Reposted below is the complete journal of Gordon and Stewart's trek through Mustang, Nepal, in chronological order.
The Royal Audience
It’s time for our audience with the raja.
There’s just one problem.
“What else can I wear?” I ask my son, Gordon.
I mean it literally. The raja and his remnant kingdom are tucked high in the Himalayas between Tibet and Nepal at an altitude of 12,000 feet and more. And with the shadows growing long, I am cold.
So, protocol can go hang. What I want to know is whether there are any more clothes I can put on before we meet the Raja of Lo. I'm wearing a watch cap, a rain jacket, cargo pants, and long underwear. Not enough. After walking four days to get to Lo Manthang, the kingdom's ancient capital, we’ve already got on all the clean clothes we brought with us. And most of the dirty ones.
I feel a little guilty. I spent nearly four years representing the United States in meetings with foreign officials -- meetings where it was a major faux pas to wear the wrong lapel pin. The kingdom of Lo has can trace its roots to 1380; it has had a king about three times as long as the United States has had a president. And I am going to sit down with its king wearing dusty hiking shoes and a watch cap.
I am pretty sure our protocol officer wouldn’t have approved.
Our guide entered the room. “Quickly please!” he said. “The raja will see you now.” I rise to my feet and head down to the street, stopping only to tuck a small bottle of local whiskey into my pocket.
Saturday, May 14
The bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara bumps and squeals down the steep, winding grade. The high-pitched squeal of brakes is an annoyance, except when the road pitches down and we can see, too easily, over the road’s edge. Then, the wail of the brakes has a kind of comfort in it.
We are leaving behind the press and clamor of Kathmandu. Out on narrow terraces eked from steep hillsides, we see farmers harvesting corn, cutting down everything and carrying out bundles of corn stalks on their backs.
Hours later we arrive in Pokhara – a bustling little south Asian town at Annapurna’s feet. The next day, we are up early for the short flight around Annapurna to Jomsom.
Sunday, May 15
We arrive at 5:30 for a 6 am flight. At 6, nothing has happened. We're on Nepal time now. When it finally takes off a couple of hours later, the flight rises over some steep hills, turns right at the giant peak, then cruises up a steep valley, with mountains rising above us on both sides.
The plane doesn’t exactly descend to land in Jomsom. We just keep flying at more or less the same altitude until the airfield rises to meet us.
Jomsom was until recently the jumping off point for most treks into the ancient kingdom of Lo. The kingdom and the territory around it are now known as Mustang, and Mustang has long been restricted territory. Foreigners were barred until the 1990s, and even now a permit (and a hefty fee) is required to trek in Mustang. Jomsom is the administrative and governmental capital of the region.
Nepal’s officials check our permits for the Mustang restricted area. They also tell us to change our plans. Our entire trek was planned around a festival in Lo Manthang – a religious ceremony featuring indigenous music, dancing, masks and costumes. But it turns out to be a moveable feast, and the event has been moved back a couple of weeks. We can't postpone our trek at this point. We'll have to miss the festival. It’s like this morning’s flight, I think. If you’re on a timetable, you’re bound to be disappointed in Nepal. Rolling with the flow is the only path to contentment. And, on trips like this, nominal goals like the festival are in the end a kind of maguffin – the term Alfred Hitchcock used for the otherwise meaningless object that drives the plot.
Besides, we've got another maguffin. Three of them, actually. We’re carrying books and toys for three of Mustang’s schools. This is almost a tradition for us; when we hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru, we brought a bunch of our kids' outgrown toys and helped a local group distribute them at a mountain schoolhouse. This time, I've gotten advice about local schools from the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation. Our kids are grown, and their kids are too young to have castoff toys, so I've solicited contributions from friends and colleagues, who have loaded us up with 25 pounds of books and toys. We need to find the schools and drop off three loads as we work our way up the valley to Lo Manthang. Our first dropoff is in Kagbeni, at the end of today's hike.
Mustang is in the rainshadow of the Himalayas, with annual rainfall roughly equivalent to the Great Plains of North America. The mountain slopes are steep and arid but they do not drop into a V-shaped valley. Instead they stop abruptly at a wide flat expanse of gravel with a thin braided river – the Kali Gandaki – wandering among the rocks. The original valley floor must have filled with centuries of glacial runoff. Perhaps someday this will be a pastoral scene, with a river ambling back and forth through grassy meadows. But for now the valley holds nothing but softball-sized rocks from edge to edge. In this whole expanse, there is one tree and no grass. The valley must be filled with raging snowmelt each spring, stripping away any plants that have gained a foothold since the last flood.
Working up the valley, we cross the braided river a couple of times on wooden bridges cobbled together from random debris. Then our path rises to a new road clinging to the right side of the valley, just above the river bed. We start out at a brisk pace, but even with porters to carry much of the load, I’m soon sweating and lagging, losing ground whenever I stop to take a photo. It’s a short day, with little altitude gain, but we’re already at 2800 meters and not in hiking shape. I'm glad when, after an hour and a half of hiking, we come to a small village with a teahouse. We order sweet milky tea and rest.
Refreshed, another half an hour of walking brings us to Kagbeni. The lodge has a great glassed-in dining room overlooking the largest green patch for ten miles around – 4 acres of oats and barley that dip and wave in the constant wind like the sea. It’s mesmerizing.
