Quoted by CNN as ‘The fabled Valley of the Shangri-la’, Mustang is situated on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, tucked behind the majestic Annapurna range and mount Dhaulagiri.Being accustomed to using the mountains as a compass direction of North, anywhere from Kathmandu, I was aghast to wake up at Kagbeni, in Mustang district, with the mountains to my south. For a minute, I thought the compass on my mobile had gone kaput, but realized that I was actually at the ‘Himalparikodesa’, or the land beyond the Himalayas, as Mustang has been referred to since ancient times.
My desire to explore the once forbidden territories led me to one of my most memorable journeys. After weighing the pros and cons of taking a flight to either Pokhara and further to Jomsom, versus driving through one of the deepest gorges in the world, the Kaligandaki Gorge, I selected the latter. I chose to build the climax of entering the forbidden, from the lush green vegetation that overflows the hills of Kathmandu Valley, Baglung, Beni, and Tatopani. Leaving Tatopani, the vegetation gets more and more sparse, till one reaches the barren and nude mountains of Muktinath and beyond.
‘The hard and long trail, reachable in 22 walking days from Kathmandu,’ according to Michel Peissel, the author of Mustang, The Forbidden Kingdom in 1967, is now reachable in 24 hours! Black pitch-topped roads lead the journey till Beni, after which the rest of the route is a bumpy ride to infinity. The journey from Beni right till Kagbeni follows the course of the mighty Kaligandaki River, whose source is at the NhubineHimal Glacier in the Upper Mustang region. It then flows towards the south, through the steep and afore mentioned Kaligandaki Gorge, with the peaks of Dhaulagirito the west, and to the east, Annapurna.
Till Beni, the travel is like any other journey in Nepal, through dense forests of the Mahabharata range, winding narrow roads, occasional waterfalls, and lush green vegetation. On reaching Tatopani, the journey to the mysterious starts with a dip in the natural hotwater spring, leaving us energized for the rough roads ahead. Beyond TatopaniliesGhasa, Lete, Larjung, Kobang, Tukucha, Marpha, Jomsom, and finally, the idyllic settlement of Kagbeni. With each place we travel past, the altitude takes a lift and can be witnessed in a dramatic change of scenery. The lush green vegetation gets more and more scarce, till one sees nothing but naked rocky mountains and sand dunes, occasionally dotted by short shrubs. The drive to reach Kagbeni is alongside and sometimes through the Kaligandaki River, which before and much after the monsoons leaves a boulder-strewn dry bed that forms the route that the 4W vehicles take. A four-lane road is under construction alongside the mighty Kaligandaki. This will definitely ease accessibility to these remote destinations, compromising their other-worldly charm and fascination.
Kagbeni is situated between Jomsom and Lo Manthang, the capital of the erstwhile kingdom of Mustang, just below the mountain that takes you to Muktinath. Jomsom has always been a trade center, and this heightened after the airport was built in 1976, making it a multi-cultural melting point. However, Kagbeni remains unspoiled and maintains its other-worldly charm and is cut off from the mundane world. It is a small settlement that has the torrential Kaligandaki River flowing on its western side. This is the furthest point foreign trekkers can take without a special permit and an accompanying environmental officer.
Legends mention that Kagbeni was founded when two nearby villages were destroyed by a demon that had the head of a lion and the body of a serpent. A new village was formed by the survivors, which is modern-day Kagbeni. The people living here continue practicing and preserving the traditional Tibetan culture. They are mostly pastoral and agricultural, and herds of animals can be seen in every corner.
The medieval village was designed as a fortress town, and was a transit point during the famous salt trade times between Tibet and Nepal. During the 17th century, an economic decline led to the abandonment of settlements, which have somehow revived now because of the trekking trails and tourism. The town of Kagbeni sits at the bottom of the Muktinath valley, scattered with abandoned settlements and irrigation fields. No one knows exactly when or why these places were abandoned. Kagbeni is a cluster of one- to two-storied houses made of stone and mud mortar, and surrounded by abandoned settlements and cultivated fields. From a higher location, one can see the white-washed houses, with neatly stacked firewood drying on the edges of the terrace, forming brown squares and rectangles, complimenting the white and earthy-colored houses.
The centerpiece of Kagbeni is a fortress/palace ruins built by the then king of Mustang and now abandoned by the royals but looked after by caretakers. Locals say it has five stories and 219 rooms. Just next to it is the Red House Lodge, a distinctive tourist accommodation recognizable by the bright red color of its exterior from where it got its name in the late 1990s. It was, in fact, on a smaller scale, the first tourist accommodation of the area, after Mustang regions were declared under ACAP.
The Red House Lodge collectively contains three separate buildings, joined cleverly with a minimum of modern intervention to make a wholesome complex. The central building was a monastery, more than 300 years old. The ritual room preserves a large clay statue of Maitreya Buddha seated in a beautiful ornately carved and painted alter. Butter lamps placed at the foot of the deity show the continuity of ritual practice and the presence of the spiritual power. Numerous religious manuscripts are placed on one side, probably as old and precious as the building itself. A monk of high order resided here. After heleft for his heavenly abode, no one has resided there, but many annual and smaller rituals take place here throughout the year. Photos of the Dalai Lama and other high monks adorn the room. Restored wall paintings of deities, more than 300-400 years old, can be seen in the other room. Here, a richly-carved wooden door frame with multiple openings separated by columns attached to the frame gives a feeling of ancient, legendary history. On the other side is the residence of the Khampa warriors. The famed General Wangdi, who had refused to surrender and had led the war against China, is said to have lived in the upper room of the house. The new extension now houses the visitor rooms. There are 11 rooms in total, one deluxe and one super deluxe. Although the exterior and interior of the lodge maintain the traditional look, the rooms provide the visitors with modern facilities and have attached bathrooms. The deluxe room is special, because it has a good view of the landscape and the mystic mountains, with windows on the east and south side. And, as I mentioned in the introduction, from here, the mountains lie to the south and east. The super deluxe room has glass panels instead of walls, allowing the habitant to experience the whole landscape of Kagbeni, also by relaxing in a luxurious bath tub.
The rooms are named after the lakes of the region, and a neat poster of the lake is placed in the room, which has minimalistic décor. Much care has been made to select local materials and products. The comfort of the rooms and the warm and friendly hospitality of the staff provide a welcoming atmosphere. The food served at the lodge offers a whole range of fast foods, but the variety of traditional Nepali food of the region tops the chart.
The Red House Lodge is not just a tourist accommodation, but rather a project that aims to make rehabilitation of old buildings with a functional purpose, without comprising its authenticity and uniqueness, besides respecting the spiritual value of the place. Besides providing comfortable food and lodging facilities, the lodge has also taken great care to preserve the tangible heritages of the region, which are displayed neatly in appropriate shelves to provide a complete narrative of the lifestyle of Kagbeni. Such projects would benefit greatly with everybody’s support.
The peak season to visit the Mustang region is during the months of September, October, November, and December. During this time, locals who have traveled for various purposes return for the tourist season. The post monsoon, clear blue pristine sky, the picturesque landscape, the fruit-laden golden and red apple trees, and the pink flowers of the buckwheat shrubs are a spectacle that one should not miss in one’s lifetime.
The author is a scholar in Nepalese culture, with special interest in art & iconography. She can be reached at email@example.com