The journey begins in Kathmandu.
Nepal was closed to foreigners until the 1950s, but it would be another 42 years before Upper Mustang would be opened up. After China invaded Tibet in 1950, Upper Mustang became a highly sensitive area, surrounded as it is on three sides by Tibet. Khampa warriors used Upper Mustang as a base from which to launch assaults against the Chinese. So in 1964, Michel Peissel had to apply to the King of Nepal for permission to enter. It took six months, but on April 23rd he finally set out to explore Mustang and discover for himself the city of Lo Manthang.
We arrived in Kathmandu in September 2015 during the Tij festival and the city was a sea of red. Long lines of women in beautiful red saris led down to the temple of Pashupatinath, where the dead are cremated on the bank of the Bagmati river. The Tij festival is a three-day Hindu women’s festival. On the first day the women feast. On the second day they fast and visit the temples to make offerings. On the third day they can eat again. We saw many women in groups singing and dancing. This is all done for the health and prosperity of their husbands.
We arrived at our Kathmandu hotel, the International Guesthouse, and soon after our guide arrived. Jit is a highly experienced guide, but hadn’t been to Lo Manthang since2001, back when a government official had to accompany all groups entering Upper Mustang and his costs had to be covered by the guide. There were no lodges either, so trekkers had to camp. He would be packing a tent and sleeping mats in case we arrived somewhere without a lodge.
The next morning we walked out early to see Kathmandu waking up. In 1964 the Himalayas could be seen from Kathmandu. Now it is only possible on a very clear day as a haze of pollution hangs over the city. It was just five months since the earthquake that killed almost 9000 people and made thousands more homeless. The damage was most evident in Durbar square where whole temples had crumbled.
We passed markets laden with colourful fruit and vegetables, mounds of marigolds strung together, huge chunks of pink Himalayan rock salt. In one narrow street people crowded around a man and woman frying balls of dough in hot oil.
We joined them and walked away with two hot dumplings on a piece of torn newspaper. We wandered back through Durbar Square and saw a dog limping along, one paw held up and hanging limp. A man and woman beckoned it over and it gingerly lowered itself down and sat with them. I bent down and patted its head and it looked up at me and shivered slightly. It was just one of many street dogs you see in Kathmandu, sick and injured, and none of us were in a position to help. I did discover later that there is a clinic for street dogs, run by foreign vets and volunteers.
Michel Peissel, his assistants Calay and Tashi, and his “six hundred and fifty pounds of excess baggage” flew from Kathmandu to Pokhara to begin his journey to Lo Manthang. We would be driving with Jit and a driver, a distance of only 200km, but a five hour drive on winding roads that cling to the sides of the mountains above the rushing Trisuli river.