A Trek to the Medieval Walled City of Lo Manthang,

Oct-Nov 2012.

LoManthang trek

Lo Manthang is an unspoiled Tibetan-style Buddhist walled city in the Kingdom of Lo in the restricted area of Mustang, in the north of Nepal near the Tibetan border. Until this year there were no roads, the only way to get there was a 5-day trek in and out and we wanted to see it before the new Chinese road changes everything.

Sun 21st to Tues 23rd Oct. Kathmandu.

Kathmandu Durbar square
We had a nice flight on Jet Airways to Mumbai and spent the night in Mumbai airport snoozing on one of the long reclining chairs, then we flew to Kathmandu and returned to the Sugat Hotel on Basantpur Square near Freak Street, and walked round Durbar Square and the markets revisiting our old haunts from 16 years ago. The main thing that has changed is that, like in India, every street is full of youths on motorbikes pipping and terrorising pedestrians. The Sugat hotel is in a great position overlooking the square and the people are very friendly although the beds are very hard! It's great value too, at about 750 rupees a night (about 6 GBP) which is the same as the cost for one tourist to visit Durbar Square now, but as residents we are exempt from the charge!
Kathmandu pilgrims

On Tuesday there was a huge queue waiting to go to see the goddess in the Taleju temple on Durbar Square, which is only open to pilgrims one day of the year in the middle of the Dashain festival - which is today. There were three queues where people waited quietly and orderly for at least five hours until they reached the small gate into the temple, where a crowd of queue-jumpers came pushing in despite the police and organisers' ineffective attempts to stop them. The queueing crowds became quite angry and their religious fervour evaporated as they pushed and shoved the interlopers.

We had a short walk along Freak Street where nothing much was happening, and a much longer walk around the shops and restaurants in Thamel, the touristy area where Sheila found a beauty parlour for some treatment before the rigours of the trek. I had a haircut (scalping!) at the barber's shop next door to the hotel. Sheila did some shopping including a cashmere shawl, which she will have to pay for herself if she uses up her allocation of 10 free complaints about the trek - I'm keeping count! (In fact she kept all her complaints to herself and so I paid up.)  We had fried and boiled eggs in a western-style café for breakfast, a nice beer and glass of wine with veg pakoras (which they call pakodas), masala popadoms and an egg curry at Vishram Café next door to the Sugat, and a delicious Thai meal in the interesting open-air New Orleans Café back in Thamel.

Weds 24th and Thurs 25th. We went by car to Pokhara via Gorkha.

Gorkha Durbar
We left the Sugat about 7:30 but soon stopped for petrol, then to get the spare tyre mended, then for breakfast at a travellers stop café. We turned off the main road and went 20km up the hill to Gorkha village and up a terrible dirt road (we could see why he'd had a puncture) to the 'Durbar', an impressive fort, palace and temple perched precariously on the summit of the ridge with fabulous views down both sides.

Today is the main day of Dashain festival and luckily we arrived after the sacrifices had been made, but the little square outside the temple was still covered in blood and various animal parts and smelled awful. We had a walk through the cobbled main street of the village with a little cluster of temples and back to the main road to continue to Pokhara, arriving about 4pm. It started to rain as we arrived (the only rain, indeed the only clouds of the whole holiday) and we found the Butterfly Lodge in the middle of a tropical downpour, and got one of the best rooms in the place, room 401 with a view of the lake on one side and the mountains on the other. When the rain abated about 6pm we walked up and down the lakeside road with its huge choice of restaurants and shops, and had a very nice meal at the Gorkha restaurant; a chicken dopiaza for me and Chateaubriand (not as we know it, but very tasty) for Sheila, with beer and wine.

Pokhara lake Fewa
Thursday was all about eating and drinking, starting with a nice masala omelette / fried eggs in the garden at Butterfly Lodge, then a stroll round Lakeside and a very tasty chicken biryani with beer/wine for lunch at Lake Valley restaurant on the balcony overlooking the lake shimmering in the sunshine with the paragliders floating down from the mountains nearby (for £60 a go).

