Monday, May 27, 2013

So this is what life was like two thousand years ago...

“I raise my head and see a red illuminated EXIT sign and as my eyes adjust I see tigers, cavemen with long spears, cavewomen wearing strategically modest skins, wolfish dogs. My heart is racing and for a liquor-addled moment I think Holy shit, I've gone all the way back to the Stone Age until I realize that EXIT signs tend to congregate in the twentieth century.”
- Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife

The Mustang 'highway'
Think the Grand Canyon is cool? There's a hidden a region right smack in the middle of the Himalayas directly south of Tibet that consists of a huge system of canyons that make the Grand Canyon look like a children's playground!

We had crossed Thorong pass and were ready to start the second part of our 33-day trek. Upper Mustang is the Grand Canyon on steroids, a place where Tibetan traditions still rule every aspect of life and subsistence farming is the main economic activity. 

Today, Upper Mustang is "little Tibet" and, according to many, is actually more Tibetan than Tibet itself. For the most part, the religious and cultural traditions in Upper Mustang are as strong as they were thousands of years ago. Until very recently, Upper Mustang was actually the independent himalayan Kingdom of Lo and was only officially integrated into Nepal a few decades ago. The only way to access the region is by hiking for days along hard mountain trails.

Given the historical and cultural uniqueness of the region, we made visiting Upper Mustang an absolute priority, especially because new roads will be built very soon and the region will be changed forever. Visitors must pay the Nepalese government a hefty minimum $500 USD fee and hire a guide in order to enter this protected region.

National Geographic did a special on the caves here
We arranged all of this prior to starting our trek and on day 13 of our 33 day hike, we ventured into Upper Mustang. Our guide, Karma, is an Upper Mustangi from the small village of Samar and he guided us on an unbelievable 12 day hike throughout the ancient kingdom. We often stayed in people's homes and we even attended a wedding in Karma's village!

What struck us the most about Upper Mustang is how untouched it all felt. Goatherds still herd goats the way their ancestors did thousands of years ago, dry wood is burned in mud ovens to cook food and boil water and running water and electricity are both luxuries that are hard to find. Karma said that there are even many peaks and paths that have never even been summited or explored!

The people of Upper Mustang are extremely devoted to their religion and traditions - we saw monks everywhere and butter and fresh pine offerings were made on a daily basis. Cows are sacred so they are not eaten, instead their milk is used for religious ceremonies and to make butter. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you can even get fresh home-made yogurt (we were lucky enough to find it twice!). Temples abound: we even hiked two hours up to temples that were carved directly out of rocky cliffs!

The region is famous for it's ancient cave dwellings. Constructed more than two thousand five hundred years ago, these complexes are carved into vertical cliffs and are often five stories tall! They were built to be highly defensible and the local villages have used them for centuries since to avoid the Tibetan raiders that would occasionally invade during the Middle Ages. We actually got to clamber around in one of the caves that was only six kilometers from the Tibetan border.

Inside one of the cave monasteries
Upper Mustangis are also some of the hardest-working people we have ever met. In order to go anywhere or even get anything, you gotta walk. If you're 80 years-old and feel sick, tough luck: chances are you gotta walk 8 hours to the nearest hospital (we actually walked into a very old woman who had just crossed a 4000 meter pass by herself to go to a hospital and she was asking us if we had any medicine for her knees because they were hurting; unfortunately we did not). In order to eat, you gotta grow your own food or pay a hefty fee to have goods brought up on mules. If you want to cook, you better go stock up on wood because that's the only source of heat you'll find. And, to survive the incredibly harsh winters, you gotta dry up all your veggies because nothing will grow during winter. As a matter of fact, winters are so harsh that most residents, students and monks opt to leave Upper Mustang for 'holidays' in the warmer Pokhara or Kathmandu cities. When we reached the capital of Upper Mustang, Lo Manthang, the acquifers were frozen so there was no running water. Keep in mind that this was already April!

As the region continues to develop, it won't remain untouched for much longer. We feel immensely lucky that we had the opportunity to do a little time travel and fully imerse ourselves in this wonderfully unique culture.

Our guide, Karma Mustangi, was exceptional. Contact him at to arrange your own adventure in Upper Mustang.

Co-posted on

Here are some more pictures from our time in Upper Mustang (pronounced 'moos-TENG'):

Welcoming landscape on our first day in Upper Mustang

Erosion creates a lot of natural beauty

Upper Mustang is full of amazing contrasts
Eastern Upper Mustang - we were first foreign visitors in 2013!

A room in a local home

A Tibetan/Mustangi wedding in Samar

Hundreds of goats are found everywhere (unfortunately, they don't make goat cheese --yet!!)

The air was so cool, crisp and clean!

Dramatic Scenery is the norm in Upper Mustang
We were just 6km away from the Tibet border; many Tibetan refugees try to make it to Upper Mustang
At a very, very windy pass on our way to Lo Manthang, Upper Mustang's capital "city"

A prayer wheel in one of the local villages (very important to go clock-wise!)

Two young monks at a cliff-top monastery in eastern Upper Mustang (very, very few trekkers come here)
The orange 'box' is a the monastery built on the cliff!
A goat's skull is used at the entrance of a local village
These are 2,500 year-old caves, very close to the Tibetan border (you can see the small 'holes' on the cliff)
These are sacred walls and must always be walked on the left

A great use for an old trekking pole, this woman was at least 90 years old

Human porters are often used instead of mules, this is a 100kg (200 lbs!) on a man's back. The journey can last up to a month, up and down very rough terrain in altitudes that average 4000 meters (13,000 ft)

People are extremely happy!
In a traditional kitchen, we were greeted with delicious 'dud chia' or milk tea
A local water pump where villagers come to fill up water containers
We would often walk into goat herders; this is a 1-hour old baby goat!

