Horses are a good way to visit both of these valleys but even on horseback it will be a long day. We take no responsibility for anything that may happen on a horse, and horses must be hired out apart from Kamzang Journeys. We will, of course, help with the arrangements.
Leaving Lo along a wide, canyon trail, past dry gullies and an ancient, ruined fortress, across a bridge and through a cultivated area, we finally view the cave village of Chosar, with the deep-red Nyphu Gompa built into the rock face. We'll need to cross two bridges to arrive at the gompa, at 3760 meters. Plenty of time for photographs before rounding the chorten-toped bend, where we get views of Gharphu Gompa on the east banks of the Mustang Khola. Past the gompa is an incredible cave-dwelling site called Jhong Cave, which you negotiate by ladders and through small tunnels, very interesting and reputed to be 2500 years old. In front of us, a range of spectacular snow-peaks marks the border with Tibet, and around us gurgling streams and green meadows line our trail. If we take the long loop, we can stop at Nyamdo Gompa, ride over a small pass and then head back down the western valley to Lo.
The western valley leads to Namgyal Gompa (the Monastery of Victory), set spectacularly on top of a desolate ridge and the newest and most active gompa in Lo. The village of Namgyal spreads out past the Gompa. Just past the gompa is the large, sprawling village of Thingkar, where the King has his summer palace. There is a new gompa here, where we saw a puja (prayer ceremony) last year, and met most of the villagers! There are also many ancient ruins surrounding the village, some gompas and others old fortresses perhaps. Further on, we reach Kimaling village, which is an interesting, white-washed village surrounded by fields where we did some carpet shopping last year. Kimaling Gompa is below the village, on the way out as we head towards Phuwa and its gompa on the way down towards Lo. There are tremendous views of Namgyal Gompa backed by snow-peaks behind us as we wander up the valley, and white peaks in front of us bordering Tibet.
The Chosar valley was the main trading route with Tibet and Lhasa, and is peppered with the ruins of old fortresses guarding this strategic valley. Just north of this valley, over the border in Tibet, Lhakpa and I met a Tibetan man who still dealt in the trade of rare animal skins with Mustangi traders, a risky and of forbidden endeavor. It will be interesting to see if we can find out anything of this trade on the Nepal side of the border.
OPTION 4: Visit the Namgyal valley on foot, a trek that will take a good part of the day but is worth doing. Leaving Lo Manthang behind the main gate and passing threw the willow-lined, lower caste villages below, we climb up to Namgyal Gompa for a visit. The young novices studying here are from all reaches of the Tibetan Buddhist world. The village is also worth a quick wander. Continuing north on the road and passing several ruins of ancient, crumbling monasteries we soon reach the old capital of Thingkar (4025m) where the king still has his small summer palace. The small village gompa has been newly renovated, and it's an interesting and colorful village to explore. Once on the opposite side of the winding alleyways we continue to hike north for about half an hour to Kimaling (4030m), just across a long suspension bridge. We've had some lovely experiences with the local villagers at Kimaling, who don't see very many trekkers. You'll find them weaving, washing textiles and herding their sheep and goats. We might stop for salt-butter tea at a new friend's small home stay (home) near the local lhakang (temple).
The return route heads straight down the valley to Phuwa village and eventually back to Lo Manthang
... Back at camp, dinner is on the fire, tea is brewing, and cold beers are available from the tea-shops, so relax and enjoy our last evening in this magical capital.
Day 18 - Trek to Nomad Camp 4280m
Leaving mystical Lo, we turn right out of the gate of Lo, cross a small bridge and head towards the high grazing plateaus of the nomads. Horses roam freely amongst the the crumbling walls and fields that surround Lo. We trek along the southern walls surrounding the city and hike for a few hours, following the valley bed, past the ruins of ancient fortresses and gompas. We climb the hill ahead of us, look back to the city-complex of Lo behind us, and drop down into the green valley below where to the 'last nomads of Lo' have now settled for most of the year. We have a bird-eye view over this scenic valley, dotted with nomadic tents of yak-hair, yaks, herds of sheep and goats, piles of yak dung and nomads. Several families live in this valley in their tents, and a few more in the valley over the next ridge.
We'll possibly take a northern route to the nomad settlement depending on our plans ....
Our campsite is idyllic, set right next to a clear stream on a grassy, flat plateau looking down-valley over Himalayan peaks. We'll visit the lively doksa later in the afternoon, perhaps being invited for a steaming cup of salt-butter tea and dried cheese. This is one of the last nomadic settlements in all of Nepal, a rare chance to see how real Tibetan nomads exist. We are quite high so it gets COLD in the evening. Sunsets and sunrises are perfect.
