MUSTANG

Formerly the Kingdom of Lo and a part of the Western Tibetan Kingdom of Ngari, 'forbidden' Mustang has lured intrepid travelers to its remote realm for centuries, but only the most adventurous made it to this mountainous and inaccessible bastion of Tibetan Buddhism.

People have inhabited this harsh region for thousands of years, some of the early dwellers living or meditating in ancient caves, rich in Buddhist art, which pepper the bizarre rock formations. Mustang became part of the Yarlung Dynasty of central Tibet, later falling under the jurisdiction of the Malla Kingdom of Nepal (Jumla) and in the fifteenth century, the independent Kingdom of Lo was founded, ruling such other remote regions as Dolpo. It was only incorporated into the Kingdom of Nepal in 1951. Soon afterwards, renegade Khampa freedom fighters battling the Chinese used Mustang as a base of operations, and it was closed to all Westerners until 1992.

This mythical land north of the 8000 meter peaks Annapurna and Dhaulagiri still requires a special restricted area permit to enter, and numbers are limited, thus helping to preserve its unique heritage.

For a fantastic introduction to Mustang do also see the New York Times' Myths and Mountain in Nepal article, and we assisted Ed Wong setting up the trip with our usual guide, Karma.

A short history of Mustang

15th - early 17th centuries: Mustang was called the Kingdom of Lo. Mustang then dominated the salt trade along the Kali Gandaki River bed, and throughout the Tibetan region, and was a wealthy and powerful region.
17th century: Mustang was forced to pay levies (taxes) to the Kingdom of Jumla and came under their extended Kingdom.
1795: Jumla was defeated by the Gorkhas and the Kingdom of Lo (Mustang) transferred its allegiances to Gorkha, which by then was the capital of a unified Nepal.
1855: Lo supported Nepal against the Tibetans. The King of Nepal thus allowed the King of Mustang to keep his title of 'Raja of Mustang' although he had little political power.

Birdlife

Hill and rock pigeons, crag martins, rose finches, pied wagtails, rock buntings, black redstarts, impeyan pheasants, grandala, snowcock and white-capped river chats, Himalayan griffin, lammergeyers, golden eagles and more.

Wildlife

Snow leopards, black bear, marmot, lynx, black wolf, Himalayan wooly hare, blue sheep, red fox, pikas and more.

This mythical land north of the 8000 meter peaks Annapurna and Dhaulagiri still requires a special 'Restricted Area' permit to enter and numbers are limited, thus helping to preserve its unique heritage and Tibetan feel.

NAR PHU

The Nar Phu valleys combines high peaks and passes, glaciers, remote villages, narrow canyons, lovely forests, amazing rock formations, yaks, gompas and two remote Tibetan villages (Nar & Phu). Two long days of walking from the border of Tibet, this region was first explored by Tillman in the 1950s. Closed to trekkers until late 2002, very few westerners have explored these virtually untouched villages or climbed the many 7000m peaks surrounding it. Along with spending plenty of time at these colorful and timeless villages, we explore the high alpine valleys above Phu (including Himlung Base Camp for those who want to), and then from Nar cross the Kang La to Ngawal on the upper Pisang route leading back into the Annapurna circuit.

To see the detailed itinerary and more photos use a laptop/desktop browser or tablet in landscape (and hit refresh).

Detailed 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 impassible, 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 ...

Early Arrival

Providing you have sent us your arrival details, you will be met at the airport by a representative from the Kathmandu Guest House (look for their sign - they will be looking for you) and escorted to the guest house. Kim will book the extra nights for you, so your room will be ready.

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 check your insurance details (please have a copy of your travel medical insurance policy with you), go over gear and get to know each other over a beer at New Orleans 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 - Drive to Jagat

We're up early for our scenic drive from Kathmandu, on the Kathmandu-Pokhara highway along the Trishuli and Marsyangdi Rivers, to the starting part of our trek on the Annapurna circuit. It will take us approximately 6 hours of driving, part of it along the newly blasted Annapurna road, to reach once-lovely, cobbled village of Jagat where our staff will have set up camp for the night. We'll get you set up in your Mountain Hardwear and Big Agnes tents, set up Kamzang-style dining tent and introduce you to our camp routine. Chai is brewing, and we can grab a beer from the lodge shop as we watch the village life unfold around us.

Jagat, situated on a shelf which juts into the precipitous Marsyangdi valley, isn't what it used to be as the road now passes through it, but it's still got charm and we may stay in rooms for our first night depending on the camping situation ...

