In the district of Mustang, there are four culturally distinct settlements. In the south is the area of Thak Saatsae, which literally means ‘seven hundred houses’. This area comprises of the villages of Ghasa in the south, Lete, Kalopani, Kobang, Larjung, Khanti and Tukche. Culturally this area is inhabited by Thakalis but in recent years, there have been more Gurungs, Magars and other ethnic groups moving in.
Directly to the North is the area of Panch Gaon (meaning ‘five villages’). Marpha, Chairo, Syang, Chimang and Thini are all part of Panch Gaon. These two settlements are the bulk of the western half of the most popular trekking route in the world, The Annapurna Circuit. It was opened to foreigners in the mid-’70s and has grown in popularity ever since. There is a great combination of native villages, religious places, natural beauty as well as access to some western amenities in the trekker’s lodges.
Further to the north, straddling the border between upper and lower Mustang is Baarah Gaon. Baarah Gaon literally means twelve villages (even though now there are twenty villages) and consists of the following towns; Kagbeni, Khinga, Dhakardzong, Jharkot, Muktinath, Chongkhor, Dzong, Putak, Purnag, Lubra, Pagling, Phalyak, Tiri, Chhuksang, Tetang, Tangbe, Tsaile, Ghyakar, Samar and Ghiling.
Even further to the north, on the Tibetan border is the area of Lo-Tsho Dhyun. This area contains the towns of Ghiling, Ghemi, Dhakmar, Marang, Tsarang, Dhi, Surkhang, Yara, Ghara, Tangya, Dhey, LoManthang, Nhenyol, Chhoser, Nyamdo, Kimaling, Thinkar, Phuwa and Namgyal.
All of these settlements and towns have their own flavour and their own distinct dialects. Even within a settlement the dialects will often differ slightly. Every town has its own story and clans and is worth visiting.
When coming up from the south, the first town that one encounters in Mustang is the town of Ghasa. Crossing the border of Mustang not only puts you in a different district but the cultural change is also well defined. Ghasa is the first place where you come across the flat roofs that are typical of the Tibetan Plateau and the firewood that is piled on the roofs becomes a precious commodity as well as a status symbol due to the scarcity of wood at this elevation. Ghasa is well known for the vast amounts of wildlife, especially birds that can be seen. There are numerous places within walking distance to enjoy the wildlife including Kalo Badal, Simrang Khu, Thaplyang, Ratopahara and the Ramjung forest. The forests surrounding Ghasa are home to Barking deer, Musk deer and Ghoral (blue sheep) as well as several types of pheasants, monals, fukrans and the Nepali kalij. The Annapurna Conservation Area is the only place where all four species of pheasant that are in Nepal are found in the same place. The Thukchamba Gompa is a small Nyingma-Pa sect monastery at the north end of town used to be a Kangni which is an archway that protects the town from evil spirits as well as offering salvation from sins to those that walk under it.
Two hours walk from Ghasa is the combined settlements of Lete and Kalopani. Lete is located at the crest of the hill and looks far out down the valley where the daily wind comes from. The valley from Lete north is relatively flat. Lete offers humbling 360-degree views of the Annapurnas, Dhaulagiri and the Nilgiris. Just up the hill from Lete/Kalopani is a lake called Sekung Lake where each year around April is held a yak blood drinking ceremony. The yak blood supposedly is especially good for your health and even good for the health of the yak from which the blood is taken. Also in Lete a traditional Thakali museum highlighting cultural traditions and rakshi (local alcoholic beverage) making are in the process of being built.
Side trips can be made to Sabrang Dhuri and Dhulu Danda for great wildlife and views of the mountains. Titi Lake is a marshy lake close by as well and is a haven for water birds and deer.
The Larjung/Kobang area is another 2 hours to the North and is the centre of the Thakali people. It is here that the Thakali tribes believe that their ancestors migrated to from the west. There are four Thakali clans, the Sherchans, Bhattachans, Gauchans and the Tulachans, each of whom have their own shrine to their families’ god in Larjung/Kobang. Once every 12 years, there is a festival called La Phewa. It lasts 15-17 days and during it, the four clan’s gods are brought out, paraded through the town and the family histories are recited. These festivals are the only times when the 4 gods can be seen. Above the town, each family builds a burial room called a Khimy for the deceased members of their family.