Liesl Clark of the Foundation has told me to look up Kunga Tashi, who leads the School Board and runs the “Dancing Yak” Restaurant. Kunga turns out to be a strikingly young man with a passion for the school. He tells me that it has recently expanded and now takes boarders as young as four and as old as sixteen. Especially in the higher grades, almost all the kids who want an education must become boarders. There are only about six or seven schools beyond tenth grade, and they have to serve a nearly roadless region the size of West Virginia.
Thanks to foreign and Nepalese government assistance, the school charges nothing for tuition, room or board. The Foundation's contribution is an extremely well stocked library to which we'll be adding toys and some books and maps. The smallest kids are on break, and they come in to road-test the toys. The most immediate hit is a set of two blocks with half of a vehicle pictured on each face. If kids successfully pair the front and back end of the vehicle – a fire engine, say, or a motorcycle – they are rewarded with a sound that matches the vehicle.
I know just enough Nepali to communicate this concept to a gaggle of four-year olds. “G
ood?” “No good?” I ask, pairing the fire engine with the motorcycle. “No good,” they shout. When I finally get it right, with their help, they are startled with delight at the fire engine's loud siren. Then each kid gets a chance to match a different vehicle and discover the sounds of success.
I am determined to get some play value from this toy because I had my doubts about bringing wooden toys, which are almost as heavy as they are politically correct. In the end, though, the weight was worth it. And the kids’ enthusiasm for the other toys – tinker toys, jigsaw puzzles, and a set of Dr. Seuss flash cards – made it feel like Christmas.
We get a tour of the school and plenty of tea. They have no computers for the kids. A Danish group had sent one a couple of years ago, but the mouse doesn’t work. At the suggestion of Liesl Clark, we've also collected laptops from friends and colleagues. These we've left with the Open Learning Exchange in Kathmandu, where they'll be refitted with Linux and some Nepali and English learning programs. Liesl asked that we not take the laptops themselves to the schools because the students and faculty will need training before the computers are actually used. Considering their weight, we're happy to oblige. In any event, the school doesn't now have table space or a free room to put computers in.
It’s building more, though. The young men at work on the new building clearly understand twenty-first century global fashion. They wear low-slung, gravity-defying pants and a variety of branded shirts. As an apparent concession to Kagbeni's constant wind, they have covered their faces, often with kerchiefs that make them look like train robbers or wannabe-anarchist WTO protesters. But their work methods are closer to the ninth century. To move a large pile of rocks fifteen feet, they form two lines and toss stones rhythmically from one worker to the next, bucket brigade style.
Leaving the school, we have time to explore Kagbeni. Women are daubing a mani wall in traditional colors made from local minerals. Mani walls hold a long string of prayer wheels. Passersby can walk to the left of the wall and turn the entire string of prayer wheels without breaking stride.
Signs of religious devotion are everywhere in Kagbeni. It is an ancient monastery town -- though it looks more like a fortress. And perhaps it was. Fortresses are established to protect valuable assets, and the most precious resource in this dry and vertical land is probably the 4 acres of flat and irrigated barley just outside our hostel. The Buddhist monastery here dates to the 1400’s and was once maintained by hundreds of monks who farmed land up and down the valley but could retreat to defend the fortified town in a time of war. Now, though, the monastery's population has dwindled to 40 – half of them students – plus a couple of remarkably large and mean guard dogs, who bark fiercely down from a rooftop that isn’t quite far enough above our heads.
The main worship room of the monastery shows telltale signs of the monastery's declining fortunes; much like an over-stretched British peer’s stately home, it mixes impressive art and history with cracked windows and tawdry modernizing touches, like the twisty fluorescent bulb that hangs down in front of a centuries-old statue of Buddha.
Today we’ll finally leave the vast gravelly bed of the Kali Gandaki river, climbing to 3,000 meters. We begin by dropping to the Kali Gandaki and crossing a few of its braided channels on makeshift wooden footbridges. The trail then takes us up onto hills and cliffs overlooking the river.
We set a blistering pace, bolstered by maximum strength ibuprofen. Sandstone rises on all sides, often as great cliffs. In a few places, manmade caves have been hacked from the sandstone, probably in the days when raiders marched regularly through the valley. The caves may once have been reached by steps and handholds carved from the rock, but these have long ago eroded away.
After a few hours, we stop for lunch at Chhusang, the last truly Nepali village along our route. From here we’ll climb away from the Kali Gandaki and into regions more influenced by Tibet's culture than Nepal’s.
Like all the villages, Chhusang's gardens have high walls to keep out wandering livestock. We walk next to a shallow stream that has been diverted to slab along the hillside and then drop to the walled gardens. There it irrigates a several-acres oasis -- startling green against a landscape that otherwise resembles the drier parts of Wyoming.
Crossing the Kali Gandaki for the last time on a metal foot bridge, we immediately begin climbing a slippery sand and gravel trail that wriggles chaotically up a steep slope – and marks the real boundary between Nepal and the ancient Tibetan kingdom of Lo.
The altitude makes itself felt now; we strain to breathe deeply enough to keep moving. After an unrelenting 15 minutes, we’ve raised our altitude two or three hundred meters and are entering Chelle, the first Tibetan village of the region.
Chelle too has the region's distinctive walled oases, dominated by stands of apple trees that look nothing like the apple trees of North America. The architecture of the town is distinctive too, and so is the atmosphere. There are far more animals; indeed, they share the town, and even the homes, with the human residents.