AFTERNOON TRIP: Hike over the hill to the north to visit the other nomadic settlements in the afternoon; all of the nomads were living in the Tibetan borderlands northeast of Lo Manthang, but many families moved to this spot about fifteen years ago to have better access to supplies, schools and medical facilities in Lo Manthang From the hill between the camps, at the prayer flag, you can look right down to the walled city of Lo Manthang, a great view. Locals from Lo Manthang might come to the doksas to collect the sheep and goat dung that the nomads don't use. We might get some yogurt from the nomads, delicious and fresh, and we can buy exquisite textiles from the nomads if we like.
Day 19 - Trek to Tsarang 3575m (via Lo Gekar)
It's an off the beaten path trekking day today as we head to Lo Gekar, or Ghar Gompa. Over a high ridge, we'll see the imposing chortens of the Lo Gekar after a few hours. Lo Ghekar, 'Pure Virtue of Joy', sits majestically in the valley above us. Ghar Gompa, built in the 8th century, is one of the oldest gompas in Nepal. It belongs to the Nyimgma sect and is connected by legend to Samye Gompa in Tibet as well as to the ubiquitous Guru Rimpoche. The name means 'house gompa' after the style of architecture, and harbors many exemplary frescoes as well as wonderfully carved and painted mani stones. Surrounding the gompa are massive, block-like chortens of a unique style and strings of colorful prayer flags fluttering in the winds of Mustang.
The story of Lo Gekar: Samye Gompa, the oldest gompa in Tibet, was repeatedly destroyed by demons when it was being built. The head lama dreamed that Guru Rimpoche could help with the construction and invited him to the site. The great Guru Rimpoche found demons to be the problem, and suggested that they first build Lo Gekar. Guru Rimpoche killed the demons at the spot that Lo Gekar was soon to be constructed. The long mani wall just south of Dhakmar is said to have arisen from the intestines of the demon, and the red cliffs above Dhakmar the blood of the demon. After Lo Gekar was completed, Samye in eastern Tibet was also successfully built.
Heading directly down valley, we soon intersect the mail trail from Tsarang to Lo, and head south past the massive and newly re-constructed chorten along the trail. A few hours of easy trekking brings us to the fortified village of Tsarang, meaning 'cock's crest', perched on the edge of a dramatic canyon. We walk between high walls to the south of the village, green with poplar and willow trees, and stop for a look at the Tsarang Gompa and its ruins, impressively built on a crag of rock. We we camp for the night at a lovely, grassy campsite called 'Green Camping' next to The Royal Mustang Holiday Inn run by a relative of the King, Maya Bista, the Palace and Gompa visible in the near distance.
Tsarang is a large village of 83 houses (population 400) built on top of the Tsarang Khola canyon, one of the later capitals of the Kingdom of Lo in the 14th century. Stone walls separate the houses and form tunnel-like paths, a new irrigation ditch lines the main street, and willow groves turn the village green. Tsarang bustles with its many shops, its own hydro-electric plant and quite a few guest houses and visitors. It is dominated by the massive, crumbling five-story Tsarang Dzong, a Tibetan-styled fortified palace built in 1378, and the large, ochre-hued Tsarang Gompa, built in 1385, of the Sakya sect and with the greatest library in Lo (the palace also has a great library). The dzong and palace were both built by Ame Pal and the other of the 'Three Sangpos'. The palace has a wonderful, old prayer room with a gold-printed prayer book and a fascinating array of statues, thankas and large Buddha paintings that the resident lama will show you, and the withered 500 year old hand of the master architect of the palace. Tsarang Gompa is adorned with fantastic 15th century frescos on the assembly hall walls; don't miss the older prayer room in back, once an 'ani gompa', or nunnery. Elaborate sand mandalas are created at the gompa at festival time, and then ceremonially deposited into the river at the festival's end. Ekai Kawaguchi stayed nine months here in 1899, and Michel Peissel spent time with the Abbot of Tsarang, the king's brother (the present king's father) during his time in Mustang.
Take a walk through the maze of paths to the dzong and friendly gompa before dinner, and stop in at one of the many shops for a look. Many of the wealthier homes here have family shrines which you might be lucky enough to be invited to see. The local women will be herding their sheep through the narrow, walled paths as dusk as the snow pigeons circle, shimmering, under the setting sun ...
Day 20 - Trek Zaite 3840m or Geling (3570m)
A morning walk through the maze of Tsarang's alleyways leads to the massive, brightly pained chorten which guards the entrance to Tsarang, and then hike along the dirt road for about an hour, soon reaching the Tsarang La (3870m). From the large cairn topped with Tibetan prayer flags, or lung-ta, we switchback steeply down to the bottom of the valley. Just ahead is a cluster of ancient chortens, some of the most massive in the Tibetan world, backed by dramatic, sculpted cliff-faces and said to be 1500 years old (the same as Lo Gekar); an awesome sight. The trail looks across the valley to ochre, blue and steel-grey cliffs, and leads us past tricolored chortens and perhaps the longest and most spectacular mani wall in Mustang, behind which is the hospital.
