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My Itinerary To Upper Mustang In May 2008

The times shown are the actual trekking times including photo stops, but not including rest or lunch stops. The altitudes are mainly from Lonely Planet. The weather was generally sunny in the morning, but often cloudy in the afternoon, with temperatures around 5C overnight to 15C - 20C in the daytime. The Kali Gandaki valley has extreme brutal wind in the afternoon, around 100km/hr; so if you can, only trek in the morning.

Crew: Guide Gyan Prasad Tamang - my sixth time with Gyan. He brought five of his relatives: Cook Kumar; cooks helpers Pemba Rinjii and his brother Tenzin; porters Dorje and Mingma. The routine is almost the same each day. I get up around 5:00 to take sunrise photos. Bed milk-tea is at 6:00 followed by washing water at 6:15, and breakfast at 6:30. We are on the trail around 7:00, reaching our lunch spot after three to four hours. The afternoon trek is shorter, around two to three hours. I then read a book and have afternoon milk-tea and cookies. Soup and a snack like papadam or popcorn is served around 18:45, followed by dinner. When the crew starts to eat their dinner, usually dhal bhat, I head for bed around 20:00.

April 27 Arrive Kathmandu. Visit Changu Narayan and Bhaktapur. Fly to Pokhara.

I met my guide Gyan at the airport. He took my passport and passport photos to get our Mustang permit. My raw impressions of Kathmandu: hot, humid, chaotic, noisy, smokey, traffic, motorcycles, bicycles, cars, vans, buses, horns, people, women in their best Sunday saris, weddings, dogs, cows, and farming construction. I visited Changu Narayan and Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley. Gyan and I then flew to Pokhara.

April 28 Fly to Jomsom. Trek Jomsom (2760m) to Kagbeni (2840m). 2:00, 80m ascent.

Gyan and I took the early morning 17-minute flight to Jomsom with great views of Dhaulagiri. We met the rest of the crew and walked along the fairly flat and easy trail to Kagbeni. The road from Jomsom to Kagbenui and Muktinath is now complete, so you can also take a jeep or motorbike ride. The road also goes from Jomsom to Ghasa. I walked around Kagbeni and visited the gompa.

April 29 Trek Kagbeni (2840m) to Chele (3100m). 4:00, 390m ascent, 170m descent.

Gyan showed our permits at Kagbeni and we entered the restricted area of Upper Mustang. After walking along the wide river bank with nice views of Kagbeni, the Kali Gandaki Valley and Nilgiri, the trail makes several ups and downs before arriving at Tangbe (3060m). The trail climbs to a pass (3100m) before descending to Chuksang (2980m), where we had lunch. The afternoon walk was short, initially along the riverbed, with the wide valley ending abruptly at a vertical cliff where a bridge crosses the Kali Gandaki, and then then a short steep trail to Chele (3100m).

April 30 Trek Chele (3100m) to Samar (3620m) to Rangchyung Cave (3450m) to Geling (3570m). 5:45, 1400m ascent, 930m descent.

The easy days are over. The trail starts climbing steeply with a view of Ghyakar across a huge canyon, switchbacks up to the Chele La (3630m), and descends gradually to Samar (3620m), with a spectacular view of the Annapurna massif and Nilgiri. The staff took the normal route via Bhena La (3830m) and Yamdo La (4010m) to Shyangmochen (3800m), while Gyan and I took a different trail to visit the Rangchyung cave gompa, where Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) is said to have meditated. The trail to the top of the ridge was steep and a bit dangerous, before descending to Rangchyung. We climbed to Shyangmochen (3800m) to meet the staff, and then over the Shyangmochen La (3850m) and descended to Geling (3570m). Geiling is a picturesque village with poplar trees and extensive fields of barley, and an old gompa housings a few old Tibetan artifacts.

May 1 Trek Geling (3570m) to Drakmar (3820m) to Ghar Gompa (3940m). 4:40, 1200m ascent, 830m descent.

The trail climbs gently through fields up the centre of the valley to the Nyi La (4020m), the southern boundary of Lo, with spectacular views of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri ranges to the south. The trail then descends gently to Ghemi (3510m), where we had lunch. From Ghemi the trail heads north to cross the ridgeline (3910m) and traverses to Drakmar, set in a beautiful area with large tracts of terraced fields set against blood red cliffs with numerous ancient cave dwellings. The trail then climbs to a 4170m pass before descending to Ghar Gompa, where we stayed the night. Ghar Gompa is supposedly the oldest in Nepal, built around 775 to appease the demons who were stopping Padmasambhava from building Samye Monastery in Tibet. There are some excellent painted carved stones, and statues of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), Palden Lhamo on horseback, and Vajrapani.