Cows, mules, and goats get the bottom floor of most homes, while people get the top floors. The homes feature an interior atrium, making it easy for the residents to keep an eye on their livestock. A roof closes off the atrium, often topped with glass or plastic to let in light. Otherwise, the roofs are flat, habitable spaces that add what amounts in this dry country to a third f loor. Thigh-high stacks of firewood act like balcony walls at the edge of the rooftops.
I ask whether residents burn the wood in the winter. No, I'm told. The wood is too valuable to burn. If they need a fire, most residents burn twigs and cow dung. These firewood parapets aren't about utility; they're about prestige. Firewood is so rare and expensive that having a cord or two on top of your house is a status symbol -- and thus too precious to burn.
It’s noticeably colder here, and I wonder aloud how having an open atrium works in the long Himalayan winter. Turns out, many of the villagers drive their horses and marketable livestock south along the river, sell the livestock, pen the horses, and head to balmy Pokhara to get temporary jobs.
Lo in winter is a harsh land, with waist-deep snows. But it's just a 6-day walk to a balmy climate. Who wouldn't go if they could? It reminds me of all the wheat farmers in Manitoba who lock their barns and fly to Arizona for the winter.
With every square yard of farmland precious enough to tend by hand, and every animal a part of the family home, overpopulation is always a risk. There just isn't enough land to keep subdividing it foreach new generation. In response, I’m told, the Lo people have devised some remarkable cultural innovations.
In the old days, and perhaps even today, brothers might share not just a farm, but a wife. That way, the fields can be handed down from one set of brothers to a single set of descendants. Marrying two men to one woman didn’t produce an excess of old maids, locals say, because girls were often scarce. I don’t have the heart to ask why.
In any event, the gender mismatch might not last long. If a wife didn't produce an heir, her husbands were allowed to take a second wife; the alternative, not having another generation to inherit the fields, was unthinkable.
Finally, the last resort for sons and daughters who didn't inherit or find a mate with prospects was one that the second sons of European nobles would have recognized – organized religion. Unmarried men and women were sent to monasteries where they worked and held the land in common.
Tuesday, May 17
We start today by continuing the grim uphill that brought us into Chelle, but the trail soon levels off to something more reasonable. We pass a piece of heavy machinery working on the road. Lord only knows how they got it up the slope that so disheartened us, but it’s a reminder that this region won’t be accessible only to walkers much longer.
The Chinese have already built a good dirt road from the Tibetan border to well south of Lo Manthang, so that only the country we’re hiking today separates the Nepali and the Chinese roads.
The isolation tells. We are now deep in the last traditional Tibetan territory left in the world. Rams' skulls hang over doorways. At meals we are offered Tibetan bread (lightly fried, pita-like, and tasty) and Tibetan beer imported from the other side of the border. We pass people crushing rocks by hand to make the mineral dyes that color the mani walls and the gompas, or monasteries.
Stretching our day to 8 hours, we take several long slabbing trails in and out of side valleys, gaining altitude steadily until we hit 3700 meters. The trail is wide – probably to accommodate herds of goats and horses – but the dropoff is steep. Sidetrails lead to heart-stopping suspended footbridges.
We are suffering a little from altitude – on the uphill slopes, breathing itself feels like a chore. We’re stronger on this third day, but that doesn’t make the uphill sections easy.
Arriving at last in Ghiling, an hour past our original destination, we admire the monastery and hear that the monks are celebrating Buddha’s birthday. We head up.
In the main room of the temple, six or seven monks sit in two facing rows perhaps eight feet apart. A long thin table stands before each row of monks. Some of the monks are young boys of perhaps twelve;
others are mature men. One of the younger monks is reading a bit hesitantly from a piece of paper that has been folded so often it is coming apart in his hands. When he finishes, all the monks begin chanting. A worshipper makes the rounds, bowing to each monk and putting a few bills on a light scarf resting in front of the monk. The monk folds the scarf over the money and resumes chanting, throwing what look like small seeds in the air and ringing a bell at frequent intervals. The chanting reaches a climax with a sudden burst of drumming and horn playing – loud and dissonant to my ears. Then the chanting resumes.
A monk gives me a flashlight so I can see the pictures on each wall. They seem a weird mix of Buddhist and Hindu representations, very bright and well-executed. And well-preserved, if the inscription – 1797 – can be relied upon.
Tonight’s lodging is the most basic yet and the weather is colder, but we have beds and warm blankets. The toilet, however, does not bear further description.
Wednesday, May 18
We can hear the monks chanting as we get up, followed by children's voices. Apparently, the whole village begins its day at the gompa.
We begin ours with a soul-destroying haul out of the valley, past the villagers watering their horses and tending to their herd. It’s only a 300 meter climb, but the altitude requires a self-conscious deep breathing rhythm if I don’t want to stop every 20 steps. I may finally have to admit that Gordon can now out-hike me. He is keeping up with our guide while I consistently lag back a few yards or more.
When we get to the top we’re just over 4000 meters. We descend rapidly to Ghemi, where we have an early lunch. The scenery is beginning to change, opening out into big dry hills, a bit more watered than New Mexico or Utah but with the same broad vistas of a rolling country mixed with eroded sandstone in vivid yellow and orange.
