My (not so) Epic Trip to the Kingdom of Mustang

Niligiri mountain from Kagbeni village Nepal

My (not so) Epic Trip to the Kingdom of Mustang

Dhalagiri from the Kindom of Mustang

The idea of the ‘bucket list’ is familiar. Most of us probably have a couple of items that might qualify but that just remain a vague aspiration. I've got lots.

In 1999, I was lucky enough to travel to Nepal as part of a group of doctors to do some teaching and operating. Travelling like this is a great way to see the world. I did another trip to India with Urolink, and both trips were the same, characterised by (an almost overwhelming) hospitality and the opportunity to see facets of a country that are not accessible.  I also had the chance to visit Libya before the revolution, which was equally fascinating.

I loved Nepal. My father had interactions with the Gurkha's during the war and loved them - I could now see why. I was asked back over the years but never seemed to be able to do it: like so many of us I was caught up in a cycle of work and family that left time for little else. On one occasion, everything was booked but I became unwell. But, in the twilight of my career, I had an invitation at relatively short notice to speak at a conference in Nepal. I asked if I could go for a little walk after the conference, as we had done before. Because of the short notice, there was little time for me to get into shape. This would come back to bite me in the nether regions later.

Now, this is where the bucket list comes into play. On the previous trip to Nepal, I did some of the Annapurna Circuit with a colleague after the teaching. We flew to Pokhara (in those days something of an adventure in itself) and saw Everest in the distance.  Roger was reading ‘The Death Zone’ by Matt Dickinson, and I read it after him. I was fascinated by the story, and I went on to read other books about that famous disaster, subsequently devouring other books about mountaineering, even though I get dizzy on a stool.

I also heard about the Kingdom of Mustang when I was out there. It seemed incredibly exotic, a tiny kingdom perched high up in a pass between Nepal and China, essentially medieval and with limited access for foreigners. The concept of a hidden culture living in the valley between two of the highest mountains in the world was more than intriguing.  I formed a desire to visit there and carried this with me for the next twenty years. So, it was entirely reasonable that I would try to reach the Kingdom of Mustang on this trip.

In 1999, Kathmandu was a still a remote location, crowded and dusty and excitingly different. In 2016, it is still exciting and vibrant but the population has ballooned and it is now quite polluted. In April, you can almost cut the air with a knife, and as night falls there is the most intense and strangely beautiful artificial sunset, caused by the toxic mix of pollutants and dust.

I lived for a while in the Ironbridge Gorge in the UK, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Now a green and verdant place, it was a blasted wasteland in the 1600’s as a result of the industrial revolution. The artificial sunset in Kathmandu made me think of the ‘dark satanic mills’ that filled the gorge then, the constant toxic haze from the foundries hanging in the air. But Kathmandu remains a fascinating city, full of life and activity. The constant bustle is unlike western cities and almost leaves one dizzy with its effervescence.

Kathmandu Nepal
Kathmandu Street Scene Nepal

I am fortunate to have good friends in Kathmandu. They took care of me with great kindness and hospitality. Jagdish Baidya, who hosted me, is one of the founders of the B&B Hospital in Kathmandu. As well as developing one of the best hospitals in the region, he and his partner have done much to support the community, not least with the establishment of the Hospital for Rehabilitation of Disabled Children, which I was privileged to be able to visit briefly. They arrived back from training abroad many years ago and have created a modern hospital from modest beginnings by sheer grit and determination. Jagdish is a fascinating man and I remain in awe of his achievements. The B&B hospital has grown since my last visit and continues to do so. It is an extraordinary monument to the two individuals who still run the hospital from a shared desk in a small room. Their young interns were bright and enthusiastic. Teaching them anything is like throwing water at a sponge as I found out on my last visit.

In Nepal, particularly in the more remote areas, children with burns or disabilities can do badly. Dr Banskota, with Jagdish’s support, created a hospital where daily miracles occur. They have a network of field staff who find these terribly disabled children and arrange for them to have treatment at the centre. I have been a doctor for 30 years, but I was still humbled by the pictures of these children, transformed from pitiful scraps of humanity lying on the ground to functioning members of society. Many are given the ability to stand, and with it, their dignity. The really clever thing about this unit is the integration: the children are not just operated on but are then fully rehabilitated with prosthesis adapted for Nepal and educated so that they can become productive members of society – so important where there is limited social security.

Ashok Banskota has rightfully received multiple awards for his work. Of course, the terrible earthquake in 2015 that killed over 8000 people has increased the number of children with severe injuries. One of my former trainees, now a senior Nepalese doctor, travelled as part of the team from the B&B hospital to treat earthquake victims. He is a quiet, reserved man but I could see that the experience shook him, just as those exposed to death and destruction on a large scale carry the scars forever.

