1992 – The Kingdom of Mustang

We had done some reading. Caroline had managed to obtain a 1965 National Geographic edition that featured the French explorer Michel Peissel’s previous year’s trip to Lo Mantang, the walled medieval town that was to be our destination.

His was the only authorized exploration of the kingdom. Shortly after, the Chinese government pressured Nepal, which has administrative authority over Mustang, to close the kingdom—largely because British and American intelligence operatives in the area attempted to prepare it as a staging ground for Tibetan resistance or, some suggest, an invasion. Thanks to a friend, we also had a copy of Peissel’s long out-of-print book, ‘Mustang: The Forbidden Kingdom.’ Providing deep historical and cultural insights, it perfectly prepared us for what lay ahead.

Our trek was to be more than an adventure—it was a journey through time. Leaving the world of telecommunications, electricity, plumbing and traffic firmly behind us, we trekked along perilous mountain trails and trade routes carved into the sand by mules or yaks a few days ago, knowing they’d be blown away again soon. As the crow flies, we covered roughly 250 kilometres; adjusted for the onerous climbs and descents we put behind us every day, we walked nearly twice as far.

Our trip started in Kathmandu, Nepal’s polluted and overcrowded capital. It was here that we met with our group of ten trekkers and had a preliminary briefing by our leaders. We were surprised not to see iconic climber Jim Elzinga among them. It was Jim who’d secured the privilege of leading our country’s first expedition into the Kingdom of Mustang. Apparently, his wife had fallen seriously ill, causing him to send a fellow climber, New York based Richard Moore, in his  stead. That meant that the Canadian expedition was to be led by an American.

Warm-Up On the Anapurna Trail

The next morning we left for Pokhara, a semi-tropical city surrounded by picturesque lakes and steep, terraced hills on which the rice harvest was just beginning. By mid-day, we had left all civilization behind us and were following a rigid trail to our first campsite. There, we were given a preview of the logistical challenge which a trek like ours represented. We had thought that a support team of perhaps six or seven could adequately handle the task at hand. When we saw forty-eight porters, six sherpas and a kitchen crew of five assembled at our campsite, we were stunned. In addition, our trek had a management team of three. This included Pasang Kami Sherpa, our overall leader, a sardar, or “boss”, who was to be in charge of the guides, and a liaison officer assigned to us by the Nepalese government. Why such a massive support structure to accommodate a mere ten trekkers? To our surprise, we soon learned that our adventure kept everyone working to their capacity.

The porters, which included several women, would each carry a crate containing 70-80 pounds from one campsite to the other. This would typically take them seven or eight hours which, in the type of terrain we covered, was a superb accomplishment. Some of the loads consisted of our personal belongings—because of the extreme temperatures we were to face, each of us had a huge duffel bag of clothing and equipment, in addition to the substantial pack we carried on our backs. Other cargo represented camping gear, the countless tanks of kerosene required to heat water and food, and the large quantity of food necessary to keep everyone sustained for nearly a month.

The role of the members of the sherpa team would be quite different from that of the porters. Their day was to start well before dawn and end long after sunset. The packs our guides carried were no heavier than ours, but their duties before and after trekking were many. They included selecting and preparing the campsite, putting up and packing away the tents, digging latrines, setting the table and dishing out food. During the day, the sherpas would guide us along the way, help us communicate with locals and keep us safe from the temperamental yaks and bucking mules we were soon to meet on the trail.

Bad Luck Rain

Shortly after our arrival at the first night’s campsite, the sherpas made themselves popular in another way. No sooner had they erected our sleeping tents and a large communal eating tent, than it started to rain. From a weather viewpoint, the fall trekking season in the Himalayas is always a fickle proposition, because in the lower elevations the monsoon ends in late September, while higher up the first snows often start in late October. These parameters, of course, apply only in theory. In practice, the seasons usually shift and sometimes even overlap. Having started out at only 3000 feet, we were now to run into “bad luck rain”, as our sherpas called it.