After a short, steep descent we directly cross the new bridge and climb briefly up to Ghemi (3570m), built along the steep edges of the cliff as are many fortified villages in Mustang. There are actually the ruins of an old fortress somewhere in Ghemi, which was largely abandoned until the Khampa fighters set up a magar (war camp) here and brought new life and wealth to the village. We'll wander a bit through this interesting village, passing the mani walls and prayer wheels, perhaps finding the key-keeper to open the Ghemi Gompa for us.
After lunch (or perhaps we'll eat at the pass) we'll continue on to Zaite, another 2 hours away up and over the Ghemi La. From Ghemi it's a straight-forward climb to the Ghemi La (3520m) from where there are beautiful views down to Ghemi. Contouring to the south, we continue to climb gradually for another hour or so to the Nyi La (4010m), where we're treated to Himalayan panoramas including Annapurna 1 & Niligiri, as well as the clusters of white-washed villages, ochre gompas and cave complexes in the Gelling valley. A short hike down the pass brings us to the Gelling intersection, from where we continue straight for about 10 minutes to our idyllic, green and sheltered campsite at Zaite.
We may continue down the valley to scenic Geling to camp.
(Dhakmar route, which we won't do ...)
After a look at the 'lha-khangs' or prayer rooms of the gompa, we start up an easy series of passes, the Mui La (4130m) and its second ridge (4175m). We'll stop for a break, gazing out at the Himalayan peaks in the distance. Blue sheep graze in these arid hillsides, their tracks stripping the otherworldly ridges, and griffins and choughs soar in the clear, blue Mustangi skies overhead. Climb the small hill to the left of the cairn; the views down the Dhakmar Valley are breath-taking, as is the sight of our horses descending into the tunnel-like pass. Rested, we descend steeply through the canyon and spires, dropping way down to dwellings and green pasture land below. 20 minutes later, past the prayer flags at the start of the village, we reach the lively, sprawling village of Dhakmar (3820m), dominated by a dramatic, red canyon wall with many ancient cave dwellings. Across the stream on the western side is an old gompa. Sunsets against the red cliffs, which house Himalayan griffins and lammergeyers, are fantastic ...
Following the small stream through the lower part of the village, green with old willows and more recently planted poplars, we continue hiking through a scenic, green valley, stopping occasionally for passing herds of sheep and goats. After crossing the small bridge, we reach the large chortens on the outskirts of Ghemi.
Day 21 - Trek to Samar 3605m or Chhusang 2980m
From Zaite, we continue on to Samar over the Syangboche La, with an option to visit the Chungsi caves en route ...
From camp, we climb gradually, mostly along the small, dusty road, to reach the Syangboche La at 3825m meters. After a few photos of the dramatic Himalayan vista, with Annapurna 1, Niligiri and the peaks north bordering Tibet. We'll drop down to small Syangboche village just below the pass and perhaps split into two groups.
CHUNGSI CAVES OPTION:
Once below Syangboche, we veer off to the left and descend into the valley, past seasonal doksas and shepherds herding their flocks of sheep and goats, on the eastern route to Samar via the important Chungsi Caves, at 3425 meters. En route, we see many nests of Himalayan Griffins high up in the cliff-faces, noticeable from their white below them (vulture droppings), and will see these majestic birds with their three meter wing-spans circling high above us. It should take us about an hour to reach the Chungsi Caves, one of the ubiquitous Guru Rimpoche's meditation caves. Up a series of rock steps to the entrance, and inside are fantastic 'rangjung' or self-created Tibetan Buddhist sculptures, chortens, 'Tara's terraced fields' and others Buddhist relics. The old caretaker is from Gheling. *** See page 144, Tucci.
We've now got a steep but spectacular walk in front of us as we head towards Samar, which means 'red earth' in Mustangi. We climb high up into an incredible, vast canyon, with wonderful, expansive views the entire time, and reach the Chungsi La (3810m) , approximately 500 meters above the cave. Then down, again steeply, to the Jhuwa and Samarkhung Kholas, and back up the switch-backing trail to the entrance chorten of Samar. A good day's trekking!
The other, shorter and easier route, entails hiking over the Yamdo La (3860m) and then the Bhena La (3860m), but on a 'Himalayan flat' trail, so the ups and downs aren't so steep and you'll stay relatively at the same altitude between passes. After the Bhena La there is a steep drop down to the intersecting stream, which is crossed on a small bridge, and then another two small climbs until reaching the entrance chorten at Samar.