There are still scars all over Kathmandu, and it was sobering to visit sites where hundreds of people had been killed. As I write, I am gently shaken by aftershocks from the recent 7.8 earthquake in New Zealand, so I feel immense sympathy.

Binod Shrestha, who came to Shrewsbury for a while and worked with us, was his usual quiet, charming self and took me around the temples, explaining much to me. The temples are full of both life and death and worth quiet contemplation. I spent some time walking around the Pashupatinath Temple with Binod. It is an immensely holy place where people come in their final days and who are then immolated after death. There is a curious juxtaposition of life and death that is foreign to the west, with lovers strolling the grounds and children playing as the deceased are laid out and fare-welled.

A view of Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal
A view of Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal

Having given my talk at the conference and been introduced to the Prime Minister, I travelled to Pokhara, staying initially with Jagdish and his wife and then setting off on my travels. Pokhara is, of course, worth a visit. The fishing lady was floating gently just off the property in the early morning.

Phewa Lake, Pokhara, Nepal
Fishing early morning Pokhara

My first bit of proper trekking was climbing to Ghode Pani village. I had developed a touch of giardiasis in Kathmandu, mostly aborted by prompt treatment, but was still feeling a little bit ropey. The stairs at Ulleri were my downfall, and I began vomiting gently (if one can do such a thing). I aborted the climb and stopped at the wonderful Annapurna Guest House. Spartan but clean, the host was an ex-army man, and I thoroughly enjoyed my stay while recovering a bit. We then went to Ghode Pani and were then up very early the next morning to trek to Poon Hill.

There was a haze, not uncommon in April, so the view of the mountains was not as spectacular as I understand it can be. Nevertheless, the sunrise was remarkable, with the mountains appearing all around us out of the early morning mist like sleeping giants and the rhododendrons in flower below us.

Poon Hill Nepal
The Annapurna Ranges from Poon Hill Nepal

From there the long trek down to Tatopani was fascinating but nearly killed this overweight and unfit surgeon. My guide was apparently used to fitter individuals and wandered ahead, sometimes so far in the distance that I could not see him. I staggered into Tatopani, where we put up at a hotel. I had visions of washing the sweat and grime off me, followed by a good meal and a beer, but there was no hot water. By this time, I was so dehydrated it hurt to pee. So, I splashed some cold water on me, drank as much as I could and collapsed on the bed, filthy dirty.

I wandered around Tatopani the next day. I didn’t think much of it - the vaunted hot springs were crowded and looked like a public health hazard to me. I went down to indulge but turned on my heels and came back after seeing the water.

A]ter this venture into the Annapurna circuit, we caught a bus to start travelling to Mustang. Of course, bus travel in any Third World country is an adventure in itself.

Bus travel Nepal
Tata Bus through the desolate, beautiful landscape

I vividly remember travelling through the Belizean jungle from Belize City to Belmopan many years ago, sitting in an overcrowded bus with chickens running free as we clattered over rickety bridges with wrecks visible below. In Nepal, the ubiquitous Tata buses are often similarly jammed, with scant regard for safety. They break down frequently, and the experience of looking straight down out of your window into a gorge while the driver chats away is disconcerting.

But the opportunity to observe your fellow travellers is worth it. I am an inveterate people watcher. I confess to a secret frisson of knowing that one is only dipping into this existence, rather than inhabiting it, and the feeling of guilt that comes with it. I am just a voyeur, dropping into alternative worlds before returning to my comfortable and privileged existence.

You can argue that all photographers are necessarily voyeurs - to take our images, we must be dispassionate observers of the human condition. The tightrope between dispassion and engagement is one trodden perhaps most perilously by war photographers and those who document human disasters. When I am travelling, I try to imagine what it must be like to have the limited facilities and opportunities that exist in many places. I am like a child, looking around and trying to create stories to go with the hurrying individuals around me. Many of my internal tales are unhappy as I consider their standard of living, but the surprising thing is that most of the people seem happy, calm and at peace with their lives. It leads one to wonder whether it is the bizarre lifestyle that we enjoy in ‘first world’ countries that is the progenitor of so much of our unhappiness.