May 2 Trek Ghar Gompa (3940m) to Lo Manthang (3910m) - Tiji Festival Day 1. 2:30, 385m ascent, 415m descent.

The trail climbs to the highest point of the Mustang trek at around 4325m, before descending to Lo Manthang We had trouble finding a place to stay, so a man invited us to stay at his house, for a fee of course. The road from Lo Manthang is now completed in the north to Tibet, and in the south to Tsarang.

The Tiji Festival is a story about a deity named Dorje Jono who battles his demon father to save the Kingdom of Mustang from destruction. The demon father wreaked havoc on Mustang by bringing a shortage of water and causing many resulting disasters from famine to animal loss. Dorje Jono and his retinue perform a series of 52 magical dances to repel the resident evil. Dorje Jono eventually beats the demon and banishes him from the land.

Around 13:30, horns, drums and cymbals announced the beginning of the 3-day Tiji festival. An enormous thangha of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) was unrolled down the entire south wall of the square. After an hour pause, senior monks monks took their places along the wall beneath the thangha and started chanting. Twelve more colourful monks came from the palace, dressed with cymbal-shaped hats with upright peacock plumes. Masked dancers performed the second dance before the peacock dancers reappeared. The first day of the Tiji Festival was colourful, but really, a bit boring, with only three long dances. If you have to skip one day of the Tiji, this would be the day.

May 3 Lo Manthang - Tiji Festival Day 2

In the morning I visited three gompas. Thubchen gompa has a massive assembly hall filled with exquisite recently restored paintings. The three-storey Jampa Lhakhang, built in 1447-48, has a large statue of Maitreya and many elaborate mandalas. Chode gompa has a painting of the fearsome Mahakala.

The second day of the Tiji Festival started at 14:00, with many more people arriving from the outlying villages, thronging the small square. Day 2 was very entertaining; the pace was good with 46 dances jammed into 4:30. Many of the dances reminded me of Shakespeare. After a serious dance, there would be a very funny dance with the dancers making faces at the crowd and jumping at them. The Future King and his 16-year old daughter and other dignitaries took their positions around 16:00. The Future King looks very, eh, how you say, kingly. He smiles perfectly, says hello to local people and tourists alike, and poses perfectly for photos.

There was also comedic relief with two costumed figures coming out to entertain the crowd. One mimicked an old man with a walking stick while the other had a knapsack. They sat down and he took out two bowls and a 1.5L bottle of Pepsi. He opened the Pepsi with fizz going everywhere before he poured it into the bowl and they drink the Pepsi. He pretended to be a tourist and took out a camera to take a photo of the old man and the crowd and the Future King. He kept dropping things as he tried to put them back in his knapsack. Very funny. The masked dancers joined forces to attack the demon, who had been reduced to a cloth doll. Two of the masked dancers attached a string to each arm of the doll and swung it into the air and hitting the ground. The day ended quickly when it started to hail at 17:45, with everybody, including the Future King and his daughter, scattering quickly.

May 4 Lo Manthang - Tiji Festival Day 3

This morning I visited the courtyard of the Chode gompa in Lo Manthang. I was just sitting there waiting for the right conditions for a photo when an old Lama waved to me to come visit his room. The American Himalayan Foundation has been working here in Lo Manthang since it opened in 1992, and they have built a brand new apartment complex for the monks. Each monk gets their own room with a bed, a Tibetan chair and a working table. Lama Lodu Tenzin showed me all his meager possessions, a few old thangkas, a begging bowl (although they don't beg here), a few old photos, and so on. The Lama smiled all the time with two big fangs and lots of gum. He gave me a kata and I promised to send him the photos I took of him. I recognized him because he sits at the head table with 11 other senior monks at the Tiji Festival. Gyan and I then visited the Future King Jigme S. P. Bista, who was dressed casually in jeans, jacket, and baseball cap. As we sipped delicious lemon tea, he spoke to me in perfect English. I asked if I could take a photo of his daughter, and he called for her to come out. As of 2008 she was 16 and just starting her A-levels in Kathmandu, where she lives with her father and 7-year old brother.

Day 3 of the Tiji Festival was very good. Once again it began around 14:00. There weren't many people there because many tourists had already left and the local villagers went home after day 2. Dorje Jono prays fervently for over an hour over a torma cake resembling his demon father, who had stopped the rain and caused drought with many animals being killed. The effigy even had some hair on its head. Dorje Jono then takes a ritual dagger called a phurba and slowly moves it toward the torma cake (demon). After a few false starts he inserts it into the demon's heart. Is he satisifed that he has killed the demon? No. He inserts another phurba and another and another - probably 20 in total. He then takes a knife and cuts off his head, arms and legs. He takes a hatchet and hacks at the demon until he is like hamburger meat. He then divided the demon up into five pieces and gives them to five people. They then leave the main square and go outside the city gates, with all of us running along. He then takes a bow and arrow and shoots it. He then takes a slingshot and fires three rocks at the demon's remains. He then prays over each of the five pieces of demon and throws them on the ground in a heap. He then takes a tiger skin and flails the demon's remains. Now he is satisfied. The monks and Dorje Jono walk back into the main square, where the local people put katas around his neck, probably three or four hundred of them. Quite a sight.

