Once known as the Kingdom of Lo, Mustang preserves a lot of traditional cultures -- mostly Tibetan
Nepal abolished the Mustang monarchy in 2008 but the royal family is still respected by locals
As Prince Harry’s well documented Nepal visit nears the end, the spotlight has been refocused on this beautiful Himalayan country as it continues to recover from April 2015’s catastrophic earthquake.
For many travelers, reaching Nepal’s Mustang region is like arriving at the fabled valley of Shangri-La.
Cut off from the world on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, Mustang has been part of Nepal since the 18th century, but its traditional Tibetan culture has survived in isolation.
Formerly the independent Kingdom of Lo, Mustang – or Upper Mustang as it’s sometimes called – is a high altitude desert of rich red and ocher land and deep gorges set against an infinite blue sky.
It opened up to limited numbers of travelers in 1991.
Here are some of the best ways to experience this Himalayan kingdom.
Note: There are no street names in the Mustang capital of Lo Manthang. But the town is small, and locals can help with directions to the following places.
Meet the royals
Nepal abolished the Mustang monarchy’s official status in 2008, but Prince Jigme Singhe Palbar Bista is still revered by his people, who regularly ask him to settle disputes.
The prince has sought to balance the protection of his culture with the benefits of tourism, such as support for local language teachers, monastic schools and the restoration of artistic treasures.
It’s possible to meet the royals, who live in a palace at the center of Lo Manthang.
The prince is open to greeting visitors, although he’s scaled back his activities due to old age.
It’s still worth asking around as he sometimes grants audiences.
Standing on the rooftop of the royal palace in Lo Manthang, during my own visit with the prince he told me about the wonderful royal banquets on the moonlit plateau.
They were times when boiled yak meat was served with homemade beer and barley liquor as dancers wearing colorful wool garments and jewels of turquoise, coral, silver and gold swirled around fires.
Visit 1,000-year-old manmade caves and monasteries
For centuries, traveling ascetics of the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism have wandered the valleys of Mustang, using its caves to perform advanced tantric yoga.
The deep gorges of Mustang are the perfect setting for those wanting to practise tummo – a form of Tibetan breathing that allows a person to generate heat at high altitude or tackle negative emotions.
Visitors can hike along narrow cliffs, climb into a cave and absorb the silence and mesmerizing views of the sky and mountains.
Most caves are empty but some have frescoes and statues inside.
Some cave entrances are locked and must be opened by a caretaker from a nearby village.
Formerly a vibrant center of Buddhist scholarship and art, Mustang’s temples also feature amazing Tibetan art.
Since 1998, the American Himalayan Foundation’s team of carpenters and wall-painting conservators, led by photographer Luigi Fieni, has been working to bring Mustang’s treasures back to life.
Many of these display the full teachings of Buddhist doctrine: frescos with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, tantric Mandalas, sacred books written in gold, silk Tangka and statues of Indian yogis in bronze, copper or clay.
Ride with Nepal’s top mountain bikers
A mountain bike and a backpack are all that’s needed to explore solitary trails through majestic valleys dotted with villages and monasteries.
Nepal’s leading mountain bikers have set up Gnarly Biking, a premium mountain biking company, to open up the best and least touristed trails of their country.
They’ve designed an itinerary to cross Mustang from south to north, along an ancient caravan road, to reach the capital, Lo Manthang, before venturing north to explore the caves and monasteries near the border with Tibetan territory in China.
Gnarly Biking ( +97 7980 3661 496) runs a set trip to Mustang but also offers tailored tours.
Hike or run Mustang’s valleys
The route carved through mountains by the Kali Gandaki River was used for centuries by caravans carrying salt from the Tibetan plateau to the plains of India.
Today it’s used by everyone.
That means other magnificent trails are left empty, providing the lure of adventure and spectacular landscapes.
The trail from Yara to Muktinath at the base of the Annapurna touches beautiful villages, fords through rivers and climbs to 4,000-meter mountain passes.
The reward is immense: a hike where the mountains become sharper and wilder, the gorges steeper, the silence louder and the atmosphere more solemn.
Every year in April, a spectacular multistage 200-kilometer trail running challenge is held on these wild and spiritual routes.
The next Mustang Trail Race is April 16-28, 2016.
Stay in a local home
Staying with locals in Nepal – if you can find people interested in taking you in – is a meaningful way to generate cultural exchange out of brief encounters.
Even Prince Harry’s done it.
Mustang is no exception.
All major villages in Mustang have a guesthouse, but many families are also open to hosting trekkers.
Dikee Dolker Gurung, 29, took me through the labyrinthine alleys of Lo Manthang until we reached a small door leading to a stable with a solitary cow.
Ground floors of Mustang homes are for the animals.
We climbed narrow stairs and reach the first-floor living room where her mother was churning milk into fresh butter and another family member sat on a sofa, spinning a prayer wheel.
The stove was fired by cow dung. A soup with pieces of yak meat was simmering on top.
“Foreigners can experience the gentleness of the people of Mustang,” says Dikee. “They can make it theirs and carry it back home into their life.”
Mustang hosts a full calendar of festivals and religious ceremonies.
The Tenji festival in Lo Manthang, held in the third month of the Tibetan lunar calendar (between April and May), sees monks engage in spectacular dances that tell a Buddhist tale of good vs. evil.
Every August across Mustang, but particularly in Muktinath, the Yartung festival involves horse racing, drinking and dancing.
During February’s Saka Lhuka seed-sowing ceremonies, monks recite religious books and new village leaders are appointed.
Permits, costing upward of US$500 must be obtained in advance from the Department of Immigration in Kathmandu.
Trekkers enter Mustang at Kagbeni village, a three-hour walk from Jomsom Airport.
Daily flights during the high season connect Jomsom with Pokhara, the second biggest city in Nepal.
Buses run the Pokhara to Jomsom route in 13 hours.
Several international and local companies organize tours in Mustang such as World Expeditions.
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Andrea Oschetti is a Hong Kong-based freelance travel writer who has traveled extensively in Nepal and Tibet.