Day 4 - Trek to Dharapani

Hiking north along the new dirt road for a short while we ascend gradually, looking across the river to large waterfalls plummeting from the steep canyon walls. An hour later we reach the newly-bustling Chamje, an atmospheric, 'wild west' village of traditional-style teahouses, often packed with saddled local horses. Descending to the Marsyangdi River, we cross on a long suspension bridge and then start the steep climb towards Tal. The rocky trail through lush forest and past small tea-houses undulates and hugs the cliff-side, offering dramatic views into the narrow and deep canyon to our left. After an hour or so we'll reach the small teahouses mid-hill at Sattale, and the a last steep climb brings us to the top of the Tal hill. We'll pass through the entrance kane chorten of scenic Tal and hike briefly along the bank of the river before reaching the village. Tal means lake, and the area here was formed when the valley was blocked by a landslide and a dam formed behind. The lake has long gone and now the village of Tal sits on the river flats surrounded by a wide plain with waterfalls to our right. Tal is the first village of the Lower Manang region so the culture is now Tibetan instead of Hindu.

Another half hour of walking on a trail along and above the riverside, rounded river rocks peppering the way, we climb on rock steps built into the cliff-side to yet another bridge and cross the Marsyangdi again on another suspension bridge. Soon we reach Dharapani, an atmospheric Tibetan village with prayer flags fluttering in the wind, now busier than it used to be due to the road-building. Across the river, at the start of the trail leading to the Manaslu region, sits the village and old, colorful gompa of Thongje on the old Annapurna trail. We'll stay at a guest house for the night in Dharapani; enjoy another night in a room before our camping begins ...

Day 5 - Trek to Koto Qupar 2565m

Trekking north on the main Annapurna Circuit trail, we soon arrive at a long suspension bridge over which we cross the Marsyangdi River to reach the small village of Karte, re-crossing it soon afterwards. We continue along a high, winding, stunning cliff-side trail past several small teahouses at Khorte, and then switch backing down the steep trail before crossing the Marsyangdi River yet again. (The trail is changing because of the roadbuilding. We may stay on the same side of the river ...). Continuing to climb through forests of pine and oak, we pass through the line of older-styled lodges at Bagarchap and then through the smaller hamlet of Danagyu before coming to a thundering waterfall, where we turn left and head up the high trail to Koto. After an hour of lovely, open forests, we reach a clearing at the top of the trail and a charming Tibetan teahouse in upper Timang where we will stop for a break. Pausing for breath, we can look back for views of Manaslu.

An hour away, past the soccer field and through evergreen forests, staying high, is the hamlet of Lata Marang followed by the wonderful Gurung village of Timang, where the villagers might be harvesting their crops of buckwheat or stuffing local sausages. Heading back down through the village, we descend to the valley bottom, turn left and reach Koto Qupar, our base for the trek up to Nar Phu. From here we can look straight up at nearby Annapurna II, a stunning sight. Koto Qupar is the gateway to Nar Phu, a small, atmospheric hamlet at the bottom of the deep gorge that we head up tomorrow. We'll set up camp in the green backyard of a small teahouse and introduce you to our Kamzang-style of trekking. Hot chai awaits ...

Day 6 - Trek to Meta 3560m

This morning we head out early as we have a long and somewhat difficult day before us. Just past the check post, we cross the river on a long suspension bridge leading to the Nar Phu valley and hike up through beautiful woods above the Phu Khola (river). The trail takes us through some beautiful woods and past several small cave shelters and a dharamsala, or pilgrims' rest house. As we emerge out of a narrow canyon, the trail actually passes under a wide waterfall just before the dharamsala, from which point the woods become thinner and the vistas wider.

We might camp at Dharmasala, but will most likely continue on and make the steep climb up the valley along a small, scenic trail to the high pastures. This is the kharka of Meta, 3560m, the non-permanent winter settlement of Nar, and we will definitely share the campsite with a few yaks. Another chilly night, so we'll try to get a fire going to warm up.