May 5 Trek Lo Manthang (3910m) to Tsarang (3560m) to Tange (3240m). 6:30, 200m ascent, 840m descent.

From Lo Manthang, the trail descends and crosses a stream before ascending to the Lo La (3950m) for our last view of the walled city of Lo Manthang. The trail then traverses the Tholung Valley before reaching a ridge (3580m) looking over the village of Tsarang. The trail descends to cross the Tsarang Chu, and climbs 125m to Tsarang, the second largest village in Mustang. I walked across the village to see the entrance chorten, visited the old dusty five-story white dzong (fort), but I couldn't visit the gompa because the person with the keys wasn't around.

From Tsarang, we descended to the Kali Gandaki, and walked along the wide river bank in the strong afternoon winds, before following a side river to Tange (3240m). Tange is a small village dominated by a series of large chortens in a combination of bright red and white colours.

May 6 Trek Tange (3240m) to Tetang (2940m). 6:40, 870m ascent, 1170m descent.

The trail descends to cross the bridge over the Tange Khola and on to the wide stony plain of the Yak Khola. An hour from Tange we began a long, steep climb, and after four hours from Tange we reached a pass (4050m) with a very good view of Dhaulagiri. We stopped at an ACAP shelter for lunch. The trail contours and climbs around various bluffs reaching an altitude of 4110m, before descending on a fairly dangerous trail to Tetang. I did not enjoy trekking the east side of the Kali Gandaki Valley. I recommend going back the western side and simply trekking from Chuksang for half an hour to Tetang.

May 7 Trek Tetang (2940m) to Muktinath (3750m). 4:00, 1030m ascent, 200m descent.

The trail from Tetang climbs steeply, levels off and then becomes steep again to cross the Gya La (3970m) with very good views of Dhaulagiri and Tukuche Peak, and the mountains surrounding Muktinath. The trail descends and eventually joins the main trail from Manang to Ranipauwa. I visited Muktinath, a pilgrimage site for over 3000 years for Hindus, and more recently for Buddhists. Very neat place. It is famous for a fire that never goes out - miraculous? No, now we know it has to do with natural gas in the area. Muktinath contains a wall of 108 waterspouts in the shape of cow's heads spouting sacred water.

May 9 Trek Muktinath (3750m) to Jomsom (2760m) to Kharka (3460m). 5:00, 700m ascent, 990m descent.

I slept in and had to jump out of bed to catch the last few minutes of a beautiful sunrise over Dhaulagiri and Tukuche Peak. Leaving Muktinath, the trail descends past Jharkot (3500m) to Eklai Bhati and goes along the Kali Gandaki to Jomsom. After lunch, we climbed to Thini and then to a kharka at 3460m.

May 9 Trek Kharka (3460m) to Below Mesokanto La (4800m). 4:00, 1440m ascent, 0m descent.

Whew! It was a really hard morning climbing up 1500m. When we got to the base of the Mesokanto La it was obvious to me it was too dangerous to ascend. Gyan scrambled up part way to confirm.

May 10 Trek Below Mesokanto La (4800m) to Jomson (2760m) to Marpha (2680m). 5:00, 0m ascent, 2120m descent.

A brutal descent on the knees to Jomsom and lunch. From Jomsom, it was a quick 60 minutes to Marpha, along the river bank much of the way.

May 11 Trek Marpha (2680m) to Yak Kharka (3800m). 5:30, 1120m ascent, 0m descent.

The trail climbs steeply out of Marpha to Yak Kharka, with its numerous trails and many roofless shelters. After lunch, we reached the ridge to Dhampus Pass, but retreated in the face of 150km/hr winds and blinding snow.

May 12 Trek Yak Kharka (3800m) to Ridge (4500m) to Marpha (2680m) to Jomsom (2760m). 5:00, 780m ascent, 1820m descent.

After a steep climb from Yak Kharka to the ridge (4500m) to Dhampus Pass, we hit snow and bad weather conditions. So, I decided to turn back.

May 13 Fly Jomsom to Pokhara to Kathmandu. Depart Kathmandu.

I had a few hours to spare in Kathmandu, so I visited Patan.