One place I would love to travel to is Timbuktu (and in case you’re one of the people—there are a lot—who didn’t think it was a real place, it is). A sand-coloured maze of streets and mud brick houses and temples, Timbuktu was the centre of the trade across the Sahara in the middle ages, and became a great centre of learning, an Islamic university town, in the sixteenth century.
Its remoteness, roughly in the centre of Mali, and being a walled city, puts it in the same enticing, mysterious league as my other longed-for destination, Lo Manthang, Nepal, which I achieved in 2015. But, long before Covid rendered us all homebound, Timbuktu became off-limits when Islamic jihadists captured the city in 2012. It was recaptured by French and Malian forces in 2013, but in 2021 the Malian military staged a successful coup and now control the government. This year they ousted the French and welcomed Russian mercenary group Wagner, and that’s going about as well as you can guess.
So Timbuktu is not going to be listed on Tripadvisor any time soon.
However, even if you can’t visit Timbuktu, you can pretend you’ve been there. After the rebel invasion, when tourism ceased in Timbuktu, those employed in the industry were left with no income. To help them out, Phil Paoletta, along with his friend Ali, set up Postcards From Timbuktu. Phil, an American fan of West African music, first travelled to Timbuktu for the famous Festival au Désert. He fell in love and still lives there with his wife and two children. He runs a small lodge and restaurant in Bamako, and (at least before Covid and a couple of military coups) runs motorbike tours in West Africa.
For $10 (US) you can choose a postcard and the message you want written on it, and have it sent anywhere in the world. Taking time off work? Confuse your colleagues by sending them a postcard:
“Hi everyone, having a great time here in the Sahara desert. Visited this fabulous mosque in Timbuktu today.”
Is there someone you’re avoiding?
“Hi, sorry I haven’t been in touch. Unfortunately, I’m stuck here in Timbuktu.”
Or freak your mum out:
“Hi Mum, sorry I haven’t called for a while.”
Unfortunately, while your postcard is almost guaranteed to reach its destination, there is no predicting how long it may take. Be patient.
After it is hand-written in Timbuktu, (and the post office hasn’t run out of stamps) it is sent by whatever means available from there to the capital, Bamako. This can be either via a United Nations flight, bus, truck, or even by boat down the Niger river. Once it gets to Bamako, it will fly to France and then on to its final destination.
You can also send salt mined in the Sahara desert, jewellery, bags, and any word or name of your choosing rendered in Islamic calligraphy by Boubacar Sadek, Timbuktu’s last master calligrapher.
So if you’d like to go on a pretend trip to Timbuktu, quit your job in a creative way, or just mess with someone’s head, or send a truly unique gift, check out Postcards From Timbuktu and help support former tourism workers.
Yesterday, I spoke to a client who casually mentioned she used to be a lawyer.
“At the age of 70,” she told me proudly, “after completing my eighth degree, I was admitted to the Supreme Court as a solicitor.”
“You must love studying,” I said.
“Well it’s better than housework,” she replied. She had gone on to practice for six years before retiring.
I thought of my own neglected house, and the tumbleweed of dust and fully formed cobwebs clinging to the corners. I, too, have better things to do than housework.
Such people are inspiring to those of us who were too busy working and raising children in our younger years to achieve other things. I marvel at anyone who is able to write and wrangle a family. Raising three children took all of my energy at the time.
A character in a book I’m currently reading—Mallachy Tallack’s The Valley at the Centre of the World—talks about growing older and how looking back starts to take the place of looking forward. I don’t like the thought that you stop having things to look forward to. Perhaps you do, but they just grow smaller.
My mother gave up at the age of about 70. She decided that she’d lived her biblically prescribed “three score and ten years” and said No to every opportunity that came along after that. “My world is finished,” she would say when we suggested she try something new. My father, on the other hand, retired at 80, bought himself a computer and found someone to teach him how to use it. He also took a flight down to Antarctica. Had my mother not been such a wet blanket, they could have had great adventures. They had money and good health, but my mother simply sat down and said No to everything.
When we were in Bali recently, I found myself thinking often of my father. Like me, he loved seeing and learning new things. He would have loved to come to Bali. If he ever saw someone interesting in the street, he would go up and talk to them. He told me about a time when he and my mother were in Moscow. He saw a queue of people so he stood on the end to see what they were waiting for. Ice cream. So he bought one too.
It was my father who bought the set of beautiful encyclopaedias called The World and Its People that I used to pore over, sitting on the cool linoleum in his office. It was in those I first read about Iceland, leading to an obsession that finally saw me stand on the streets of Reykjavik in 1993, long before the hordes of tourists that now invade. I wonder what my father would have made of my travels in Nepal. Sadly, he had died before I went there. My mother’s only two questions were “What do they drink in Nepal?” and, “When are you going to get over going to these places?”
In May I am travelling to China for the first time. Another adventure. I have many others in mind after that. My hero, good old Dervla Murphy, published her last travel book in 2015 at the tender age of 84. She has finally accepted gracefully that her health is not strong enough for further travels, but having published twenty-six travel books in fifty-three years, I think she’s earned her retirement.