We arranged the amazingly expensive 4x4 just for the two of us to Jomsom tomorrow for several hundred pounds - the alternative is a two-day trip using local buses and jeeps getting covered in dust, which Sheila refused point-blank to do. After a walk by the lake as the sun went down, we returned to Lake Valley restaurant for an extremely tasty Chicken Tikka Butter Masala - wonderful!

Fri 26th and Sat 27th. Jomsom.

Fishtail mountain
The chef at Butterfly Lodge very kindly came in early so that we could have breakfast before setting off for the journey to Jomsom up in the mountains. It was amazingly spectacular all the way, with huge mountains and deep valleys with rushing rivers, with little farming communities nestled wherever they could find a tiny patch of levelish ground. Pretty waterfalls came splashing down the mountainsides, sometimes straight onto the road. Behind the hills rose jagged blue mountains topped with snow, which looked high to us but our driver told us they weren't high enough to be called mountains, they were just hills. For the first 100 km to Beni the road was surfaced except for here and there where they'd forgotten a bit, but then for the next 150 km or so to Jomsom it was all dirt, rocks and mud, like driving up a river bed. Our comfortable Scorpio 4x4 handed it well but amazingly there were also local buses packed with people, pitching and rolling through the mud and rocks. There were lots of Nepalis on motorbikes who were from Kathmandu making the pilgrimage to the holy shrine at Muktinath beyond Jomsom, and quite a few trekkers accompanied by their porters carrying everything but the kitchen sink.
Jomsom airport Nilgiri mountain
We had been told that the journey could take 10 to 12 hours but about 1:30 pm, 7 hours after we started, we suddenly arrived at a street of houses beside a little airstrip and realised it was Jomsom. The best-looking hotel in the street was full, but we got a nice room at the Tibetan-style Nilgiri View Hotel with wooden beams and a view of the airport runway (there are usually only two or three flights of 18-seater planes a day so the noise shouldn't be a problem!). Our driver rapidly dropped us off and started straight back to Pokhara, to complete the return trip in the same day.

We had been told in Pokhara that the flights back from Jomsom on the day we wanted after the trek were full but Sheila didn't believe that and went round to the airline booking office and managed to get us the last two seats on one of the flights, not only much quicker than going by jeep but also considerably cheaper. The deal in all these mountain lodges is that you eat at the place you are staying so we had some soup and tea for a late lunch and a lazy afternoon. Sheila had to have Yak steak for dinner of course (although you need sharp teeth to get through it), from the Nilgiri's amazingly varied menu, then we retired to snuggle under our thick woolly blankets with a flask of hot water to top up the hot water bottle to keep warm. Jomsom is at 2,700 metres (about 9,000 feet) altitude and none of the houses have any heating except the kitchen stove so it's pretty chilly - but it will get chillier as we go higher.

We spent a second day in Jomsom to acclimatise, having a nice breakfast of fried eggs and tea in the sunny dining area watching the morning flights come and go before the wind gets up, and a number of helicopters landing and taking off which we later discovered were evacuating people suffering from altitude sickness and injured in a jeep crash near Muktinath. We went for a walk up and down the straggling main street and returned to the hotel to sort out what we needed to take with us and what we could leave behind. In the evening we met Bagawan our guide who explained what would happen on the trek and we explained what complete novices we were, never having been on a trek before. He reassured us that he would take care of everything!

Sun 28th. Trek day 1 to Kagbeni. We started out at 7:30, well, 8am by the time we'd had breakfast, finished packing, arranged to leave some cases at the hotel and generally messed around. This was supposed to be the shortest and easiest day of the trek, only three hours and 100m gain in altitude up to the village of Kagbeni, but being totally unfit and unprepared we were exhausted and aching by the time we arrived. Bagawan took us to the Nilgiri View hotel, coincidentally the same name as our hotel in Jomsom and with another nice double-aspect room with a view of Nilgiri mountain (but not the airport this time). We had a very nice lunch from the extensive menu while we recovered our breath and eased our aching muscles. It seemed much warmer today than it had been yesterday and even when a strong wind blew up about midday the air was still warm (we have been warned it will get much colder higher up). I went off to explore Kagbeni which is a fascinating medieval-looking village of Tibetan-style houses and alleyways with a mixture of small agricultural holdings and tourist lodges. I stopped for a refreshing pot of tea at Yacdonalds restaurant but did not have a burger! That evening we had soup and mixed veg curry (Sheila's pasta carbonara was less successful) at Nilgiri View and retired for a solid ten hours sleep.

