Yara

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Yara

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.

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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.”

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Caves in the cliffs near Yara

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.

To Dhe

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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.

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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.
“Snow leopard?”
“Ya, ya. Big one,” he replied, and laughed.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We were in remote country now.

Farewell the Walled City

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A Cave and Two Monasteries

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

The Buddha Who is to Come

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.

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Door of Jampa Monastery

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.

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Second and third floors of Jampa Monastery

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.

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Entrance to Tubchen Monastery

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?

 

Enter the Walled City

We first saw, over to the west, the red monastery of Namgyal, perched on a rocky outcrop, halfway up the mountain. High on the crest of a barren brown hill were the ruins of a round tower and a wall—the fortress of Ketcher Dzong, built by the warrior and first king of Mustang, Ame Pal, who founded the kingdom of Lo in 1380. We saw Lo Monthang long before we actually arrived. It seemed close, but as we wearily trudged towards it, with that feeling of fatigue that begins to descend when you know you’re close to your destination, it didn’t seem to come any closer. What we saw was a sprawl of buildings and green trees in the midst of which was a concentration of buildings, the red monasteries standing tall above the rest.

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Crossing a small stream we ambled up and along the south wall to our lodge. We’d arrived but all I could feel was grateful to be stopping in the same place for three nights.

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After unloading at the lodge, we went in search of the “real” coffee that was reputed to be found in at least one establishment in Lo Manthang. We found it, just a few doors up from our lodge, at the Hotel Mystique. One small coffee machine sits on a counter next to a water purifier and takes ten minutes to heat the water, which was no problem for us as we weren’t rushing anywhere. The proprietor, a tall young woman in traditional dress, told us that since the installation of the solar plant, just outside of the city, things were much better for her business as she could now use her machine all day.

The 70 kilowatt plant was installed just two weeks before we arrived, fully funded and constructed by the Chinese government. 300 solar panels now stand in three rows outside the city to the south and power poles line the streets surrounding Lo Manthang. Electricity wires now accompany the fluttering prayer flags, surreptitiously snaking under walk-ways and along walls, attached to the ancient mud walls and hitched above the doorways of monasteries built long before electricity was ever discovered.

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The entry gate Lo Monthang

After our coffee we walked into Lo Monthang. I found it to be one giant maze and no matter how much we walked around I could never get my bearings. It felt like we kept going in circles and when I thought we’d seen it all, Neville assured me we hadn’t.

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The palace

Although Upper Mustang was annexed by Nepal in the late 1800s, it still has its own King or Raja, albeit with only local authority. The palace was damaged in the earthquake so the Raja and Rajini had moved to Kathmandu and it’s unclear when or even if they’ll return.

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The main square

The main square, where the festivals and other gatherings are held, was full of rubble and a new building was being constructed on one side.

That night, we celebrated with hot lemon drinks “coloured”, as Jit liked to say, with some Kukri rum. We’d arrived at the so-called “Forbidden City” and tomorrow we would explore.

Lo Gekar

IMG_0409From Tragmar we climbed steeply between the red cliffs and, after stopping to catch our breath, set off across gently undulating country. The yellow, grey, and white of the Tibetan plateau stretched before us, shadowed in places by heavy, dark clouds.

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There were no villages now before Lo Manthang, but at morning tea time, we descended a gentle slope to the ancient monastery of Lo Gekar. Also called Gar Gompa or “house monastery”, Lo Gekar means “pure virtue of Lo”. It sits on a rise above a stream, surrounded by trees. The horses were let free to graze on the green grass that stretched away to the edge of the stream, while we explored the monastery.

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Jit led us into a small building where we turned the large prayer wheel three times, then we climbed the steps and entered through a heavy brown wool curtain into the gloom of the monastery. Lo Gekar is 1300 years old, the oldest monastery in Mustang, and was established after Padmasambhava stopped there to meditate on his way from India to Tibet where he introduced Buddhism. It smelled of smoke and incense. Small paintings of Buddhas covered two walls and set in an alcove behind glass, were life-sized statues of two goddesses, one seated on a cow, the other on a horse. David Snellgrove identified the one on the cow as “Fierce lady with Good Things”; our guide told us she was the protector goddess, which I guess amounts to the same thing.

After lighting a butter lamp for our safe journey, Jit called me over to one corner and we crouched down to see a small image of the Buddha carved into the stone wall. It was about a foot high, worn smooth over time; in the creases were remnants of gold paint.

“Tara,” the guide said.
“Tara?” I replied.
“Ya, Tara.” I had no idea what he meant. I later learnt that Tara is a female incarnation of the Buddha. Jit searched hard for the words to explain.
“This is, errr, nobody is, err, it’s a-come just out like that. Maybe when some, errr, meditation, err, Padmasambhava it comes like that.”
I had been concentrating hard to understand him, then realised what he meant.
“So it just appeared?” I said
“Yes!” replied Jit.
“So it just appeared in the stone?”
“Ya,” replied Jit and the guide together.

