Meandering around the Upper Mustang – (1) Kagbeni to Lo Manthang

I haven’t hiked in Nepal for over 20 years, so it was high time I went back. The Mustang is a special part of Nepal, a high desert with a Tibetan history. It was restricted to tourists until the 1990s, and even now you have to pay a permit for a minimum of two people of $50 per person per day in the region (minimum of ten days).

There is now a road from Kagbeni to Lo Manthang, and a further road over the border at the Korala Pass to China. The roads are changing most of the traditional trekking routes – with more of the trail tending to be 4wd tracks. Many locals love the road as it makes daily life easier, food cheaper, and trade more effective. Tourists obviously love the Mustang the way it is, in spite of the permit fees. I suspect the road will bring change, so now is a good time to visit

It’s blimmen hard to get to the Mustang. It is either two 25 minute flights (Kathmandu to Pokhara and then Pokhara to Jomson) or a 16 hour drive over rough roads. Sounds do-able. However the flights only run 40 percent of the time as the mountain weather is unpredictable. The flight to Jomson hasn’t run for 8 days because the weather has been really bad. In normal times, you could drive the road in 8 hours, but unfortunately the road got washed out last week (in the bad weather). The flights are so unreliable, and even when they go, they go hours late, that no tour agent will let you book both flights in one day. So I had two flights booked over two days – spending an overnight in Pokhara. The gods must have been smiling on me, as all my connecting flights and permits worked out (unlike almost every other tourist I met in the region)…., ready to trek the Upper Mustang

Day 1 – Kagbeni to Tsaile/Chele* with a detour to Chuksang monastery – 21km walking, 855m ascent, 5h9m walking, slept at 3070m


The flight to Jomson was quite something – a tiny otter twin seating about 20 – and we basically followed the road up to Jomsom for the full 25 minutes of the flight.  There were a couple of moments where I thought the wings would touch the steep hillsides on either of the valleys.    We landed in Jomsom, had a wonderful breakfast at Om’s house.  I met our porter Padam (he is taking half my load – I don’t normally use porters but I was reminded that it is good for employment creation in the local economy).  

We then took a taxi up to Kagbeni (it is a  20km road which most people do as a first stage, but I hate road walking and dust).  We visited the lovely monastery.  Santosh (my guide) took care of the paperwork on my permit and I sat in the sun watching the young monks play fight in the monastery courtyard.

As road walks go – pretty good – Kagbeni to Chuksang

While today’s walk was also a road walk, I did need to do some acclimatising, as I had come from sea level and Jomsom is at 2750m.   And while it was a ‘road’, it was effectively a 4wd track that wasn’t well trafficked.  I took a detour to visit the lovely village of Tangbe and had a chat to some ladies.   

Chuksang gompa visit and ascending to Tsaile/Chele

We arrived in the little town of Terang/Chuksang and had a hearty lunch – apple pancakes and spring rolls.  We had time our our side, so made a 4km detour to visit the lovely gompa (monastery) on the other side of the river.  We crossed one of many suspension bridges I would see in the Mustang – they are brilliantly engineered and apparently cost around $500k each to install – but are absolutely critical to enabling the locals to get around.  The cliffs on either side of the Kali Gandaki river are spectacular.  

Climbing up to Tsaile in the late evening light was lovely.  Though a hoard of motorbike tourists passed me on the road.   I got lucky and got one of the last rooms in the Mustang ‘Resort’ in Tsaile (the blimmen motorcyclists got the best ones).  The room was pretty grim but the gas communal shower was at least hot enough to burn (and oddly there was no cold tap).   The trekkers ate together – Magdalena from Poland and Frederic, Pierre and Michel from France – and complained about the motorcyclists.     I did at least manage a decent nights sleep

Day 2 – Tsaile/Chele to Sangboche – 16.7km, 1375m ascent, 5h10m walking, slept at 3800m

Tsaile to Ghyakar and ON TO SAMAR

I had a hearty Tibetan breakfast – fried bread and eggs, and we began the slog up the road to the turn off to little visited village of Ghyakar.  It added 150m of ascent and a few kms to the day to visit Ghyakar on the way to Samar,, but it was much preferable to walking the distance on the road. The path from Ghyakar to Samar had a sneaky gully which meant a bonus 100m of descent with an immediate 100m up afterwards – and the gully was amusingly blocked by goats. By the time we reached Samar at 9.30am I was ready for another breakfast so we ordered rosti and two coffees . I should have predicted that would take an hour :-), oh well we were walking at a good pace, so no rush. Nepali time.