At the first sign of it, I put on my windbreaker and told Caroline that I was headed for the communal dining tent. I suggested that she follow me in a few minutes. For the next three hours, in the most torrential downpour I had ever seen, we were separated—she, holed up inside a progressively soaked sleeping bag in our tent; me, with two others in the dining tent, in which we seemed hopelessly trapped. Because its large wall surfaces were exposed to the hurricane-force wind gusts which accompanied the rain, the tent poles had become dislodged. The three of us were now holding up the heavy, wet canvas with our arms, and had we let go the whole  construction would have collapsed on top of us. Outside, where it was now pitch-dark, we could make out the shivering sherpas, who were hoeing trenches around each tent and securing the pegs in the drenched soil. Eventually, they came to our aid, which allowed me to rejoin my puzzled wife, who was by now a veteran of mountain treks, but had never slept in a tent.

During the first few days, our trek seemed an endless misery and it took a lot of effort to keep up good humour, but once we had the lowlands firmly behind us, the weather gradually improved. In Ghoreapani, a small hillside settlement, we ran into other trekkers. This, after all, was part of the popular Annapurna Trail, which we had to follow to get to the border of Mustang. A thick cloud cover denied us the unsurpassed views of some of the world’s highest peaks that the village was famous for, but we enjoyed Ghoreapani for an entirely different reason. To boost morale, our organizers put us up in a lodge. The sign inside our cubicle told us that the cost of spending the night was 25 rupees (about a dollar), a fair price considering it was smaller than our tent and featured walls that were speckled with large see-through holes, affording prominent views into the two adjoining rooms and the hallway. Still, we were thrilled to spend a night in a dry place. Even better, the lodge operated two small wooden sheds in which washing was possible. For an extra 10 rupees we had the landlady boil three big buckets of water. With these, we tiptoed through the icy mountain air to have our first “shower” in nearly a week.

 

Kali Gandaki:
The Deepest Gorge On Earth

Soon we entered the Kali Gandaki, the deepest gorge on earth. At a consistent 8,500 to 9,000 feet, our trail was now flanked by the soaring walls of the Dhaulagiri range on our left, and the spectacular peaks of the Annapurna chain on our right. Both easily surpass 26,000 feet. From a climatic and scenic viewpoint, this area was to be the most blessed we were to encounter. The days are short there, but the valley’s sunny exposure and southern latitude makes it possible for fruit and vegetables to grow in abundance. The villages we passed were enveloped by burgeoning fields and prosperous orchards.

It was on our way through Marpha, a small town with narrow, winding streets and stark, white-washed houses, that we sampled delicacies like apricot jam and apple brandy, both available at pennies a jar. This made for a welcome change in our diet, as did the first meat we were to taste at dinner.

The latter was procured earlier in the day by our cook, Urke, who had bargained skillfully for a sheep from a herd that was being driven south. One of the young sherpas had then been given the unrewarding task of pulling, and sometimes carrying, the reluctant animal to its destination. When we arrived at the campsite, an interesting arrangement was negotiated. Being Buddhist, neither the cooks nor the sherpas wanted to kill the luckless creature, but they soon convinced some of the Hindu porters to volunteer. As payment, they allowed them to take the innards and other parts of the sheep we did not want. That night, the usual meal of rice and dhal was accompanied by lamb curry, while the newly acquired jam and brandy further added to our enjoyment.

The days here were unbearably hot. Yet at night, the temperature would drop markedly below freezing. As a result, we were now drawing on our full supply of clothing and regularly stopped to add or take off layers. Pasang Kami Sherpa and his organizers managed our time to take best advantage of these temperature swings. On a typical day, we would rise at 5:30, wash with a small bowl of water our sherpas had heated and brought to our tent, breakfast on porridge, pack, and be on our way before 7:00. The camping sites were picked in such a way that our most strenuous trekking fell into the cold morning hours. By eleven we were usually at our lunch spot, where part of the kitchen team had already started to prepare our meal.

An hour and a half later, we were again on the move, now facing the easier part of our day at the time when the sun burned the hottest. Around four, as the cold returned, our tents would be set up at a new location and by five, when the temperature dropped to bone-chilling levels, we already sought refuge inside our sleeping bags. Dinner was usually served at 6:30 and by eight everyone was fast asleep.

Finally, we reached the frontier town of Jomsom, where we had to stop at the police station to register. The permits we had used so far to follow the Annapurna Trail were no longer valid. Instead, we had to present special passes authorizing us to enter the restricted area of Mustang. From here on, there would not be any other trekkers. We knew that the French, Swiss and German groups had entered Mustang earlier and beaten us to the area, but the chance that we’d run into them was slim.