It was a “self-emanating” Buddha, of which there are apparently several throughout Mustang and Tibet.

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I needed the toilet and after following the directions found a free-standing building perched above a steep drop that fell away down to the river. It was a rough squat toilet, just two boards set into the floor with a gap in the middle. I tried to ignore the enormous pile of excrement underneath. I stood up and looked out the small square window. The view to the east looked over the terraced fields of the village of Marang, pink and fading green, edged with dark green trees, like all the other villages, defiantly brimming with life as the desert mountains jealously closed in around them. Craggy bare hills stretched away, and to the south, white peaks guarded the horizon.

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After sweet tea in the dining room upstairs, we set off once again crossing the rocky stream via a small wooden bridge, before climbing to the next pass and on to Lo Manthang.

Cliffs of Blood

We crossed flat country now, then began the arduous climb to the Nyi La, our highest pass at 4000m and the gateway to the Kingdom of Lo. As they reached the top, first Netra, then Jit called out “Lha gyal lo!”, meaning: Victory to the gods!

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From the top of the pass we looked down on the green and yellow fields of Ghami. Across the gorge was a large modern building surrounded by a wall. Boards covered the entrance and most of the ground floor and there was no sign of life. This is a hospital, built by a Japanese man in the early ’90s. It has apparently been in and out of service over the years.

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Next to the hospital was the longest mane wall (or prayer wall) in Mustang. Across the gorge to the west, red-stained hills were visible at the end of the next valley. The story goes that a powerful demoness was defeated by a Guru Rinpoche and her blood stains the cliffs, while the mane wall was erected on the place where her intestines were thrown. Her heart was cut into 108 pieces and buried beneath the chortens that surround the monastery of Lo Gekar.

We descended and entered Ghami, where we had lunch at the Royal Hotel. We entered the cool, plant-filled courtyard where a boy was sitting on the ground next to a mound of apples, cutting them up. Our hostess thanked us when we agreed to try both her freshly squeezed apple juice and her apple pie, saying she had so many apples she didn’t know what to do with them.

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From Ghami, we crossed a wooden bridge strung with prayer flags under which rushed a milky-blue stream and by early afternoon reached Tragmar at the foot of the red-stained cliffs. It was like something out of a fairy-tale. A small stream ran through it, bordered by stone walls and poplar trees, and criss-crossed by rough wooden bridges. Sheaves of pink buckwheat stood in bundles in the fields, and great stacks of hay lay in walled yards. Over in one field a group of young people sat chatting in a circle, and next to a white-washed house two small children played with a sheet of zinc and a long stick.

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Above all this towered the great red cliffs, dotted with caves, ominous and forbidding.

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We stayed at the Tenzin Hotel and Guest House, the only one open in Tragmar.

Next morning I woke early and sat in my warm bed and watched out the window. Next to the stream people squatted in turns by a hose, cleaning their teeth, washing dishes, one in a “Free Tibet” beanie. A man came along with several horses which stopped to drink from the water that pooled there.  I heard the jingle of horse bells and two men and a woman with a baby strapped to her back galloped past.

After breakfast, Jit called to us to come outside and pointed to where, just below the cliffs, rare blue sheep, or gharals, were grazing on the slopes. They were almost invisible until they moved. They are prey for snow leopards that stalk these valleys. Just a couple of weeks before we passed through 120 sheep were killed in the nearby village of Marong.

We now set out for Lo Manthang.

 

 

Ghiling

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The road now climbed above Tsele heading north-west away from the excoriating wind. Neville, Jit and I set off together leaving Netra and Dabendra to finish getting the horses ready. We didn’t walk far before Nev and Jit turned off the road taking a walking track too steep and narrow for the horses. I sat and waited for the horses but was only able to ride a short distance before once more dismounting. We now joined Neville and Jit again as the track climbed very steeply clinging to the edge of the cliff face, overhung with rock in places. It was extremely hard going. It seemed like we would be climbing forever and I kept hoping that around the next bend the path would level out, but we kept climbing.

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The same track on which Peissel led his yaks

As we ascended we saw the mountains to the south rising with us. To the west, steep hills rose above us, dotted with spiky, stunted bushes. Settling on top were dark, heavy clouds that in the end brought only a brief shower.

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After a couple of hours we made a welcome stop at Samar–which name means “red earth”–crossing a small stream surrounded by a grove of trees, following the stony path through a low entry passage to the Annapurna Guest House.

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Here we sat in the kitchen where a wood fire burned in one stove and our host, a woman in traditional Tibetan dress, made us sweet milk tea on a gas cooker, ladling the tea continuously to dissolve the powdered milk.

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In a walled yard outside a man and a young girl sat breaking rocks, which they then put into canvas feed bags. In one corner of the yard dung was spread on the ground to dry for use later as fuel.

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From Samar the path led out through another gateway, down and across a bubbling, milky-blue stream, before once again climbing along the side of a cliff.

