Pink fields of buckwheat blossoms that look like cotton candy, wild mushrooms that grow as big as your head and tastes just like chicken when sauteed, scenery that looks like Marlboro country-all this is Mustang in the monsoon.
Just 15 minutes from Pokhara by plane to Jomsom and then on foot into the Himalayan rain shadow, Mustang is even more enchanting in the monsoon. The flight is not just the most spectacular on earth as the tiny plane flies up the Kali Gandaki between Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. It is also a journey into a whole different world
You leave the monsoon clouds and the rain behind in Pokhara for an arid landscape of organ pipe mountains, traders on ponies galloping along the river banks and a sky a deep shade of cobalt that brings tears to your eyes. Due to the lack of vegetation, you can see the foundations of the mountains: the crumpled and folded rock strata that gives us a geological record of the genesis of the world's highest range.
The trek to Lo Manthang is four days from Jomsom and four days back via more or less the same route. However, doing it in seven days (three days there, three back and one full day in Lo Manthang) like we did is not recommended, since it means walking for about 10 hours each day.
The normal route starts from Kagbeni and is mostly flat, but involves wading across streams. If this doesn't appeal, you can hire horses or even pay one of the diminutive but wiry people to carry you across. Undignified though this latter method may be, it makes for wonderful pictures and you will be providing the local people with a little extra income.
The magnificent Kali Gandaki keeps you company for the first two days, past Chele, a beautiful little town nestled right above the river which boasts of glorious views of the Niligiri and Tilicho peaks. The route can be a little frightening in places since the 'road' is narrow and winds in and out of the rocky, sandy cliffs. The approach to Chele in the soft evening light makes the already rosy rock faces glow with wonderful warm red tones.
The second day, from Chele to Ghemi, is rough. The first half of the day is a very pleasantly stimulating walk, not too gruelling. Stop at a gem of a village called Samar and the Hotel Himali with its hot strong tea. After Samar you need to dismount during the downhill stretches. Ghemi is situated amidst amazing blue and red cliff faces that are typical of the sedimentary rocks of the trans-Himalaya.
The next day we started with great verve since the goal was to reach Lo Manthang by evening. Not only were we acclimatised and fitter by then, but we had also made friends with the horses, cargo mules, horse-keepers, mule-driver and Min Bahadur, a trekking guide-cook-companion-storyteller and raiser-of-spirits all rolled in one.
Tsarang is the lunch spot with delicious momos filled with fresh green spinach and of course the ubiquitous garlic soup which is also the local remedy for altitude sickness. Like all towns on the trail, Tsarang has its gompa, which dominates the settlement. Right across from it is a five-storey Tibetan style fortress, made in the quintessential bright earth colours of Mustangi architecture.
Four-and-a-half hours of plodding and you are in Lo Manthang. The pass just before the descent into the city is so notoriously windy that it is called (what else?) 'Windy Pass' and it offers a breathtaking view of the walled capital of Mustang.
Don't make the mistake we did. Stay a few extra days in Lo Manthang to explore the holy sites and imbibe all the ambience of the Tibetan plateau, while still in Nepal! The restored Thubchen Gompa, and the three storeyed 'god house' or Jampa Lakhang, contain stunning wall paintings dating back to the 10th century. These have been damaged by damp weather, earthquakes and the ravages of time, but the American Himalayan Foundation (AHF), is funding a heroic mission to restore these paintings to their former beauty. No mean feat, since the paintings are all
very intricate and were painted with skilled and fluid hands. But with help from locals, two Italians have undertaken the task of chipping away plaster that covers some of the old paintings, cleaning and finally retouching them with carefully mixed paints to restore the jewel-like reds, blues and greens.
In addition, there is the Tsechhen Shedrubling Monastic School that houses monks from their initiation onwards and teaches them the traditional art of being a monk, as well as the Lo Kunfun Traditional Herbs Medicine Clinic, which teaches young children to become fully qualified amchi traditional healers.
Then its time to retrace the route back to Jomsom, and take another look at the magnificient landscapes, the sweeping vistas and the dramatic cloudscapes that you rushed past on the way up.