Skip to main content

Closed off to foreigners until 1991, the Kingdom of Mustang, whose name is a misinterpretation of its capital’s, Lo Manthang, is comprised of small Tibetan villages nestled at altitudes ranging from 10000ft to 13000ft. Located between the Annapurna range and Dhaulagiri, intersected by the Kali Gandaki, a sacred river for Hindus, it’s shielded from the monsoon by the former and ensnared in a massive air current by the latter. The result is a desert-like, cold, and incredibly windy climate that leaves one wondering how anyone ever thought settling there was a good idea.

Dry mountainous landscape of Upper Mustang, in the Nepalese Himalayas

Largely ignored by explorers and anthropologists until the 1950s when Toni Hagen, Giuseppe Tucci, and later Michel Peissel provided the first accounts, Mustang became the epicenter for Khampa guerrilla fighters against Chinese invaders in the 1960s. Not the best time to visit. But whether the accounts date back to the 1960s or the 1990s, the observations remain consistent describing a rustic way of life. Peter Mathiessen mentions that due to water’s extreme scarcity, “a bath-less life considered beneficial to one’s health”. Michel Peissel portrays a medieval, hierarchal society where faith—a word synonymous with fear in Tibet—doesn’t entertain doubt, and where “the incredible is believed, the unusual is unquestioned, and the miraculous is considered entirely ordinary.” Since those times, much has actually changed. One of the catalysts for this transformation has been the advent of numerous roads that scar the landscape but make traversing the region in a day possible. Reaching most villages by car is now an option, affording the residents a level of comfort their ancestors could only dream of.


To visit the former Kingdom of Lo—there’s still a king, but his title is now purely ceremonial, and the locals refer to his descendant as the “son of the king”—you must be accompanied by a guide and secure a costly permit, with the proceeds theoretically benefiting the region. This trip presented the perfect opportunity to invite my cousin, Clo, along. Kumari, a tiny and smiling young woman, would serve as our guide and travel companion, proving indispensable in translating our inquiries. She would also exhibit an impressive patience in dealing with our daily squabbles and the typical grievances of French tourists… Hats off to her!

It all begins with… a bout of diarrhea. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Now, you might be wondering, “Why is this gentleman still discussing low bodily functions?” Well, to be entirely forthright, I simply wanted to insert this piece of wisdom from the anthropologist Michel Peissel’s book, “Mustang: Forbidden Tibetan Kingdom,” which I find utterly intriguing: “In Tibetan, the word for diarrhea is nearly synonymous with ‘journey to India’.” There you have it, and now we can embark on our journey.

A Tibetan Western

Mustang is now divided into two distinct regions: on one side, we have Lower Mustang, which sits at lower altitudes (thank you Captain Obvious) and doesn’t require any pricey permit, but we won’t dwell on this in this article; on the other side, there’s Upper Mustang, which demands a clean slate at Kagbeni checkpoint. Kagbeni is the quintessential tourist village with its hotels, cafes, souvenir shops, and the famous Yak Donald’s. That’s where we go — Upper Mustang, not Yak Donald’s.

On the first day of our journey, the road is terribly monotonous. We’re trudging along a track relentlessly battered by powerful winds that make it a struggle to move forward. As we approach the village of Chhusang, the scenery starts to captivate us. Steep, dry rock walls in various shades of beige, shaped by erosion and dotted with caves, rise majestically from the river below. Down in the village, it’s a charming mix of traditional houses—irregular white cubes adorned with dry wood to fuel their fires—and modern constructions with sharp angles that don’t quite fit the landscape—and look ugly, to be honest. Every village here is like a green oasis, with willow and poplar trees, fruit orchards, and fields of wheat, barley, and buckwheat, all nourished by small streams for irrigation. It is a place that makes you feel at ease.

We continue along roads and footpaths, crossing suspended bridges, some of which span deep canyons. Speaking of canyons, we walk through a couple of them, surveilled by vultures hoping for an unfortunate fall. Sometimes, between two rocky walls, we come across herds of bharals, which are not particularly timid. The arid landscape, dotted with fiery bushes and gnarled juniper trees twisted by the wind, makes us envision a Tibetan version of Sergio Leone’s westerns, with Khampa warriors playing the role of cowboys and Chinese invaders taking the place of Mexican gangsters. As a soundtrack, the ritual Buddhist music would add a spiritual touch to the rugged setting as this region boasts numerous sacred sites, including caves where revered masters, like Padamasambhava, once meditated. Also known as Guru Rinpoche1, he holds significant importance in Tibetan Buddhism for having converted the demons that once haunted the Tibetan passes and valleys into protective allies. Our moods oscillate depending on where we’re walking. A dusty road? “Damn, that sucks!” A picturesque trail? “Wow, this is awesome!” and on the guesthouses we stumble upon: “What a terrible owner! 🤬” vs. “This family is so adorable. 🥰” Once the village is cast in shadow, as Clo regularly reminds us, “It’s getting seriously cold!” So, we seek refuge in the kitchen where the stove, fueled by bits of wood and dried dung, lulls us into a well-deserved night’s rest.

The Reincarnation Ghost

Along a dusty road, we allow ourselves a little luxury in a tiny village comprising just two houses. There’s a unique café that catches our eye: “Look, Clo! They have cappuccinos!” I’m as excited as a kid in a candy store. Upon entering, I encounter a little girl, about 3 or 4 years old: “Tashidelek!”—Hello! No response. I try in Nepali: “Namaste! Tapaiko naam ke ho?”—What’s your name? She looks at me and makes strange noises before leaving. Okaaaay, I hope they won’t think I’m some sort of pedophile… We meet the owner, a modern young woman dressed in a bulky down jacket and comfortable sweatpants. In perfect English, she tells us that her daughter only accepts to speak in English. She flat out refuses to respond when people address her in Nepali or in the local dialect, a Tibetan language, even at school. “We wonder if she might be the reincarnation of a tourist,” she says with a blushing smile. She then shares with us the tragic story of losing her sister, who lived in France, in a kayaking accident. As we leave, we notice that a face has been cut out and removed from one of the family photos hanging on the wall. Is it her sister’s? We leave the place feeling weird.