From Porters to Mules

The size of our group was now cut down drastically. Because the porters were not equipped for the cold climate we were to encounter, we switched our loads over to mules. As a result, the total size of our expedition dropped from over 70 to 24. That meant that once our group spread out and everyone walked at their own speed, we’d be in clusters of two or three and meet the others only at lunch spots and at camp. Caroline’s strength and determination surprised me. Along with the lead sherpa, we were usually well ahead of the group. The vast and foreboding terrain we now entered made for a degree of solitude and serenity that I had only experienced in the most remote parts of Africa.

As we probed deeper into the gorge, the landscape changed noticeably. A few stands of sturdy conifers now lined the brittle, eroded mountain sides, while the broad valley that had been filled with fields and orchards gradually turned into an enormous, barren riverbed.

We learned that in spring and early summer, glacial melt fills this entire expanse and lifts the shoreline high up along the cliff sides. But now the mighty Kali Gandaki river was reduced to a series of creeks and the vacant riverbed was an expansive desert of rocks. Over these we now struggled for two or three miles, which was hard on our feet. I ended up with blisters that turned into open sores, which accompanied me through the rest of our adventure.

There were other inconveniences. Although the skies were cloudless, the gorge was soon deep enough to act as a vicious wind tunnel. Each day, from about noon until midnight, ferocious blasts hit us. As they pushed north between the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna ranges, they turned so frigid that we had to bundle up even in the strong mid-day sun. These icy gusts also affected us in other ways. As they blew sand and loose gravel at us, breathing became difficult. Coming out of Jomsom, we’d seen a few traders who looked as though they had come straight out of a sandstorm in the Gobi desert, their hands tucked away inside their heavy sweaters, goggles covering their eyes, and a multitude of scarves tied around their nose and mouth. We’d wondered what this was about; now, far less equipped, we imitated them as best we could.

The winds rarely subsided. None of our tents ever collapsed under the strain, but the bursts were such that everything around us flapped and shook for a good part of each night.

From Pokhara to Jomsom, the character of the villages had gradually changed as Buddhism replaced the Hindu culture, the gabled Nepalese houses built with raw field stones giving way to flat-roofed dwellings, their walls painted white and fortified with clay to keep out the persistent wind. Just as in medieval times in Europe, on the ground floor of a Tibetan dwelling the animals are kept. The sides are covered by the higher floors, while the centre is often open to the sky. On the second floor, which is usually accessed by a narrow, roughly hewn wooden ladder, are the sleeping quarters and a room that is used as the cooking and living area.

A few of the wealthier families have a third floor, which typically contains a private shrine, where an altar with Buddhist images, relics and scriptures is kept. Above all this is a roof area, where crops are dried and food is kept. The roof is lined on all sides with stacked brushwood, which acts as a railing and creates a decorative border between the white walls and the blue sky. On top of each house are one or several prayer flags—white cotton cloths with Buddhist devotions printed on them, mounted to rough, wooden masts. The beauty of a roofline with hundreds of these frail and tattered messages of hope snapping in the relentless Himalayan wind was stunning.

The language also changed. Instead of the customary Nepalese “Namaste” we were now greeted in the Tibetan “Dashiideleg.” As we progressed along our trail, we noticed that the red and yellow rock towers protruding from the deep canyons were dotted with cave openings, some hundreds of feet above the valley floor. Long ago, monks must have sought out these retreats to meditate. How they could have gotten to these caves was left to the imagination.

To get to Lo Mantang we had to cross five major passes, the highest of which, Ny La, would take us to 14,300 feet. The scenery gradually changed to a completely arid one. Sand covered the trails and the cliffs were made up of loose and brittle stone. The path was often so steep and narrow that we marvelled at the sure-footed mules, who, carrying weights of two or three hundred pounds, managed without the slightest struggle. On some occasions, one side of our path was lined by a straight wall reaching high into the sky, while there was a sheer precipice on the other side, allowing us breathtaking glimpses of the black river cascading 2000 feet below us.

As we walked, the colours and outlines of the mountains shifted with every few steps. Lively reds and greens streaked through the yellow, grey and white rock faces. When we reached the first pass, we saw a golden eagle majestically float above us. From then on, these dignified gliders were our constant companions.