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We stopped for lunch at the tiny village of Bhena. The tea house was just three rooms: a kitchen, dining room (which was also the entry) and a bedroom with a storage loft above. A small baby lay softly mewling in the bedroom and suspended above him was a plastic beachball, the only thing resembling a toy that I saw in Mustang. His older sister, who was about five, slowly inched towards us as we sat waiting for our lunch. I took out my phone and showed her how to take a “selfie” with which she was very pleased. After a few more photos that game was exhausted so I took out my small notebook and a pencil and agave it to her to draw in. Instead, she began to write ABDEF, over and over, always leaving out the C. So I wrote it correctly for her and she copied it a few times. I then handed her the pencil, indicating that she could keep it and she skipped away to show everyone.

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After crossing the pass above Bhena, at 3800m, we descended to the impossibly green and beautiful village of Ghiling. As we approached, a man and woman called out and a loud discussion ensued; it was obvious we weren’t expected. Nev and I sat and waited while this was sorted out, but I had resigned myself to camping that night before Netra said “please come” and crossing a walled yard, where the garden was edged with empty Tuborg beer bottles, we entered the tea house via a passageway that led to an interior courtyard covered with a green translucent roof that bathed everything in a weird green light.

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Next morning, Jit took us to the monastery that perches above the village. Back in 1992, when Mustang was first opened up to tourists, thangkas (religious paintings) and statues were stolen from the monastery. Now someone sleeps on a bed inside the entrance to guard it. A square skylight let some light into the dimly lit assembly hall where I lit a butter lamp and the monk dipped a brush into a plastic container of water and flicked it over the lamps, intoning prayers. Outside we climbed onto the roof and Jit pointed to a smaller monastery above, but said it was forbidden for women to enter, and anyway it was locked.

As we looked down on the patchwork fields of Ghiling, Jit pointed to a faint track leading away to the west between low, barren hills; this would lead us to our next destination: Tragmar.

Only later did I learn that Ghiling had lost more than 60 houses in the earthquake.

Tsele

It was at Tsele that we left the modern world behind.

Now there was no internet, limited phone coverage and patchy electricity. After lunching in Chhusang, we followed the river again before it narrowed dramatically running through a rock tunnel, formed long ago by an enormous piece of the cliff falling against the other side. In the cliff face high above was a uniform row of caves, some of the many thousands that dot the cliffs throughout Mustang, and about which little is known.

IMG_0181When Michel Peissel reached this point he encountered only a simple bridge of planks of wood bolted together, impossible for his yaks to cross. There is now a steel bridge, which we walked across, but the horses had to wade across the shallow river, just as the jeeps do when the water is low enough. A road bridge is now being built and will provide vehicle access all year round.

Peissel took his yaks up the very steep and narrow gorge of the Ghyakar Khola that runs beside Tsele:

The sides of the canyon were so steep and so close together that in many parts the sunlight could not reach us, and we advanced as if in a cave, from whose bottom we could only occasionally glimpse a bit of blue sky.

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He bypassed Tsele, but we took the almost vertical track beside the khola up to the village, entering via a wooden gateway, following the path as it continued up and between white-washed walls before arriving at our lodge for the night.

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After tea on the terrace that looked out at the dramatic cliffs of the Kali Gandaki canyon, the table cloth nailed to the table so the fierce wind couldn’t whip it away, we explored the small village. It seemed quite deserted. One old man sat alone on a step spinning a prayer wheel and bid us a weary ‘namaste’ as we passed, women were out in the field gathering the harvest together before covering it with what looked like an old tent, and late in the afternoon a noisy game of volleyball was being played in a small courtyard below us, triumphant, joyful cries rising into the dimming light as dusk came on. Our lodge appeared to be the only one open.

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Here the altitude began to bite. We were at 3070m and I had a headache and had begun to feel vaguely unwell, but after I’d eaten some dinner I felt better. I also had some difficulty with the squat toilet. It was not so much the nature of the toilet as its location. It was outside in a separate building reached through a passageway between rooms. At the end of the passageway was a door and it had to be bolted shut to stop it banging in the relentless wind. The problem was that the bolt was on the inside. Inevitably, I had to use the toilet during the night which meant  I had to leave it unbolted and be quick enough to get back inside before someone got annoyed enough by the banging to get up and bolt it. I wasn’t, and when I emerged from the toilet block with only my head torch for light I found  I was locked out. I thought maybe the window next to the door was our room and tapped on it, calling Neville’s name softly, but wasn’t sure enough that it was our room to persist, which was lucky because it wasn’t. There was no other option but to bang on the door until someone opened it. Eventually a rather frightened Nepalese man opened it saying:

“It was open.”

“Wasn’t it bolted?” I replied.

“I didn’t know,” he said.

The conversation made no sense, and I must have looked and sounded angrier than I was.

That night, the Nepalese were glued to the television as their government finally handed down the first constitution. They didn’t know then that it would lead to deadly clashes on the border with India and a four month long blockade creating crippling fuel shortages, bringing the country to a standstill.

I awoke to the sound of the horses’ bells as Dabendra brought them up outside our window and got them ready for the next day’s travel. We would be climbing higher to the village Ghiling.