We jumped on another bus and went to Marpha. Somewhere along the way my guide and I had collected a young Ukrainian girl who was travelling by herself. She had had a bad experience with her guide, whom she had chosen as he spoke Russian. Unfortunately, he then tried to climb into bed with her, proclaiming his undying love. She was an interesting lass, with a rather incoherent story of studying at an ashram in India (while also providing services of a slightly vague nature – apparently being blonde-haired and white were of benefit). After her experiences with the Russian, she set off with a bunch of French people without a guide and nearly fell over the edge of a cliff while wandering in the bush. She seemed to be a disaster waiting to happen, and I thought she was probably safest travelling with us. Unfortunately, my guide spent his time gently harassing her and trying to arrange currency exchanges. Sigh…

Marpha sits on the side of the hills with a gompa (or monastery), and a chorten above it. Apparently, the chorton was erected on the advice of a monk when the villagers became affected with leprosy. History does not relate whether it was successful at stopping the outbreak or not.  It is a delightful village, reminding me somewhat of a mediaeval Spanish village. It took me a while to realise why, but part of its charm is the complete lack of vehicles, helping to preserve its character in a world where the car is ubiquitous.

Marpha Village with it's Chorten above
Marpha Village with it's Chorten above

As you get higher in Nepal, the winds start to increase. By afternoon a howling gale ran through the village, carrying clouds of dust with it. The winds became a constant feature as we went higher and it played merry hell with my camera. I had taken my Nikon D800 with me and a selection of lenses. Having such a sophisticated camera was great in some ways, but carrying the bloody thing was a nightmare and changing lenses in a windy, dusty environment is 'challenging'.

I cursed my ludicrously heavy camera bag on many occasions, despite having ditched anything that I didn’t think was going to be vital.  In Kagbeni I met a professional photographer from Bangkok, who was using a Sony A7RII. I nearly mugged him for it.

The local schoolteacher in Marpha was a cousin of my guide, and we went to visit him. We found him in the back of the schoolhouse in a tiny smoke-filled room with bottles of alcohol to hand on most surfaces. He looked a bit of a disreputable villain, and I’m not sure what his teaching would be like.

From there, we went to Jomsom, hopping on and off buses and trudging along in the dust storms created by passing vehicles and the ever-present winds. As the guide books say, Jomsom has ‘few attractions of its own but acts as a gateway to treks to Muktinath and Lomanthang’. There are some nice-looking hotels and of course the airport, which operates in the early morning until the clouds and winds preclude safe flying. The last crash was in February 2016 when a Twin Otter went down, killing 21 people.

It reminded me again of my first visit to Pokhara in 1999. As we landed (at arguably one of the more challenging airfields in the world), we taxied past the burnt out wrecks of various helicopters and aircraft pushed to the side of the strip. So there is always a slight tinge of anxiety when you go flying in out of the way places. I have flown in light aircraft in Belize and once landed in the wrong country (courtesy of the appropriately named "El Taca" airlines) and am still alive, so the risks are relative.

My guide then suddenly announced a new plan. He was off. I could spend a few days in Jomsom and then take the plane back, as he apparently had contracted to return and guide another trek that overlapped with mine.

I suddenly understood the strange, stuttering progression of the trek: it was clear that this had been his plan from the off. I was not impressed. We compromised by pushing on to Kagbeni, where we parted company, the Ukrainian lass having jumped onto a bus in Jomsom. To be honest, I was heartily relieved to see the back of my guide, as he was neither use nor ornament.

I spent some days in Kagbeni. I did get to Muktinath (more anon) but having the time to stay in one spot proved in many respects to be the best part of the trip. Travelling obviously allows you to see more things, but from a photographer’s perspective, the landscapes are fleeting, with only the opportunity for snapshots.

Some people feel that to be a 'real photographer' (and I wish I were one) will spend days investigating a potential landscape, checking out the best angles and waiting for the optimum. One of my friends, who is a very accomplished professional photographer, disagrees. He feels that what differentiates a professional from an amateur ability to adapt to different situations and to use the appropriate techniques. That’s why he is a professional but it travelling, even with a loose timetable, inhibits the former style.

In any case, staying in Kagbeni allowed me to walk around the village, really looking at what was around me. Sitting quietly, watching the locals go about their business allowed me to feel the respiration of the community and I developed a great affection for it.

Kagbeni is well worth the time. Initially, you might be forgiven for breezing through it, but the more you look around, the more there is to see. Based on a triangular spit of land sitting above the junction of the Kai Gandaki and Gandaki rivers, it juts out into the riverbed with giant eroded cliffs on the opposite side.  The town nestles below the cliffs in a gorge formed by centuries of erosion and is hidden from sight from most angles until you get quite close. The contrast between the barren plain and the little village sheltering in the gorge is striking, with the verdant green of the spring plantings in the fields around the village. The fields are watered in sequence from high to low and the plantings adjusted accordingly. While staying, I watched a group of villagers; men, women and children, digging out a neglected terrace - backbreaking work done by hand, using only primitive tools. The roofs have firewood piled on them and having lived in Northern Canada as a child I could easily imagine that the winters would be bitterly cold. The entrance to the town is guarded by two statues and a chorten that the evil spirits are afraid to pass. You must remember to walk in the correct direction around it.