Day 7 - Trek to Kyang 3880m

Our hike today is one of the loveliest walks in the Himalayas. The landscape is similar to the Sierra Nevada; white rocks, low shrub and juniper, scattered evergreens, delicate brick-red and orange leafed bushes, crumbling shelves of flat slate, white, sandy trails and gnarled trees. The mountains around us are utterly spectacular, and the Phu Kosi shadows the trail far below. An hour past Meta, Junam is the second semi-permanent settlement, one where "khampas" from Tibet sometimes sheltered. Above the kharka to the right looms a massive glacier, which falls jaggedly down to the high pastures above us. It's all truly amazing scenery. Across the river, the cliffs contort in swirls and waves, similar to Ladakhi landscapes. The next semi-permanent settlement is Chako, formerly a Khampa settlement, where grass lies tied in bunches to dry on all the rooftops and prayer flags flutter in the breeze. A previous year we saw a massive yak caravan from Phu pass by at Chako on their way down to Manang to re-supply, a scene from old Tibet, Many more ups and downs take us to tonight's campsite at Kyang, the extensive winter settlement of Phu, on a plateau high above the river

Day 8 - Trek to Phu 4050m

Dropping steeply down to the river, we trek for a while along the river bank and past the 'submarine' rock, passing some small possible campsites along the way. Today, we really start to see some of the unique, colorful chortens for which Nar and Phu are justly famous. We have to rock-hop carefully across a small glacial stream before reaching a larger one with a bridge only half covered with large slabs of slate. Some large steps do the trick ...

Another hour and a half of trekking through scenic canyon lands and gorges, and the 'leaning tower of Pisa' monolith guards the steep trail up to the Phu gate, called Pupigyal Kwe. This ancient gate provides us with our first view of the three villages of Phu, as well as an old "dzong" and the remains of two forts, all now in ruins, but impressively situated atop the flatlands before Phu. Just before the bridge to Phu, a line of wonderful chortens color the landscape and lead the way to the main village of Phu, perched high up on a hill, amphitheater style. We will set up camp on the lower reaches of Phu, formerly called Gomdzong, and head up to the famous Tashi Lhakhang Gompa on a neighboring hillside to pay our respects to Lama Karma Sonam Rimpoche, a trulku who came to Nepal with His Holiness the Dalai Lama back in '59. He is also a renowned amchi, or Tibetan doctor, as well as a thanka painter and father of several children (some trulkus as well as certain lamas are permitted to marry). Later, we might head up to the village to hunt down some chang.

Day 9 - Phu

Having spent quite a few days getting to Phu, we will spend an extra day in the area to enjoy it, meet the local Phu residents and perhaps do some exploring up the wide valley systems above us. Tibet is two long days away, so a bit far for a visit, but we might walk up the valley to the summer grazing settlement, or 'kharka' at Ngoru, a three hour's walk past the gompa. For those with lots of energy, a hike towards the east through a glacial valley leads to Himlung Himal base camp, a 7125m peak recently opened for climbing. There are often expeditions climbing this peak, as well as nearby Gyanji Kang. The mountain views are tremendous.

For others, a walk west up past Phu towards the chortens on the hillside provides some incredible vistas and views down over Phu and the surrounding fields, forts, valleys and peaks. Phu itself is an incredibly interesting village, and a day is well spent sitting with the villagers as they spin their yak and sheep wool and chat, pound mustard seeds into a paste for oil, or involve themselves in the countless activities that take up a day in Tibetan villages. For photographers, the light is spectacular, and the skies a deep blue, and we may even see some blue sheep on the surrounding hillsides. A wander through the village will probably involve an invitation into someone's home for some authentic Tibetan salt butter tea, or perhaps a small glass of local 'raksi', or rice/barley liquor.

Day 10 - Trek to Junam 3550m

Back through Phu gate, we descend to the river, and retrace our steps back to Junam kharka, a lovely spot as any for our campsite for the evening. In 2003 we camped with some Phu residents (all but one women) on their way back up to Phu with huge loads of planks from the nearby forests, and the evening was filled with Tibetan, or Manangi songs, smoky shelters and that unique Tibetan laughter.

Day 11 - Trek to Nar 4225m

Another classic Himalayan trekking day, as we trek down to the old bridge spanning a deep, contoured and narrow gorge (cameras out for this crossing), and then all the way back up again. It's a good thing the scenery is so stunning ... Below us sit Gyalbu Kumbum, built in 1650, and Satte gompa, both empty. We finally reach the Nar gates at the top of the hill, and pass by yet another line of wonderfully painted, bamboo-topped chortens and a large tiered chorten before turning the corner and being rewarded with sublime views of Nar, the undulating patterns of the surrounding barley and mustard fields, four old, colorful and traditional gompas and the snow-peaks looming overhead. We arrive early, so will have some lunch in the sun before doing some exploring.