Lovely Samar is visible just below us, with its lovely poplar grove and flat-roofed houses, formerly a staging post for Khampa raids into Tibet. The Annapurna range, still dominated by Nilgiri, is visible to the south, a fantastic backdrop. We'll set up camp on the green, shaded grounds of the New Annapurna Guest House, one of our favorite campsites and the owned by good friends Namygal Gurung. His brother Karma used to be our horseman, and is now one of our guides. Relax, have a wash in the cold stream next to the grassy, campsite and enjoy the afternoon and sunset over the Himalayan peaks in this charming village. Showers are available inside the lodge and feel free to go into the kitchen for a cup of salt-butter tea ...
NOTE: We may trek another 2 1/2 to 3 hours back down the steep trail to Tsaile and then on to Chhusang ...
Day 22 - Trek to Chhusang 2950m. Drive to Jomsom 2720m
Trekking almost finished, but we'll start the day with a couple of hours of hiking to reach our jeeps at Chhusang. It's an easy hike up the Dajori La (3600m), and a long, wonderful descent, past the Gurung village of Gyakar across the new suspension bridge, along our cliff-side canyon trail back to Tsaile, down and back across the tunnel bridge, and then along the riverbed for about 20 minutes to Chhusang.
Note the extensive number of caves in the massive rock face across the Kali Gandaki. Of these caves, the historian Gucci believes that they were the homes of the earliest Lo-pas, later used by hermit-monks as retreats. (As Tibetans in the western part of Tibet lived in similar caves until recently). Many anthropologists believe that the caves were the Neolithic sites of early man from a time when there was much more water, large forests and plentiful game to hunt.
There is a salt mine two hours from Chhusang, and fortified Tetang village just up the same valley; the salt trade was of utmost importance to Mustang in years past, and much of the wealth of the villages came from this trade. Across the Kali Gandaki , high up in the dramatic, fluted rock face, are clusters of ancient caves, their origins lost in antiquity
We'll drive south on the east bank of the Kali Gandaki along the new road, high up on the plateaus above the river-bed, all the time with magnificent views from all sides. We head north past the red, white and black chortens to the fortress-like Gurung village of Tangbe (3030m) three hours past Kagbeni. Tangbe is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways separating white-washed houses, fields of buckwheat, barley, wheat and apple orchards, unique in Mustang with its moat-like drainage system. Tangbe is split into two sections, the ruins of its ancient dzong (fortress) in the upper section. Nilgiri, which dominates the southern skyline at Kagbeni, continues to loom massively at the foot of the valley. The village of Tiri Gaon sits on the west bank of the river.
Soon we reach Jomsom and are are greeted by the sound of jingling horse bells as the Mustangi people pass by with their pony caravans, and beautiful textiles are woven by hand looms in the traditional style, readily available for sale. Yak tails to adorn your horses or dust your house are also sold. We arrive in Jomsom along a long, cobbled trail in time for lunch, with the afternoon free to wander, wash and shop. We'll celebrate our trek through 'Forbidden' Mustang at the Trekker's Lodge in the evening, handing out tips, extra gear and a few beers to our fantastic staff.
Day 23 - Fly to Pokhara & Kathmandu
Up early for our 20-minute spectacular mountain flight from Jomsom to Pokhara, flying between Dhaulagiri and Annapurna South before landing in balmy Pokhara. We re-board for our short, scenic flight to Kathmandu, 198 east of Pokhara, flying high above the north-south rivers flowing down towards the Terai from the Himalaya and Tibet. We pass over terraced villages and green hills with the Ganesh, Langtang, Manaslu and Annapurna ranges in the distance.
In Kathmandu, rooms are booked, showers are hot and laundry can be dropped off. We'll meet for a farewell dinner tonight although we advise keeping an extra few days in Kathmandu post-trek ...
NOTE: In the case of flight cancellation out of Jomsom everyone will be responsible for their rooms and meals.
Day 24 - Kathmandu
An extra day in Kathmandu for shopping, koras of Boudha or in case our flight out of Jomsom or Pokhara is cancelled.
Day 25 - Depart
We send you off to the airport for your flight home, and hope to see you again soon!
Extra Days in Kathmandu
If you wish to stay longer, we can offer plenty of suggestion!
Mountain biking or rafting in the Kathmandu valley or Pokhara, a luxurious stay at Temple Tree Resort & Spa, paragliding or zip-lining in Pokhara, a spa & wellness getaway at Dwarikas Resort in Dhulikhel or Dwarikas in Kathmandu, the Everest sightseeing flight, touring Bhaktapur, Patan, and historic villages such as Changu Narayan & Panauti, a night at the Fort Hotel in Nagarkot for sunrise & sunset mountain panoramas, a relaxing excursion to Chitwan National Park Wildlife Safari & Tharu Villages (staying at Maruni Sanctuary Lodge) or Bardia National Park or a weekend of adventure and pampering at The Last Resort.
Kim can help to arrange any of these excursions for you.
See you during your next trip to the Himalaya!