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I entered the kingdom of Mustang illegally
6 minute read.
After hiking across the Himalaya Mountains, I entered the kingdom of Mustang. I had learned a few Nepali phrases; how to meditate effectively; and how to be mindful in each moment. I would spend the next two weeks hiking through Mustang and down another side of the Himalayas.
The previous blog ended on a sunset; this blog begins a few days later.
The sunset had lenticular clouds, so knew they’re be rain/sleet/snow soon. I chose to continue hiking because I felt strong after summiting Throlong La Pass, and my mind was clear after the helicopter rescue and experiencing a higher level of mindfulness. For the next day, rain and hail pummeled me as I walked the high-plains leading towards China.
The first town I came upon was Kagbeni, on a river that flowed from China and through the kingdom of Mustang. It had been trading center for centuries, and it’s 1,200 residents seemed more Tibetan than Nepali.
Kagbeni was built as a medieval city; I felt like a kid exploring the maze of streets that were barely wide enough for two people, and was shared by livestock kept inside city walls.
A 600 year-old statue at one of the gates to warn-off invaders let me know that 600 years ago the people of Kagbeni had a sense of humor. (Zoom in if you don’t see why.)
Young monks at the Kago Chode Monastery huddled around fires to stay warm during the sleet and rain. They were learning Buddhism, but also digital awareness, environmental sustainability, and social-entrepreneurship. Modern science was becoming common in Tibetan monasteries, probably influenced by the Dalai Lama’s 50+ year message of peace through compassion and wisdom, and wisdom includes embracing the fact of global warming and risks of population growth.
60-million year old fossils
The river brought fossils from the tops of Himalayan Mountains. I searched through the riverbed for fossils, only finding ones too big and heavy to justify carrying in my backpack. A monk realized what I was doing, gave me a small seashell he had found, and told me it was “good luck.”
People in this region considered fossils to be bones of deities, or gifts from gods. It’s easy to understand why, and that’s almost more believable than the truth: the highest mountain on earth was previously the bottom of an ocean floor, pushed up by giant plates floating on molten iron, carrying seashells 5 miles above earth, and preserving them for 60 million years until rains wash them down a river.
I’m OK simply saying they’re good luck.
Across the river from Kagbeni was a small village, part of the kingdom of Mustang and off-limits to tourists without special permits and licensed guides. I thought I had the special permit; when I realized otherwise, I was already a few days into Mustang and decided to keep going. When life provides an opportunity to enter a forbidden kingdom, take it.
The trail hugged cliffs of a massive valley, and was swept with strong winds from the mountains. You could see for dozens of miles. The mountains were so massive that views wouldn’t change. After hours of hiking into the wind I’d see the same view, and for a moment believe I hadn’t moved.
Villages in Mustang blended into the cliffs and were almost invisible. Inside each village was like stepping back in time: farming done by hand or by animals, no electricity, wood or dung stoves, villagers butchering yaks and sharing the meat immediately. Houses stored wood for long winters on their roofs, and decorated homes with animal skulls for good-luck.
Like most people in Nepal, the people of Mustang were kind and seemed genuinely happy. Tourism is rare here, and guest houses rustic. Part of the reason tourism is restricted is the lack of services and supplies; tourism can destroy a local ecosystem by using more firewood than is sustainable and or using electricity for non-essential purposes. And, we’re accustomed to frequent hot showers, which is difficult to sustain based on heating from firewood. Government agencies had been trying to make Mustang “tourist friendly,” including adding wood-stoves that simultaneously provided warmth, cooked food, and heated water.
As I got closer to China, I discovered a road being built with modern equipment. China was financing a road connecting it to India, going through the Himalayas of Nepal. I saw the road being built through a region of ancient cave monasteries, damaging some and sending debris into the river. That loss is saddening, but the road will allow the people of this region to experience trade, tourism, electricity, healthcare, and education.
Snow blocked my path at higher elevations, so I turned around and retraced my steps until I returned to Kagbeni. I learned that the road I saw was also being built from the other direction, connecting India to Mustang, and had almost reached Kagbeni. The road will eventually connect India to China; combined, their populations are 1 out of 3 people on Earth. In addition to bringing modern life to millions of people in poverty, an overland trade route between the world’s two most populous countries will have global impact.
Tourism has quickly adapted to the new roads. Back in Kagbeni, I met tourists who had flown to a nearby airport and hired a driver for a day to see the views. These types of tourists are called “flashpackers,” typically former backpackers but with more money than time. I met them at a “Yak Donalds.”
Nepal honors Hindu traditions of not harming cows, so hamburgers were made from local yaks. Their “Happy Meal” included locally grown potatoes and wild sea buckthorn juice.
I’m mostly vegetarian, eating meat only 1-2 times a month because it causes inflammation, harms our environment, and is usually cruel to animals. But, it builds tissue and a strong immune system with amino acids unavailable in most vegetarian proteins. I had been hiking for almost a month and my muscles screamed for rest and rebuilding. Besides, I couldn’t resist trying a yak burger at YakDonald’s.
I continued hiking down the Himalaya Mountains. Towns along the way felt isolated; they were rarely visited by backpackers now that a road and airport was available on this side of the mountains. I followed a route documented 160 years ago by a Japanese traveler who had also crossed through Mustang illegally, at a time when there weren’t YakDonalds and smart-phone translator apps.
As I dropped elevation, trees and forests opened up. It was the opposite of my experience starting at lower elevations, so I knew what to expect. I looked forward to fresh produce and warm days, discovering both at a town called Tatopani, which means “hot water” (Tato = hot, pani = water). Tatopani has natural hot springs and fields of fresh fruits for home-squeezed juice when you take breaks from soaking in outdoor hot springs, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and adjacent to roaring waterfalls.
I do not have the words to describe how AMAZING it feels to soak in hot springs and eat fresh fruit after hiking through snow and sleet for weeks. Even better was feeling I had nowhere to be and a long time to get there.
The most common local food was lentils and rice with curried vegetables, called “dal bhat.” Dal bhat usually comes with something pickled and crispy bread adds texture. Mountain guides swear by the energy, saying, “Dhal Bat power lasts 24 hour!”
Dal bhat is healthy, filling, and locally-sourced for only 150 Rupees ($1.50 U.S.). Here’s a good Dhal Bat recipe from a Tibetan food-blogger.
The last stop on this trek was Nepal’s second-largest city, Pokhara, which is becoming an international destination for outdoor adventures. The roads and airport are changing the types of tourists from backpackers to flash-packers, people who have more money than time and would like to go somewhere remote, quickly. Pokhara has families exposing their kids to other cultures, kayaking on the lake, and paragliding in the surrounding mountains.
Pokhara’s economy is geared towards tourists, and many businesses try to support the underserved classes through sustainable social entrepreneurship. I received massages by Seeing Hands, staffed and managed by blind massage therapists who live communally. I took a few days to get massages, read books, and relax while consuming calories to regain the weight I had lost.
I boarded a bus to the Nepal lowlands, to begin hiking in jungles.