As one is walking up the valley one of the places that will be noticed is the impressive Dhaulagiri icefall. It can be seen from Kobang all the way down to Lete and is a sizable day trip from either town although the grandeur of the place is well worth the effort. The path is tricky though and it may be wise to hire a guide for the trip.
The Gopra caves just above Larjung are ancient places of solitude and meditation. The MaKi La Khang Gompa is the oldest Nyingma-Pa sect Lamaism monastery in the Thak saatsae region and was built by the second incarnate Lama of Tibet.
The next town to the north, Tukche is the northern most in the Thak Saatsae region. The Mahakala monastery in Tukche houses a huge collection of evil looking masks. It is believed that if a person in this life gets used to seeing really scary masks, then when he is confronted by demons after this life is over he will not be phased. One mask, however, is so scary that it is not shown to anyone because whoever looks upon it will perish.
The Tashi Choling was renovated by Queen Subarna Prabha Devi Shah in 1836 A.D. and so is now called the Rani Gompa (queen’s monastery). It was founded in the 1600s and has some fine woodwork, statues and paintings. The Kyupar Gompa, relocated 1983 is where the Dhekep is performed which is where during celebration time a masked dance is performed by the monks. One day trip from Tukche is Yak Kharka. It is 4 hours by foot and is where local people keep their Yaks to graze. From there you can see way up into Upper Mustang as well as the Muktinath valley and the mountains from the Annapurnas to the Muktinath Mountains.
Marpha is the southernmost town within the realm of Panch Gaon. In Marpha there are several distilleries making apple (as well as other fruit) brandy. At the north corner of the village, there are two dead juniper trees. These trees were several hundred years old and although no one remembers when they died, they still have not even begun to rot. These two trees are worshipped as the family god of the Marpha Thakali community.
The Tashi Lha Khang Monastery is a Nyimgmapa Buddhist monastery and was built over 200 years ago. The monastery, commonly called the Samteling Gompa of Marpha contains 225 Tibetan holy books called Tengyur, which are all handwritten in gold.
Across the river from Marpha are two other villages of Panch Gaon, Chairo and Chimang. Among the peaceful junipers, there is a Tibetan refugee camp that is home to around 200 Tibetans. The monastery there is home to the oldest religious paintings in the Kali Gandaki Valley, and although it is in disrepair has an impressive collection of religious statues and other items.
Syang and Thini, the final two villages in Panch Gaon are both located about a half hour from the district centre of Jomsom. Thini is the oldest village in Panch Gaon and used to be the most important town in the area. Thini has an old armoury, well preserved and Bon Gompa called Thini Bonpo Gompa. The King of Thini actually built the town of Jomsom as an outpost from which to regulate movement through the valley. Jomsom is a Nepali rendition of its’ original name of ‘Dzong Sampa’ meaning ‘new fort’.
Syang is a quaint little village with two monasteries, the Syang Gompa and Ani Gompa. Both are of the Nyingma-Pa sect and Ani gompa is the most famous nun monastery in Mustang. Two Rimpoches from here have been reincarnated.
Jomsom is home to the Nepali Army School of Mountain Warfare and due to its strong army presence, has not had any security troubles in recent years. The Mustang Eco-Museum is also in Jomsom and well worth a visit for some insight into the lives and history of people in the area. It also has a monastery and a large collection of herbal medicines.
A half an hour south is Dhumba Lake, which is highly religious and fenced off to prevent cattle from getting to it. The Kuchup Terenga Monastery, up from the lake is a beautiful place. It is a knoll in the middle of a bowl surrounded by mountains on all sides.
Every day, as the Pokhara Valley to the south, heats up, the wind whips up the valley from Kobang, through Jomsom and even as far as Muktinath and Upper Mustang. The wind can be quite violent and it is often advisable to hike more in the morning before the wind comes.
Baarah Gaon is not only the transition ground from Lower to Upper Mustang, it is where the transition from High Himalayan towns to dry Tibetan Plateau towns occurs. Jomsom is the first town encountered when walking from the south that is in Baarah Gaon. This is the hub of Lower Mustang and is sustained largely by daily flights from Pokhara. Many pilgrims and travellers fly in here and then make the hike up to Muktinath or back down south.