Physically, Nar is not far from the main Annapurna trail, but it feels centuries away and is about as picturesque as they come. Nar is bit more social and lively than Phu, and the village 'square' is full of chatting women with their back-strap looms weaving wool fabric for rugs and blankets, pounding mustard seeds for oil, or spinning the ubiquitous wool while catching up on the news. The children in Nar seem to be always out in the streets, presumably preferring this life to the classroom! Each family in Nar seems to have at least one son or daughter in a gompa, and many live at home or visit frequently, so there is the resonating sound of cymbals, chanting and drums echoing throughout the village. Other Nar villagers may be printing prayer flags, doing some carpentry, collecting wood from the forest and carrying large loads with a head-strap back up to the house, harvesting the crops, tending the yaks, sheep and goats or spinning the prayer wheels in the center of town. Climb the prayer-flag festooned hill above Nar for wonderful views, or sit at our lovely guest house overlooking the whole scene in the sun, sheltered from the chilling and ever-present afternoon winds. It is a good day to try some local buckwheat pancakes or 'dhiro'.

Days 12 - 17 - Trek to Mustang (Tangge) 3215m* Exploratory

We've got six adventurous exploratory days in front of us as we trek the remote valleys, once old trade routes with Tibet and now used by locals for grazing their animals, over a very high pass and finally to Tangge, one of Mustang's most scenic villages and just off the main Mustang trekking route. We'll follow the Labse Khola and cross the formidable 5595 meter Teri La (pass) as we get close to Mustang, and then follow the Yak Khola for a bit before ascending again. Several high ridges later we descend into Mustang's patchwork of villages below us, and finally spot the magical, whitewashed village of Tangge built into on the terraced hillside. Climbing slightly to the main trail, we pass the line of red, yellow, white and blue-grey chortens and the long mani wall with four carved figures on each.

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 mudslide 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. Across the valley to the east is the route to Nar (of Nar Phu, in Manang), four days march away, only passable with porters. Locals won't go in July or August as they say it upsets the local gods and causes big storms. 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. The staff has set up camp at Tip Top campsite, just above the mani walls, a site sheltered from the unrelenting Mustang winds.

Day 18 - 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 sculpted by centuries of wind and water erosion. We stay high, climbing gradually until we reaach 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 tri-colored 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.

Day 19 - Trek to Yara

We're 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 mudslide which resembles a muddly 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, switchbacking 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 for a speach 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 20 - Trek to Ghara (Visit Luri Gompa)

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, saligramed 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 the wonderful, lively village of Ghara 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 21 - Trek Canyon Camp

We have a hard, six or seven hour day in front of us so have plenty of fresh coffee and a good breakfast before we head off. It's a steep climb behind the village along a dusty trail, past several cave dwellings, for well over an hour to reach to the top of the Ghara La at 4380 meters. En route we'll look down onto the red and white striped Luri Gompa and the patchwork of terraced fields of barley surrounding Ghara & Yara villages. Contouring around several hillsides, staying high, we soon drop down to the green doksa of Kepuchhimi at the valley bottom, a stream running through it. Crossing the stone doksas, littered with dung, we have a steep climb on a trail of hardened mud back up to the plateau where we regain our expansive views of the sculpted rocks and canyons surrounding us. More scenic contouring and two small cairns later we reach the steep descent down to camp. We'll have lunch overlooking the border of Tibet ahead of us and then start on the switchbacking down the 500-meter descent to the pebbly riverbed below. Another half hour of jumping the small Chaka Khola as we trek downstream brings us to our lovely Canyon Camp.

Day 22 - Trek Lo Monthang

A river day, bring your sandals; new adventures await us on our rarely visited route west. Our adventures continue as we trek through a magical world of salt drips, narrow canyons, pebbly flood plains and soaring cliffs. It's ten minutes downstream to the first sumdo or river junction, where we take a sharp left into the narrow canyon of the Chuchu Gompa Khola, which soon widens into a large, pebbly flood plain. The right fork heads to the 14th-15th century Chos Sung Gompa, restricted for camping but which Peter Matheissen wrote about in his book, 'East of Lo Monthang' and which houses some of the most important Buddhist artwork in Mustang. Unfortunately the main cave entrance has now crumbled away and is inaccessible. The nomads to the north hold the key to the main gompa.