The Rock Fortress

On this side of the Kali Gandaki, we’ve walked through a handful of dusty roads. Yet, occasionally, they spring delightful surprises. After enduring hours of monotony, a simple turn reveals the “fortresses” of Dakhmar, mirage-like. These mountains seem plucked from the pages of an epic fantasy, their contours resembling colossal structures hewn from ocher-hued stone, punctuated with ancient caves where monks once meditated. A closer look reveals that it’s not stone but rather compacted mud speckled with tiny stones, vulnerable to crumbling at the slightest rain. Down in the eponymous village, a grandmother engages with a child. Discerning if the child is indeed her grandchild remains an enigma. Here, children traverse the embrace of every family member, with only the mother being unmistakable when she breastfeeds them. As twilight descends, shepherds return with their flocks of tiny black goats, sporting horns painted with vivid colors. They aren’t destined for slaughter here but are sold to Nepalis for sacrifices during the Dasein festival. Same same, but different.

Potatoes, Always Potatoes

We arrive at Charang Gompa2, the second-oldest gompa in Mustang, dating back to the 14th century. Young villagers and monks are meticulously repainting the compound walls in the sect’s emblematic colors – blue, white, and red. Employing local pigments—accounting for the blue’s gradient toward gray—they perpetuate this annual ritual. Pouring paint along the walls with teapots, they harness gravity to accomplish the lion’s share of the task. A spirited young monk guides us through the prayer hall, his demeanor betraying hints of stress and apprehension. “My buddies tease me,” he chuckles, “and it leaves me slightly uneasy.” Speaking with a strange accent, he imparts knowledge interwoven with a generous layer of humor. When words elude him, he taps my shoulder, seeking assistance, and punctuates each joke with a fist bump. He mimics the statues’ postures, the countenances of tourists frustrated by their guides’ ignorance, and jests about a fat Buddha. Then he quips, “Potatoes are the staple here. Potatoes in the morning, potatoes for lunch, potatoes in the evening… Even potato chips!” He’s got this thing that makes tours entertaining. The puja—the prayer—concludes, heralding the arrival of mealtime. He hastens the tour, exclaiming, “I’m hungry too!” As we bid farewell, he playfully murmurs in my ear, “See you in the next life!” then departs, laughing.

The (Not So) Forbidden City

The road to Lo Manthang is excruciatingly monotonous. Walking along a road is, by default, a tedious affair. Regrettably, choice is not always available. Hence, I don headphones and tread mechanically, harboring hopes that the sight of the “Forbidden City”—now an overused term exploited for marketing purposes—will at least be worth it. Well, dear reader, it does not. The streets of the city are enshrouded in dust, stirred ceaselessly by gusts of wind. Not a soul ventures out; the population has sought refuge indoors. Once more, it evokes imagery of a Western set in Tibet. However, tomorrow will mark the commencement of the Tiji festival, spanning three days, promising a transformation in ambiance. The Tiji myth centers around a deity, Dorje Jono, fated to rescue his people from the calamity unleashed by his father, a terrible demon threatening drought, famine, and societal collapse. Eventually, the demon meets his demise, water flows abundantly, and equilibrium and harmony are reinstated. Water scarcity indisputably permeates local culture, and the multitude of tourists converging for the festival, clamoring for showers and hot beverages, presents both a boon and bane for the region. We had pre-booked a room, but the hotel informs us being full, though they’ve arranged an alternative in another hotel, which, ironically, has no record of our reservation. “Fortunately”, they offer us a well-appointed—i.e. gloomy—room without window at a steep price—albeit with a discount. Although I don’t remember telling it at the moment, my thoughts resounded with, “You go fuck yourselves!” Once again, I feel like being a walking wallet, ripe for lightening, reminiscent of Everest. After relentless efforts, buoyed by Kumari’s charm which can soften the sternest of hearts, we strike a reasonable compromise, even if it entails sleeping on café benches or in the vacant beds of the Nepali guides’ room.

Before the festival kicks off, we explore the three gompas of Lo Manthang. Inside the walls, one can find colossal mandalas, intricate paintings of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and demons from the Buddhist pantheon, some of the finest I’ve ever seen. Despite the subdued lighting, we lose ourselves for hours, examining the gruesome depictions of what awaits those who fail to escape the clutches of hell after death: demonic rapes, entrails spilling out, impalement on barbecue skewers, and quite a lot of fun basically, all reminiscent of the hellish visions of Hieronymus Bosch. Perhaps it’s time to start chanting our Om Mani Padme Hums… Suddenly, amidst the dimly lit gompa, the sound of instruments heralds the puja—drums, cymbals, flutes, and resonant, nasal brass instruments. A monk with an otherworldly low voice initiates the recitation of a sutra, followed by the rest of the brotherhood, wrapped in saffron-colored blankets and donning amusing red crested caps. Light filters from the ceiling, mingling with incense smoke to craft a mystical ambiance that transports me elsewhere. It sends shivers down my spine. I could spend hours immersed in this spectacle, but alas, photography is strictly prohibited.

Continue the story here…

  1. “Precious Master” in English. Not to be pronounced like Gollum would. ↩︎
  2. A gompa is more or less the equivalent of a monastery in Buddhist culture. ↩︎

Leave a Reply