An hour north is Lubra, which is the centre of the religion of Bon in existence. Lubra is home to the only Bon school as well as two monasteries, one high on the hill that is newly built and gorgeous and one, down in the village and was founded in 1200 A.D. The one in the village holds traditional ceremonies, where the Lamas dress up as various historical gods and demons with masks and dance. The ceremonial killing of the demons is the climax of the ceremony.
While walking through these villages it is impossible not to be impressed with how these people have lived in this apparently barren landscape for thousands of years. They have not only survived but their cultures have thrived. The genuine smiles and good natures of these people and the playfulness of the children is inspiring. It is true that this area was once more temperate than it is now, however as nature changed this landscape into one where human existence seems impossible, they have demonstrated the amazing resilience of the human race.
Further up the valley, where the Jhong River flows down from Muktinath is the town of Kagbeni. This is the furthest north that non-Nepalis can go without a special permit. Kagbeni is an ancient fort town, and the fort, although run down still dominates the skyline of the town. Small alleyways and dark corridors now lead to small livestock pens and dark, almost oppressive corners. Every morning herds of sheep, goats and yaks can be seen clogging the roads and making their way to the river to drink and then out to the hills to eat. When yaks come through, everyone gets out of the way because the huge animals not only have incredibly impressive horns but are unpredictable and can dart in another direction without a moment’s notice, forcing their owners to run screaming after them with their whips.
Kagbeni, which means ‘the confluence of the rivers’, has a monastery on the point where the rivers actually meet. It is a very peaceful spot and monks are seen every morning walking back and forth on the point. The roof also allows a great view into Upper Mustang and all the way back to Jomsom.
At the North-East corner of Lower Mustang, just a few miles from the border of Manang District lies one of both Buddhism’s and Hindu’s holiest sites. Muktinath is one of the few places that are a pilgrimage destination for both religions and pilgrims from throughout the sub-continent come to pay homage to their gods. The Buddhists call it Chuming Gyatsa, or ‘the place of 108 spouts’. The main Temple complex is located 15 minutes above Ranipauwa, which is where most visitors stay.
Jhong is a town one and a half hours from Muktinath and is built on the ruins of a fort called Rab Rgyasl Rtse (meaning peak or supreme victory). The chief of this fort used to control all of Muktinath valley. Chengyur is a similar distance from Muktinath and is the only place in Mustang where Jyanwal Sinje religion is practised. Jharkot, the prominent town on the ridge in the middle of the valley is an impressive fortress-like village and contains a Shakya-Pa sect monastery.
Muktinath, or Mukti Chhetra (salvation valley) as the Hindus call it is situated at 3,710m high in the Jhong Khola valley and on the south-eastern edge of Baarah Gaun. Many shaligrams, or fossils dating back to when these valleys were not yet valleys and were still deep under the sea dot the valley floors. Hindus hold these to be reincarnations of the Lord Vishnu, leading the belief that Vishnu himself received salvation here. Vishnu is also worshipped by Buddhists as a protector deity. Hindus bathe in the 108 spouts of water that are formed in the shape of various animals thereby attaining purity from their sins.
Buddhist believe that the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava), stopped here, meditated and blessed the valley on his way up into Tibet. He is worshipped in his temple at the north end of the complex called Mharme Lha Khang or ‘1,000 lamps’.
The other main feature is the eternal flame. Gas from under the earth’s surface seeps out here and is believed to be a miracle done by Brahma himself. The temple that holds the flame is at the south end of the complex.
The Temple complex also offers a great view of the valley including Mt. Dhaulagiri and the prominent town of Jharkot on a ridge right in the middle of the valley. The high valleys on the south side of the valley can be crossed as a back route to Jomsom via Lubra. These mountains are filled with nooks and crannies that are waiting to be explored and enjoyed. The mountains and the silence tell stories of long centuries and to sit in the shadow of one of the biggest mountains in the world is to absorb all that the mountains have to tell.
Passing through the border into Upper Mustang is like walking through a portal to the ancient past. There are no longer any hostels offering western food or 24 hr. hot water. Natural resources dwindle with the rain as you travel north. There is a mystical quality that is easier felt than described.
