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Tiji Festival

The festivities begin in the early afternoon, and they’re a considerable letdown. The dances lack enthusiasm, and it feels as if we’re in an eco-museum. Ugly tourists, clad in neon jackets with sunblock-coated faces as pale as butts, have flocked here to witness a cultural performance which looks like a portrayal of what Mustang was like before the modern era, played by teenagers working summer jobs. In typical Western fashion, we occupy most of the space. The few locals here, never ones to cause a fuss, have voluntarily retreated to the back knowing well that we’re here to capture hundreds of images and videos to inundate our social media feeds. A bitter taste fills my mouth, and taking photos pains me. I must confront the fact that I’m no different from the rest, as I’m here for the same reason.

The festival draws to a close on the third day with a puja and the firing of muskets, remains of a turbulent past, with the “son of the king” participating. Initially, we’re puzzled by him wearing headphones. Does he have such pressing matters to attend to that he disregards the people of Mustang? However, the reason becomes clear when a deafening BOOM makes my ears ring—akin to scenes from war movies where the hero escapes an explosion. Men, cloaked in ceremonial chubas and sporting fox fur hats, fire the muskets repeatedly. They’re having a blast. The muskets are ignited, and half the time, they misfire. The other half, after the BOOM, the men chorus “So, so, so…!” Meanwhile, a monk smashes tormas—sacrificial cakes—against the ground. Naughty demons! The grand finale takes place in the dance square, where a final puja unfolds. They drape the “son of the king” in khata—ceremonial silk scarves—and the ceremony concludes in front of the gompa. Only one Asian tourist remains, having a lot of fun with her camera, much like me. The final blessing, involving tsampa—roasted barley flour—evolves into a playful skirmish, with flour flying in all directions. We end up covered in it. On the way back, the villagers, seeing me like that, break into laughter, explaining that it’s a propitious sign: “You will enjoy a long and beautiful life.” If in Colombia, I might have had run-ins with the authorities.

North of Lo Manthang

We spend several days exploring the white villages with concrete streets to the north of Lo Manthang. It’s not very crowded here either, but a tourist rudely jostles me with his stick without a greeting or an apology. That’s something I haven’t missed! He’s filming everything he sees, and it seems his guide isn’t enjoying his time too much. We come across him several times, and he earns the nickname “the naughty yellow.” Besides him, we encounter a few elderly folks sitting on the ground, chatting while spinning their prayer wheels, known as mani. “Tashideleeeeek!” They respond the same with toothless smiles. In the middle of the street, a woman and her daughter stretch out a small weaving loom and work on a piece of colorful yak wool fabric that will serve as a belt. We chat briefly with her, I take her photo, and she bids us farewell with a cheerful “Bye bye! … I love youuuuu,” followed by laughter that we share. In another village, the atmosphere is less jovial, and I receive aggressive responses like, “No money, no photo!” So be it. I imagine I’d do the same if I was in their shoes.

The Villages of the East

To the east of Upper Mustang lie villages that suit my taste better. We arrive there after a day of walking in crazy winds, swept by gusts carrying dust and scraps of paper printed with sutras, similar to prayer flags. We cross a landslide that reminds me of the path to Tilicho Lake, ten years ago. I’m doing fine, as I’m used to it, but I can’t resist teasing Clo, who gets assistance from Kumari on the descents. We’ve been bickering incessantly since we’re kids. It’s never serious, but to an outsider, it might seem strange. So we apologize to Kumari. But she finds it amusing, saying, “ooooh dai1!” as she often does, with a tender smile and an intonation exuding deep compassion or perhaps… pity? 😅 And suddenly, below us, the village of Dhi unfolds like an oasis of greenery amid the mountainous desert. The sun sets, and our host shows us their prayer room, present in every Tibetan home, explaining the basics of Buddhism, translated by their two daughters. They live in the United States and have returned for their father’s 49th birthday, a sacred number. They humorously tell us, “We’re learning about our culture on the fly, thanks to you.”

Yara. I wake up with a stomachache and chills then rush to the toilet. Then it’s Clo’s turn. The guesthouse owner wonders how it’s possible: “You didn’t eat meat, and I wash my hands before cooking!” After devouring a bowl of noodles, we set off to visit Luri Gompa, a sacred cave where a religious representative resides. “Every year, we add a new line to the mural,” explains a thirty-year-old nun with a commanding voice. She’s in charge of the cave this year. She’s delighted to see that we’re with a woman guide, a rare sight in this very male-dominated milieu in Nepal. She accompanies us to the gompa below, carrying a thermos of tea and a can of Red Bull in her hands. “You’re lucky; you have a comfortable body,” she says to Clo along the way. Then she stops us at a souvenir stand run by a villager, like so many others. “It’s your choice; you decide,” she repeats, indirectly encouraging us to buy something. Kumari, wanting to be kind, decides on a lucky charm bracelet. The nun then points to a mountain: “Do you see that big rock that appears suspended? Several centuries ago, the great Kunzung Tsalu2 flew there to meditate.” We part ways to the sound of the mantras the nun murmurs throughout her day. Back in Yara, the owner, the last polyandric woman in Mustang—an old tradition to retain the scarce land within the same family—confides in us and shares her life story. It’s a deeply emotional moment that seems to have done her good because since then, she hasn’t stopped smiling at us and offering tea and popcorn. Moments like these bring people closer in an instant, make them endearing, and it’s heart-wrenching to have to leave.