As always in a country of irrigated oases, the last mile or two to the next village is downhill. We’ve got some toys and books for the school in this town, called Tsarang. We don’t know much more about it than the name of the headmaster, and at first our guide reports that it’s closed. But the tearoom proprietor recognizes the name and remembers Liesl Clark and her two kids. She calls the headmaster, Mr. Bista, and he shows us to the school.
Many of the teachers are nuns, or anis, and the students can become monks or nuns if they have a calling, says the headmaster. The Ani School, as it’s called is far more basic than the school in Kagbeni. The kitchen is a simple stove and a few pots. Classrooms have nothing but blackboards and benches for sitting and for writing. The school does have an impressive solar electrical system but no way to store power, so anything requiring electricity needs to be done while the sun shines. The school also has one pretty new desktop computer (though a laptop would have been better given the power setup); the headmaster confessed that he knew nothing of the computer or what software it runs.
In contrast to the extremely basic facilities elsewhere, the library is spectacular – a big room with floor to ceiling bookshelves filled with Tibetan, Napal, and English works. Many US elementary schools have no better.
We hand over our maps and books, and I set to work on an enormous inflatable globe donated by a partner who asked only for photos of me blowing the damn thing up at altitude. An odd mix of generosity and cruelty, I thought, but he’ll get his photo.
The kids descend on the toys, paying special attention to a toy I had my doubts about – a felt house with felt furnishings that can be stuck to the house – felt chairs, felt tables, plus toilets, cats, dogs, bathtubs, clothes for the Mother and Father, and on and on, a cornucopia of felt goods that look grotesquely excessive in this simple school.
Many of the items are clearly not familiar household items in Tsarang. (I doubt most of these kids have used a sit-down toilet in their lives.) But the teacher uses the toy as a horizon-broadening device, describing each item as she helps the kids place it in the felt home. Mostly this works. But her explanation for the bubble-bath foam that goes with the bathtub is greeted with a mix of merriment and disbelief.
Hard beds make for a bad night. On the whole, the room beds have been fine – narrow cots with a very firm foam mattress. More disturbing is the lack of sheets and pillowcases. The pillows (also very firm, bordering on unyielding) have permanent looking cases covered with embroidered designs – too fancy to change every day or even every week. Ditto for the blankets. As I lay awake last night listening to an indefatigable barking dog, just the barest hint in the air left me convinced that some traveler has thrown up on my blanket -- and that washing it in cold water wasn’t quite good enough.
Today’s hike is a sprint to Lo Manthang. We mostly follow the new Chinese road, which climbs steadily without the steepness of a footpath.
We walk for a time with a European aid official. The official was pleasant and clearly loved Nepal. But the official reminded me again that our aid programs have a kind of moral vanity at their heart, as rich nations pay poor ones to do things we wish we were doing. This official bemoaned the Chinese road, not just as hegemony (“The Chinese are imposing their goods on Mustang”), but for the change it will surely bring (‘they insist on making the same mistakes as us”).
I, too, will be sad when the road breaks through the last few kilometers to Chelle, and goods and people begin moving swiftly throughout Mustang. When that happens, hiking from in Mustang will become a choice, a form of recreation, and not simply the only way to see the country. Plus, the traffic will make the trip nasty and dangerous for walkers.
But I know that is simply an aesthetic preference, and one that it would shameful to impose on people who measure their net worth in cords of firewood. What kind of aid program, I wondered, do you get from countries whose officials believe that roads are a “mistake” for less developed countries? Apparently a lot of very well engineered footbridges, to hear what this official was proudest of. Maybe suspension footbridges are a good idea, but there is a whiff of patronization in such a gift: “We'll help you walk, but don't ask us to help you drive!”
Four hours of concentrated hiking brings us at last to Lo Manthang. This walled city was once the seat of an independent kingdom. The king and the kingdom were Tibetan in culture, but they also had close ties to Nepal. The Loba, or Lo people, spent several centuries exploiting the low pass that leads to Tibet, trading salt from India for crops and animals from the Tibetan plateau. The ruling dynasty has been a dependency of Nepal for a century or more. The current raja of Lo retained some autonomy until the 1990s, when he accepted the rank of Colonel in Nepal’s army in exchange for more complete integration into Nepal’s government. Then, in 2008, when Nepal's royal family abdicated and Maoists joined Nepal’s government, the last vestiges of the Kingdom of Lo were also abolished. The raja, born in 1933, still lives in Lo Manthang and mediates local disputes, but he has no formal authority.
The raja met with the first few visitors allowed into Manthang in the 1990s, and their accounts of the meetings are quite charming. We discover that the raja still grants audiences to trekkers. It is necessary to buy an admission ticket for the palace, a great hulk in the center of town, and to bring a traditional scarf or prayer flag.
And one more thing, says our guide. It would be good to bring him a present.
Hmm. This is complicated. I am not carrying a lot of extra gear suitable for a gift.
“Would he like a toy?” I ask.
Not likely, I'm told. But a bottle of whiskey would not be amiss. Perhaps that’s when doubts about this audience began to creep in.
But still. I’ve never been received by royalty before. This could be exciting. I dust off the talent for pleasant chats with foreign officials that I once had to draw on every week while in government. Will he speak English, I wonder, or will we have to wait for translation? What is the proper protocol for introducing Gordon, for entering the audience room? What about photographs? I have no protocol officer to advise me; I'm going to have to improvise. And then
there’s my clothes. It’s too cold to wear anything less, but I’m pretty sure that dusty boots and a watch cap aren’t the usual attire for royal audiences in other parts of the world.
