The forbidden Buddhist kingdom of Lo, known in modern times as Mustang, remains one of the last true bulwarks of traditional Tibetan culture, hidden away in its secluded and highly protected barriers on Nepal's northern border. Formerly an outlying province of Tibet itself, Mustang's entire culture, language, and philosophical outlook on life revolve around the ancient ties to its near-mythical neighbor — even its geography reflects that of the Tibetan steppe which both share.
Caught in the formidable rain shadow cast by the Himalayan ranges, chiefly the Annapurna massif and Dhaulagiri, the Mustang region is an arid land of stark earthen colors and rugged canyons, with distant snow-capped mountains offering a tantalizing promise of life-giving waters that rarely touch the parched high-altitude plateau other than through the precious resource of the Kali Gandaki River. Other than basic subsistence agriculture, the Lopa inhabitants of the valley have traditionally herded yak and in times gone by prospered through trade with Tibet. Despite the harsh conditions wildlife abounds in the region, with animals such as musk deer, Tibetan wild ass, Tibetan gazelle, and even the legendary snow leopard thriving in the area.
Unlike the majority of treks in Nepal the journey into Upper Mustang Trek offers a rare glimpse into a regional capital of historic and cultural interest that's as magnificent in its isolation as it is appealing to the camera lens. Lo Manthang was long the royal stronghold, and while the monarchy has been abolished the sturdy palace still remains behind the town's medieval walls, though much of it sustained considerable damage during the 2015 earthquake. To enter the gates and narrow winding streets is to feel as if one is stepping through a window in time to an era from centuries ago, like some latter-day Marco Polo stumbling in through the mountain wilderness to find a remote outpost of humanity defying description or belief. Housed within the tall whitewashed walls are four monasteries of significance, the Gompas of Jampa Lhakchang, Thubchen, Chodey, and Choprang. Nearby Chhoser is not only home to another notable monastery but has seen significant discoveries of major archeological importance made in the Sky Caves carved into the cliffs above the village for burial purposes. The cave paintings, illuminated Buddhist manuscripts, sculptures and numerous artifacts being found are slowly bringing international attention to the region.
The journey to Upper Mustang Trek typically starts with a flight from Pokhara to Jomsom, the popular trekking hub that's both a start and end point for several treks in the area, and leads from there northward through the stunning Kali Gandaki Gorge, the world's deepest. Kagbeni serves as the checkpoint for entry into the heavily restricted Upper Mustang Trek(where you must have a licensed guide and Special Trekking Permits), and over the ensuing days, numerous passes lead through the arid landscape and its vividly striated bands of color toward Lo Manthang, where we pause for a day to take in all that the centuries-old outpost of Tibetan civilization has to offer. The trek back to Dhakmar pauses at the 8th-century monastery of Lo Gekar, then continues across the windswept plateau past the foothills of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri to the sacred pilgrimage destination of Muktinath. From there the trail heads back to Jomsom, a well-earned rest, and the return flight to Pokhara.
Upper Mustang Trek not only serves as an extraordinary adventure to a remote part of Nepal that's scenically distinct from the rest of the country, but also as a window to a highly preserved culture that seems a throwback to long-distant days in Tibet — at times it would hardly surprise to turn a corner and see the Potola itself perched high on a nearby hilltop. It's ready and waiting for you to explore, and the staff of Nepal Trekking Experts is on hand to help organize your trip to this fascinating region.