We have to cross the tangle of streams several times during this section, so best to hike in your sandals for the next hour. The valley is sublime, a feast of mustard yellow, reds and oranges gurgling out of natural springs as it narrows and widens, the horns of blue sheep marking our path. The canyon narrowing around us as we hike. We've entered a lost world of contorted canyons, muted earth-tones and narrowing passages, the wonderful world of 'lost' Mustang. More mustard and blood-orange stained rocks signify mineral content in the organically-shaped rock, and we start to see salt drips suspended from the rock faces, intriguing hints to past salt trade in the region which made Mustang wealthy.

Soon we reach another river intersection where we hike up the hill and take the small bridge high over the river, possibly having to unload the horses in the narrow, high section just before the small bridge. At this sumdo the rivers become the Kali Gandaki river as it heads almost directly south. Further along the clear river, trekking along the riverside past the mustard-stained Tumu Khola intersecting our river from the right, we pass an incredible complex of caves gompas, only explored a few years previously by an international research and climbing expedition. There are several other caves built into the cliffs along today's trail, testament to an ancient cave-dwelling civilization and the monks that later used them as meditation retreats.

Heading up the Nhichung Khola we pass Namaru Dikha kharka as we trek on sun-baked plateaus and up stone steps, crossing the river a few times. There are hot springs just below our trail, not very hot but worth sticking feet into. Finally we spot the ancient walls of the fabled city of Lo 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 Monthang. 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 have reached the fabled walled city of Lo, with a single entrance through which only the King, Queen and Kempo (Abbot) are 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.

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.

LO MONTHANG
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 and 180 houses within the walls of the city although many lower caste Lobas live outside the walls. Many of the Lobas still practice polyandry.

In the 1380’s, King Ame Pal established his reign in Lo, with the walled city of Lo Monthang as the capital and its inhabitants called Lobas. Within the walls of Lo Monthang are about 150 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.

Day 23 - Lo Monthang – Visit the Chosar & Tingkar Valleys on horseback

*** We recommend horses for anyone wanting to come along on this day-trip; others are free to stay and wander the intriguing streets of Lo. 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.

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 Thinggar, 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.

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 24 - 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.

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 Monthang, but many families moved to this spot about fifteen years ago to have better access to supplies, schools and medical facilities in Lo Monthang. From the hill between the camps, at the prayer flag, you can look right down to the walled city of Lo Monthang, a great view. Locals from Lo Monthang 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 25 - Trek to Tsarang 3575m

Heading directly downvalley, we soon intersect the mail trail from Tsarang to Lo, and head south past the masive 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 26 - Trek Ghemi (via Lo Gekar)

It's an off the beaten path trekking day today as we head up the Marang valley to the renown Lo Gekar, or Ghar Gompa. We trek east out of Tsarang above the Tsarang Khola, with Marang village above us to the right above the river. Staying on the left banks of the river, 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.

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, droping way down to dwellings and green pastureland 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, looming ahead of us is a cluster of gigantic, ancient chortens, backed by dramatic, sculpted cliff-faces, an awesome sight. The trail looks across the valley to ochre, blue and steel-grey cliffs, and leads us past tri-colored chortens and perhaps the longest and most spectacular mani wall in Mustang, behind which is the hospital.

We descend steeply, cross the new bridge and then climb 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. Our staff has set up camp for us and chai is ready ...

Day 27 - Drive to Jomsom

We're trying out the new road this year and driving the scenic route through the lower sections of Mustang, partly on the road and partly along the rocky Kali Gandaki riverbed, to Kagbeni and then the district headquarters of Mustang, We 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 28 - Fly to Pokhara

Up early for our short and spectacular mountain flight from Jomsom to Pokhara, flying between Dhaulagiri and Annapurna South before landing in balmy Pokhara. We have the afternoon to wander the shore of Phewa Lake, drink fresh juice, do some shopping, or sit and relax at the hotel with a book. Head to Moondance Cafe for dinner and drinks in the evening, an atmospheric restaurant just near the hotel.

Day 29 - Fly to Kathmandu

Sadly, it's time to leave balmy Pokhara and head back to Kathmandu, arriving back in time for lunch. We'll have another short but scenic flight to Kathmandu, 198 east of Pokhara. 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. In Kathmandu, rooms are booked, showers are hot and laundry can be dropped off! We'll meet for dinner later, perhaps heading to Fire & Ice for real Italian pizzas and a few glasses of warming red wine ...

Day 30 - Depart

We send you off to the airport for your flight home.