The road less traveled 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Into the wild

Finally out of the city!
After the thick urban haze of Kathmandu, we were really excited to get out of the city and start trekking through the Himalayas. We had found ourselves a fantastic local guide named Karma Mustangi (you can contact him at to organize your own adventures) and a super cool porter named Monaz. With Karma's help we mapped out a 33-day itinerary that included the fabled Annapurna Circuit, the secluded kingdom of Upper Mustang and the epic views of Annapurna Base Camp (aka ABC).

Our team assembled, we piled into a small sedan and started the drive from Kathmandu to the trail-head at a small town called Besisahar. But it wasn't smooth sailing as of yet: we spent most of the six-hour drive trying to pass massive Indian-made cargo trucks belching exhaust on two-lane twisty mountain roads. Finally we arrived (albeit with a massive headache from the pollution) and ate lunch in Besisahar before lacing up our boots and setting out.

Over the next few days we hiked up a river valley that wound its way up the west side of the Annapurna mountain range. It was hot but at least the air was mercifully clear and fresh. A single lane unpaved dirt road ran up one side of the gorge but we often took goat trails up the opposite side. Plant life burst forth from every surface and the greens were almost blindingly vibrant. Tiny villages were sprinkled along the sides of the valley and as we passed local kids would run out calling, "Hellopen!!!" Many trekkers bring pens for the kids to use in school so they've combined "hello" and "pen" into one word. The villagers were subsistence farmers who were busy plowing their rice paddies with oxen.

High altitude agriculture
We passed a bridge being constructed over the river and noticed that the construction machinery and managers were Chinese. Karma explained that although India supplies the vast majority of Nepal's aid (in addition to oil and electricity), China is now jumping into the fray. This has apparently resulted in an escalating "Nepalese foreign aid war" between China and India, both vying for influence in the country sandwiched in the middle.

Along the way we stayed in 'teahouses," extremely basic guest houses that host trekkers in the region. As we climbed higher up the valley the temperature eventually dropped and the environment became more rocky and alpine. We visited a beautiful lake and were surprised by a flash hail storm. After a day or two more the dirt road ended and we were left with only the rugged foot path. We passed through huge glacier-carved valleys as the Himalayas rose up around us.

Nepal is a country of unparalleled scale. Words and pictures just can't capture how friggin' huge everything is. Massive glaciers pouring down into rushing rivers, row after row of breathtaking mountains marching off into the distance, meter after meter of elevation gain...

Tibetan Buddhist prayer stones
By this point in the circuit some of our fellow trekkers were slowing down and starting to suffer from altitude sickness. You just never know who it will hit. Career guides are just as vulnerable as first time hikers -- apparently, there is no true medical explanation for this 'phenomena'. We weathered a snowstorm and hid in the tea-houses to avoid the freezing night winds. We spotted the endangered blue sheep effortlessly scampering across cliffs with thousand foot drops. We sipped masala chiya (Nepalese chai tea) and slurped down potent garlic soup.

Almost two weeks into our trek we finally were nearing our goal for the first section: Thorong La pass. At 5416 meters (17,769 feet) it was the highest pass Andrea and I had ever attempted. It allows travelers to get around the northern edge of the Annapurna range and it happens to be the widest pass in the world. As we trudged up towards it we were passed by group after group of hikers headed the other way, defeated by the combination of thin air, steepness and altitude. Every day emergency helicopters would buzz over our heads, rescuing those unable to make their own way back to civilization.

Our goal, Thorong La, finally in sight
We fought our way up one last, nearly vertical escarpment to reach the final tea-house before the pass. After a nearly sleepless night (Eliot saw jackals near the bathroom) we left at around 5 A.M. with headlights to make our way through the snow. Even with long underwear, thick pants, wool socks, a quick dry shirt, a long sleeve shirt, a fleece, a down jacket, a windbreaker, gloves and wool hats - we were freezing! The sun finally peaked out over the ring of peaks around us. Eliot was leading our little team up a ridge when suddenly his vision disappeared into a kaleidoscope of stars, his stomach clenched into a knot that would do a sailor proud and nausea tsunamied through his system. He stumbled and then collapsed into the snow. We hadn't escaped altitude sickness after all...

The best way to describe the experience of altitude sickness is that it's almost like the feeling you get at the end of an extremely fast sprint when your entire simply rebels and you want to puke and collapse in a twitching mess. Imagine that plus the fact that the feeling does not stop. It just goes on and on and on until you go to lower altitude, or die.

In our case we turned around and stumbled back down about one hundred meters of vertical height. After about thirty minutes of recovery we attempted the climb again. The second time turned out to be the charm and we reached the peak of Thorong La about an hour later. The top was absolutely spectacular with tremendous views of the Himalayas on all sides and a snow pack so deep that it had buried the sign at the top.

After a break at the top to take pictures and relax, we grabbed our gear and crossed the pass, ready for the long way down and our next adventure into the hidden Kingdom of Lo...

Co-posted on

Some additional pictures from the trek:

River valley leading to Annapurna

Prayer flags decorate every village


Crazy erosion on the cliffs

Glacier melt at Tilicho Lake in Manang

The doctor is in!


Our awesome porter Monaz carried both of our backpacks and barely slowed down

Thorong La pass

We made it!

Prayer Flags at the pass

Altitude sickness survivor
Happy to be back in nature