As we neared our destination, we started to recognize how lucky we were to have Pasang Kami as our chief organizer. At 53, he was not only one of Nepal’s most experienced climbers, but he had also managed numerous high-profile expeditions. “P.K.”, as we were now calling him, displayed immense organizational ability and, together with Richard Moore, managed to implement plans and deal with crises in a remarkably gracious way. To manage an enterprise such as ours may seem easy on the surface, but was in fact a monumental task. Countless things  constantly went wrong. Someone fell ill, the weather prevented planned progress, a campsite turned out to be unusable, people had brought unsuitable gear, or someone got lost. P.K. overcame such problems with the calm and professionalism of a seasoned general manager.

During the remainder of our trek, his knowledge and love of the Tibetan way of life was to help us even further. What was already an adventure would turn into much more.

Not far from Lo Mantang we came across a small settlement of stunning beauty, unrivalled by anything we had so far seen, its layout and colouring in complete harmony with its natural surroundings.

This was Tsarang. The houses were all in Tibetan style, but their white walls were adorned with vertical streaks of paint made from crushed rock taken from nearby mountains. Moreover, the greys, ochres, blacks and reds weren’t applied in neatly arranged patterns—instead, the pigments are poured from the roof, often forming random striations that make for a disarmingly natural effect.

Two sizeable square buildings defined Tsarang—one the monastery, in ancient tradition a fiery, sun-baked red with subtle blue and grey stripes running down its sides; the other, painted in worldly white, the king’s occasional residence. Circling the buildings were dark green fields, which formed a stark contrast to the barren, ochre landscape. Man-high walls made of boulders divided them into small lots. Inside some of them, yaks and horses grazed, while others contained a ripening crop of barley or millet. In yet another enclosure, a villager and his son urged on an ox, while they pushed down on a primitive, wooden plow.

Apart from the usual throng of curious children, few locals were about when we walked into Tsarang. It was four o’clock and the biting wind and dropping temperature had already driven most people indoors to their kitchen fires. During the remaining hour of light, and again early the following morning, we explored the gompa or monastery. With the help of P.K. and the elderly monk who’d unlocked the immense wooden gate, using an ancient key that must have been a foot long, we gained access to the walled complex.

Inside Tsarang

Once inside, a maze of narrow alleyways and corridors confused the uninitiated. Behind a pedestal heaped with horns, goat skulls and other trappings designed to frighten off demons, another door led to the monastery’s spacious central hall. Hundreds of years ago, monks from all over Tibet used to congregate here during pilgrimages.

The hall was now dark and empty, but it was easy to imagine the haunting sounds of Buddhist chanting echoing from the deep recesses of the high ceiling, occasionally broken by the hollow boom of drums, the reverberating tenor of horns or the clanging of cymbals. All these instruments lay unattended in front of an altar, along with statues of the Buddha in various incarnations, butter lamps and other items. One wall was covered with priceless tankas, meditative designs painted or embroidered on canvas or silk banners; on another, hundreds of sutras were stacked in cubbyholes. The happy pattern which resulted livened up the dark prayer hall in an unexpectedly joyful way.

The monk whispered something to P.K., and together, they beckoned us into a hidden and barely known underground chamber, whose walls were entirely covered with paintings of various Buddhist deities. The oldest of these dated back to the middle ages—the once vibrant colours were long faded, but the effect of aging was preferable to the more recently executed designs. We were overwhelmed by these treasures, which lay unattended and unprotected even from the elements.

Later, climbing up a series of steep, sandy canyons on the way to Lo Mantang, I wondered what lay ahead. Would we have come this far to be disappointed, or could the town of Lo surpass the marvels we had already seen? How would the natives in this remote corner of Central Asia receive us? For the first time, I felt the weight of all the efforts and deprivations of the past three weeks and asked myself what I was doing here. Lost in these thoughts, I finally ended up on top of the ridge which overlooks the “forbidden city”.

From there, a dazzling scene presented itself. Like the other settlements we had seen, the town Lo Mantang was in perfect harmony with the barren mountains enclosing it. Also, a fertile bed of neatly laid out green fields separated the buildings from the surrounding ranges. But that was where the similarities ended. No tree could grow in this climate; only a few thorny shrubs survived. And, unlike Tsarang, this was not a spontaneous, open settlement, but the capital. A large wall circled the town below us and the buildings inside it seemed to follow a carefully ordered pattern. Yet Lo Mantang was surprisingly small, all contained in a rectangle the size of a football field.