Mon 29th. Trek day 2 to Chele, 3,100m. As expected Sheila's bad foot was playing up so we had arranged a pony which was waiting for us outside the hotel. We set off on the trek to Chele which was much longer and harder than yesterday's with some steep ascents, and half-way through I realised how unfit I really was and arranged another pony for me from tomorrow, so this has now become a pony trek, the traditional way to get to Lo Manthang!

Suspension bridge
Suspension bridge over the Kali Gandaki river gorge between Jomsom and Kagbeni on day 1.
Leaving Kagbeni
Leaving Kagbeni on the way up to Chele on day 2 of the trek.
The Kali Gandaki river gorge. We stopped for lunch in a fly-blown tea-house in a little village called Chhusang (in the centre), then walked the last section along the river bed through a canyon of fantastic rock shapes and colours up to the last steep ascent to Chele (in the distance), where I arrived puffing and gasping to find Sheila and her horse looking calm and collected.

After recovering from the exertions I had a look round the village, another predominantly Tibetan agricultural settlement with a few trekkers' lodges, then we had dinner at a long table in the bustling, smoky but warm kitchen, watching the extended family cook up meals for the other trekkers in the rather bare, cold dining room next door. Like yesterday it had been pleasantly warm during the day but as soon as the sun set the temperature plummeted to freezing both indoors and out.

Tues 30th. Trek day 3 to Syangboche, 3,800m.

Uphill struggle
Now our pony trek really began, with me on the black horse and Sheila on the brown horse. It was just as well, because all morning we toiled uphill from 3,100m to the Taklam La pass (3,624m) then the Dajong La (3,660m). The horses took it in their stride, but when we had to get off and walk up one of the passes because it was too dangerous to ride, we had to keep stopping every 50 metres to get our breath back.
Yamda La
We stopped for tea in the one-house 'village' of Samar then for lunch at Bhena. We went on up to the top of Yamda La (4,010m, 13,156 ft) and from there I walked downhill (which was no problem, uphill is the killer).
Syangboche hotel Dhaulagiri
We stopped at the tiny three-house village of Syangboche where we will spend the night at 'Hotel Dhaulagiri' (named after the 7th highest mountain in the world, clearly visible to the south). We arrived about 4pm and fell into our typical tea-house routine. Sheila got into bed to get warm while I had a short wander round the village then we both gravitated towards the kitchen, the only warm room in the house as the temperature fell way below zero as the sun went down. We and the family, the porters, the guides and various unexplained individuals sat around the benches on two sides of the room or worked at the range of wood or bottled-gas stoves with their assortment of pans, pressure cookers and kettles bubbling away. Someone brought in a brazier full of charcoal and we and the children of the family sat inches away warming our hands.

Everything is cooked fresh including vegetables straight from the garden so it all takes a long time to prepare. We ordered about 5:30, the soup arrived piping hot at 6pm, the main courses about 6:15 and then we sat sipping our milk teas from 6:30 to 7 when we retired to our ice-box of a bedroom to sleep fully clothed under a huge pile of blankets. From top to toe Sheila had ear muffs, a hat, scarf, thermal polo, three fleeces of various thicknesses, a puffer jacket, mittens, leggings, trousers and two pairs of socks, as well as a charcoal hand-warmer in one pocket and a hot water bottle regularly topped up from a big thermos flask of boiling water, and she still complained about the cold - where were those hot flushes when she needed them?

Weds 31st. Trek day 4 to Charang, 3,560m. After our standard breakfast of two boiled eggs and black tea, we set off and crossed a succession of passes, the highest at Nyi La (4,020m).

