Journey to Mustang
The Mustang is a small kingdom geographically located in Tibet, but legally being Nepal autonomy. Until recently, the country of Lo (how it is called by local residents) was poorly studied and rarely visited by tourists. Which is not surprising, since a special permission is required to attend this area: there are just few hundred pieces issued per year…moreover, until 1992 the country was completely “closed” for foreigners (in 2007 we were the first Kazakhs to cross the Mustang border). The region's difficult access is another reason that prevents penetration: the way to that part of the Tibetan highlands where the Lo Land is secluded, surrounded by the mountains, passes through the deepest in the gorge in the world. The only entrance to the Mustang from Nepal is a canyon of Kali-Gandaki River, which "saws" the Himalayan Range between two eight-thousand massifs of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri.
Our trip to the capital of Mustang - Lo Mantang - started in Jomsom in May 2007, and, in the absence of roads and infrastructure, took 17 days. Having arrived at the border’s closest airfield, we met our guides and a caravan of yaks/horses, which had been ordered beforehand. Knowing that we will travel in a full autonomy beyond the border post, we stocked provisions, water and a huge set of expeditionary utensils. Until today, the way of life in the Mustang remains traditional so very reminiscent of the Middle Ages: the rare villages on the way to Lo Mantang produce and consume all the food themselves (within small communities), and, in case of necessity, change their surplus to other products or services. Thereby, for all the time of our trip, we did not even manage to use the money - it seems that Mustang residents do perfectly without it in daily life. But the candy of the Almaty factory "Rakhat" was very useful in terms of establishing contacts with the younger population of the Lo country :)
The first few days you need to hike up along the Kali-Gandaki stream, and then the main (and only) path leads to a hilly plateau, located at an altitude of 4000m above sea level. A fury wind is a constant companion of the Mustang traveller. At the bottom of the gorge, it is literally able to roll stones: for safety reasons, sheep and goats are grazed tied down with yaks here. But the real discovery of the first days of journey for us was dwelling caves. High vertical walls of the canyon keep traces of someone's hard work: the view of deep, multi-room and multi-storey caves, carved inside a soft rock, causes a "civilizational shock". Who and why might need a cave in the very centre of the rock, at a height of a kilometre above the ground? How do they get there and why? Of course, later on the way we met quite habitable and accessible caves-cowsheds, caves-monasteries and even houses, attached to caves. But the mystery of the "high-rise" grottoes has not been revealed (according to one version, these are caves for lifelong meditation, which consider “one-way entry”).
Over the following days, we passed a number of villages surrounded by tiny barley terraces, and reached the town of Tsarang. It looked an oasis among the desolate highlands (the Tibetan drought of the past centuries, Mustang has not been spared: there are almost no trees, although 150 years ago they built wooden houses). Tsarang is a residence of the king’s brother - his five-storey palace rises in the midst of green fields. Here we were fortunate enough to taste the traditional Tibetan life, with its “ordinary miracles”. We visited an incredibly ancient monastery, where a monk (concurrently the headmaster of the school and a teacher) was pleased to show us the repository of old books taken from Tibet 700 years ago (kingdom foundation period) - piles of black and gold manuscripts wrapped in faded matter. A crowd of schoolchildren dressed in kashaya (red robes of monks) took us to the royal palace, where a custodian demonstrated the scarecrow of the last dragon, killed here by the king just some 500 years ago.
Being in such a "mystical" mood, we went further to the main point - Lo Mantang, where the annual exorcism festival was supposed to start. Having arrived at a capital in a couple of days, with all our stuff, we settled down and took a strategic position on the roof of the inn near the main square. So, next three days resulted in series of hundreds of thousands pictures of ritual actions on the square: it looked a real theatre with hours–long scenes of struggles between the good and evil, demons and spirits, gods and people. It was supported by trance dancing, accompanied by the sacred sounds of Tibetan horns and brass seashells. Monks, lamas, bright costumes and masks - many of them were trimmed with human skulls. It was a real mysterious extravaganza, the carnival of the Bon religion (a mixture of Tantrism, Shamanism and Buddhism).
Getting back to Jomsom after the festival, we’ve heard a construction noise somewhere afar: China decided to build another road to Nepal from the north. Most possibly, huge trucks are traveling these days by a new track through the Lo Land. The question is: will we be able to solve the mysteries of those dragons and caves before the kingdom of Mustang is erased from the earth map under the pressure of globalization?
More pictures from Mustang you can find IN OUR GALLERY