John Pavelka
Credit: John Pavelka

Footprints in the Dust of Mustang

“There it is.” Lalit, our sardar, climbed up to the pile of rocks where the others were sitting and pointed down to a small L-shaped grouping of houses nestled in the distance below us. In truth Lalit hadn’t said anything: he never spoke to me. But I knew what he meant just as if he had spoken. There at last, after five hard days of hiking, was our destination, Lo Manthang, the chief city of the Loba, the people of Upper Mustang in western Nepal.

Our group had been walking for just under four hours through a stark landscape, the most severe of the high alpine deserts we had crossed over the past few days. Today we found no escape from the sun as we ascended slowly from our camping ground in Tsarang at 3,600 metres. The sky was a cloudless, deep turquoise blue. We could still see the north face of the snowy Annapurna range far to the south, but around us were rolling hills of sand and gravel, dotted with the occasional thorn bush. As it did every day, the wind started to blow hard around 11.00 a.m., throwing the dust up into mini-tornadoes. We covered our faces as best we could: it was a contest between protecting ourselves from the dust and still being able to breathe in the thin air.

“We paid a lot of money to do this,” Simon laughed as I wheezed to a halt beside him. “We must be crazy.”

We had celebrated Simon's 40th birthday the night before complete with cake and candles. So he must have decided this was how he wanted to spend that important date. I didn’t answer him. I could barely speak with the wind, the dust, the lack of oxygen and my face swaddled in cloths, a vain attempt to keep the unrelenting sun away. I looked like a Berber who had been mysteriously plucked out of the Sahara and dropped into the Himalayas, stranded without horse or camel.

I stood on the outcropping of stone beside Lalit, surrounded by prayer flags snapping in the wind, and looked down at Lo Manthang. It seemed close but I knew that distances were deceiving in this place. Still it was downhill and I had become a sturdy speed-demon on the downhills. The leaders of our group of 11 hikers took off straight down the dusty cliff; the followers, which included me, skirted a chorten and set out after Lalit on a more manageable trail. Our boots scuffed through small piles of sand. Whatever colour they had been when we arrived in Kathmandu, they were all the same now, the gray of the ubiquitous dust of Mustang.

An hour later, I struggled up a hill from the small river that ran below Lo Manthang following Ramesh, our head guide, along a path that led between carefully constructed stone walls. We came to a halt in front of the Lotus Holiday Inn.

“Lunch is ready inside and the tents have been set up in the garden behind. There’s hot water for a bath as well,” Ramesh said.

My lungs let out a whoosh of relief: food, rest, bath — life couldn’t get better than this.

After lunch, I lay on my sleeping bag in the half orange light filtered by my tent. We would have no complaints about rain on this trek. Too much sun for me. Even wrapped in cloths, a hat, SPF 60 sunscreen and zinc oxide, my face was burning up. I would need to look for a better headscarf in the shops of Lo Manthang tomorrow. I closed my eyes and drifted off into a delicious mid-afternoon nap and splendidly crazy dreams that are the norm at high altitudes.

That evening, shivering as the sun disappeared behind the mountains to the north in Tibet, we walked to the end of the street that ran in front of our small hotel, turned a corner, strolled by a line of prayer wheels and found ourselves at the inner corner of the L. As easily as that we were at the gate that led into the old town. We ducked under the low passageway, took a few steps to the left and arrived in the main square. Above us we could see the four storey, rather run down building that was the king’s palace.

“Come and look. It doesn’t cost anything to look.” We were instantly surrounded by traders. Easy prey. I’m not a good shopper but the others were champions. We crowded into a small store filled with jewellery. The owner explained in perfect, unaccented English that she had made some of the pieces herself and her mother the others. I asked her what she did in Lo in winter and she replied that like most of the other inhabitants she went to Kathmandu. Her son was three and she didn’t want him to become ill in the cold and damp of a Mustang winter. She had gone to Varanasi in India to give birth to him. Other Loba spent the winter in India, trading.

“Who looks after the animals?”

“The old people stay here occupying themselves with weaving and carving stone.”

I was surprised to find that the town looked and felt very much like the one described by Michel Peissel, a French researcher who had come here in 1964, one of the very few foreigners to be allowed to enter Mustang at the time. The region was closed to almost all foreigners until 1992. It had been the base for the Tibetan resistance. Even now, in 2012, the number of tourists allowed to trek here was limited.

The next day Ramesh gathered us together for a tour of the four monasteries that are located inside the town walls. In the Middle Ages, Mustang had been a hub of Buddhism. There were still many monasteries, large and small scattered through the area we had just hiked. The monastery at Tsarang had once housed 1000 monks.

“Please stay back; I can touch these things but you cannot.” The young monk who was our guide was leading us through a tiny museum and the first monastery. Despite the modest exterior we were not disappointed when we went inside: huge statues of the Buddha, three stories high, cooking pots and butter churns that were 800 years old, a pile of dusty documents over 2000 years old. It was a treasure trove. The monks still guarded these 13th and 14th century old buildings and their contents carefully.

Two days of rest and we were ready to start the long hike back to Kagbeni the official entry point for upper Mustang. Ramesh wanted to take us down a lesser used, more precipitous route.

“You won’t be disappointed. It’s an exceptional view and no longer than the other way.” We set out early, climbing slowly through terraced fields of buckwheat and grass. The path ahead stretched into the distance, a disadvantage of the denuded landscape and clear weather: we could always see how very far we had to go.

But it was worth every gasp-filled step. Two hours later we came to the first pass and met an eye-popping view. The trail disappeared through a slot in the rocks and tumbled in steep zigzags as it made its way towards Ghar Gompa, the oldest monastery in Mustang and our lunch stop. At the pass we could turn in a circle and see orange outcroppings of clay, gray mounds of shale, yellow cliffs pockmarked with caves. I felt as if I was in the middle of a huge gray and ochre ocean, its waves billowing out from me on all sides. Even the leader group picked their way slowly down the rough trail to Ghar Gompa, looking up only occasionally from the view of their boot tops to take in the panorama slowly unfolding in front of them.

“It’s a treat to walk through these vistas,” said Simon from behind me. “We can see all the way north to the mountains of Tibet and all the way south to the Annapurnas. The mountains shift around us in slow motion as we go down. We don’t usually take the time to move through the world like this.”

Over the next four days we climbed and descended until we were back where we had started 10 days before in Kagbeni. The gradually changing landscape was a kaleidoscope. The hills of gray shale, the cave-filled cliffs, the pieces of history and religion whirled and floated in my head, shifting and connecting, then breaking apart and reconnecting again, ever in motion, like fragments of a dream.