I’m starting a bit later but I have a good few years left yet.
A photo of Tsarang is on the front cover of my copy of Michel Peissel’s book. When I showed it to Jit he said, “I think you will see more trees now.” He was right. The village in Peissel’s picture shows numerous, bright green, walled fields but few trees, but now trees grow all through and around the village. Two buildings dominate Tsarang: the monastery and the huge, five-storey, palace.
Michel Peissel spent a lot of time in Tsarang where he stayed in the monastery at the invitation of the abbott. The abbott was the son of the Raja of Lo; he left his monastery to marry and had a son. His wife died when the boy was only four-years-old and the monk decided to return to his monastic way of life, confining himself within the royal apartments of the Tsarang monastery.
…he took a vow to devote himself for three years to solitary meditation, and to study the Tantric paths of enlightenment in atonement for his past behaviour. He also vowed that he would not eat during daylight…
The son was living there with him and about a dozen elderly monks when Peissel came to stay. That boy is now the Crown Prince of Lo, or Gyalchung, as the current Raja* has no surviving children, and while he is often described as being the Raja’s son he is in fact his nephew.
We climbed the rough stone stairs of the old palace and a monk unlocked a wooden door. It had been one hundred years or more since the Raja of Lo used this palace as a residence and it is all but a ruin. Still, the chapel has lamps lit and the seven bowls of water set before its golden gods each morning. I marvelled that it hadn’t fallen down in the earthquake and prayed there would be no tremors as we clambered up a rickety ladder and onto an internal balcony which railings were long gone (if they ever existed). The whole place was dirt, dust, and crumbling stone walls and timbers. One room appeared to have been the “bathroom”, two timber-framed holes in the floor falling the three storeys to the ground below—the traditional style toilet still used by Loba, the waste mixed with hay to become compost. I followed Jit into an adjoining room but he quickly turned and ushered me out saying,
It stunk, and not of animal dung.
The monk then unlocked a door to another small chapel filled with ancient, mediaeval-looking weapons all hanging on the wall or sitting on dusty shelves as though they’d sat there since being put away after the last battle. In 1964 Michel Peissel visited the same room and, from the way he described it, nothing about it had changed. To my amazement even the most gruesome object was still there:
Fumbling around the altar among the swords, our guide eventually gave me a dark brown object that to my disgust I recognised—by the light of the small window—as a dried up human hand!
Hanging on a hook alongside some of the other implements was indeed a black, shrivelled human hand, its dirty, yellowed nails curved, hard and smooth. Peissel was told, or assumed, that it was the hand of a thief which had been cut off as punishment, but when Jit asked the monk he had a different story.
“One who is building this, err, working,” Jit attempted to translate, “then, err, same king is thinking—this very bad thinking—same palace not other place, err, build. For that they cut so after he is not going to work other.”
“Oh, they cut off the builder’s hand so he couldn’t go away and build another palace for someone else?”
“It must be very old,” I said.
“Yes. Not less than, err, more than two centuries old.”
Very bad thinking indeed.
Neville had found a box covered in skulls and asked Jit what was in it. Jit asked the monk.
“Somethings very dead,” said Jit, and laughed.
Hanging on the wall above was a suit of chainmail and I lifted part of it. It was very heavy.
“Is iron, I think so,” said Jit.
Next to it was a helmet and then what looked like a breast plate made of some kind of thin bone.
“Yes I think so one, ee, animal,” Jit tried to explain. “What calling, err, maybe this area I don’t think so. This found, err, lower place.”
“Is it shell?” I asked
“This, you know, err, is skin. Is out of skin this kind of, err, things.”
“Like a crocodile?”
“Err, not crocodile. Other is, this kind is very similar. Is walking like the crocodile in the forest. In some place they find now also. From our village also they found also, mm, like a lizard.”
“Like a big lizard?”
“Like the, err, I don’t know so English name.”
I really had no idea. Nepal has a creature called a gharial that lives in the jungle rivers. It is just like a crocodile, but has a long, very narrow snout with a bulbous growth on the end. Maybe it was a gharial skin.
The monk told us it was too dangerous to visit the rest of the palace and anyway, Jit explained, there was not much else to see, just a whole lot more empty, dusty, rooms, but we were allowed to climb up to the next floor from which we’d get a good view of the village as long as we didn’t stay up there too long. We were now on the fourth floor and through frameless window holes we could see all of Tsarang spread out below us, its neat white-washed houses, their roofs lined with stacked timber, surrounded everywhere by green trees. We even looked down now on the monastery over on its high ridge. On the far side of the village was the large entrance chorten from the cover of Peissel’s book and, beyond this, brown plains where the wind was whipping up the dust towards the dull hills beyond. Jit told us we would be heading that way the next day. He then pointed out a hole in the floor where the earth was crumbling away, and so we quickly climbed down and out.
*The Raja of Lo (king of Mustang) sadly passed away in December 2016, aged 86.