Caroline and I, well ahead of our group and in the company of only a sherpa, sat for a few minutes and marvelled at this mirage from another time. A few turrets glimmered above the flat roofs and we could faintly make out some of the larger prayer flags. We were too far to see anyone; the howling wind was our only companion up there. Then, thoroughly chilled, we left the exposed ridge, curious to see what was inside the city walls and aware that we could soon rest. For three days, there would be no need to pack and unpack, no need to move tents. Even better, we could actually wash ourselves during the warmer part of the day, instead of braving the brisk dawn temperatures. When Pasang Kami joined us, he explained that we’d be tenting outside the town walls, in one of the enclosures built for visiting traders; only during the day would we be allowed inside.

Streets Six Feet Wide

Later that afternoon, having established camp, we got our first glance at the interior of the town of Lo. Organized into streets about six feet wide, its layout was labyrinthian. No sooner had we passed through the bulky gate, flanked by sizeable prayer wheels, than we lost our way. Because of Lo Mantang’s modest size, however, a trip in the wrong direction quickly led back to one of the town walls. There were some other identification points we soon noted: two chunky temples, as always brick red, and a cube-like white building of equal size—the king’s palace.

The children and adults of Lo were far less used to foreigners than the Nepalese villagers we had come across on the Annapurna Trail. The lobas, as they call themselves, came up to us, delighted and intrigued, eager to simply see what we would do next. Over the coming three days we’d grow quite concerned that they would form the opinion that all westerners spent their days taking pictures and washing. At dinner that evening we received excellent news. The King of Mustang would receive us at nine the next morning at his palace. P.K. had gone to request an audience for us and the monarch had agreed.

As the first sun flooded our campsite, the king’s nephew was there to meet us. That he was part of a favoured family was immediately clear. The previous day, we had seen no trace whatsoever of Western civilization, except when it came to footwear. A few of the children had worn short, red Chinese-made plastic boots, and some adults had sported running shoes. But apart from that, everyone had been dressed in traditional, homespun Tibetan fabrics, enhanced with colourful braids and borders. Most girls and women had been adorned with priceless old turquoise pieces and some had artfully braided hair, into which ribbons and precious stones were woven. Before us now, in contrast, stood a man with a wristwatch, Western clothing and a baseball hat that said “New Mexico”. Had he been to the United States? Someone asked. As P.K. translated, the king’s nephew laughed and shook his head. He’d been to Katmandu, where he had bought his attire. Had the King travelled outside Mustang? Yes, we were told, the King had visited Tibet and Nepal, but that was the extent of his travels.

Before long, we were taken through the town gate and to the small square in front of the palace, where we waited for some time. P.K. disappeared inside several times and came back to brief us on progress. We would meet the Queen, too, which heightened our excitement. Until very recently, the Raja and Rana of Mustang had been absolute rulers within their principality, even though their territory was politically part of Nepal. For an annual tribute to Kathmandu of two horses and a few rupees, the King had the right to collect taxes and manage Mustang’s affairs. But recently, his sovereignty seemed to have been diminished: it was the government of Nepal that had made the final decision to open up Mustang to trekkers.

As we contemplated what might happen next, P.K. handed each of us a simple white kata, a silk scarf traditionally given as a token of respect and good wishes. The men in our group would hand theirs to the King, the women to the Queen. Following P.K. inside, we saw into a mud covered courtyard which contained an array of chickens, cats and dogs.

The palace, we realized, was by no means palatial or, for that matter, even in good repair. A perilous set of stairs, evidently hundreds of years old, brought us up to the second floor, where a stuffed Tibetan mastiff was suspended from the rafters. Yellowish and more the size of a lion than a dog, it glowered at us. P.K. commented drily that this had been the King’s favourite companion and that it had recently died. Taxidermy must not be an advanced art in Mustang, because the animal looked as though it had been dead for centuries. Also on this floor were arranged a series of bedrooms and a kitchen and eating area.