Meanwhile, we have time to explore the city. The walls are impressive – twenty feet high, with watchtowers that are even higher. And they would have to be, becau
se apart from a steepish hillside below one wall, Lo Manthang has no natural defenses to work with – no cliffs, riverbanks and the like. There’s a river at the foot of the hillside – or at least a creek, because without irrigation there would be no agriculture and no city in this vast dry land. A tiny tributary runs right into the city, but there’s little room for agriculture within the walls.
Instead, Lo Manthang is a warren of high homes in the traditional layout – animals on the ground floor, living quarters above, and a flat roof for working in the sun.
Temples are everywhere, along with monks, who support a large monastery here. Outside the palace, there's a square where people congregate to watch the tourists, to spin prayer wheels, and to chat. This is where the residents will hold the Tiji festival in a couple of weeks.
A light rain is falling, but it cannot drive the villagers away. As in many other parts of Mustang, the heart of social life here is the public faucet, where women gather to wash pots, clothes and themselves. Everyone is friendly, and only a few are importunately selling souvenirs. Walking the alleys of Lo Manthang, I understand the spell that Nepal casts on Westerners. Almost all of the residents are dignified and friendly. There’s isn't the whiff of predation that often taints encounters with the locals in poor countries. Even the salesmen take no for an answer. And, after two toy distribution sessions, what impresses me most about the c
hildren is their discipline and cooperation. Not one child has grabbed a toy to play with alone. They take great care to handle the new toys cautiously and to share them with others.
Our guide enters the room. “Quickly please!” he says. “The raja will see you now.”
We assemble in front of the palace and a young woman gestures us up the stairs. It's the biggest building in Lo Manthang, but it doesn’t look much like a palace. What it does look like is a major reconstruction project that was halted halfway through, with piles of dirt and abandoned planks lying about in lightless gloom. The stairs are bare planks, rising like a ladder laid against a house. You really need a handrail. There is one, but it's simply a rounded strip of wood nailed to the stairs themselves. Surprisingly, that works fine, because the stairs rise so steeply that two or three steps bring the handrail to waist level. We climb two levels in the gloom. It's a five-story palace, and it occur
s to me that perhaps the bottom two floors have been reserved for livestock, following a traditional Tibetan layout.
Sure enough, after climbing through the dark, we at last come to a living area, where an open atrium lets in light from the roof. We head up a third set of stairs. I’ve just seen a few people walk down these steps; they bent an inch or more when stepped on, so I try to stay close to the handrail.
Assembling at the top of the stairs, we are at last given a quick protocol lesson. Hold your scarf draped over both hands, and extend them to the king when you are presented. He will put it over your head, we’re instructed.
We enter the audience room. It has a dusty charm – good rugs, plenty of wooden furniture, and many pictures and other decorations on the wall. I approach the king. He is an old man seated on a comfortable bench.
Best of all, he’s wearing a watch cap and dusty boots.
We line up, scarves are placed over our heads, and we sit for a cup of tea. I put my bottle of whiskey on a table beside the king. He beams at me.
We sit, silent. The king occasionally looks over at us, but he obviously feels no need to make small talk. OK, I think, time to call on my rusty diplomatic chit-chat.
I open with praise for Mustang. It is translated. He gives me another smile. I introduce Gordon. Another smile, but less wattage. It’s becoming clear that small talk from visitors is not especially welcome. Instead, we’re told that when we’re finished our tea, we can kneel beside the king for a photo. We chug our tea and kneel for photos. The audience is over.
We make our way down the rickety stairs. The handrails are more necessary but less visible on the way down. We must go slowly, feeling for each step. When we get to the construction zone, my suspicions about livestock are confirmed. From the shadows, a mastiff begins barking. He’s savage, and determined to get at the intruders. Holes in the palace wall provide just enough light to see him in profile, straining against a chain and kicking up dust as he lunges at us. Taking the steep steps slowly and carefully becomes less of a priority. Half walking, half sliding, we burst through the palace door and tumble into the street.
Today and tomorrow, instead of moving on, we will make Lo Manthang our base for day trips. Today we rent a horse to get to Choser, a small village about an hour or two from town and the site of the third and last school where we’re dropping off books and toys.
It's an Asian mountain horse – a pony, really. I could walk alongside him with my arm slung companionably over his back. Horses in Mustang are guided largely by the grunts and whistles and shushes of their herdsmen. They're mainly used as pack animals, and using verbal cues lets a single herdsman guide the whole pack train from behind on the mountain trails.
Leaving the walled city, we move through dust as fine as talc. It rises in great clouds as we walk. The villages all have a rhythm. In the morning as we’re leaving, herdsmen are dr
iving their livestock out of the village and up to the hills where there is a bit of grass. Bells on cows and horses ring as they pass. Herds of goats also move toward the hills, the kids jumping on every wall they pass through the villages, dancing with enthusiasm.
One reason this region was closed to foreigners until the 1990s was its role as a center of armed resistance when China invaded Tibet. Not all Tibetans met the invaders with spirituality and passive resistance. The Khampas were a Tibetan tribe that fought back. Famous and feared as warriors, they wore their hair long and fought China for decades after the 1950 invasion, raiding from refuges across the border in Nepal. Mustang was one of their principal staging areas because it had such a low pass into Tibet. I discover that the CIA supported the Khampa warriors, even flying some to Colorado for advanced training. CIA support for the insurgents gradually diminished, ending for good in the early 1970s. Not much later, the Nepalese government, likely under heavy pressure from China, forced the Khampas to disarm.