As we set out for Tsarang, first we followed the rough road high above the river. Opposite were the fluted cliffs honeycombed with caves and at the top, completely flat, dark grey plains. It was impossibly dry and barren. Even the stunted bushes grew sparse on the yellow hilly desert spread before and behind us. Then Neville, Jit, and Netra took a narrow track, leaving me at the mercy of Dabendra with whom I descended to the river bed and criss-crossed the river back towards Dhe.
Since the brown horse carried our packs, Dabendra wasn’t riding and couldn’t gee my horse up, but at some point we became separated and I found myself alone on a horse determined to get to Dhe. I had no idea whether Jit intended for us to head through Dhe, but I just had to let the horse go and it climbed up the river bank and into the village, ambling along the paths between houses and by the stone-walled fields and groves of trees, passing a wall of prayer wheels on the left as though it knew the protocol. The place was deserted but for an old woman and a little girl washing clothes at a tap. The old woman replied to my “Namaste” with little enthusiasm and the little girl stared up at me with a serious face.
I realised the horse knew exactly where it was going when it suddenly stopped at the doorway of a walled yard, turned and entered. As my head hit the top of the doorway I finally had cause to be thankful for the wretched helmet. I don’t know whether the horse had smelled it or made a note of it on our previous visit, but it must have felt very pleased with itself because the yard was filled with cut grass spread out and drying in the sun. But before it could set about eating the village’s precious store of winter feed, I dismounted and managed to turn the creature and pull it out of the yard. I was terrified someone was going to see me and think I was stealing their hay. Dabendra eventually turned up and we sat and waited in silence for the others. They soon arrived. As it happened we did need to stop in Dhe so we could be registered at the check-post. This was the first time I became aware this was necessary. All foreign trekkers had to be registered at checkpoints throughout Upper Mustang.
Jit decided they would once again take the narrow track along the cliff while we would travel along the river bed, so we doubled back while they went on and travelled along, criss-crossing the rivulets once again, with Dabendra whooping and calling to hear his voice echo off the cliffs.
It was easy to see how the area had once been an ocean. In places the water ran clear blue over white sand. I wished we could have stopped and waded in the water, even though it was freezing. In that bright sunshine it would have felt like being by an ocean inlet and I wanted to see what was in the wide deep pools. It was peaceful travelling along that wide river bed with huge cliffs towering either side, but as the morning wore on our old friend the wind came up. But before it became too ferocious, we rejoined the others and rounded a point before heading up the Tsarang Khola. We crossed a wooden bridge and began ascending a track that climbed along the side of the cliff. As the track went on it became stonier—large slippery stones that clinked under the horses’ hooves—but then we turned and began to climb a very steep slope, straight up the cliff, covered with the same large stones. It was very hard going. The horses eyes bulged and they breathed heavily and frequently slipped and threatened to lose their footing. I think they were scared; I certainly felt more afraid for them than for myself. When we finally reached the top I dismounted and hobbled to a ledge to sit down and rub my aching knees.
Netra, who still hardly seemed out of breath after the steep climb, came over and sympathetically rubbed my knee as well.
“Very steep,” I said to him.
“Yes,” he replied, “very dangerous.”
When Jit and Neville arrived, we waited while everyone recovered before continuing on into Tsarang. We travelled along a pathway between stone walls enclosing groves of poplar trees. Some horses were penned in one walled yard and in a field also surrounded by a low stone wall a man was working with two strange looking beasts, like black and white cows but with large yak horns.
“Yaks?” I asked Netra.
“Dzos,” he replied.
Dzos are a cross between cows and yaks. The females, actually called Dzomos, are fertile while the males, Dzos, are sterile. Yaks are rare in Upper Mustang now.
Jit led us through Tsarang and almost out the other side before stopping for the night at the Kailash Guest House.
With apologies for a long hiatus, here is the next post:
We were about fifteen minutes into our trek to Luri Gompa when I realised I had left the pouch I always carried with my passport and phone, back at the lodge Yara, where we were staying a second night after Luri. I needed the phone for photos and I never liked to be without my passport, no matter where I was. So Netra, generous and tireless soul that he was, went back to get it for me.
Jit called, “Bistera, bistera,” to Dabendra as we continued on—“slowly, slowly,”—to give Netra time to catch up, but we’d been travelling for about half an hour and he still hadn’t appeared.
“Rose, you are sure it is in your room?” asked Jit.
“Yes. It’ll be on my bed.”
And we ambled on. I got off the horse, because my knees were killing me, and walked for a while. We were travelling upstream along the northern bank of the Puyung Khola which joins the Kali Gandaki at Dhe and Surkhang. It was just a thin trickle in most places. There were many caves high up in the cliffs, as well as at ground level with dry stone walled enclosures built around their openings. There were also some freestanding enclosures with very basic, rough shelters attached, which I imagine are for goats or sheep and their shepherds to take shelter.