Refugees of the Drought

In Mustang, several villages were relocated due to drought. Naya Dhye—pronounced Dhey—, a village stretched out lengthwise, happens to be one of them. As we stroll through the village, the houses gradually give way to blossoming apple orchards, but curiously, there’s no one to be seen.
“Do you know where we’re staying tonight?”, we inquire.
“Yes, we will sleep in Goat Cottage,” she responds with confidence.
“Great, sounds perfect!” we agree.
Yet, fifteen minutes later, there’s still no sign of our destination. One house somewhat resembles an inn.
“Should we check if this is a guesthouse?” asks Kumari.
“Wait… Aren’t we supposed to sleep at Goat Cottage?” we ask back, perplexed.
“Oh! But that was a joke! There’s no such thing as Goat Cottage!” she confesses, then bursts into laughter.
Oh, Kumari, you certainly caught us off guard with that one. The sole guesthouse is located what feels like an eternity away, deep at the far end of the village. Dust is everywhere, and while our hosts are friendly, they seem somewhat peculiar. Nevertheless, we have no other options, so we adapt. In their modest kitchen, the man is listening to a Buddhist teaching on his smartphone, while the grandmother gazes at us as if we’re characters in a talk show. No need for television here.

The sky becomes grey, casting a menacing shadow over the mountains. Monsoon season has begun on the opposite side of the Annapurnas, with clouds breaching the icy barriers. We embark on a climb that will lead us to the pass and then a descent towards the old village of Dhye. In the distance, massive fur-covered animals, yaks, follow our route. They are moving much faster than us, though, despite their substantial weight. We can’t help but feel somewhat inadequate. Our journey takes us through chaotic landscapes of rocks and mud in varying shades of brown, beige, and white, reminiscent of a volcanic terrain, and fossils abound. The village is stunning. Traditional houses line the landscape, century-old flowering trees provide a burst of joy, and a serene pond lays at the heart of it all, providing water for the village’s animals. The few inhabitants still residing here, women, are diligently tending to their fields and caring for their goats. They inform us, “The men have either gone to celebrate a neighbor’s 49th birthday or are out with the herds.”

Our host in Old Dhye is adorable. As we arrive, she greets us with a radiant smile and the faint scent of freshly applied henna in her hair. She can’t stop laughing, especially when I aim my camera in her direction. Here, there’s no running water. Locals draw water from the nearby spring and store it in large bronze containers. The outdoor toilets, situated on the upper floor, are peculiar. Mold in concrete, they feature tiny footrests and have two openings. No further explanation is required, right? But what’s even more captivating is the view of the mountains from this vantage point.

Twice daily, Kunjhok leads her horses to the pond for a drink, followed by a serving of hay. She then tends to her cows, milking them each morning to obtain fresh milk for tea. I feel close to Pasang, a young shepherd I encounter alongside his animals during sunset, who has opted to remain in the old village and care for his livestock. Despite his rural lifestyle, Pasang is a modern man. He shares funny TikTok videos with me, laughing out loud, and perhaps one day he may reconsider his decision and join his neighbors to tend to the apple orchards, or even leave the region in search of work in the city, as many of his peers have done.

One Last Painful Day

As we near the end of our trek, the final day proves to be the most grueling, spanning 10 hours of walking. We begrudgingly set out at sunrise. Initially, we grumble a bit, but soon we fall silent and press on, our mantra becoming “march or die.” Along the way, Kumari, already burdened like a pack mule, seizes a moment of distraction to surreptitiously take a couple of Clo’s belongings in an effort to lighten her load. Clo vehemently resists.
“No, bhaini3, stop!” she declares.
“Come on, didi4, give it to me. You’re tired,” Kumari insists, with a playful grin.
“No, it’s fine. Your backpack is already super heavy, bhaini,” Clo responds, stubbornly.
“Ooooooh, didi!” relents Kumari, with her endearingly voice.

Our ascent culminates at Pa Pass—a name that I find utterly funny. We replenish our water bottles at the last available source and then continue along a windy ridge, where we’re treated to the most breathtaking view of the entire trek. To one side, we gaze upon the valley carved by the Kali Gandaki river, where we can see the road-scars and villages we crossed on our journey. To the other side, an otherworldly landscape builds under us, featuring peculiarly shaped peaks that shift in color from beige to a deep orange, almost crimson. We burn our last calories on a steep, slippery descent, all while battling the ever-present, relentless wind—an enduring curse that has plagued this region throughout its history. Upon reaching our destination, our feet are thoroughly disgruntled. Nevertheless, we find it within ourselves to congratulate each other, sipping on one last seabuckthorn juice, a local berry beverage that combines sour and sweet flavors—yes, we’re pretty hardcore, I know. A Jeep arrives, sparing us from the arduous journey back to Kagbeni. The driver captures a final photograph to commemorate our departure from Upper Mustang. Although fatigue is etched upon our faces, we can’t help but reflect on what an extraordinary trek it has been!

  1. “Big brother” in English. ↩︎
  2. Transcription by ear. ↩︎
  3. “Little sister” in English. ↩︎
  4. “Big sister” in English. ↩︎

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