Kingdom of Mustang
Kagbeni Village from the high plains

Thanks to Jagdish, I stayed at the Mustang Gateway Hotel, run by Dara and Laxmi Gurung. Laxmi studied hotel management in New Zealand, while Dara has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area. They are wonderful people. I ensconced myself in the hotel and had a steady diet of yak burgers (a renewable resource and organically prepared, not to mention being very tasty).

They organised a young guide to take me to Muktinath, and I later had a lovely trip up onto the hills in their 4x4.  In between, I wandered happily around the village, visiting the 14th-century Monastery and the ancient city. In the Monastery, I was allowed to climb onto the roof to take photographs and shown the inner sanctum and the scrolls, some of them centuries old. The Monastery is undergoing somewhat of a revival, and a new building is slowly rising beside the old temple. There is a good crop of novices (including Dara’s middle son, as tradition dictates) and they liven up the place like a flock of chattering starlings.

The old city is a warren of walls and houses stacked untidily upon each other, guarded by two Kheni, one male and one female. Dara told me that they predate Buddism.  He went on to explain that in the old days one contracted to build on top of a neighbours house in return for favours - usually alcohol - leading to this wildly inchoate architectural style. There are still people living in the old city, although the need for fortification and to huddle together in the winter has largely gone.

Electrical cables are strung haphazardly throughout the fortified city, even across the main square where the king used to watch the festivals. From a photographer’s point of view, they are a curse, intruding into almost every shot. Of course, tangles of wiring leading randomly everywhere are a feature of most Third World towns and cities. I’m sure the local inhabitants don’t give a fig for my photographic aesthetics, preferring something that we take for granted in the West. But I still don’t understand why we can get away with one wire, where it seems to take thirty in third world countries.

Ancient houses in the old city Kagbeni, The Kingdom of Mustang
Ancient houses in the old city Kagbeni, The Kingdom of Mustang

I heard some complaints from tourists about the proliferation of roads. Their grumbles always make me a teeny bit tetchy. The introduction of roads since my last visit has clearly been life changing for the local inhabitants. For instance, apples (and apple brandy) have been the major produce of the area for many years. Since the roads came in and it became possible to transport the produce to market, the prices have increased tenfold. I would like the tourists to consider living without electricity for the rest of their lives before criticising. There are still lots of areas to trek where electricity, roads and the internet have not intruded. More will open up as Nepal develops.

Shangri la The kingdom of Mustang
Karma, my guide - looking over the valley

I set off with Karma, my guide (what a great name) through the hills to Muktinath, travelling on the north side of the gorge, away from the main road. Karma - a very nice young man - was tasked with taking me there by Dara and Luxmi. It was his first trip as a guide, and I was quietly pleased to be the guinea pig. He had been instructed to show me every temple on the way and took this directive very seriously. For me, unfit and over sixty, this (again) proved a challenge. Above 10,000 feet pilots switch to oxygen and I found myself puffing away vigorously with even moderate exercise. But happily, no evidence of altitude sickness or discomfort, even overnight at Muktinath.

I did wish more than once that I had had the time to get fitter for making the trip but nevertheless enjoyed every second. There is a stark beauty about Mustang that resonates within me. Along the way, we saw the caves set high in the sides of the cliffs, some hundreds of feet up. Dara told me that monks lived there many years ago: other sources suggest that they were burial caves where the bodies were set out to be eaten by the birds, as is common practice (the so-called sky burial).

The villages make little intense patches of green, surrounded by the barren landscape and topped by a circular ring of mountains. Being over-romantic, it made me think of Shangri-La (or perhaps more accurately, Shambhala), as I trekked along.

The village of Muktinath is growing, probably as less mobile tourists are increasingly able to visit. You access the monastery through a gate and up a winding path. Once through a larger gate, with the fakirs in situ, one then wanders from temple to temple. There is a feeling of sanctity and holiness about the site despite it being a barren landscape. Of course, mystics have been drawn to these spaces for centuries, presumably as the clarity and lack of distraction allows one to commune with god more effectively.

I’ve experienced something of the same feeling in my travels when visiting holy places, including the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (but not the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). There are holy places scattered across the hillside and the famous hundred and eight fountains, where hardy pilgrims strip off and run through them. I contented myself with running my hand through the fountains and kept my clothes on. As you can imagine, the water was freezing.

