Watch your step,” warns Kudun, the young son of our sirdar, or trek leader, as we slither down a stony trail high above a magnificent canyon. The stark valley below curves into austere folds of dun hills and fluted auburn cliffs. Around us soar massive Himalayan peaks, among them the craggy snow-capped ridges of the great Annapurna massif.
We are in Mustang, Nepal’s so-called hidden kingdom, which adjoins Tibet. Little-known or visited – it was closed to foreigners until the early 1990s – it remains one of Nepal’s most exclusive trekking areas. The entrance permit required by tourists insists that they travel in organised groups, while its cost tends to lead most trekkers to seek cheaper trails elsewhere.
Mustang, the ancient Kingdom of Lo, once prospered on a thriving caravan trade between Tibet and the Indian subcontinent. Merchants travelled along the Kali Gandaki river valley, a deep north-south gash in the Himalayas, exchanging highland salt for lowland rice.
It had a raja, or king, its culture was mainly Buddhist and its people were of Tibetan stock. By the early 19th century, it decided that prosperity best lay in aligning itself with Nepal and relatively little has changed since. Mustang still seems of another age and its hardy people lead harsh lives, much like their forebears.
It cannot be long, however, before the modern world begins to intrude. A road from the Nepali lowlands is inching towards Mustang’s capital, Lo Manthang, which already has a road link north to Tibet. The gap now stands at only about eight miles, and when the roads finally join – and are improved enough to carry cars and trucks rather than just 4x4s – change will probably be prompt and profound. It’s not just a question of more people reaching Mustang but more passing through: the completed route will be the lowest corridor from Tibet through Nepal to India (topping out at the Kora La pass, at 4,660 metres).
For now, it remains a fascinating place and Kudun’s caution urges me to pause yet again and soak up the sublime view.
Later that morning we reach Chhusang village, bending slightly as the trail passes through a short tunnel created by adjoining flat-roofed houses. A pair of sheep’s skulls wrapped in pale cloth hangs above its entrance – a so-called demon trap, believed by locals to keep ghosts and witches at bay. “The doorways,” says Kudun, “are low because evil spirits can’t duck or bend down.” More packhorses clatter past, bringing supplies for trekkers and villagers.
We stop for lunch in a simple inn, drink copious amounts of tea and set off again for the day’s final short stretch to Chele. Descending to the pebbly banks of the Kali Gandaki, we track the river upstream to a point where it emerges from a boulder-choked canyon through a natural tunnel. The path crosses a slender iron bridge and winds up a steep bluff to reach Chele’s terraced fields and vintage lanes. To the south, the 7,060m Nilgiri peak pokes through a bank of wispy clouds.
While many of Nepal’s famous treks are known for their “tea houses” – generally simple lodges and inns with attached restaurants – trekkers in Mustang tend to camp. Though cooked by our kitchen team, meals are taken in lodges since local campsites (fallow fields, orchards or courtyards) tend to be small with little space for a mess tent. A notorious wind that often blows up the Kali Gandaki from mid-morning also makes lodges better places to eat.
The ascent of Chele proves merely a warm-up. Over three succeeding days, we cross nine passes to Lo Manthang. None is particularly high or steep by Himalayan standards but lofty enough to slow those who have not quite acclimatised. The desert-like scenery grows wilder and starker as we climb above the Kali Gandaki, past scattered villages and hamlets. Prayer flags flutter furiously at every pass among large stone cairns topped with sheep’s horns. Imposing Buddhist chortens, or shrines, with striped walls and bulbous domes mark the trail like beacons.
At Ghami village’s Hotel Royal Mustang, a larger-than-usual house and lodge run by the niece of Mustang’s raja, we rest in a cosy salon full of Tibetan carpets and cushion-filled banquettes. Our crew prepares lunch in the courtyard below a large panoramic poster of Lhasa pinned to a wall. These posters are common in Mustang and are frequently disparaged by visitors for depicting a modern city of mostly Chinese buildings. Yet whatever its aesthetics, Lhasa remains capital of the Tibetan world with several famous monasteries and temples. Despite modern borders, Mustang’s culture is firmly aligned to Tibet.
We draw nearer to Lo Manthang with mounting anticipation. The walking seems to get easier. Lo-La, the final pass, is little more than a shallow notch amid undulating hills and just below it stands the remarkable 14th-century fortress town with its 20ft high perimeter walls. Barely 200 households, perhaps a thousand people, live here in a fantastic time warp of a place. Apart from its russet-walled monasteries, the whitewashed palace of Raja Jigme Bista is its most prominent building.
We camp just outside the walls beside a pair of stately cottonwood trees. Women winnow buckwheat in time-honoured fashion with wooden trays, singing harvest chants to ease their toil. While most of the town’s drains have been restored and covered, and electric cables discreetly installed, Lo Manthang preserves its compelling medieval air with narrow lanes threading among cheek-by-jowl houses.
At a nearby monastery school, a monk shows us round its classrooms. Their idyllic worldview seems crystallised in a neat aphorism pinned to a noticeboard: “Wealth is nothing, health is something, education is everything.” It’s the sort of progress that seems appreciated round here along with electricity, telephones and that fledgling road to the outside world.
As I talk about progress with young men in the main square beside the palace, one quips, “There’s been no revolution round here!” and they all laugh. He is alluding to the Nepali monarchy’s recent demise and the shadow clouding the raja’s own strange position. Here, remote from the Nepali mainstream, it seems he still commands considerable affection and respect.
Like many visitors, our small group seeks a brief audience. Much depends on the royal disposition. Armed with cream ceremonial scarves, we file in through his palace’s open gateway, climb rickety stairs and reach a salon with fine views over town. Our interlocutor removes his hat, we present our scarves one by one while the elderly Raja Jigme Bista, 25th direct descendant of Mustang’s first king, places them round our necks.
What, I ask, does he now feel is his main role? “The king’s duty,” answers our interpreter, “is to preserve and safeguard his people’s culture.” On the cusp of imminent change, perhaps only a raja can steer the course.
Amar Grover was a guest of KE Adventure (www.keadventure.com) whose next Mustang trek departs on September 24. The 15-day trip costs £1,195 plus restricted area permit of $500. The writer flew to Kathmandu with Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com), which flies there from London and Manchester, via Doha, from £650 return.