We reached Luri and still no Netra, but neither had the guy with the key arrived. Jit found he had phone coverage over on the rise above the river so walked over to call him. Meanwhile, Dabendra mounted the brown horse, bareback (it was carrying no packs because we were returning to Yara for another night), and took off to find Netra. He found him waiting at the small village of Ghara. Netra had taken the high road and, not being able to find us, had decided to wait there. And he had my pouch. Having found Netra, Dabendra turned and rode back to Luri, while Netra walked, arriving at the same time as the key holder. Jit, Neville and I were sitting on the ground waiting when Dabendra came galloping at full tilt. He pulled the horse up sharply and, with no saddle to hold him, pitched head first over the horse’s head and onto the hard, rocky ground. We rushed over to see if he was ok, but he promptly picked himself up, tossed his head and said he was fine. He spent the next two days limping.
While Dabendra slept on the ground by the horses, the man with the key took us first to a small gompa on the flat ground high above the river. Strings of ragged prayer flags criss-crossed above it and fluttered in the breeze. Jit told us this gompa was only about one hundred years old. The guide unlocked the door and we entered a dimly lit room. It was like the other monasteries we’d visited but clearly little used. Statues stood at one end and in front the altar were butter lamps and bowls of water. The guide lit a butter lamp and quietly intoned some prayers. Jit told us that someone comes early every morning to do this, or if there are visitors, will wait and do it then. After a quick look inside we followed the man out and waited while he lit a small fire in the courtyard using some of the aromatic plant that grows all over the hills, and said some more prayers.
Across the river the high red cliffs had been eroded into sharp pointed flutes, the eroded earth piled against the base and falling away into the narrow gorge. They resembled giant termite mounds. Caves dotted the lower parts.
“Ah!” cried Jit, pointing at a very sharp, high flute. “I see this when I come here last time, but I thought in the earthquake maybe it has fall down, but still there.”
The flute had a flat disk-shape that appeared to balance on top. It protruded high above the rest of the cliff. The guide looked up as well and then spoke to Jit, explaining something. Jit translated:
“He says, mmm, there was very powerful lama living in a cave here,” he said, and turned to point at the many caves in the cliffs behind us. “Every morning, he is fly across the river, and build this, ee, stone here on top.”
I pictured the lama calmly leaving his spartan cave each morning and flying across in the thin, cold air, his maroon robes flapping, to place another piece on the point he was building.
There was a stone wall enclosure that had been built out from the base of the cliff on our side of the gorge, which Jit said had been used for monks who wished to meditate for long periods. People from the nearby village would bring food each day. The walls were now crumbling, the stones falling away down the slope.
“The monks looking for the quiet place with nobody disturbing. And ça monks are powerful,” said Jit with awe.
We now began the climb to the cave gompa. We passed three crumbling chortens with poles stuck in their tops and prayer flags strung between them. Little remained of the paint and engravings on the sides. One had completely collapsed and was just a mound of yellow clay with some stones sticking out. A square red building sat perched high up on the cliff but the gompa itself was inside one of the many caves. To reach this we had to follow a steep track up and across a metal bridge, covered along its length with prayer flags, and then up higher still until we reached a cave below the building. We entered and climbed a wooden ladder. Beside the new ladder sat the old one, a notched log such as we had seen in Lo Monthang and many other villages. We huffed and puffed in the thin air.
We entered a small cave where there were several smallish statues set against the back wall. Behind these were silk thangkas. In front was an old cabinet along which were some small bowls, and beside this a low table with a couple of butter lamps on it. On the left was a small chorten. Large tea pots and other vessels sat on other tables and on the uneven floor. Everything was grimy with dirt and soot. The guide lit the lamps and stood chanting prayers in a low voice while we waited quietly. He then unlocked a door on the left and we entered a small cave that was almost entirely filled with a polished, ornately painted chorten. Jit pointed to the outer wall where there was a section made from mud.
“This was open, but now block,” he said, “because people is coming to take things. Maybe Khampas. This area many Khampas. Maybe Khampas destroy and find the gold or something.”
“Gold?” I asked
“Inside the chorten they put in there normally gold or many valuable things. And mantra also.”
Michel Peissel describes how on leaving the chorten cave, which he likened to “Ali Baba’s cave” they were indeed “assailed by the ‘forty thieves’—some two score Khampas, who wanted to know if we had arms, saying they ‘needed them badly’. I persuaded them with some difficulty that I had none.”
Of all the chortens and paintings we had seen in the monasteries we’d visited, this one was unique. It is known as the “Hundred Thousand Dragons Chorten”. Luri belongs to a sub-sect of the Kagyu school of Buddhism, a sect which came after the Nyingmapa and Sakya sects of Lo Gekar and the monasteries of Lo Monthang and was established in about the twelfth century. The Kagyu sect has a heavy emphasis on tantric meditation, believing that enlightenment can be reached in one lifetime if meditation is practiced enough, which I guess explains the meditation cell and the possibility of powerful flying lamas. Nobody knows who built Luri Gompa but it is estimated to have been built in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. The paintings on the highly polished chorten and on the domed ceiling and walls around it resembled the art of central Asian countries and was quite different to that seen in the monasteries of Lo Monthang and the other monasteries we had seen in Mustang. Images of high lamas were painted on the domed ceiling above, and below these were white flowers, something like chrysanthemums, on curling stems and with white leaves on a green background. At the very top of the ceiling above the chorten was an intricate mandala. The chorten itself looked and felt more like enamel than the clay from which it was built, so smooth and polished was its surface.
