Ahead of the curve

Ahead of the curve

Driving through the hilly and treacherous terrains of Mustang in Nepal...

It wasn’t until I trudged ahead of Pokhara that I realised the intensity of the road. Upper Mustang was where I was headed. The snow-capped mountains were constantly staring — as if to observe the line one took as we drove at a dreadfully slow pace. The condition of the road steadily deteriorated until it became mud, stones and rock. On one of those nondescript tea breaks, “Welcome to Mustang,” said a local tea shop owner with a broad smile as he overheard our discussion on the condition of the road. The mischievous twinkle in his eyes stood out as if to say, “you have no clue what lies ahead!”

Up, up & above

Nestled in the trans-Himalayan belt of the Upper Kaligandaki basin, in the north-west corner of Nepal, Mustang was an erstwhile kingdom called the Kingdom of Lo. Geographically, the high ranges of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna separate this region from the rest of Nepal. About 90-odd-km from Pokhara on motorable tracks at most, with the non-existent formality of a road, sprung up boards indicating ‘Mustang’. The thrill was unmissable. By virtue of being an extreme terrain driver, my tolerance for bad roads is reasonably high. And this was putting up a fight, no doubt. Mustang is divided into Upper and Lower regions. Lower Mustang consists of Kalopani, Jomsom and Muktinath, while Upper Mustang starts Kagbeni onwards winding past villages of Chusang, Tsomar, Tsarang to finally reach Lo Manthang, the erstwhile capital of the Kingdom of Lo. 

Progress was slow; we slowly tumbled and fumbled almost tortoise-like on rocks and stones, passed some narrow bylanes, took a few sharp blind turns, whizzed past shallow puddles, dug into slush to finally make it to Kalopani for the first night. Ahead of Kalopani, the view got prettier — the river basin got wider, hills taller, and vegetation thinner. Jomsom is a biggish hub where trekkers, pilgrims and travellers converge. Being the last point to fill fuel, Jomsom is a must-stop for all those who drive in or out of Mustang. 

Mustang, Nepal
Enroute Lo Manthang

Trudging ahead of Jomsom towards Muktinath, the ascent was palpable. The air got thinner, and the gasping, even while walking mildly, was more than evident. All along, River Kali Gandaki was a constant in the depths; the road ascended and descended but never left sight of the river. The hanging bridges connected the mountains across the river as they led onto faint mountain trails. Goats and other livestock, and people alike, these remain lifelines for hamlets in the higher reaches.

Muktinath stands at approximately 3,800 metres and is sacred for both Hindus and Buddhists. Muktinath felt like an upcoming tourist bulge with many horsemen heckling for your attention (as most people use horsebacks to reach the temple). The temperature dropped almost suddenly post sunset. The cars were to be cared for. Waking up every four hours to start the engines so that the lubricants don’t freeze was a must. Felt like we had finally arrived in the mountains.

But the next two days had plenty in store. Just 36 km to go, the distance didn’t certainly indicate anything. This was the section I had been warned about. Enter Upper Mustang. Kagbeni was where it began. Upper Mustang requires a $550 permit, which needs to be processed prior to your trip. Permits stamped by immigration authorities, wheels moved on. 

Challenging route

By noon, we were staring at the main river Kali Gandaki, looking for the crossing. The first crossing is always on the edge. As I drove the vehicle into the water, the adrenaline stopped me from soaking up the outside. I was told by the locals that the road between Kagbeni and Lo Manthang was built mostly by villagers with little help from the administration. But now that the area had opened up, the government was trying to make a better one.

Given the condition of the roads, we couldn’t manage to reach our destination, and had to settle in a hamlet in Tsomar. Nondescript, quiet, clean and picture-pretty with a small stream gurgling in front of the house, the halt at Tsomar was one of the warmest. Waking up to a bright morning, the destination was Lo Manthang. As the vehicle rolled out, the drive was challenging — the vehicle chugged on some of the steepest inclines I have seen. A high pass at 4,100 metres, some fine dust and dirt track which felt like driving into nothingness (cloud of dust), the road was testing at many levels. And behold, finally reaching a set of prayer flags, with green fields of Lo Manthang breaking the monotony of the brown landscape — it was a high

The next 48 hours spent there were full of stories — the last king died two years ago, his son had started a three-star hotel there, mostly foreigners came here, salt was a big trading commodity, and more. Next morning, a half-hour drive to Chhoser Caves added a very enigmatic nuance to the area. These caves date back at least 2,500 years, they say. Carved out of a soft rock face, hollowed from inside, the biggest one, Jhong Cave, had nearly five storeys and innumerable rooms that were interconnected. 

That evening, sitting in the kitchen with the local family I was staying with led to some heartfelt talk. Some of the older women, earlier in the day, had claimed this was the first time ever that they had seen women drive! I could sense their minds were bustling with questions and possibilities. “Will you teach me to drive?” “Weren’t you scared?” “Don’t you feel men always drive better?” — were some of those. Well, to say the least, they were inspired to think beyond their usual boundaries.  They now knew it was possible, and that was a starting point!