In a remote and rarely visited region of northern Nepal, along Himalayan foothills not far from the Tibetan Plateau, lies Upper Mustang, once known as the Kingdom of Lo and where Silk Road traders and pilgrims once travelled.
Story and Photos by (and courtesy of) Jeff Fuchs
Meli exits her tent in the morning with none of the usual groans or straining with the tent flaps or zippers that are normal on such days. “I dreamt of a snow leopard last night coming close to my tent,” she tells all of us in that wonderfully direct way that she says everything. “I felt it close in my sleep, and I felt that it was right beside us.”
It is a rare sight to see (or hear) Meli stir this early in the morning. Her tent mate and my wife, Julie, is nodding her head to confirm the dream and looking up at the sky as she too emerges. Meli’s eyes are wide and entirely awake, as she has been clearly shaken and inspired.
We are in the region of that great Himalayan cat, and we, and our little band of tents, fire pit and brilliant spiced tea, are the outsiders. Before cold (and blue) night took our camp last night, a band of young male bharal (blue sheep) moved forward as one along the gold flecked ridgelines. Where they range, the snow leopard—and their eternal hunter—will be close.
My mind drifts back to the words that led me here from Kunga, a trader I met when we came to research the ancient trade of tea through Mustang, a remote region in northern Nepal along the Himalayas not far from the Tibetean Plateau. Kunga had spoken of these animals, but also of the traders and spiritual masters who found a space to live and worship here, and of a land “that holds” with its own enormity. He had told me that this particular route through the sky was something only the desperate—or the notorious Khampas of eastern Tibet—would travel.
So it was in part, those words—and the promise of meeting Kunga once again at the end of my journey—that spurred our expedition forward.
Morning light comes late to this small wedge of camp at 4,000-plus metres, with the sun struggling to peak over the high flecked mountains that tuck us in. I’ve been up in the blue morning air watching day reclaim her colours and tones, with my morning tonic of a steaming cup of tea.
At this hour the air is transitioning, waiting for the sun to touch it. Keoki and TJ, two of my Nepali both of these guys are from friends from Hawaii) trekking companions, both emerge from their tent, and like all of us begin the day by looking up. Mountains do this, I’ve long thought: draw us upward and onward.
Kun’tse’s long figure strides towards us, eager to listen to this dream of Meli’s. One of our local team members, his life as a young shepherd farther north is one of tales and experiences when it comes to the near-mythical cat. He sees and reads the land, and skies, with a thousand more reference points than most.
“I also dream a lot about the snow leopard,” he says. “Sometimes our dreams see more clearly than we do.”
Just as Meli is forthright, Kun’tse is an interpreter of all things spiritual. A “Loba,” or person of Lo (the name locals call the kingdom of Mustang), Kun’tse is a fluid mix of mountain hardman and intuitive observer of the kingdom he was born into. Here in the mountains, in the wide open spaces, the circle of life seems to tighten just that bit more.
A minute later, I hear Kun’tse’s voice urging Meli and all of us to come. He is bent down, looking at what appears to be a tight knot of cord lying tidily not more than two metres from Meli’s tent. “It is snow leopard shit,” Kun’tse tells us, making the word shit sound like “sheet.”
And it is fresh. Dhrabrinder nods his agreement. Somewhere up there lies a great cat who came down to announce himself to us, the intruders, with a subtle defecation. Kun’tse looks at Meli with new eyes of appreciation.
A coiled mass of scat lies just off the pathway that just last night we had used to arrive here. And it wasn’t there yesterday. One by one, our entire team of Sherpas and Magars arrive in various states of dishevelled morning attire to peer at the pile of curled fresh scat. All start to chatter and look to the horizon, as if the cat itself was somehow detectable. A few of our horses and mules had apparently been jittery last night, according to our horseman Dhradbrinder. He tells us he “felt” a presence, though did not see anything.
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“They are only seen when they want to be seen,” Kun’tse tells all who’ll listen. Marcus, who has been up for some time photographing the morning sky, joins us, as now our entire team huddles around this pile of sacred shit. I wonder briefly at pocketing the remnants of the scat as a kind of tribute to this cat I’ve long wished to encounter.
To the east of us, about 20 metres away, shattered taupe structures rest as some sort of memory of when ancient nomads decided to erect something permanent here. It is now our kitchen area and sleeping quarters for most of the team, though it appears more and more as though Mother Nature is reclaiming her own. Kiran, a gentle but tough Magar from farther east in Nepal, confides that “This place is bigger and more beautiful than I have seen, much bigger.”
And he is right: it is a place entirely devoid of anything that isn’t magnificent. Every line on the horizon pulls the eye into yet more astounding beauty. A hundred metres below us, a barely-moving stream chuckles its way down. It is our water supply, though precious little water actually flows.
“This whole side is drying up,” Kun’tse tells me, referring to the eastern part of Upper Mustang.
Communities have evaporated and departed for lands farther west, or south—anywhere but here. Kunga had spoken about great snows ebbing decades ago. To me, he possesses special powers of intuition and insight when it comes to the mountains, and it is partly the wish to again be in his company that pulls me onward and ever upward.