Rough track
In some places we followed a reasonable track but I came to dread the call from the horse driver 'left side' or 'right side' which meant we were going to plunge off the well-defined track onto a vertiginous, steep, centuries-old trail of stones and dust hugging the edge of the barren mountainside with sheer drops inches away. As we lurched off the easy track into the abyss Sheila would hear my plaintive cry as I hung desperately onto whichever bit of the horse I could reach 'oh no, it was all going so well'!
Sheila on horseback
Sheila went the whole way on horseback, at one with her mount and imagining she is Annie Oakley in the wild west, holding the reins with one hand and filming with the video cam with the other while the horse stumbled up or down a steep rock-strewn path. I never got used to it and walked the downhill sections and only rode the horse uphill (there are very few flat level sections in between).
Charang chorten gate
Chorten gate approaching the village of Charang.

We stopped for lunch in a pleasant, sunny guest house in Ghemi and as we ascended out of the village we passed the longest Mani wall heaped with stones carved with Tibetan Buddhist prayers, and up a really long ascent to one more high pass before coming down to spend the night in Charang. We had a large, bright, airy room on the top floor of the tea-house, which had a third bed (to spread all our stuff on) and a luxury we hadn't seen for a long time - two plastic chairs to sit on. We didn't even mind the smell of burning cow-dung from the chimney outside our door. When we had to emerge onto the roof during the night to go downstairs to the loo, the sky was amazingly clear and full of bright stars that are all but invisible at home.

Thurs 1st Nov. Trek day 5 to Lo Manthang, 3,840m (12,600 ft).

Lo Manthang from Lo La
We spent most of the morning going along a relatively level plain surrounded by dry hills until we reached the crest of a small hill and had our first view of the walled city of Lo Manthang sitting in a low valley surrounded by greeny-brown fields of buckwheat.

We stayed at the Lotus Holiday Inn (!) just outside the city wall, a brand-new tea-house but still in the Tibetan style with two storeys of rooms and a balcony around a central courtyard, with wooden floors, beamed ceilings and colourfully painted windows. We had an ensuite bathroom with sink, shower and western toilet (the first since Kagbeni) but our joy was short-lived when we discovered that the only thing that worked was the mirror!

Lo Manthang king's palace
We went for a walk inside the old city which is truly medieval with twisting alleyways lined by old Tibetan-style houses and little squares where people were sitting in the sun chatting or washing clothes or dishes in the freezing cold stream that runs through the city. The tallest building was the three-storey king's palace and the most colourful was one of the monasteries.
Lo Manthang alleyway
The centuries-old way of life seemed unchanged, with more cows than people wandering the streets and outside the city walls horses being unsaddled for the night.

We had lunch (tasty potato soup and traditional Nepali dal bhat) in the sunny dining room but when the temperature suddenly dropped like a stone as the sun went down we went and huddled round the stove in the kitchen where we took turns to put dried cow pats and goat droppings on the fire. The dinner of egg curry was delicious but had unfortunate consequences!

Fri 2nd. We went on a horse excursion further up the valley - not so novel for us but a great change for the trekkers who had walked all the way here. It is included in the price of the trek and this time even the guides had horses and everyone had a great time playing wild west as we went up the canyon (except me, I'm still having trouble hanging on to the horse).

Garphu bridge to Ghom
We got off the horses and went over a bridge to the village of Ghom with an ancient Tibetan Buddhist monastery .....
Ghom monastery
... then walked over to the cliffs where another monastery had been built around a cave where a famous guru used to meditate.
Ghom caves
Further along and higher up the cliffs we went to a warren of caves and tunnels and little high windows, where the Tibetan Kampa fighters had hidden during their war of liberation against the Chinese in the 1960s.
Ghom monastery toilet block
The scenic toilet block at Ghom monastery.

Sat 3rd.  In Lo Manthang.

Lo Manthang goats at city gate
While Sheila was still invisible under all the blankets I went for an early-morning walk and watched huge herds of goats and some cows being driven out of the city gate to go and wander the hillsides for the day ...
Lo Manthang goatherd
... accompanied by their goatherd spinning the prayer wheels for a good day's grazing.
Lo Manthang city from north
I then went down to the stream and up the other side of the valley for a great view of the walled city in the morning sun.
Lo Manthang rooftops from city wall
Later we went for a guided tour of the city visiting two ancient monasteries, but we couldn't go into the king's palace because it is closed to visitors at the moment. We walked round the maze of little alleyways and a man persuaded us to come up to the roof of his house for a view of the city, which turned out to be a great walk along the top of the city wall, looking down into people's houses and watching them working on their rooftops.