Yet another set of stairs led us to the King’s private quarters. Inside, circled by a series of benches covered with Tibetan carpets and an altar with magnificent Buddha statues, stood Jigme Dorje, the 25th King of Mustang, with a shy, but warm smile on his face. His long, black hair was braided around his head and a small turquoise shone brightly from his ear. He wore a burgundy velvet jacket with a fur collar and a pair of blue jeans. Next to him stood his queen, a lady of great beauty, whose excitement and curiosity had clearly been spurred by our visit. Despite that, her bearing was unmistakably aristocratic. We’d been told that she’d come to Mustang from one of the noblest families in Lhasa.

The King’s Gifts

After our presentation of the katas, servants bade us to sit down and brought us refreshments. In china cups we were served Tibetan tea, which is prepared in a long, narrow churning urn. First a tea brick and hot water are placed in it, then yak butter and salt are added, before the whole brew is thoroughly stirred. We had been offered Tibetan tea before and some in our group now sipped at it merely to be polite. Caroline and I had grown to like it, but to enjoy it we had to think of it as a hearty soup, not tea. As we drank and savoured the biscuits served alongside, Richard Moore thanked the King for seeing us, wished him and the Queen a long and happy life and told him how much we liked Mustang, while P.K. translated. The King seemed delighted by these comments and said he hoped we would not be offended by the dung on his streets. He had seen photographs of some of the world’s large cities and he knew that they were cleaner than Lo Mantang’s. This left me with great sadness—did the King have any idea of how much the innocence and simplicity of his realm meant to us?

Now came the time to hand over our gifts. One particularly patriotic couple had brought a Canadian flag, which seemed to greatly puzzle the King. My contribution was a vial of heat rub; P.K. had told me the night before that the monarch was prone to backaches. Another trekker, a Toronto wine merchant, handed the king a bottle of Niagara wine; we later wondered how, without the aid of a corkscrew, he’d ever get to taste it.

Other presents followed, but none evoked the same response as Caroline’s gesture. She showed the King a picture of himself as a young man. She’d carried the 1964 book written by Michel Peissel, the only foreigner allowed to spend time here, all the way to Lo Mantang. This now paid off handsomely. Back then, Jigme Dorje had been a young man and his father had reigned—now he was a 63-year old man, with a long and healthy tenure already behind him. He was deeply touched to see these images from the past and wrote a small devotion into the book.

Caroline had also brought two enlarged sets of Peissel’s photographs. By these the King was particularly captivated. He recognized most of the people in the pictures and commented on their present circumstances. One of the images depicted the King’s father with the Golden Kanjur, a set of Buddhist scriptures of exceptional value.

Peissel had written that it took him weeks to gain access to the King’s private shrine, but this is exactly where we were now led. A monk was summoned, who conducted us into a very dark, expansive room, where a large number of sutras lined the walls. We were shown only one of the books, the fabled Kanjur, bound between two massive covers nearly two feet long and a foot wide. The intricacy of their design left us speechless. On the outside of the massive silver plate covering the scriptures were a series of brazen Tibetan symbols, crafted in purest gold. Onto the inside of the cover minutely detailed images of the Buddha had been chiselled. And beneath, wrapped in priceless woven silks were stacked sheets of parchment, meticulously written more than 500 years ago. Anywhere else in the world such treasures would be heavily guarded or irretrievably shut away in protected vaults.

As we backed out of the royal sanctuary, a funny episode occurred. One of the members of our group squarely stepped on another canine favourite of the King’s—a Lhasa Apso puppy no more than half a foot high. While the dog’s agonizing, high-pitched squeals brought terrified servants from the adjoining rooms, our friend did not even realize that he was the cause of all this commotion. I thought the photo-opportunity with the King we had all been counting on would now certainly vanish. But a small boy, his face as gritty as that of the children outside on the streets, came to calm the distressed animal and thus alleviate the crisis.

Mustang’s Roof Tops

In the end, the King was no different from his subjects—he wouldn’t miss a chance to take his guests to the rooftop and show off the magnificent views of Lo Mantang and the surrounding mountains. One by one, we climbed up a ladder. Once on the roof, we couldn’t help notice the substantial piles of stacked wood along its sides; together with precious stones, wood represented this high altitude desert’s most potent store of wealth and exchange medium, and the king’s hoard clearly dwarfed those of his neighbours. Now, the Queen, who had earlier left us, reappeared and before long the royal couple and our group posed for pictures.

