A Photographer In Nepal: Upper Mustang Trek

The Mustang trek has been on my bucket list ever since I arrived in Nepal. The photos of the arid mountains remind me of my childhood home in New Mexico and I’m fascinated by the deeply-rooted Tibetan culture and practice of Buddhism in this region. So in early November my husband and I set off with some friends on a nine-day trek to Upper Mustang.

What’s most surprising about this trek is the vast diversity of landscape. In the many of Nepal’s famed trekking regions, you simply get closer to the amazing view as you climb. In Mustang your view changes drastically from day to day.


We started by flying from Pokhara to Jomsom, which actually means flying through the Kali Gandaki River gorge, which includes the Dhaulagiri, Tukuche, and Annapurna mountains. We were in the front row of the plane, which means we had a pretty spectacular view. Then we drove forty-five minutes from Jomson to Kagbeni, which is where our trek officially began. The first day we only trekked a few hours to a teahouse in Chukshang. But this short day of trekking was filled with beautiful views of the river gorge, old monastery ruins, and some pretty spectacular mountain caves. It’s also where we got the nicest hot shower of the trek.


The next morning we left Chukshang and headed for Samar. With incredible views of the snow-capped mountains behind us, we crossed the longest suspension bridge of my trekking career and were met with golden trees dropping their leaves. It gave us a little taste of fall, which is something we miss in Kathmandu. Samar is a beautiful little town with white buildings covered with firewood-lined roofs and colorful prayer flags. There is an incredible viewpoint from the chorten that sits on the top of the city, and we had the best food of the trek here.


On the third day we were off again, climbing from Samar to Geilling and hitting 11,679 feet (3560 m) at our highest point. We were surrounded with layered views of snow-covered mountains behind other sand colored ones with sparse dessert plants and strange rock formations. The coolest part of this day was a detour to visit a sacred cave where they claim that nature has carved a large chorten out of the rock. We climbed up past a lone shepherd and his flock to have tea with the nun who tends the holy site. Then it was time for the final push, past more colorful chortens, to Geilling.


On day four we were heading for Tsarang and we started off a little bit unsure of the landscape as we climbed up a dusty road past a dozen tractors and bulldozers who seemed more than a little reticent to stop for tourists. But then we came around the bend to the most beautiful mountain view and passed the longest mani stone wall in the world. We stumbled into Tsarang as the sun was dipping down in the sky, past the intricate chorten, an ancient monastery, and the Old Dzong palace.


On our last official trekking day, our group split up with some of us staying in Tsarang to tour the monastery and palace prior to starting our journey taking the “short route” to Lo Manthang. It was another climbing day and we were headed to 12303 ft (3750 m). We quickly learned that short didn’t mean easy. That day we were wind burned, cold, and covered in dirt as the wind swept across the beginning of the Tibetan plateau. I sure was happy to see Lo Manthang appear in the distance. I’d been battling a cold and so when we arrived I had soup and crawled into bed.


We’d planned to stay in Lo Manthang for a few nights so I woke up well rested and ready to sightsee. We spent the morning on a tour of the city’s four Buddhist monasteries and visiting ancient holy sites in different stages of restoration. Unfortunately, tourists aren’t allowed to photograph inside these sights as the Loba – the people of the Kingdom of Lo – believe that their holy relics might be spotted in photographs and stolen. But the views from outside were just as spectacular; Lo Manthang is one of those ancient cities with well-worn paths, tiny shops, and streets that only make sense to those who know them. We met an incredible Thanka painter at Lowa art gallery. He spends the frigid winters painting in his studio/storefront window and doesn’t seem to mind the cold. And he’s been leading the restoration of the murals inside several of the local monasteries.


The following day, we woke up at 3:00 a.m. to take a precarious car ride to the Chinese border. We’d been assured that we’d likely see animals and possibly Chinese military presence at the border. I was expecting tanks and blue sheep. But found myself freezing before sunrise, looking at a few tents, a building site for a Chinese market, and two small white gerbil looking rodents. It was so cold that all of our electronics simply shut down so I don’t have any photos to share. Needless to say this is not an excursion that I’d recommend but there is something amusing about doing the hokey pokey to keep from freezing. I can’t imagine what the Chinese military guards at the border must’ve thought!

Luckily this day was salvaged by a trip to Chhoser on our way back home. Chhoser is surrounded by what a friend calls drippy sand castles. And that is exactly what the mountains look like there. We stopped to visit Jhong Cave, which is five stories tall and has over 144 rooms. It is thought that humans lived in these caves for many years, using it to evade attacks by foreign invaders from Tibet. We also stopped at the Ranchung Monastery Cave, a sacred meditation site.  Then we headed back to Lo Manthang.


The next day we loaded into a car for an eight-hour drive back to Jomsom. The ride was mostly uneventful with a few really, really scary bits. We were thrilled to get out of the car and to have a hot shower in Jomsom. Then we wandered down the road for a cappuccino at the loveliest coffee shop.  We spent the evening celebrating the completion of our trek over beer with our guide and porters. On our final day, we hopped on a plane and headed back to Pokhara.


I’m so grateful for the time I’ve had in Nepal. This adventure was physically challenging but the landscapes were absolutely stunning. It was an adventure of a lifetime.