The next day we walked back along the road, visiting the villages on the way. The vistas remained inspiring, and we ambled along, with me stopping to take photographs every few hundred metres.

Back in Kagbeni, I had the opportunity to drive up out of the gorge into the hills again. The trip was a great opportunity to get out my tripod, and I indulged myself appropriately.

Lastly, I had the chance to go riding. Now, I am not sure why the Kingdom of Mustang is called Mustang, and whether there is any connection to the Mustangs of North America. Certainly, the horses are small and wiry and are very reminiscent of the American version. I am not small and wiry, and my poor horse clearly felt hard done by. But the sensation of joy that I had riding across the barren landscape above Kagbeni and then picking our way across the river to the village of Tiri was extraordinary. It was at this moment that I genuinely felt that I had ticked my bucket list. We galloped back across the river bed to Kagbeni to complete the day.

Horse riding in Nepal
Dara and the horses above Kagbeni

Arguably, I have yet to achieve the 'true' Kingdom of Mustang, as Kagbeni is really only the gateway to the kingdom. To travel further, you need to be fitter than I was, have enough time and to have the appropriate special permits. But I felt quietly satisfied with my trip as I climbed onto the Twin Otter to fly back out of Jomsom, initially to Pokhara and then on to Kathmandu.

Twin Otter about to take off from Jomsum airport
Twin Otter about to take off from Jomsom airport

The opportunity to tick that particular item on the bucket list, thanks to the kindness and generosity of Jagdish Baidya, is something that I will always cherish. And who knows what new adventures will hove over the horizon? I am fortunate to live in New Zealand now, with almost infinite opportunities for the landscape photographer. Would I go back to Nepal? In a heartbeat.

My trip to Nepal was not epic in the sense that I climbed great mountains or travelled to places unknown, but it was an epic adventure in many other ways, venturing to a place that I had had a yen to see for many years. And travelling by oneself has both advantages and disadvantages. It can be lonely but it is easier to immerse yourself in the local community, and one focuses on the surroundings more without the distractions of a companion.

If you want to visit the Kingdom of Mustang, I would do it sooner rather than later. It is likely that a road will be built from Tibet to Nepal by the Chinese, and the landscape and culture will change again. I have reflected in the past on the fact that I have now visited several places in the world that are disappearing or changing and that my children will probably never see in the same state. I have had the privilege of diving in various locations around the world over the years, but now that coral reefs are increasingly disappearing due to global warming the areas that I have dived are being lost, possibly forever.

As we multiply ourselves to extermination, places that I have visited are now overrun, not least by tourists. As an eco-tourist, I have done my share of polluting by travelling to distant places. In my defence, I have travelled to teach and helped to set up the first marine reserve in South America.  But there is now clear that we have damaged our spaceship so badly that our children will never see some of the wonders of the world that we take for granted.

Good night for now.

Stephen Coppinger at Muktinath Nepal


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Teaching in Nepal 1999

In 1999 I was fortunate enough to go to Nepal as part of a team of doctors to teach under the auspices of 'Urolink', an offshoot of the British Association of Urological Surgeons.

Going to exotic places to teach is a fantastic opportunity. I have always learnt more from the people I was visiting than I taught, and you get treated like royalty. If you ever get offered the chance, look noble, and bite their arm off.

I blagged my way on to the trip and went with my mate Roger Plail. The first inkling that we were going to get good treatment was when we simply bypassed the immigration formalities at the airport. Jagdish Baidya, an amazing guy, was one of the movers and shakers and nothing was a problem. We did some operating and essentially taught the Diploma in Urology course in two weeks to the local registrars. Teaching in this environment is like pouring water into sponges and just a delight.

We said that we might like to go for a walk in the hills and it all just happened. I wanted to take my camera bag: an extra porter materialised just to carry it. My dad had a bit to do with the Gurkhas and loved them. I am in his camp. Kind, tough, full of humour and just plain nice characterised the Nepalese that I met.

Of course, Nepal is an amazing place to visit. Kathmandu is perhaps the least amazing part, as it resembles many other large sprawling third world cities. In the middle are the ancient parts and, again, we were privileged to be invited to a reception in the old Palace and allowed to wander around as much as we liked. Unfortunately, it was not so much a camera occasion.

I am constantly impressed by the adaptability of mankind. Nepal is a lot of ups and downs, with some bigger ups than others, Everest springing to mind. But humans adapt to almost anything and the terraces for agriculture are a case in point. Unfortunately, the weather was not brilliant, as we had gone out to work and not to be tourists. So many of the photos that I took are of a leaden winter sky. That is my excuse, and I am sticking to it. Please comment.