Travelling north from Kagbeni for 2-3 hours brings one to the town of Tengbe. Tengbe is home to three monasteries, all of the sakyapa Buddhist sect as well as extensive apple orchards. Another hour or so along the main trekking trail is the village of Chhuksang. At an altitude of 2,930m, it holds a commanding view of the valley and the stunning red cliffs along the river’s edge. The Priest of Dolpo is in charge of taking care of the monastery seen across the river.
Already, the change in topography is noticed. Surrounding the valley is no longer dominating peaks but more subtle water eroded cliffs. This is classic Snow Leopard territory, rugged cliffs combined with high plains give the solitary predator space to hunt as well as places for concealment for he feels at home on the cliffs like he does on more gentle slopes.
On the path to LoManthang, after passing through the quaint towns of Tsaile and Samar the large town of Ghiling is reached. This is the last town of the Baarah Gaon region and near to one of the most sacred monasteries in all of Upper Mustang. The Chungsi Cave monastery is one on the places that Guru Rinpoche meditated on his way to Tibet. He stayed there a long time while his wife farmed the land inside the monastery that was provided to them. It is a place of great beauty and natural formations. There is a salt spring inside the monastery and recently there have been issues with theft of antique books, thankas and statues.
In Ghiling itself, amid green field there is also a monastery that is almost 600 years old. It contains gold and brass statues of Sakyamuni (the historical Buddha), Jhampa (the future Buddha), the Dalai Lama, Guru Rinpoche and other important figures. Here also there have been problems with theft of their valuable books that are written in gold script.
The area of Lho-Tshu Dhyun is the northernmost region in Mustang and is in some of the most inaccessible territories in the world. Here the culture and natural beauty give endless options for exploration and enjoyment. The monasteries are colourful and set against a backdrop that one cannot help but stop and stare.
The first town that is encountered in Lho-Tshu Dhyun is Ghemi. The architecture and statues of this town and its monastery reflect its ancient heritage. The monastery was built in 1414 A.D. and is the venue for many celebrations and ceremonies that are celebrated amid 108 chhortens and 108 lamps. The ruined fort that is seen west of the village is around 500 years old and was built by Dharma Raja Wangyal Dorje. The longest Mhane wall is also just across the river from Ghemi and is 240m long. According to legend the famous Yogi Padma Samabhawa (Guru Rinpoche) battled and defeated the local demon while he travelled through the area. At the demise of the demon, its intestines fell out and was the place where the wall was later built. Stupas were built where the creature’s heart and lungs fell and the blood of the demon stained the valley walls red.
The Holy Lake of Thuchhebu also lies within a couple of hours hike of Ghemi. The waters of this lake are said to have healing powers and even the Raja and Rani make a pilgrimage to the lake once a year for a bath. Dhakmar village meaning ‘red cliffs’ is also in proximity to Ghemi on the road to LoManthang via Tsarang and has a medieval feel with an old fort and monasteries.
The Ghar Gompa is adjacent to Marang (another 2 hours past Dhakmar) and is 1,200 years old. According to a legend while several high ranking Lamas were building a Gompa in Tibet, the Demon that was slain by Padma Samabhawa deconstructed the Monastery in a single night, bewildering the constructors. They called Padma Samabhawa for help and he decreed that the Ghar Gompa had to be constructed first in Lo and only then could the previous one be constructed. It was on this journey to Lo that he slayed the demon. The spring supposedly boiled up where Padma Samabhawa’s tears fell. The monastery contains many religious images and statues.
The second biggest village in Upper Mustang is called Tsarang and is only three hours south of LoManthang. The name Tsarang was derived from the Tibetan word Chaptrun Tsetran which means ‘cocks crest’ referring to the ridge that the town was built on. The Raja’s palace that dominates the town was built in 1378 A.D. to protect the people from the Tibetan warriors, the Khampas. It was historically the greatest library in the region and still houses a plethora of texts covered in intricately carved wood and gold. There is a blackened petrified hand that belonged to the builder of the palace and was kept as a tribute to him. The Monastery was built by Amepal, the first king of Lo and his associates and was built within a couple of years of the fort. This is arguably the most spectacular of the monasteries in Mustang.
LoManthang, which means ‘a place of blessing in the south’, is surrounded by arid rugged mountains and portrays the rich unspoiled cultural heritage of the people. It was built in 1380 by Amepal and is the only walled city in Nepal. The wall itself is 26 feet high and has 14 towers, each standing 40 feet high, along its periphery.
