There are many obscure villages in Lower Mustang that are mystical and can be reached on a day’s hike from Jomsom.
SPIN MASTER: A villager spins yarn using a traditional drop spindle in Lower Mustang. Photo: Kenji Kwok
When construction for the road from Beni to Lo Manthang was completed last year, many speculated that it would bring an end to Mustang’s mystery. After all, it was its inaccessibility and 'forbidden' status that attracted many searchers of Shangri-La to pay high entry permit fees and visit a region nestled on Nepal's northern border with Tibet.
Eased accessibility has made the district more modern, but the locals are more wary of the need to preserve their unique Tibetian traditions. The annual archery competition in Marpha that has been organised for the past 100 years by Thakali families of the area has changed. While contestants could earlier come in casuals, the organisers in 2010 made it mandatory for participants to wear the official Nepali daura suruwal.
Lo Manthang may be the ultimate destination in Mustang but there are also many obscure villages in Lower Mustang that are as mystical and can be reached on a day’s hike from Jomsom.
Jump off from Jomsom
It used to be that Jomsom was just a windy airport town where trekkers waited for their flights after the Annapurna Circuit. But with a new road Jomsom is now just a day's drive from Pokhara and a jump off point for many short treks around this trans-Himalayan Valley with its dramatic scenery. The beauty of Jomsom today is that you can make it your base for a leisurely Himalayan holiday. These are just three of the short treks you can do from Jomsom to its surrounding side-valleys.
- Kutsab Teranga Monastery
This 4-5 hour hike from Jomsom is easy paced and allows trekkers ample time to take in the sights and sounds of the village. Walk along the narrow paths along terraces of barley before arriving at Thini. Next, meander along the spacious rock roads that run through Jomsom before arriving at the gorgeous Dhumba Lake where views of Dhaulagiri and Tukuche Peak greet you. There is a little teahouse on the edge of the lake where you can sit and enjoy the view.
To complete the day’s trek, you can choose to walk up to the nearby Kutsab Teranga Monastery. Pine trees line the path to the gumba while prayer flags decorate small ashrams and stupas built on top of the hill.
Difficulty level: 2/5
- Jhong (Lunch)
The route from Kagbeni to Muktinath offers gorgeous views of Upper Mustang’s ochre-coloured landscape and the sweep of the Kali Gandaki. Stop by Jhong for lunch before continuing up to Muktinath. Though this trek does not require steep ascents, the long up and down requires stamina and a steady walking pace if one wishes to reach the famous temple by sunset.
Difficulty level: 4.5/5
- Dhakarjung tower
- Phalyak village
- Phakling village
For those who crave a little adventure, there is the challenging trek up to Dhakarjung tower, where the telecom station for Jomsom is located. This alternative trekking route was discovered by Tripple Gurung, a former airline pilot who now runs Om's Home in Jomsom. This short but steep walk has plenty of adventure in the form of snowy trails especially along the northern slopes.
Seasoned trekkers can expect to reach Dhakarjung top in about two hours, before taking another hour or so to get down. Your lunch stop will be most likely be at Phalyak village, from where you can continue on to Kagbeni. Those who want to trek further can stay a night in Kagbeni before going on to Muktinath the next day. For those who wish to return to Jomsom, jeep rides are available throughout the day, with the vehicle leaving when the maximum capacity (12) is met.
Difficulty level: 3.5/5
Aiming for tradition
Marpha’s century old archery competition is proof of how much the Thakali people value their culture
For a week every year in Marpha, some 50 men gather in a courtyard wielding traditional wooden bows and arrows to take part in an archery competition called ‘Termi Torenla’ which means 'new beginnings' in the Thakali language.
The men take turns to aim at a single black target in the middle of a rectangular wooden board 30 metres across the field. The competition usually lasts for about ten hours a day, or until a competitor manages to hit the bull’s eye. Points are then calculated before a new round starts the
For centuries, the bow and arrow have been synonymous with hunting. But when asked if hunting was practiced in Marpha, Bhakti Hirachan, one of the competition’s organisers said: “We’ve never hunted animals for food.”