Across a deep valley to the north, a high diagonal line cuts upward like a scar—part of a pilgrimage and ancient trade route, it is also part of our mission to track what is left of it. Our last days have been spent charting this pathway through the Himalayan sky, following the high eastern flank of Mustang in northern Nepal. It’s a striating bit of dusty path that hasn’t been travelled much in the past decades, sitting as it does so high to the east of the main Kali Gandaki Gorge, which lies a thousand metres below us.
Now, as people have forgotten it, it has once again become the domain of snow leopards. Much of what remains intact—including some of the most integral cultural practices in the Tibetan world—was aided by Mustang remaining closed to the outside world of travel until 1992.
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I’ve managed to convince a group of four friends, and my wife Julie, to join me on this expedition. With so much time away from her as I lead expeditions in the Himalayas, it’s a gentle and selfish gift to have her along, even as a kind of circle comes together on the life-wheel. It was here in these mountains years ago that we met. We share an affinity for these landscapes, for the heights of the planet, and the people who reside within them.
Until the last decades, Mustang was an independent Tibetan kingdom. Mustang’s founder, the warrior Ame Pal, created the Buddhist empire in 1380, and he chose well. Two pillars of 8,000-plus-metre stone and snow glory lie as gateways to Mustang in the south in the shapes of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. Like so much of the labyrinthine mountain world I’ve explored over the last two decades, the mountains feel protective rather than daunting.
In fact, the mountains here act as a geographic conduit and midpoint linking Kathmandu and Pokhara in the south to the arid lands of the Tibetan Plateau farther north. Farther west, the Kingdom of Ladakh was linked by marriage to the ruling monarchs of ancient Mustang, and trade and pilgrimage routes found an axis point in the kingdom’s old capital of Tsa’rang (Charang) and the great walled fortress city (and more recent capital) of Lo Manthang. And it is to Lo Manthang that we eventually go.
Our horse and mule team spreads in a long formation over the course of days, converging as the route tightens, and splaying wide when the landscape allows. As much as the stunning verticals that are the mountains capture the eye, the sun does too, as it hits concentrations of minerals in the earth that turn the world mauve, copper and gold.
Every 20 minutes, as the sun swivels above, a new scape of colour and tones go on display. We travel on a rainbow. All of us have found our pace, and it is reassuring when we can split to be within sight of one another but on our own, in this world of thin air and flecks of gold. We continue north along the not-so-distant Tibetan border—a beautiful grind through red earth and ammonites.
These spiral fossils—known locally as saligrams, they are considered sacred—remain from a time when the Himalayas were at the bottom of the Tethys Sea, and not the top of the world. Lying half-hidden and encased in stone, Hindus consider such remnants of the natural world to be a manifestation of Vishnu (the second in the triumvirate of Hindu gods, known as the protector and restorer of the universe). All that is holy and divine here is inextricably tied into the natural world.
“If you travel these lands,” Kunga had told me, “you know it is the land itself we should worship.”
Vestiges of caves are everywhere, and so too are occasional encampments—leftovers of the fierce and wanderlust Khampas of Eastern Tibet. War-like, impetuous and brilliant, the Khampas remain legends within the Tibetan world for their daring, thieving and trading.
Locals recount tales of the Khampas, who forged many of the high mountain routes not only through much of Tibet, but here too within the Kingdom of Lo. Tolerated and feared, and at times resented, the Khampas brought trade and an assertive nature into the land, with some eventually settling and others continuing to wander.
We are plunging downward on a pathway of copper flecks that glitter. Down into an immense stone valley that is cut at its base by a small river. The team is tired, and even the force-of-nature that’s our point man ahead on the trail, Subash (aka Lion), is showing wear on his taut features.
Days and nights together have enforced a sense of autonomy among our team, and we move as one in remarkable silence most days. In these mountains—as in any mountains—the timeless mantra of “Cooperate or Perish” lurks in every moment.
New landscapes and soundscapes are offered up with each turn, crest and descent. Winds come at intervals, following the inherent bond they have with temperature shifts. In fact, the winds (called “loong” here) alter and come churning through breaks in the mountainscape and through the watersheds, so much so that one can almost set a clock by them. The world which we are descending into seems to shimmer and hum with a force beyond simple gusts and air flow.
It feels different and alive, as though the air itself breathes. It is somehow removed from that around it, like a kind of sanctum. We have all felt it, it seems, as we stop along the pathway, which for days has been devoid of footprints, plastic, or any object from the human realm. Peering into the great bowl-like valley, Kun’tse turns to us and says, “Chodzong.”
Irreverent in all the right ways—and entirely reverent in the right way—Kun’tse’s eyes glow looking into the sumptuous crater of stone that now shimmers before us. A monastery that is slowly being excavated and revitalized—long known as the Clear Light Dharma Castle, a guarded place of spiritual practice of Buddhist teachings—lies beneath us, and the concept of a sacred space seems to rise up right before us. Even for Kun’tse, this is a place of consequence and veneration.
