Mustang, Nepal

Trekking in the lost kingdom of Mustang

Author: Sushil Subba
Date: 2021-02-25

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Mustang sits in the rain shadow of the Himalayas, meaning that the warm, wet monsoon that sweeps up the Indian subcontinent and into Nepal between June and August is stopped by the Himalayas, keeping Mustang dry. It is geologically, topographically, and culturally quite distinct from much of the rest of Nepal. The Himalayan region borders Tibet, and the culture is Tibetan in many ways. Buddhist monasteries, chortens and stupas, prayer stone walls, monks in red robes, and women in colourful striped Tibetan aprons are common sights. The mud-walled towns typical of the region are places you’re likely to have never seen before. The dry, stark beauty of the landscape - being in the rain shadow means that Mustang is a good place to go trekking when much of the rest of the country is inaccessible due to the rains. The common wisdom you’ll hear about Nepal is not to go trekking during the monsoon, as the views will be obscured by clouds and many trails will be slippery and muddy, if accessible at all. This advice doesn’t apply to Mustang, making it a great destination for travellers who want to travel in the northern hemisphere in the summers. Mustang is divided into two sub-regions, Lower and Upper. Travellers were prevented from entering Upper Mustang until 1992, and even now, visiting requires the purchase of a permit; independent travel (without a guide) is not allowed. Lower Mustang is much more accessible, although the town of Kagbeni is as far as foreign tourists are allowed to go without an Upper Mustang permit.

A settlement in Mustang

A settlement in Mustang

The Way to Mustang

Jomsom is the gateway to Mustang, reached via a long, bumpy bus ride or a short, very scenic flight from Pokhara. Flights depart early in the morning because the high winds that whip through the Kali Gandaki Gorge from late morning can make flying treacherous. Flights are frequently cancelled due to the weather. While the flight can be a nail-biting experience, it only lasts a brief 25 minutes, as opposed to the 10+ nail-biting hours on the bus.

Scenic Mustang

Scenic Mustang

Trekking in Upper Mustang 

To trek in Upper Mustang is a rare privilege. Here, you will experience the way of life of true mountain people, who for hundreds of years, had very little contact with the rest of Nepal and retained their rich cultural heritage. In many ways, a trek into Upper Mustang is similar to trekking in Tibet, as geographically it is a part of the Tibetan plateau. 

Upper Mustang, being in the Himalayan rain shadow, is one of the regions in the country suitable for trekking even during the monsoons. During this time, the upper Kali Gandaki Valley is still quite dry with only occasional rainfall. Just don’t plan a trip to Upper Mustang in the winter as the place goes into hibernation mode. 

The upper region was opened to non-Nepali trekkers only some 15 years ago, and even today, access is still highly restricted. To enter Upper Mustang, that is to travel further north of Kagbeni, trekkers need a special trekking permit and must be accompanied by a government-appointed official.

Upper Mustang is definitely an enticing destination, but for non-Nepalis, travel there comes at quite a cost. A US$500 permit, that is. These permits are for 10 days, and additional days cost US$50 per day. For a taste of Mustang without the high price tag, consider trekking in Lower Mustang.

Mustang landscape

Upper Mustang will astound you with its beauty

Trekking in Lower Mustang

To trek in Lower Mustang, a cheap permit is required, which will allow you to go as far north as Kagbeni. While Lower Mustang might feel remote, it is actually very accessible. From Pokhara, Jomsom is just a 30-minute flight away. If you’re on a tighter budget, you can also travel there by road (which takes about 10-12 hours from Pokhara). Many other parts of Nepal, such as Dolpo or the Far West, also offer enticing scenery and amazing trekking experiences but are much harder to access.

While most travel and treks in Nepal are best done in the spring and autumn seasons (March-May and September-November, respectively), this isn’t necessarily so in Lower Mustang because the region lies to the north of the Himalayas, in the rain-shadow; hence, it doesn’t experience the monsoon. And due to the high altitude (above 2,700 m), the temperatures stay cooler at this time. While you’d struggle to get clear mountain views between June and August in most of Nepal, in Mustang they’d be almost guaranteed. Similarly, although winters will be colder up here than in Nepal’s main cities, if you prepare well with warm clothes, there’s nothing stopping you from visiting in the winter months either. 

Despite accessibility during all seasons to Lower Mustang, do be aware that transport connections might be a bit trickier during the monsoon. The only way to fly to Lower Mustang is from Pokhara to Jomsom. As Pokhara is affected by the monsoon, flights may be delayed or cancelled because of poor weather there. The road connection is also more treacherous at this time of year due to wet roads, mud, and landslides. If travelling to Lower Mustang in the monsoon, keep several buffer days in case of delayed connections. 

Lower Mustang

Lower Mustang

Overall Experience

Generally, each day of a trek starts after breakfast, and there are many opportunities to stop, absorb the views, take photos, or have a cup of tea along the trail. The pace is slow, and usual itineraries allow for excellent acclimatization. Most days, you will trek for 6 or 7 hours and finish by mid-afternoon. The terrain is along well-trodden and defined paths that can be sandy and desert-like in places and at other times rocky. There is no need for crampons or any technical equipment or skills. 

Accommodation during the Mustang Trek

Accommodation in lodges throughout the trek is basic but comfortable. Lodges have a central communal area with a large stove that provides heat and a cosy atmosphere. The bedrooms are unheated and generally have two beds with mattresses, pillows, and a blanket. The lodges generally have showers that are powered by gas, and they mostly use sit down flush toilets (some lodges also have squat toilets). Food on the Upper Mustang trek is of very good quality and a mixture of local Nepali/Tibetan and western food. A common, tasty and fulfilling local meal is dal with rice.

Cultivation in Mustang

Cultivation in Mustang

Packing List for the Mustang Trek

The basic idea for picking the right kind of clothing is to pack clothing that will keep you warm, dry, protected from the sun, allow you to move comfortably in the mountains, and keep you comfortable in the evenings and night. Trekking essentials include the following:

• Bags – Rucksack or duffle bag for a porter to carry plus a day pack to be carried by you. Dry bags inside to store clothes.

• Rain protection – Top and bottom waterproofs to keep off wind/rain, also an umbrella

• Layers – Shirts, trousers, shorts, T-shirts, jumpers and jackets, hat, and gloves.

• Walking – Comfortable boots with a good sole and ankle support, lighter footwear to change into in the evenings, and trekking poles

• Sleeping – 3 or 4 season is enough in the lodges where there are beds and mattresses and blankets

• Water – Water bottles should be hard plastic, not throwaway bottles. Water can be boiled or treated.

• Personal hygiene – Wash kit, towel, small first aid kit

• Sun protection – sunglasses, sunhat

• Miscellaneous – head torch, camera, books, music, power bank and leads

How Difficult is the Mustang Trek?

The Mustang trek is not particularly difficult; the highest point reached being only 3,800 meters, but the conditions at times can be arduous. Mustang is cold in winter and is always windy and dusty throughout the year. Winter treks are best avoided due to harsh weather.

Best Time to Visit Nepal

Upper Mustang lies in the rain shadow of the Himalaya, making it a great monsoon trek and open year-round for trekking. The main consideration is the winter when most residents leave the capital to avoid the cold and snow. Generally, the best time to visit Upper Mustang is from March to early November.

Enchanted land: best time to visit Nepal

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