Along the inside wall something had been painted in large Tibetan script.
“Is this ‘om mane padme hum’? I asked Jit.
He consulted with the guide who read the script quietly muttering some ‘oms’ and ‘padmes’ under his breath. He then explained to Jit who translated:
“Is different mantra. ‘Om mane padme hum’ normalment but little bit mixed.”
Next to the door a sequence of vertical lines had been painted, like someone keeping tally and the guide said he thought it may have been someone keeping count of the circumambulations of the chorten, but he really didn’t know.
Stooping through the low doorway again, we returned to the room with the statues. Opposite was another small wooden door.
“What’s in there Jit?” I asked. He spoke to the guide then turned to me.
“This is a little dangerous,” he explained in a low, serious voice. “When-ça ceremony time they open, but is, ee,…like the goddess.”
“It’s dangerous for us because the goddess doesn’t like to be disturbed?”
We climbed another ladder and emerged onto the roof of the red building to find a small solar panel. From here we looked down through a hole into an adjoining cave where the guide had again lit a fire in a small hearth in the middle of the room and was intoning more prayers. There was a shallow depression in the inner wall that looked like a small fireplace but with no chimney, which would explain the blackened walls and ceiling. Above it a ledge had been cut like a mantlepiece, and on this sat some rocks and a tarnished vessel with a very narrow neck. A copper bowl sat on a battered, broken, wooden, table, which had a thick coating of dust. More caves could be seen through holes in this cave. The cliff was honeycombed with caves.
“I think so, many house before; many room, many house,” said Jit.
He was guessing. Not much is known about any of Mustang’s caves. They’re estimated to be around 3000 years old and it’s assumed people lived in them at some time. Maybe Luri’s caves were inhabited by a community of monks, maybe the monks took them over after they had been long abandoned. I like the fact that the caves, the monastery, the extraordinary chorten and the unusual paintings are still a mystery.
We joined Dabendra, lying on the rocky ground enjoying his sleep, and ate some of Netra’s dried fruit and nuts and I pulled out the apple I’d save from Dhi. I ate half and gave the rest to the white horse. There was not another soul around. The guide had locked up and gone back to his village. We sat and relaxed in the sun. Across the gorge, the sharp fluted peaks that formed the cliff were topped with a completely flat, plain. There were many of these plains high above the river gorges and Michel Peissel described them as being “so level that a large aeroplane could have landed without so much as one stone needing to be moved out of the way.” The barren hills rose beyond them rolling away to the south in yellow-brown waves, and far away on the horizon, peaks topped with patches of snow.
We arrived in the late afternoon in Yara to find there was only one lodge open and it was full, so our guides had to share a tent, which they pitched in a walled yard just above the lodge. I decided to rest before dinner and for a long time I sat watching out the window next to my bed, as the light slowly faded. The ubiquitous small brown sparrows hopped about amongst the wood piles along the roof edges. Opposite, a barren hill rose, dotted with clumps of spiky bushes.
Three young guys came sprinting and laughing down the steep track that ran along the base of the hill below a solitary house. Below us was the walled dirt yard by which we had entered, the horses laboriously pulling themselves up the several steps. Now as I watched, several men came galloping effortlessly up the steps on horses, pulling them up sharply in the yard where they quickly dismounted. Jit told us later that they were here on a pilgrimage to take their horses to bathe in the holy lake, Damodar Kunda.
That evening, as we sat drinking in the dining room before dinner, a young woman came in to tell us that there would be Tibetan dancing and singing after dinner. We sat around the perimeter of the small courtyard and half a dozen women gathered in a line and began, quite self-consciously at first, to sing for us. They sang in nasal voices, swinging their legs in synchronised fashion, arms around shoulders, laughing at themselves when they briefly forgot how the song went, joining in with gusto when someone recovered the faltering song and it got going again. Between songs they would discuss amongst themselves what they should sing next, but we were never told what any of them meant.
Some of the men, who had been drinking raksi for a couple of hours by the time the singing began, joined in at certain points, yelling drunkenly and clapping enthusiastically and seeming to call out requests. The locals carried on for some time after we went to bed. Having lost all track of days of the week, I realised it was Saturday night—a wild Saturday night in Yara, high up on the Tibetan plateau far from everywhere. I guess this is how most of the world amused themselves before reliable electricity enabled TV, radio, recorded music, and computers to stop us from singing and dancing together.
That night I was woken about midnight by the ferocious growling of the lodge-owners’ dog outside my door. I sat for a long time at the window looking up the hill, lit up like day by the full moon, hoping I might see the elusive snow leopard, but nothing moved. The next morning I told Jit I’d been woken in the night.
“Yes, I hear jackals last night. First far away, then close to our tent,” he told me.
“Jackals?” I replied. “Like a wild dog?”
“Mmm, no maybe more like a fox. They eat chickens, maybe small goat.”
