"Sometimes in the mountains, you must know how to wait".
-Kunga, Lo trader
(Kingdom of Lo)
Upper Mustang, or the ‘Kingdom of Lo’ as it was once known, is in the process of getting some ‘enhancements’ in the form of a modern asphalt facelift to one of its ancient thoroughfares. A main channel for centuries that travelled the vertical length of the Kali Gandaki Gorge it is the most seen and obvious of the travelling routes in the region, but far from the only route of trade, pilgrimage, or migration. The blueprint of the route was set long ago linking the border of Tibet in the north at Kora La (Kora Pass), to regions further south at Pokhara and Kathmandu. Asphalt lacks some of the allure of dirt pathways, but the inherent brilliance of the route remains. The entire region of “Lo” provided vital stops, hubs, and grazing points along routes that came south from Tibet, and for those heading into the higher lands from further south. It also played to host to dozens of routes higher in altitude just beyond the multiple layers of stone and snow on its horizons.
Two guardians of 8000 + metres stand at the unofficial gateway to Mustang as though reminding that the region was chosen well by its ancient inhabitants and by the warrior founder, Ame Pal, when founding the Buddhist kingdom in the 15th Century. The great triangulated white mass of Dhaulagiri (from the Sanskrit “beautiful white mountain”), stands west of the entrance to Mustang, and Annapurna l rests as the eastern sentry alongside the sacred (and unclimbed) Nilgiri.
Though this main route has seen a revival of traffic, there are dozens of lesser known ancient routes that linked and connected communities, passes, and ancient Tantric zones of worship. It was inevitably these lesser routes that drew me upwards into their folds. Upper Mustang is an area that one local explained needs knowledge of before wandering. “You have to have intention to reach a destination. You don’t accidentally find a place here”. Few outside of the users of particular routes would find the pathways. As always, it is the ‘in-betweens’ that one finds the intrigue and efforts more succinctly worth the exploration, and one cannot find the in-betweens without embarking on a journey.
Trade, migration, and pilgrims have hummed through Mustang for centuries along ill-defined lines and along ancient pre-set routes. The higher up and more remote a route, the less travelled, the less known, and the least maintained. Remote Tantric meditation caves carved into mustard coloured walls drew pilgrims further into the folds, and hunters and migrants crossed the high passes that ring the old kingdom seeking prey, homes, pillaging material, or peace. High on the eastern flank of the Kali Gandaki (the deepest gorge on the planet) lies a route that is a reminder of the days of the fearless wanderers of eastern Tibet, the ‘Khampa’ people. I assigned it this name, though I’d been told by an elder trader that his generation had simply referred to it as the ‘Route of Wind’. Trade in illicit snow leopard pelts, herbal medicines, watches, and weapons once flowed thick along this route which has now been largely reclaimed by Snow leopard, the winds, and Blue Sheep. Small hunters’ huts shared by shepherds dot the route now, and wisps of etched paths that link remote valleys to each other, climb over mountain passes that are backlit by extraordinary mineral-laden mountain-scapes. There are only hints here and there of the route now. Vitally, it is the oral narratives that still carry the stories of the times of trade and pilgrimage, but like so many great tales, with tellers of tales fading it is only a matter of time before the routes' pasts fade entirely. Now, not even the creaking of leather saddles the caravans hoof sounds mark this high route.
In the past years, I’ve made several journeys along one particular route on the high eastern flank, following small abbreviated detours. It is in the detours that one gets a scope and a more intimate feel of the route. Lying high above 4000 metres, this particular pathway was favoured by the Khampas, who fled Tibet during the Cultural Revolution.
The journeys I’ve taken along the many routes along the Kali Gandaki have only served to fuel subsequent journeys and more wanderings with more deviations. The lands shiver and vibrate in the heat, the wind ,and the cold. Pastel red iron-oxide laden hills and rock faces shimmer, white salt patches look like lakes from afar, and that vast network of web-like pathways that bisect ridgelines are all part of the old world’s movement of commodities, of faith, and of cultures. Nomads have vacated the vast lands and expansive valleys on the east of the Kali Gandaki because of droughts. What is left of the route(s) is little more than faint scars at times that mount ever higher, and like so many of these routes through the sky, the faint scratches will disappear entirely at some point, forgotten.
Jhong, Green Camp, Khampa Camp, Samdzong and Chodzong are names that stimulate sensations in the memory palace as much as they are places on maps where we pitched tents and marvelled upon the expanses. Abu, Pasang, Santosh, Kiran, Subash, and Dhrabinder the horseman…names of men I now contentedly call friends based on repeated efforts to the lands where stone and wind still rule. Though development comes to the low lands of the region, higher up along the ‘Khampa Route’ or the ‘Route of Winds’, Nature is slowly reclaiming her own, as she inevitably seems to do with all of her spaces and old paths.