THE TORONTO STAR Saturday, August 26, 2000

The Forbidden
Kingdom of
Mustang

This little-know area of Nepal has opened
its doors a crack to foreigners

  By Ruth Lor Malloy
SPECIAL TO THE STAR

Far away in time and space from the crowds and skyscrapers of downtown Hong Kong is the mountain kingdom of Mustang. It is relatively unknown, a darling of adventure travelers for its snow-topped mountains, its unusual Buddhist monasteries, and its Tibetan culture. Many of the people dress in costume, there's no air pollution, and very few tourists.

Mustang is on the north side of the Himalayas in Nepal, north of India. It borders Tibet on three sides.  Trekkers usually fly from Kathmandu to Pokhara and then take a 20-seater plane to tiny Jomson.  Foreigners can only enter in groups organized by a registered trekking agency. They have to pay a hefty CDN$1000 for a permit in addition to expenses

Nepal is concerned about the effect of tourism on the ecology. The kingdom is barely developed. Not even the tarmac was paved. We didn't see any motorized vehicles--no buses, no trucks, not even jeeps--during our ten days there.

There were only paths. We had to walk.  In fact, most of us hiked 150 kilometers during our visit.

Usually we were alone because Mustang is roughly the size of Luxembourg with only about 6,000 people living in villages.
Foreign tourists are restricted to 1000 a year.   We were really isolated but after a while, even our lack of emergency radio or cell phone didn't matter. No one else had them.

We could see and hear great distances. Donkey caravans approached us with bells of different sizes around each neck, ringing out a melodious multi-toned hum as they came. We saw people on foot and horseback too. They smiled and returned our Tashi Delek greeting.  It means "good fortune to you."

It was easy at first to hike. The bed of the Kali Gandaki River was flat and wide. The riverbed was full of stones, among them rare ammonites that looked like snails inside, millions of years old.  With the monsoons and melting snow, the river would be swollen and impassable a month later.

We were there in May, a good time. This was heaven, we thought that first day, because the weather was comfortable, the sun shone brightly, and the sky was a deep blue. Everything was so beautiful. On the whole trek, we were rarely out of sight of the snows.

Then we camped and discovered we wouldn't get our two litres of wash water until the morning, and our toilet tent covered only a hole in the ground and not a potty-chair. We couldn't find our pajamas and we couldn't stand up in our tents. On the road, we couldn't always hide behind a bush or rock when nature called. But there were few people between villages.

Every day a strong wind blew dust and sand from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.  We usually got up at 5 a.m. and started traveling at 6:30.  We had to wear nose masks and glacier glasses and nothing stayed clean.

As time went on, we adapted to the "hardships."  After the first five days without a real bath, some of us resorted to hotel rooms.  

 

mustang.jpg (49123 bytes)

At $3 a night, they weren't like the Four Seasons', but they had solar-heated showers, and only one of our beds had fleas.  But we ate with the tour group. We probably would have been sick if we ate the locally-prepared food.

Canadian Himalayan Expeditions tried hard to keep the seven
of us happy and healthy.  It gave us a staff of 16 Nepalese
porters, kitchen workers, and English-speaking guides. We
also had our own caravan of horses and donkeys.

The local people were poor but cheerful.   The villages were
crudely constructed with few straight lines but the buildings were charming.  Each village had big, round chortens or stupas, and a wall of prayer wheels, sending out prayers each time they were turned.   Each village had a monastery or temple, some dangerous to visit because of the unprotected holes in the floors and the narrow ladders.

But the temples were wonderful and full of statues and
recently repainted murals of Tibetan gods and spirits. The
art was different from that in Lhasa's monasteries because
they predated the Dalai Lama's reforms of several hundred
years ago.

Like other tourists, we met the king in Lo Manthang, the
capital of Upper Mustang. He collected from us a small
donation for rebuilding the monasteries.  He was middle aged
and dressed informally in a windbreaker, toque, and
sneakers.  His palace was bigger than most of the other
houses, but it was far from luxurious. The second floor was
bare except for a guard dog and pillars of log and earth.

Because he spoke no English and his interpreter was away, we
could not communicate.  He spent our 20 minutes together
humming deep in his throat. It was the Tibetan prayer  "Om
mani padmi hum," - Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus.   Jigme
Palbar Bista was king because he was the descendant of Ame
Pal, the founder of Mustang, 23 generations ago.

One of the other highlights was meeting the local people.
Our crew set up our tents in the courtyards of rest houses.
Except for one breakfast, we always used a dining room. We
met the families and tried to make friends with the curious
children. We walked with other travelers: two schoolteachers
were carrying their luggage and three-year old child and
trudging for a week to their job in Lo Manthang.

The spirit of the people made us feel humble.  They seemed
to live happily with so little. In the winter, many went
south to India to sell sweaters in the streets of Mumbai.
Their agricultural efforts were barely enough to sustain
themselves. Many still made their own clothes, wove their
aprons, and made boots of yak leather and sheep's wool. The
crafts were still alive.

                                    - 30 -    

Guidepost

Canadian Himalayan Expeditions is at
2 Toronto St. Ste. 302, Toronto,
Ontario M5C 2B6, phone 416 360-4300,
or toll free1-800 563-8735. Fax: 416 360-7796
E-mail: info@HimalayanExpeditions.com
Web address: www.HimalayanExpeditions.com

Canadian citizens need a 60 day single entry  tourist visa
for Nepal (US$30), available from the Honorary Consulate General of Nepal in Toronto, 32nd Floor, Royal Bank Plaza, Toronto, M5J 2J9, phone 416 865-0210. A visa is advisable to
avoid a long queue at the airport in Kathmandu where you
can also get a visa.

Canadian Himalayan Expeditions usually flies its trekkers to Kathmandu on Singapore Airlines via an overnight stay in Singapore. Other routings can be arranged. From Kathmandu groups fly to Pokhara, and then next day to Jomsom, these latter two on small 21-seat planes.

Dates and prices for the Mustang trips in 2001:
May 6 - May 23, 2001, and Sep 23 - Oct 10, 2001
Land Cost:  $2095 U.S. Special Permit: $700 U.S.
Land cost includes accommodations on the trek, but not
expenses like meals in Kathmandu or Pokhara, laundry,
insurance, or tips.

Tours stay at the popular Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel,
a tourist area where you can buy or rent clothes and gear
for the trek.

Canadian Himalayan Expeditions Ltd., has been organizing
small-group adventure trips throughout Nepal, India, Pakistan,
Tibet/China, and other parts of the Himalayas for 17 years.

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