So perhaps it was not the snow leopard, just a pack of Himalayan jackals raising the hackles of all the village dogs. Evidence of brown bears has also been found in Upper Mustang as high as 5500 metres. They live on small mammals, mostly marmots, and birds, but between 2005 and 2008, herders in the Manaslu area of the Annapurnas reported losing twenty-nine animals, mostly yak calves, but some horses and mules, to bears. They aren’t often seen, but bear scat has been found around Lo Monthang, in the Chhosar region and near other villages and they have been spotted in the Damodar Kunda region to the east of Yara. They tend not to come too close to villages although some researchers believe livestock reportedly taken by snow leopards may in fact have been taken by bears, judging from the hair samples left behind. A Himalayan wolf was seen in Upper Mustang in 2004 and their scat has also been found but it’s believed there are fewer than 350 of these wolves in existence.
Next morning we ambled out of Lo Monthang and quickly began climbing to the top of the Lo La, the pass above Lo Monthang, and, after stopping for a last look back at the walled city, we headed to Dhe en route to Yara.
We were heading south again but would soon turn east and cross the Kali Gandaki. We followed a rough track of loose, sandy soil along a ridge. As we ambled along I found myself looking down at the horse and footprints in the sand made by other travellers, not thinking about much at all, until I realised that I was no longer seeing horse and footprints but also large paw prints. They were heading in the opposite direction, back to Lo Monthang. I turned around to Netra and Dabendra walking behind me and holding my hand in a claw shape, shook it towards to the ground.
“Paw prints,” I said, and pointed at the ground.
“Ya, tiger,” replied Netra.
“Ya, ya. Big one,” he replied, and laughed.
My eyes were now glued to the ground and the prints continued until we reached the turnoff to Dhe, where they gave way to small goat prints. They continued along the track that led to Tsarang, not far from Marong, where 120 goats had been killed by a snow leopard, just a couple of weeks before.
We now turned to descend towards the river, but the horses decided that they’d rather not. The brown horse, carrying the packs, took off running way off the track. Dabendra set off yelling abuse and throwing rocks at it, trying to steer it back onto the track. Meanwhile, Netra motioned to me to dismount because the descent was too steep and slippery for riding. Let go, my white horse took off too and try as they might, Dabendra and Netra could not get it back. It was headed back to Lo Monthang; it had clearly enjoyed its time there and decided it would prefer to return. The brown horse tried to follow it, but Netra managed to stop it in time. It kept stopping and trying to turn but we all managed to keep it going in the right direction. Netra turned and ran back up to help Dabendra.
We were a long way down when we finally spied Netra far above us walking down alone. There was no sign of Dabendra or the other horse, so we all just carried on, slipping and gingerly making our way down the very steep, slippery, sandy slope.
Below us emerged the patchwork quilt of the fields of Dhe, stretching to the edge of the river bank. On the opposite bank was the village of Surkhang, but it is only accessible from Dhe when the river is low enough to walk across as it sits where the Puyung Khola meets the Kali Gandaki and there is no bridge between the two villages. A suspension bridges crosses the Kali Gandaki river upstream of the meeting point between the two streams.
We had just arrived at the bottom, outside the village of Dhe, when to our amazement here came Dabendra on the white horse, galloping it down the same track we’d just inched our way down.
Like the village of Samdzong, which is moving due to lack of water, the village of Dhe has been struggling with the same problem, and has begun the process of relocation. Some outside of Dhe believe the village’s troubles have been caused by the selling of saligrams, others because they killed and skinned a yeti.
But as we sat in the warm dining room waiting for our noodle soup, we were oblivious to all of this. The room was much like all the dining rooms, with its mud benches covered in carpets running around the perimeter behind low, ornately painted tables. The walls were a blue-green and covered in the same pictures as in many of the other lodges: the panorama of Lhasa, a large painting of the Potala palace (the former residence of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa), photos of the Dalai Lama and Sakya Trinzen, some family photos, and a large silk thangka. Wires were strung loosely around the tops of the walls and ran down to two car batteries. One appeared to be for lighting, the other to power a small television inside a glass-fronted cabinet.
Kitchen noises could be heard from behind the piece of fabric hanging in the doorway. Otherwise the place seemed deserted. While we waited, Dabendra was put to work carrying lunch out to the workers in the field, baskets of food and a thermos of tea. Netra came in and gave us an apple each; here as in most of the villages there were plenty of apples.
Lunch over, Dabendra took the horses down and across the river, while the rest of us went via the long metal suspension bridge. Below us, a thin milky blue stream ran. Clumps of poplars huddled close to the water’s edge.
Upstream, where the gorge narrowed, stood a small red chorten, its edges crumbling, towered over by the weathered cliffs, with horizontal layers of red, yellow, grey, and brown. Over all arced the hard, blue, cloudless sky.
On our last afternoon we went for a final walk around Lo Manthang. People sat in the late afternoon sun, as though soaking it up while they could, for it would soon be winter. Some called “Namaste”, one older man “tashi delek” the Tibetan greeting. Men carrying loads of hay and heavy feed bags strapped to their foreheads walked with purpose. Somewhere a goat bleated. In one street, children, still in their school uniforms, called out,
“Where are you from?” and, a common greeting, “Where are you going?”.