Sheila's boots were falling apart so we bought some super-glue in a tiny general store and Bagawan and Hem our porter did a great job of glueing them together which worked until we got back to Pokhara. We had pizza for lunch and it was unexpectedly delicious, so we did a bit more walking round in the afternoon and visited another monastery, then had pizza again for dinner. We sat in the kitchen, the social centre of the house, playing cards with Bagawan and Hem.

As part of our acclimatisation to the altitude, as well as drinking lots of hot liquids and abstaining from alcohol, we had been taking Diamox since we left Pokhara. After we reached Lo Manthang we thought we had probably acclimatised sufficiently so we stopped taking them, but on the last night there we discovered how much effect they were having, because both of us woke up unable to breath and spent a breathless, uncomfortable night. We immediately started taking them again until we got down to Jomsom.

Sun 4th. Trek back day 1 to Ghami, 3,510m.

Marang La 4230m.
A long day: going back by a different route we went up and over the Marang La (4,230m, 13,877ft) ...
Ghar Gompa
... and stopped to have a look at Ghar Gompa, probably the oldest and most historic monastery in Nepal.
Ghar Gompa kitchen
We had lunch in their tiny kitchen and unlike all the tea-houses which had very extensive menus, the only option here was dal bhat (lentil soup, rice, veg curry and fiery pickles) - it was delicious.
Trek down
We trekked down through more barren mountains with Hem our friendly and helpful porter and the horse driver (whose name we never discovered)  ....
.... and saw more magnificent scenery.

We didn't stop in Dhakmar because we were doing well and finally stopped in Ghami at the teahouse where we had lunch on the way up. All the bedrooms were very bare with beaten-earth floors and looked like the place where they normally kept the animals.

Mon 5th. Trek back day 2 to Samar, 3,620m. We left Ghami and immediately went up and over two high passes, one of them over 4,000 metres. We stopped for lunch in Syangboche at the place where we had stayed on the way up, then pressed on down and up two river valleys in quick succession until we got to Samar where we stopped for the night.

Tues 6th. Trek back day 3 to Kagbeni, 2,800m.

Arriving in Kagbeni
Another long day but predominantly downhill (although there seemed to be plenty of ups as well). We stopped for tea at the place where we had stayed in Chele, had lunch where we had lunch before in Chhussang and arrived in Kagbeni at about 3pm. It felt like coming home.

We stayed in the same nice room 105 in Nilgiri View hotel and now we really appreciated how cozy and luxurious it was to be inside with the wind howling against the windows, with three beds, an actual table and amazingly a carpet on the floor. The ensuite bathroom with a western style toilet and a bit of hot water was also much appreciated.

Weds 7th and Thurs 8th. Back in Jomsom. A fairly undemanding walk back to Jomson where we arrived before 11am, and the people in the Nilgiri View hotel immediately recognised us and said 'you are a day early'! They gave us the same pleasant room 209.

We said goodbye to Bagawan and Hem, our guide and porter. Our trek to Lo Manthang would not have been nearly so enjoyable if it hadn’t been for them, they were so helpful and good-natured, and so patient because we were so slow. They were also very strong, as they had to be to manhandle us onto our horses each day! We were very lucky.

We had a real cappuccino and a chocolate cake at the German Bakery next door as a treat, then a lazy afternoon and an even lazier next day hanging around in Jomsom waiting for the 'plane out. All the way the dry air and wind-blown dust has been playing havoc with our noses which have been running and bleeding profusely and aggravating our hacking coughs. We took some laundry to be cleaned and the price doubled when they saw the state of our hankies, which was a bit of a cheek because they were done in a machine, not in the stream.

Fri 9th. Back to Pokhara.