After that experience, it is no surprise that the Chinese have built a road across their border and into the heart of Mustang. They want to be sure that they can respond in force if guerrilla war ever returns to the region. Meanwhile the road makes it easy for Chinese officials to visit Lo Manthang. As we hike along the road, a convoy of late-model SUVs suddenly rounds the turn and heads toward us at high speed. We scramble out of the way as the cars, two white and two black, splash through a stream and past us.
The Nepalese tell me not to get too close to the Mustang-Tibet border. “Local people can cross there. They’re known,” says one, “but if we Nepalese go there, maybe they’ll arrest us, torture us. We don’t know.”
The third school is a public boarding school for the district. It serves 120 students. Students spend 8 months of the year in Choser, but in winter the whole school transfers to Pokhara; it’s just too cold to stay in Mustang.
The Chinese government, evidently on a charm offensive here, has paid for the construction of a science lab that’s still being completed. It contains a large multipurpose room with twenty Compaq laptops running Windows 7. The school also boasts a large array of solar power panels to power the place. The library, though, is the least impressive we’ve seen.
We end the afternoon with a visit to caves built into local cliffs. Window holes poked through the rock wall expand into interlocking rooms that extend deep into the cliff. The rooms rise five stories high, one level linked to the next by crude ladders or carved foot-holds. Moving from one room to another sometimes means jumping over holes that lead to the level below. The ceilings are stained shiny black with soot from 2500 years of fires.
This is where local villagers used to hide out when raiding parties from Tibet or Nepal rode through the valley. The only problem was that if the raiders settled down for a siege, they could cut off the defenders' water. Once, the story goes, besieged cavedwellers had almost run out of water; desperate, some of them poured mustard oil over their heads and leaned out of the windows, dripping wet, to mock the invaders. Convinced that the villagers had plenty of water and that the siege had failed, the raiders moved on.
Today, the villagers are building an irrigation terrace at the foot of the caves. Everything must be done by hand. Men and women use picks to pull earth from the uphill side of the terrace. They shovel the loose earth onto stiff, flattened animal hides; other women drag the hides across the terrace and dump it on the downhill slope, extending the terrace by perhaps an inch or two. I think that they’ve probably been using the same techniques for the last 2500 years.
Saturday, May 21
After breakfast, we head up the valley, me riding, Gordon walking. We’re making for a gompa on a hill a few miles to the north. When we arrive, the gompa is locked. It looks down at heels, and finding the custodian takes so long that we nearly leave. When he does come panting up the trail from the village, though, the custodian proves to be a young, chatty fellow who is full of information. Not himself a monk, he nonetheless provides a detailed tour of the gompa's ceremonial hall. It has extensive murals, a wall of religious texts in special containers, and a host of musical instruments. In winter, he says, every village family but one heads for lower and warmer ground, along with most of the monks. He stayed this winter, enduring waist-high snows and bitter cold, shoveling snow off the gompa roof so no water could seep in to wreck the murals. It occurs to me that someone must have done this every winter for centuries to preserve the murals he's just shown me.
If you have to stay the winter, he says, it's better not to be a monk. The villagers who stay can eat their animals to keep up their strength. The monks are vegetarians, and vegetables aren’t easy to find in Mustang in winter. But the monks who stay through the winter have to live on potatoes they've buried in the dirt during the summer. True, they have a greenhouse to speed the arrival of summer vegetables, but it's late May now, and there are no new crops; the monks are still digging up last year's potatoes.
He takes us outside and points at the border with China – a series of low hills no different from those we’ve crossed many times already. No wonder the traders -- and the Khampas – were fond of Mustang. And no wonder the Chinese are working so hard to extend their influence here. The custodian tells us that the Chinese distributed food to all the villagers this winter. Despite the largess, he remains skeptical of their motives. Nepal has no troops on the border, he notes, while China has many. Nepalese crossing into China need to get permission for every trip, he adds, but Chinese officials cross the border at will, with no permission that he’s aware of. He confirms that the caravan we saw yesterday was Chinese.
In a nearby village a home is under construction. All of the houses we encounter seem to be built in the same general way. Even the modern materials incorporated into the houses follow a traditional pattern.
By far the most common building materials are sundried mud bricks, perhaps one foot long and six inches square. They can’t be kiln-dried because firewood is too scarce. So vacant fields are regularly filled with rows of bricks curing in the sun. They look like post-modern war memorials.
What wood is available is used mainly to frame doors and windows and to construct the higher floors. In the first floor, it looks as though stones surmounted by mud bricks make up the walls, although mud seems like a dubious load bearer.
For higher floors, poles are set in the ground to support large rafter-type horizontal poles. Across these main rafters are laid a series of lesser poles at two-foot intervals. These are then spanned by one-or-two-inch wooden strips. Atop the strips is hay impregnated with mud. At the end of the day, the houses are sticks and mud, and I realize that, without careful upkeep, all of this -- walls, buildings, whole gompas -- will melt back into the landscape. In fact, many of the hilltops carry ruins that are halfway through the transition from buildings to eroded mounds of dirt.
Monday May 23
Four hours of hard hiking with few stops takes us to Shyangmochen. We are back on the same trail we took on the way in, and we’re staying in the tearoom where we had lunch on our way to Gheling.