Old women sat on the ground, backs against the wall, chatting. Men sat on ledges outside shops desultorily twirling small prayer wheels, asking
“You like to look in my shop?”
One elderly man, whom we had seen a few times on our walks, offered
“Rooftop view?”, and we had seen a few photographers take up his offer.
Of course there would be a fee for this privilege. Women, bent double, swept leaves from the rough ground with the small brooms made from sticks tied together that you see throughout Nepal. Others crouched by taps washing clothes and metal dishes. Goat hides lay spread out, drying. The air was crisp with the chill of the coming night and, as ever, the smell of manure, clods of it drying along the ledges, was everywhere. Around this ancient, walled city, the ageless hills rose, silently, majestically, as though in the quiet understanding that this city, although it had stood for nearly 700 years on its “Plain of Aspiration”, would one day pass away, and that when it did, the hills would still stand silently, eternally.
Outside the city walls, a large square building with square towers on each corner was being constructed, two storeys high, three at the corners. The bottom storey and the top of each tower had an outer surface of stones while the other walls were smoothly rendered. An “R” had been worked into the stonework on at least one of the towers. It had timber windows set deep into the cement grey wall. Large sheets of plywood covered what looked like the main entrance. It was still very much a construction site but no work was going on. This was a new boutique hotel being built by the Crown Prince or Gyalchung. A boutique hotel seemed incongruous in Lo Manthang. It’s not the kind of destination you’d head for if you wanted luxury accommodation.
Outside, between the Kunga Shopping Shop and the Lo Manthang Youth Club, advertising “hot showers” in hand-painted letters on its wall, two women and their children squatted by the stream washing clothes. Here the stream was wider just before the concrete channel began that directed the water around and through the main gate, and channeled it through the whole city. It ran clear and shallow over smooth stones. Using bars of soap and plastic scrubbing brushes, the women scrubbed the clothing on the larger stones. Even the children’s shoes were waiting in the queue to be cleaned. Two little girls called out “Namaste” and one proudly pointed to one of the women, saying, “this my mother!”.
We passed a boy of about 6 trying to ride a small broken bike, its back wheel hopelessly buckled. We watched three little boys of about 4 pulling two cardboard boxes along by pieces of string. Every now and then they stopped to put some leaves or bits of rubbish in the boxes, then continued on, chatting seriously about the whole operation.
That night, our last in Lo Manthang, I climbed up the ladder at the end of the upstairs balcony and onto the roof. The moon was up and the hills glowed pale orange and butter yellow in the last remnant of daylight. Prayer flags fluttered in the breeze and birds still twittered busily. Over the wall, the palace stood dark and abandoned. In the distance a horn blared, then a tractor with a large trailer attached, heavily laden with green grass, rattled noisily up the street, pausing briefly with each new acceleration, like an old man catching his breath, and carrying with it the jarring sound of Bollywood pop music.
The next day, we rode north to the area of Chhosar and the village of Garphu. We followed a rough sandy track, on the western bank of the Kali Gandaki. Here it was much narrower and quite dry. Its vertical banks were a long way above the small rivulets, timidly snaking their way at this time of year. Around us the land spread out, dry and barren but for the patchy clumps of spindly grass. High on rounded hills stood the ruins of forts. I read that sky burials were performed in this remote place.
Our arrival at Chhosar piqued the interest of three small grubby children who stood staring at us, fingers in mouths, thick streams of snot heading south, outside the one shop, which doubles as a cafe, selling warm Coke and cans of Budweiser with Chinese writing on the sides, Lhasa beer, juice poppers, biscuits, noodles, chips, strings of beads, shampoo, vaseline, phone recharge cards and anything else a village might need. A radio blared “I’m a gangsta baby!”.
We followed Jit on foot across a hard dirt soccer pitch and up to the Shija Jhong caves.
Holes could be seen going up about five levels. A set of stairs had been constructed for easy access to the entrance, but once inside it was extremely cramped and difficult to get around. The main entrance cave was about the only one with any space for more than a couple of people and in which anyone could stand comfortably. Here an old woman in grubby traditional dress sat on a bench, smiling a toothless smile. It was her job to guard the caves but there wasn’t a lot to steal. Against the inside wall was a glass-fronted cabinet containing dusty clay bowls and flasks, a few broken saligrams (Ammonite fossils revered by Hindus as incarnations of the goddess Shiva), a couple of traditional animal skin shoes and one gold Buddha pendant on a chain. On another wall hung a filthy striped apron, torn and fraying, a few small canvas bags, and some white and yellow silk katas had been strung across the ceiling. All of the blackened walls had been graffitied, with things like “Ganesh” and “Jomsom” and things in Devanagari script, the traditional script of Nepal. The ceilings were as though covered in black diamonds, hard and shiny, presumably blackened by centuries of cow dung fires.
In places the caves formed corridors along which other caves led off. There was nothing in any of them except piles of feathers on the loose dirt floors. They gave off a cold dusty smell. We stooped our way through them and up and down ladders, puffing heavily in the thin cool air.