Flight out of Jomsom
After hanging around in the cold pre-dawn waiting for the airport to open we got the 18-seat twin propellor Tara Air flight back to Pokhara. It felt like an emergency evacuation or relief flight; there were no planes anywhere on the airfield as the 18 of us huddled in the departure room for what seemed like ages, then suddenly a small plane was landing. As soon as it reached the tarmac the passengers were hustled off and at the same time we walked over to the plane and started boarding as soon as the last person was off. Somehow they changed over the baggage at the same time because as soon as the last of us was on board they closed the door and we started taxiing to the runway - the pilot had not even stopped the engines. The whole turn-around took about ten minutes and we were off!

Sheila raced a party of French people to grab the front two seats and it was worth it for the amazing scenic flight down the valley, flying between the mountains and skimming the treetops while we looked over the pilot's shoulder. We were very lucky because a few days earlier no planes flew in or out because of the wind in Jomsom, and the day after none flew because of the fog in Pokhara. Will, a very fit action man from California who we met in Lo Manthang, had flown from Kathmandu to Lukla near Everest the day before a similar plane had crashed on that route a month or so ago, causing the airfields to be shut for days.

We returned to Butterfly Lodge and after a real breakfast in the blissfully green and sunny garden, we showered off two weeks-worth of mountain dust, got changed and felt human again. We went for a walk beside the lake and got a new battery for Sheila's watch, then back to Lake Valley restaurant for their wonderful butter chicken tikka masala with beer and wine - almost our first meat and alcohol for two weeks. We couldn't finish the food or wine because our stomachs weren't used to so much food - when we got home we had both lost over half a stone (3 kg).

Sat 10th. Back to Kathmandu. After a quick cup of tea at Butterfly Lodge our driver arrived in the nice Scorpio 4x4 (which he'd taken us up to Jomsom in) and we went on the much easier 6-hour drive to Kathmandu. He said (I think, his English was rather peculiar) that we should go straight to Kathmandu without stopping for lunch because of the traffic, so we agreed and five minutes later we pulled into one of the many roadside food stalls where he had a huge dal bhat for his lunch, while we had some tasty pakoras and tea. When we got to Kathmandu he was all for taking us to Thamel because he knew it rather than Durbar Square where our hotel is, so I got the map out and successfully directed him through the traffic chaos to Durbar Square, which we were all rather pleased with.

Sugat hotel Kathmandu
The nice man at Sugat Hotel had saved room 101 for us so we were back where it all began.
New Orleans Cafe Kathmandu
We walked up to Thamel and looked round then had very tasty Jambalaya and Greek salad with Kir / red wine for lunch at New Orleans café.
Crowds in Durbar Square
Crowds thronging Durbar Square.

Later we got a cycle-rickshaw back which took twice as long as walking because of the complete traffic gridlock. While Sheila had a bath (in an actual bathtub - we brought our own plug!) I went to the Snow Man Café on Old Freak Street and had a nice cappuccino in the atomospheric little café. We were still full from lunch so in the evening we just had pakoras and a beer in the café/bar next to the Sugat, where we used to have delicious egg curries 16 years ago (but egg curry wasn't on their menu any more).

Sun 11th. Back to London. We went for an early-morning shopping expedition while Kathmandu was still waking up and managed to check in for our flights at the only open internet café and bought some yak's cheese (very nice, like a strongly-flavoured Emmenthal) and shampoo at the only open little corner store. We met Bharat who had organised our trek and he gave us certificates and t-shirts, then Sheila insisted I have yet another haircut and beard trim - the barber worked on it for over an hour and made a wonderful job of it, for the princely sum of £3. We got a cycle-rickshaw (150 rupees) to Thamel where we had the best breakfast at New Orleans Café - poached eggs and Hollandaise sauce on a bed of toast with fried real bacon, fried mushrooms, fried onions and fried peppers! On the way back I had my walking boots cleaned and glued where they were beginning to come apart. We then got a taxi to the airport for 400 rupees - almost, his clutch failed just after the airport security post and we had to walk up to the terminal building for our pleasant and uneventful flights back to London via Mumbai. We spent the ten-hour wait in Mumbai snoozing on the lounge seats again and the plane to London was half-empty, possibly because it was the Diwali festival and everyone was at home with their families, so we could spread out and have plenty of food and wine while watching the up-to-date films.

If you would like to see pictures from our other travels, please click on the door ..... Doorway