The only entrance to the town is through a huge gate that was traditionally kept closed after dusk to protect the city from bandits. This was done until very recently. There are four wards in the city that take turns performing the religious and social duties of the city.
Inside the city there are three impressive monasteries as well as the palace of the Raja. The palace, in the centre of the city, is where the Raja and Rani still reside. The three monasteries, the ‘Jhampa Gompa’, the ‘Thupchen Gompa’ and the ‘Chhyode Gompa’ were built at different stages of the kingdom’s history. All three of them are of the Sakyapa sect of Buddhism. The oldest and biggest is the Jhampa Gompa built at the founding of the kingdom and whose exemplary craftsmanship shows the skill of those ancient builders. It is 150 feet long and 80 feet wide with 55 foot high walls. The paintings and statues of various deities including the one of Jhamapa Chhempo (which protrudes from the ground floor up through the second floor), the future Buddha, also gives credit to their talented creators.
The second monastery, Thupchen Gompa was built in the 15th century by the third Raja and is equally impressive and used to serve as the primary centre for religious activities in the city. The entrance room has huge images of the four protector deities from the four directions; Dhristrarastra (NE), Baishnawan (NW), Birudhak (SE), and Birupaksya (SW), all of whom are enshrined on raised platforms.
The third monastery is currently the main Gompa for religious activities. The present Chhyode Gompa is a merger of the Ghoprang gompa and Dhakar-Thungling Chhyode gompa. After a severe earthquake and fire caused great damage to Dhakar-Thungling all the remaining objects were brought to the Chhyode gompa. The gompa houses beautiful thankas and images including the sacred Thanka of Mahakala. Mahakala is a wrathful manifestation of Acalikiteshwara, the main deity of the Tenchi festival. 45 minutes from the city on the bank of the Mustang Khola is a hot spring that can be used for bathing.
In the vicinity of LoManthang is the Chhonup Village Development Committee (VDC). Perhaps the main attraction of the Namgyal VDC is the Namgyal gompa which is over 1000 years old. The monastery is part of the Ngorpa sub-sect of Tibetan Buddhism and was renovated in 1987. Namgyal village also offers a bird’s eye view of the city of LoManthang.
Thinkar village is also worth a visit. It is an hour walk from LoManthang and one can see numerous small chhortens scattered throughout the village. The prayer wall is 500 years old. Chholongyu Lake offers the devout relief from 1,000,000 evils after bathing in the waters 5 hours north of Thinkar.
The town of Nenyol is in Chhoser VDC which is located north-east of LoManthang. There are a 60m long Mhane wall, several chhortens and a cave below the village. The Kojaling gompa near Bharcha village is 2,200 years old but is not currently in use due to its state of disrepair. The Kojaling gompa, along with the Chhorten Chhyoma, also about 2,200 years old are the oldest gompa and chhorten respectively in Mustang.
Garphu Gompa of the Ningmapa sect contains the imprint of Padma Samabhawa’s foot since he meditated there for so long. The Nyiphuk Cave Monastery is an hour and a half from LoManthang by foot and has many brass, wood and gold statues. The great master Lo Khenjen Sonam Lhindup lived there for many years in the early part of the 14th century.
Two hours from LoManthang is Chhoser cave and is thought to have been carved 2,500 years ago. The scenery surrounding this town is unbelievable, unlike any other place. According to tradition, a demon named Haji Gawa held the inhabitants of the town under siege in the cave. He was deceived when one of the women of the cave washed her hair with oil out of one of the windows making him think that there was plenty of food and water in the cave to withstand such a siege. He then left them in peace.
The Luri Cave monastery in the town of Ghara is probably the most famous in Mustang. It is home to the last remaining cave frescoes and the mystery of how its extensive tunnels and caverns were created is indeed still a mystery. The entrance lies through a manmade tunnel and up and old ladder. Only two of the interconnecting chambers remain intact, the second of which is so filled with a large chhorten that there is little room to walk. From LoManthang one passes through Surkhang to get there, passing the Hot Springs and the picturesque town of Yara on the way. The legend says that the god Indra came down in the form of a bird and entered the body of the Dalai Lama. He commanded him to go to the cave and meditate.