After the caves we headed over to the Nyphu monastery. It was perched above a small collection of houses, all joined together. We stopped to look south.
Cirrus clouds feathered across the hard blue sky and in the gap between the barren hills which sat either side of the village, the snow-capped Annapurnas could be seen once more, far to the south now. The place seemed deserted except for an old woman who came walking up the side of one of the houses, hands clasped behind her back, the coloured stripes of her apron dulled by layers of brown dust. Her head was wrapped in a green scarf, black leggings emerged from the bottom of her equally dusty bukkhoo and she wore white joggers on her feet. She gazed up at us then turned to see what we were looking at.
As we walked up the stairs to the monastery door, a goat went ahead of us and stood with us on the front porch as we waited for someone to bring the key. At last one of the monks appeared and, after shooing away the goat, unlocked the wooden door with much creaking and scraping. As he pushed it open, the smell of incense rushed out. It was a small monastery, 700 years old and of the Nyingmapa sect, the oldest one, established by Padmasambhava the same as Lo Gekar. The wall paintings were in very bad condition, blackened and fading as in the monasteries of Lo Manthang. Gold Buddha statues sat complacently behind glass, one holding a pearlescent lotus flower, the other holding two of its hands in a prayer position while the other two hands were held out to the sides, fingers and thumbs curled toward one another.
Garphu monastery sat in a small courtyard amongst the houses. Atop its entrance were gleaming golden statues of two deer facing the Dharmachakra or Dharma wheel. This is a common image above the entrance of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. These mythical deer, a male and female, representing peace and compassion, have just one horn and are known as Tibetan unicorns, magical creatures that manifest only in the presence of great teachers. They raise their eyes to the Dharma Wheel in aspiration to reach Dharma or Nirvana.
Back at the shop-cafe we ordered fried rice and Jit and Netra sat and drank warm Budweiser. Many people came into the shop and bought Coke. While we waited, we watched the TV, on which men with perfect hair and heavy eye makeup chased each other along some busy Indian street, and laughed along with the others. We couldn’t understand a word of the Hindi movie, but there didn’t seem to be much of a story anyway.
As we wandered the streets of Lo Manthang, we kept passing a tall red building, solid and windowless. There were rectangular holes cut into the lower part of the walls and I put my eye to them but felt only cold blackness. I turned the torch on on my phone and shone it through the hole, but its feeble light was no match for that darkness.
There was one thing I was determined to see in Lo Manthang, and that was the enormous statue of the Buddha that Michel Peissel had come across in his explorations, and I suspected that this dark building was where it sat.
Jit arranged for us to see the three monasteries of Lo Manthang. We first visited the Chode monastery where the monastic school is located and heard eighty-three small monks reciting their scriptures. Next to the monastery was a chorten that contains the body of a powerful lama. It also contains a relic from an abbott who had died twelve years before and the guide told us that when he died, snow fell in Kathmandu for the first time in sixty-two years.
Another guide, Tashi, carrying a large torch, led us along the streets and into a courtyard. We climbed some steps to the walkway above and he unlocked the padlock on a heavy, carved wooden door. The sound echoed as in a large cavern and we stepped into the gloom. As my eyes adjusted, there opposite, rising up out of the gloom below, was the great, golden statue of the Maitreya, the Buddha who is to come, at once benevolent and forbidding. For 600 years, since the founding of Lo Monthang, it had sat there. On the altar against the railing before it, as well as butter lamps and bowls of water, were offerings of rice, money, biscuits, a juice popper, and a cylinder of Pringles chips. A woman stood, fervently intoning prayers.
Leaning over the railing, I peered down into the lower floor where the base of the statue sat. Beyond the base, impenetrable darkness.
I asked Tashi what was in the floor above and he told me it was a Mahakala room and therefore dangerous to enter. Mahakala is the fierce protector god.
Tashi then took us to the Tubchen monastery. We entered what I can only describe as a vast cathedral. Great pillars, thirty-five of them, the width of whole tree trunks held up the roof, almost eight metres high, the floor space 28 by 18 metres. The brackets atop the pillars were intricately carved and around the edge of the skylight recess were snow lions, mythical creatures of the Himalayas symbolising fearlessness and unconditional, youthful joy.
Tashi was one of a group of artists working with Italian experts to restore the Jampa and Tubchen monasteries. In both, the paintings had deteriorated from age, soot from the butter lamps and incense, and water leaking from the ceilings. The walls had been cleaned and, in some places, resurfaced and new paint added. In some places, whole new paintings were being added to replace those completely lost.
Thousands of dollars of foreign money is being spent on the restoration, but younger Lobas are leaving and those with money invest it abroad. In a place that has no health facility beyond a health post staffed by the equivalent of a paramedic, there is tension about the money being spent on the restorations. While some people feel it is important to maintain their heritage and culture, others feel it is the foreigners who really want it. There is speculation that the palace will not be restored before the Raja is too old to return and that it may become a museum.
Will Lo Manthang eventually become just one great, remote museum for foreigners to visit?