Here Buddhism (and before it the more animist Bon tradition) thrived in isolation; the mountains everywhere almost acting as centurions for the great necessary silences. It’s a place one needed to find and access. It did not lay where one would stumble upon it. “This was a Tantric spot of power in the history of Lo. Masters would come here to meditate. It is a place of great power,” Kun’tse tells me, using the present tense, I notice.
Whatever “power” might have meant to those who made pilgrimages here in centuries past, it is a power that remains. Farther down, as we set up camp, that feeling is only enhanced as the valley ripples with life, as though every element is watching us. Above us, through small dark entry points in the walls of stone, meditation caves rest in a layout that requires one to be an agile climber to access.
I look up and feel as if the dark holes are eyes looking upon us, impassively, and with a memory of when others worshipped here. Some of the entryways were likely made in a time when the valley where we camp would have been a riverbed flowing high in times of the spring thaw. Other entry points would have been revealed when landslides cleaved off portions and opened the hidden world within.
Inside one cave, Spartan chambers with rounded walls and the smell of stone surround me. In one corner, where I’m told meditation masters would have been tucked away for months or years, a chiselled cocoon appears, and I look out at our camp from the little room carved in stone. I see our tents, and Keoki racing toward the toilet tent, all in small scale far below me.
Keoki, a surfer and ocean man, remarks later that it’s the one time and place on this journey that he feels almost compelled to go down on his knees in worship. He is moved by it all. I ask our brilliant chef—and unofficial leader—Santosh for more frequent doses of his almost narcotic masala chai to aid in absorbing this space.
“Here, there were once nomadic communities. But they have all left,” I am told. When I ask why they departed, and why the monastery was left to wither away, I am given a simple answer. “I don’t know. Maybe it was lack of water.”
The natural world, in all its practicalities, are bound with that of the spirit world here, and water and resources still rule. Much of this eastern fringe of Mustang has been thus affected by drought, and we feel that on our journey. Now here in these heights, water is the guru, dictating all. Once again, Kunga’s practical words about the land resonate.
Within Mustang (some say it was originally called “Mè’thang,” meaning “medicine grassland” in Tibetan; no, it has nothing to do with horses!) there were many significant spots for worship. Besides Chodzong, two areas tantric that master’s identified as natural power hubs were Lura to the south, and across the Kali Gandaki to the west at Lo Gekar. All needed silence, all needed masters—and all, it seemed, needed water.
It is two almost two weeks into our expedition and we are arcing north and west now, toward the community of Samdzong, another spot where the Bon tradition once thrived. Now it’s memorable for its decay, for its utter stillness and chalky dust. A scarcity of youth, and a desperate year-on-year depletion of water resources, have turned Samdzong into something that feels only half alive, a place that sucks the breath from your body with its stillness and its suffering.
Long white feathers of smoke rise and bend from the tight formations of homes. And though there is fire here I long to leave immediately, as though tendrils of the place are making their way deep into me. One elder tells us that even the young children have left for distant schools. And Julie says she thinks even the winds have forgotten this place.
The region, Kun’tse tells me, was once known for poaching, and many of the most beautiful of the snow leopard pelts came from a not-so-distant region north of here. He shakes his head. “Karma has come now.” We pitch our tents in the bitter cold and disappear within them early.
Leaving Samdzong on a morning of blue cold, our team is tracked from above by a huge vulture, and I wonder at both the village and the vulture’s plight. What could the bird possibly find here, in this dry village and environs? Perhaps this has become a prime hunting ground, with so much desiccation and so little green. As we leave, the vulture remains in my mind as a kind of prophecy of doom for the little village of Samdzong.
Another newer Samdzong was built not long ago, and much of the younger generation, especially those with children, moved there. We pass through it on route toward the great walled city (and capital of Upper Mustang) of Lo Manthang. There is water in the new Samdzong, and schools nearby, and what the old Samdzong had little of: a feeling of hope.
Arriving from the north into the ancient town that is Lo Manthang, our team stops to hug and give thanks to each other. We are smiling, even as the dust kicks up as we enter this medieval mountain fortress place that was built upon a plateau in the 15th century.
Much as I wanted to leave Samdzong, and its ghosts and its dust, our arrival to the historic and spectacular city that lies at 3,840 metres catches me unprepared. Unprepared for the bodies, for the sound of engines, for the idea that walls will soon replace the comforting flap of a tent! The journey isn’t quite done yet, even though the disconcerting feeling I often have upon arrivals—that the adventure is coming to a close—is welling up inside me.
Kunga waits for me though, and as part of an old promise to him I have brought tea from Yunnan province—a tea similar to his favourite from long ago upon the trade routes. As a group we join him for tea in his little home, and he is as I need him to be: vital, spry, eagerly warm, with questions about the route we have just finished. With Kun’tse translating, he speaks of things that remain with me long after I have left Mustang.
“Yes, the spiritual masters came here, and the trade routes passed through here. But this is also a place of drought, and of hardship. All these things are linked.”
He talks about the mountain world being built by a deference and reverence to the land, and to the planet’s elements, that always have a spiritual quality here.
“Next time we will go together,” I tell him. He nods and we drink more tea, grateful for this moment of friendship in the mountains. ♦♦