Trekking into the long-forbidden Kingdom of Mustang

Image: Samde Sherpa
Image: Samde Sherpa

A new road to Upper Mustang is near completion, meaning things in the region will change dramatically. Here's why now is the time to visit.

People from all walks of life are drawn to Nepal to experience the incredible Himalaya but very few have stepped foot into the once-forbidden Tibetan Kingdom, Upper Mustang.

A remote and isolated high-altitude desert north of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna, the small kingdom regarded as Nepal's "Little Tibet", is home to charming rustic villages, farmlands of barley and buckwheat, Buddhist monks, women in beautiful and unique traditional dress, untouched gompas, ancient forts and palaces, nomad camps and rugged mountain landscapes flanked by snowy peaks.

“It’s one of the last places to find pure Tibetan Buddhist culture, which makes Mustang a really special destination,” says veteran trekker Margie Thomas, who has been leading treks to the region since 2014.

Tourism is strictly controlled and limited, with US$50 a day permits (for a minimum of 10 days) required to enter Upper Mustang. Consequently, you see very few tourists heading up there even at festival times; a rare gem in the Nepalese Himalayas.

Incredible views of the Kali Gandaki as you make your way into Upper Mustang |  <i>Margie Thomas</i>

“I think it makes it for a much more authentic experience. You are very much immersed in the local psyche,” says Margie.

“You’re included in what’s going on locally, so nothing’s over-run by Westerners or tourists with big camera lenses pushing locals out of the way, that sort of thing, which to me is pretty special anywhere in the world these days.”

Inside the forbidden kingdom

The greatest attraction, according to Margie, is the fact that very little has changed within the kingdom, which maintains a traditional way of life and unique Tibetan Buddhist culture dating back centuries.

“There are three main gompas inside the walled city of Lo Manthang, one of them is called Thubchen gompa. It’s a massive Buddhist assembly hall, and I have never seen anything like it in all my travels in the Himalaya. Thubchen Gompa has been painstakingly restored over several decades, and the wall paintings there are unbelievable,” says Margie.

Private puga at Tsarang Gompa in Mustang |  <i>Margie Thomas</i>

“Millions of dollars have been spent on this restoration, and I’ve been fortunate to get to know some of the head restorers and count them as friend, including the wonderful Italian art restorer and conservationist, Luigi Fieni. Luigi is a passionate, enthusiastic Italian who has overseen and driven this project for the American Himalayan Foundation for 20 years. He takes my clients around, gets them up the scaffolds, shows them exactly how all the work’s been done and takes us to the backroom where they’re mixing the paints.”

“They use mineral paints so they’re mixing up things like lapis lazuli and other semi-precious stones in the age-old tradition. They buy these stones from all around the world, grind them up and use them to restore these sacred wall paintings – it’s absolutely incredible detailed work which many local Lobas have been trained by Luigi to undertake.”

Loba restorers at Thubchen |  <i>Margie Thomas</i>

Another highlight is exclusive access into ruins of an old royal palace in Ghami.

“It took four years before I was invited to visit  that old palace,” Margie explains, “but when we went in there were incredible paintings on the walls, which have been there for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years… it’s just gobsmacking.”

Travelling by Tibetan pony

Upper Mustang is horse territory, and riding unique Tibetan ponies is the way people in Mustang have moved around for centuries.

Beautifully decorated in traditional Tibetan blankets and handwoven bridals, riding the traditional Tibetan ponies does not require previous horse-riding experience and all ponies are sure-footed and beautifully trained. Their pony men bring a wealth of experience with them.

Clients approach pass on horseback |  <i>Margie Thomas</i>

“On previous trips, we usually used the horses for the long uphill hauls and get off at the pass and walk down, or when crossing rivers. It really adds an incredible dimension; the colour, the way the horses look and you’re also elevated and relaxed so you’re not watching your feet all the time. You can just daydream a bit, look at the landscape, and take photos. The horses have their pecking order, and they all just calmly trot along in a group.”

As described by Margie, riding through that landscape is like riding through rural Tibet a thousand years ago. You take the ponies on a day trip up to Chosar, riding from Lo Manthang to Chosar.

“The pony men also add a great deal of richness to the trip because they become your friends along the way and you learn a lot about their life, what their aspirations are and what their families have done. There have been pony men and horsemen in those families for generations,” says Margie.

A new route in Upper Mustang

With a new road leading up to Upper Mustang almost complete, Margie predicts that things in the region will change dramatically. Now is most definitely the time to visit.

“That road will run from China to Nepal and beyond to the Indian border, so that’s going to have a huge impact… but still there are ways to get off the road.”

“With World Expeditions, we’ve refined the itinerary and instead of following the usual trekking route we are going way out to the east now, via remote settlements like Yara and Luri where there are no vehicles. It’s quite a strenuous trek on the way back, but you are getting way off the beaten track and have the horses as backup on the long uphill hauls.”

Published 31 December 2019 - updated October 2022

mustang, nepal, kingdom of mustang, upper mustang, pony trek, himalayas, trekking

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