Pilgrims route to Chungsi/Tsungsi cave and up to sangboche

Leaving Samar, Santosh gave me directions and I headed off at my own pace.  It was a punchy 300m climb starting from 3500m.  I overtook the French guys and I realised I had a little less oxygen than normal as my heart rate bumped up twenty points – oops.   The view from the pass at 3820m was spectacular.  It was nice to enjoy the view down into the canyon. I then swiftly forfeited all the hard work of climbing up the hill by skidding down a rocky descent through a lovely canyon to the Chungsi monastery cave. The last schlep of the day was from the cave (at 3400m) to Sangboche at 3800m – home for the night.  I overtook a lot of people on the way up the hill, but did keep my heart rate down.  I was sunburnt, happy but did have a pounding headache (unsurprising given the lack of acclimatisation), so I took a diamox (altitude sickness pill) and a couple of ibuprofens and had dinner, a chat with the Spanish and American trekkers, and went to sleep. 

Day 3 – Sangboche to Charang/Tsarang – 21.4km, 1100m ascent, 5h 50m walking, highest pass 4026m, slept at 3550m

Down to the Ghilin valley

A delicious breakfast of chole (pea curry) and fried bread and then we meandered up the first pass of the day.  Getting started with an ascent at 3800m is hard work  so I was happy to get to the pass 100m above where we started.   The descent down to the valley in Guilin was stunning.  The autumn colours make the valleys look like they are aflame.  The mani (prayer walls) were stunning and we visited the lovely old monastery on the hill before grunting up to the Kharki-La pass at 4026m.  

Down to Ghemi

The meander down to Ghemi was straightforward and rolling into town felt a bit like meeting old friends. There are very few guesthouses and most of the trekkers are keeping a similar rhythm (though Santos and I normally add in excursions to add 5-10k extra fun to the day) We found our guesthouse and had a lovely dahl lunch.

Optional 10k bonus hike to Tsarang

It wasn’t on our original programme but we had quite a short day today, arriving at Ghemi at 12.45. I had figured out our route would not take us past Tsarang, and Santosh was willing to hike the 10km to get there provided i got us a jeep back. The hike wasn’t the best of the day but Tsarang was absolutely lovely. The light was stunning, the chorten and monastery were delightful, and we had a lovely chat with the hotel boss Maya while waiting for the jeep back.

The common dining room was overrun with a huge 4wd spanish tour group when we returned, so I was summoned to the kitchen for dinner with the porters and two other tourists – Matt and Raj – the motorcycle dudes. And we spend the evening chatting to a lovely 13 year old Nepali who was visiting his sister from the Dolpa – quizzing him on religion, math, sport and the meaning of life.

Day 4 – Ghemi to Lo Manthang – 20.4km, 1100m of ascent, highest pass 4300m, slept at 3800m 6h 30m of walking

To the demon blood cliffs of Dhrakme

After a chaotic morning in the kitchen – with the excellent team juggling 25 breakfasts, we managed to depart 20 minutes late at 7.20am.    We departed Ghemi on a different path from yesterday towards Dhrakme.  It was a nice 100m grunt up hill and then a gentle descent into the stunning village of Dhrakme with amazing red cliffs.   Apparently there was a historical demon wreaking havoc with the locals, so Ringpoche came down and murdered the demon and painted the cliffs red with his blood.


Over the Mui La pass to Ghar Ghompa – the oldest monastery in the Mustang

The first hard ascent of the day weaved through the rock formations and had stunning views south on the way to Mui La.  On the other side of the pass, equally stunning views down to the oldest monastery in the Mustang (Ghar Gompa) and Marang village.    We visited the monastery which was lovely and secured some tea from the chaotic kitchen. 

Altitude headache at 4300m

The next pass of the day was brutal – Choku- la at 4300m. The path was fine and not steep, but my head started pounding at about 4200m and my vision got blurry.  Definitely the altitude.  I walked like a pensioner for the last 200m of ascent to the pass and then bombed down the other side to get below 4100m as quickly as possible before stopping for a break, a few ibuprofen, a coffee from the thermos and a pancake from my packed lunch.

The views out to Lo Manthang and the red hills behind were incredible – but very hard to photograph.  You will need to come and see them for yourself. Arriving in Lo Manthang is like going back in time. No cars, a few motorbikes and some 4wds. Narrow lanes with whitewashed houses in a row. It feels like I imagine Lhasa would have been like in the 1950s.

I checked into the luxury Royal Mustang Resort – owned by the crown prince.   So nice to have sheets that have been cleaned, hot water, a heater and as I found out later when I cam back from an evening stroll that I had an electric blanket (they had turned it on for me).  Aaaaaah, will be chilling and strolling for a couple of days

More on Lo Manthang, the next few stages and how to plan a trip in the next blog posts . But if you are curious about the route check out the Mustang trail race site which inspired my route.

Lo Manthang, 17 October 2022

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