It seems a lot softer and more civilized on the way out than it did when we stopped for lunch so many days ago It has a hot water shower that actually gets above tepid (though the air temperature makes it a challenge not to lose all the warmth of the shower and then some while drying and dressing.) The lunch table is set up directly beneath a traditional Mustang skylight. There are electric lights and even a couple of power outlets. The beds and pillows have sheets and pillow cases. Really, it’s practically the Ritz.
Perhaps energized by the slightly lower altitude and the half day of hiking, I decide it’s time to wash a bunch of clothes. The village’s washing is done at the community tap, fed in an endless stream that flows out of the irrigation system. And back into it, for that matter, since any water that flows from the tap is recaptured for the crops downhill.
I share the tap with several women who are obviously better at this than I. They bring big metal bowls that they fill with soap, clothes, and water, working up an impressive lather while I’m rubbing a bit of hand soap into my clothes, one sock at a time. It doesn’t take long for me to learn what seems to be a universal female phrase for, “If you’re done messing about in a typically useless male way, would you reconnect the hose so we can get about our business?” I also learn not to stand about downwind of the tap when they’re vigorously rinsing.
The best part of doing the wash is the drying. The afternoon wind is again hitting 50 mph and the sun is out. I hang the wet clothes on a metal wire clothesline. It’s very satisfying when hiking to have reasonable confidence that in the morning your clothes will be not just cleanish but that you won’t be putting them on wet, which tends to take the joy out of clean clothes.
Tuesday, May 24
Today we are retracing our original path, making the long descent to Chelle, the last of the “Tibetan” villages along the trail.
We pass the same road construction machinery that blocked our path on the way up. The road builders have made visible progress since we passed this way last week. I have new appreciation for the difficulties the road builders will face. Finding a way for cars and trucks to navigate those grueling staircases won’t be easy. But with enough blasting powder, the road will get through, even if flash floods and rockfalls occasionally cut the road during wet seasons. And that will make an enormous difference in Mustang’s culture. We were privileged to see it before the trucks start grinding through the villages, bringing cheap beer, wifi hotspots, and HIV.
Back in Chelle, the teahouse that we had to ourselves last week is now packed. More than a dozen French trekkers are using the adjacent campground and enlivening the common rooms. Germans, New Zealanders, and others have taken over the remaining rooms. They are all bound for the Tiji festival in Lo Manthang.
All day on this leg we’ve met party after party hustling toward Lo Manthang for the same reason. I’m sorry we missed the festival, but in the end I suspect it’s a bit like our audience with the king – a maguffin, more exciting in prospect than in reality. And it turns out that by missing the festival we earned a bonus -- walking to Lo Manthang alone, scarcely seeing one foreigner a day, even after we stopped for the night. These trekkers will never be alone. They’ll be passing and repassing each other every day, queuing with each other outside the latrines, and straining Lo Manthang to the bursting point when they arrive.
To our eyes, the mass of festival trekkers on this leg looks like a freak – completely out of proportion to normal travel levels before or after the Tiji crowd. The Tiji bulge resembles a pig making its way through a python, or a baby boom making its way through a nation’s demography. But the Tiji trekkers, like the boomers, won’t see it that way. The crowds and the queues will be their normal, never changing as they move up the valley. They won’t realize how rare it was to meet other hikers on the trail just a few days on either side of the trek they took.
We’ve been looking for a chance to play carom, a game that we’ve seen porters playing all along the trail. Carom resembles pool, if pool were played with poker chips on a table about 3 feet square, with a raised lip and a hole in each corner. In the middle of the table are eleven poker chips. Each player has an outsized chip that he flicks at the other chips. The object is to be the first to drop your 5 chips and then the “queen” into the corner holes. A crack pool player, Gordon has deduced the rules.
Now we’ve found a carom joint that is willing to let us try our hand. When the raucous Nepali game ends, a few observers linger to watch the Westerners make a hash of their game. Accurately flicking a chip at a target turns out to be remarkably difficult. By luck, I get one chip almost on the lip of a hole across the table from me. Then I waste ten turns just trying to hit the damn thing, and when I do, it moves further from the hole. Gordon is better, but only at the theory. He understands the angles and possibilities better than I do, but his execution is just as bad. We battle to a tie, with each having a single chip, plus the crucial red queen, on the board. By then, all observers have drifted away in disgust, unable to extract even comic relief from our efforts. At that point it was safe for me to let Gordon win. That’s my story, anyway, and nothing will shake it; there were no witnesses.
Wednesday, May 25
We are leaving the last of Tibet behind today, descending from Chelle to the floor of the Kali Gandaki. To extract the maximum up-country time from our territory permit, we’ve left ourselves a single day to get to Kagbeni from Chelle – a hike that took two days on the way in.
It is a demanding day, in part because our guide wants to get as much hiking in before noon, when the winds will surely be raging up the river valley. So we plough on with only a couple of occasional five-minute stops at the top of steep climbs. The good news is that I can feel the altitude change. My legs get as tired as ever, but the sense that every step requires a special breathing rhythm is gone. Even on the steepest uphills, running out of breath is rare. Other symptoms, such as a hacking cough, also recede as we drop below 3000 meters for the first time in a week.