A community that survived on subsistence farming and animal rearing, wood and bamboo were part of Marpha’s culture since the very beginning. Hirachan said: “We made use of our natural resources by making bows and arrows, and we organise this archery competition as a way to bring people together and remember our culture.”
Though there are hits and misses, Termi Torenla has hit the bull’s eye when it comes to preserving Marpha’s unique cultural heritage.
It is compulsory that competitors come in the traditional Nepali dress. “About five, six years ago, people used to show up in jeans and t-shirts, and we felt the Nepali culture was fading away,” said Hirachan.
Competitors must be dressed in the traditional daura suruwal and wear a dhaka topi (Nepali cap) or else they are fined Rs 25.
Termi Torenla is also symbolic of the close-knitted Marpha community and unites men from all four families — the Hirachans, Lachans, Jawarchans and Panachans — who form two teams to participate in the competition.
When the drums sound and one member takes aim, the others stand in a line behind him holding up branches of juniper. The repeated rituals during the competition also allude to the recurring red and white colours that paint the door fronts of all the houses in Marpha.
“Changpa [juniper] represents good luck and is a form of encouragement for the team members,” said Hirachan, who is also a social worker in the village.
Women provide support during the competition when the men are unable to hit the target, a tradition that is reminiscent of how women are similarly important in the production of Marpha's Apple Brandy, through their expertise in the distillery process.
The participation of the Dalit community – traditionally drummers and musicians – is also symbolic of Marpha’s determination to include other communities in its festivals.
“We don’t discriminate against them. They are important as they provide music to signify the start and end of every round,” said Hirachan.
As the rhythmic beats of the drums continue to sound throughout the day, the men occasionally break out into a traditional folk song with the repeated lines: “Everything is changing, but not our culture”.
Text and photos: Cynthia Choo
Straight as an arrow
Small is more beautiful
Nepali Times reviews three guest houses along the Pokhara-Jomsom road
HANA NO IE (AGRO-RESORT)
Once opened to only Japanese tourists, Hana no ie, located only 15km from Pokhara, now welcomes guests from all over the world to its agro-resort of traditional mud-walled cottages, matched with the scenic view of the Annapurna range at the top of the Astam Kot hill.
Its bold concept of disconnecting guests from their electronics by not providing internet connection or television sets in the rooms is one of its unique characteristics, ensuring that you soak in all that nature has to offer.
The 10-room accommodation also has its own organic farm that supplies the freshest vegetables for its meals, specialising in authentic Japanese cuisine amongst others. The 80-ropani resort aims to be self-sustainable by adapting beekeeping for honey, buffaloes and goats for milk, yogurt, butter, and the production of bio gas from manure.
If you would like to prepare your own meal, the staff at Hana no ie will be there to guide you through every step, from picking the vegetables straight from the farm to whipping up a sumptuous meal. Hana no ie also makes its own coffee.
Being able to end each day unwinding in the goemon-buro, a traditional Japanese hot bath heated using firewood, is probably the best thing about the resort.
LODGE THASANG VILLAGE
Lodge Thasang Village was named after Thasang, a collection of 13 villages from North Tukuche to South Ghasa, and blessed with majestic views of Nilgiri and Dhaulagiri.
The lodge was built on what used to be a buckwheat field, using entirely locally sourced materials. Located in Kobang, the lodge offers close views of the mountains (just 10km from the summit of Dhaulagiri, the world's eighth highest mountain). The rooftop provides the best vantage point for photography enthusiasts to take pictures of the mountains and the vast Kali Gandaki River during sunrise and sunset.
Om’s Home in Jomsom is a cosy and comfortable place to stay for trekkers along the Annapurna route looking to appreciate the beauty of Mustang.
The reputed accommodation is an ideal place to sit back with a book or go explore the nearby villages through a list of itineraries designed by owner Tripple Gurung. And if you prefer to venture out on a bicycle the guest house has several mountain bikes up for rent.
The hotel is also home to the only Himalayan Java outlet in the area, so you don’t have to miss out on a good cup of joe while in this trans-Himalayan oasis.
Text and photos: Kenji Kwok