After we left, I again looked up at the palace walls from the outside. High up, we saw the windows to the King’s private rooms: an array of blue-painted lattice panels, of which several were broken. I now imagined the mud floors inside, the treacherous staircases and ladders, the animals running around and the simply clad servants and mud-caked children. To some, the King’s quarters might have seemed primitive, undignified or even decrepit, but this was probably the closest to what a medieval feudal court really looked like.

Caroline’s Offerings

Later that day, Caroline and I thought of an experiment. If the King had been excited by the photographs we had brought him, why not take the second set we had with us to the town square? This we did and it led to the most memorable moments we were to share with the people of Lo Mantang. When we got there, five or six old men were crouched in the setting sun, gossiping and holding small wooden spindles, around which they twirled strands of yak wool. A few women sat next to them, sorting produce and holding a discussion of their own. Within five minutes, half the town had gathered and everyone was in a state of high excitement.

Surrounded by lobas looking over each other’s shoulders, Caroline started out showing a picture of Lo Mantang taken by Peissel from high up on the ridge, where we had first looked down on the town. This in itself seemed a remarkable novelty—they must have seen photographs before, but obviously not images of their own environment. Next, we unfolded the enlarged picture of a group of people gathered 30 years ago in the very same town square in which we were now standing. The commotion which ensued was a feast for the eyes. Children were sent to fetch parents, who were then shown what their own father or mother had looked like in younger days. Stories from that past were told and everyone had a wonderful time.

Caroline had a few shots of villagers left, which she passed around. When shown the image of a beautiful young woman standing in a green field and holding a prayer wheel, one of the townswomen got very agitated and started to cry with excitement and happiness. We were given to understand that this was a photograph of her mother who was now dead. The woman showed no sadness, but seemed awed by the dignity conveyed by the lady in the portrait. When Caroline told her she could keep it, her joy was complete. She even asked us to take her picture, a most peculiar request in Mustang, where children are always happy to be photographed, men sometimes acquiesce, but women almost always refuse. Somehow we had established a bond with the lobas and were now accepted. Although surprised and at first hesitant, we soon took advantage of this new situation and captured more of these Tibetan faces from another time.

Close to the end of our adventure, near the Nepali border, I was looking up at a series of dramatic, bright red spires, and commented that they looked like something borrowed out of Arizona. P.K. asked me if I wanted to come and explore with him, and before long we negotiated the difficult way to the top of one of the formations, constantly slipping on the brittle, broken sandstone. Eventually, the two of us sat on the small, flat top, a platform only about a yard wide, but hundreds of feet high and almost straight above the village we’d chosen to camp at. Below was our group, the mules and our few belongings—all reduced to no more than a few tiny specks. In turn, the peak on which we sat was completely dwarfed by the high ranges we had just descended from. And behind these rose snow-covered summits even more imposing. P.K.  and I both looked at each other, awed by this majestic and vast setting. We didn’t have to talk to understand each other. We’d been the third group of Westerners to have visited Mustang, and undoubtedly the first to see long hidden monastic treasures and visit the King’s palace. During our trip, as in scaling this small peak, we had pushed ourselves to ever new limits, only to experience how insignificant we really were.

Later, lying in our tent, I shared my thoughts with Caroline. She worried that, despite our insignificance, we’d helped to irreversibly change the course of Mustang’s history. I felt the same way. No matter how hard we had tried not to, we had disrupted Lo Mantang’s customary way of life. And as future visitors arrived, they would do the same.

Never before in my many travels to remote parts of Africa, Asia and South America had I seen anything as untouched by modern civilization as Lo Mantang, and never before had I been so conscious of being an intruder. The people of Mustang and the intimidating scenery we had witnessed changed us in many ways. But whenever we evoke the memories we carried away with us, it’s with a tinge of sadness, for what we saw is no longer there.

On our way back, we stopped over in Hong Kong. The assault on our senses was almost unbearable. The morning after our late-night arrival, we sat on a bench close to where the ferries to Kowloon depart, apprehensively watching the crowds milling around, listening to car and boat horns and a thousand other sounds, our brains completely overwhelmed. Just days ago, hours had passed as we put one foot in front of the other, no human noise to the left or right, ahead or behind us, only the occasional swoosh of an eagle passing us too close for comfort or the distant whinnying of a mule.

Excerpted from Peter Cavelti’s memoir “Moments In Time: The Experience Of My Life”.  Volume 2, Legacy Editions Ltd., copyright 2022. Reprinted with permission.