The Kali Gandaki remains as remarkable as ever. The valley floor is so flat and barren that it looks almost like a reservoir of stones -- as though a dam had been constructed downstream and the gravel and rocks had somehow floated to the top. This is more or less what environmentalists tell us will eventually happen to Lake Powell and other big hydropower lakes; they’ll fill with debris. I’m sure that they’re right to tell us how terrible that will be, but if the floor of the Kali Gandaki is any guide, it will also produce some dramatic landscapes.
Toward the end of the day, we drop to the floor of the Kali Gandaki. It is not as flat as it looks from a distance. Rocks slip under our feet with each step, and old channels, now dry, make the footing unpredictable. Worse, the bridge we used to cross the river has washed away. We have a choice – wade or climb back to the road running high along the valley wall,
By now, I’m damned if we’ll climb these cliffs one more time. The water is swift but not deep, perhaps a bit above our knees. With poles, that’s usually safe, though pushing things if the current is very strong.
The standard Western stream crossing technique is to take your socks off, put your shoes back on, cross the river, pour out the water, put on the socks, and walk in damp but not squelching-wet footgear for a few hours. Wearing shoes helps a bit with the shocking cold of mountain streams and a lot with the treacherous footing of the streambed. Braced against the stream with a strongly planted upstream pole and an insurance pole downstream, this technique has gotten us across some tough streams, including a memorable encounter with the Upper Yellowstone in thigh-high flood.
But the Nepali guides have a different idea. They want to cross barefoot. So we too tie our shoelaces together, drape them around our necks and start across barefoot. I can feel the rocks underfoot – a mixed blessing, but good for stability. What I haven’t counted on is the way being barefoot changes the enthusiasm with which you drive your upstream pole into the river, knowing that the current will inevitably drag the point back downstream a foot or more before it hits the gravel. At least you hope it hits gravel.
When we get to Kagbeni, feet unpunctured, the Tiji festival boom is over. No one in the inn is going to Lo Manthang. Kagbeni is also on the month-long Annapurna Circuit trail, and the inn is full of guests doing some portion of tha trek. There’s a large group of mature Japanese women and men, plus a gaggle of 20-something backpackers – Germans and Russians, mainly – who’ve hooked up by chance during their last few days of the Annapurna circuit. They spend much of the evening arguing about whether to walk or take the bus next day to Jomsom, and how far to go beyond Jomsom. They finally agree to walk to Jomsom, starting at 6 a.m. One Russian boisterously puts forward first one proposal then another. He seems oblivious to the group dynamic. Sooner or later, someone needs to tell him to stop throwing out disruptive new options and to get with the program. If this is what the Russian Duma is like, I think, it’s easy to see why so many Russians voted for Putin.
This gaggle of Europeans seems as isolated from Nepal as any packaged-tour group staying at the local Hilton. A tour group may remember Kathmandu as the place with the terrible breakfast buffet, while the Europeans remember it as the place where they met a bombshell German babe, but either way, the trip is more about them than about Nepal. Maybe that’s true for all of us.
What I find interesting is that this group isn’t full of gap-year college kids. These trekkers have finished school. Many have dropped out of professional-track jobs. Some expect to pick up a new job in a few months, others lost jobs in the 2008-09 recession and are waiting for better times. But Nepal isn’t that cheap. Just to eat, sleep and indulge in the occasional beer or a bus, those backpackers must be spending $10 a day, plus airfare in the thousands of dollars. I’m not sure how many college students in the West can get their parents to underwrite the cost of a month on the Annapurna Circuit, so the trek is left to a slightly more affluent crowd. I suppose it’s no surprise that even backpacking has gone upscale as global economies converge.
Next morning, the Euro gaggle ends up leaving a little before we do, around 7. They move, like a convoy, at the speed of the slowest ship. We pass them in the first hour and soon are able to drop our packs at the Jomsom airport hotel and keep going. We’ve decided to take a day trip down the valley to a town called Marpha, also on the Annapurna circuit.
Marpha is a big change from the country we’ve been trekking through. On the way, we pass the first bit of greenery we’ve seen all trip that isn’t walled up like Ft. Knox. It’s a simple, close cropped patch of lawn that no doubt serves a pasture for the occasional horse, but unlike Mustang, the landowners aren’t consumed by fear that someone else’s goat might sneak an illicit bite. Indeed, even the walls around gardens here are lower, more symbolic and casual than in Mustang; water is clearly more abundant here.
Marpha itself is a lovely town full of white-washed stone homes with dark red frames around doors and windows. Marpha is proud of its apples, and it should be. We have an apple pie for lunch – a cinnamon flavored core of chopped apple surrounded by a flaky, deep-fried crust. I buy some yak cheese to go with it, despite anxiety about eating uncooked food. But we’ve spent the trip worrying about how to sterilize anything that passes our lips, and so far we’ve been fine. Maybe the economic convergence that makes backpacking more expensive is also slowly reducing the risk of bad water even in countries as poor as Nepal.
We head back along the road. It is a taste of what Mustang trekkers will soon experience. We can go twenty minutes with no traffic, but we can never ignore the risk that a truck or bus will come barreling around a turn. They take up so much of the road that you always have to have to be ready to jump for the side of the road if a horn sounds behind you. Even the motorcycles expect you to move if you’re in the same rut they’ve chosen. The Annapurna circuit is quickly replacing trail with dirt road, and I mentally cross it off our list of likely future hikes.
We end our hike at the airport hotel. It’s not fancy, but it does let us take our first hot shower in ten days. What a heavenly way to end our trek.