Upper Mustang is a territory of Nepal that extends into the plains of Tibet. Protected within Nepal boarders and away from the influence of the Chinese rule in Tibet, upper Mustang is a place where the many Tibetans have found refuge. Here, Tibetans have been able to hold on to and live out their traditional spiritual practices.
The area has been ruled by a lineage of Kings and has long been referred to as The Forbidden Kingdom. Only in recent years have outsiders been allowed to enter the area by obtaining a special permit.
Nestled in a valley of the Himalayas, the journey into Upper Mustang begins after a flight that swoops closely over the Annapurna ranges. The flight it itself almost spectacular enough to justify the journey.
Landing in Jomson, we began our trek up the valley, following the Kaligandaki River deeper into the mountain range. The terrain quickly turned from luscious green into a dry desert-like landscape.
Trapped by a rain shadow, little water hits the area, and with altitudes over 3500meters, few trees are able to grow. The landscape is covered in dust and striking rock formations. Strong winds blow fiercely through the valley each day, churning up dust that gets stuck in the eyes, staining the skin, as if to test ones commitment to the journey ahead.
While the region contains stunning stark landscapes, what is most special about the area is the culture. Arriving into each small town after a long hike each day feels as though you are stumbling into an ancient world.
The towns are walled with small winding rivers passing through, providing every house with a close supply of mountain water. The towns have been painstakingly built by hand with brick and mud carried with sweat upon human and yak backs. It is hard to imagine the time, devotion and labour that has gone into each building.
Towering mud temples and palaces have been established upon precarious slopes, providing a place for contemplation and daily meditation. The beauty and detailing of every structure, meticulously maintained for hundreds of years, speaks to the depth of spiritual devotion in the area.
Tibetan Buddhism runs deep throughout the region. Groups of men and women can be seen circling the city each dawn and dusk as they recite om mani padme hum and complete their kora.
Despite a deep sense of spiritual belonging, survival for families and life in general is tough. The cold temperatures at this altitude creeps into your bones and makes every task a little harder. Washing dishes and clothes causes pain to run from your fingers up your arms as you delve your hands into icy water. How women manage to grit and bare it as they complete their regular duties throughout the winter months is honestly beyond me. But they have definitely earned my respect.
The hardship perhaps contributes to the number of young migrants leaving the area each winter in search of employment. The seasonal migration helps supplement family livelihoods, but makes the burden all the more heavier for those left behind during the snow.
Since few crops grow easily, most families of Upper Mustang survive by tending herds of goats, yaks and buffalo. Pens are dug down into the ground to keep animals safe from roaming predators.
For centuries, families have also relied on horses as a centre piece of their lifestyle and survival in Upper Mustang. Only in the past four years was a road erected giving vehicle access to the area. Before that, all produce and equipment were carried over the hills on horse and yak back on a trek that takes many days.
Or in many cases, carried on human back.
Still today, shepherds are seen driving large herds of livestock over the hills, on a journey that last several weeks by foot, taking their produce to market during special festivals times when they can best earn their years income.
As well as livestock, some families manage to tenderly care for and cultivate small orchids of apple trees which provide an important source of income. The apples are dried into a delicious trekking snacks, which I regret not having bought a bigger supply of.
In recent years The Forbidden Kingdom has been hard hit by climate change. The annual glaciers melt among the Tibetan and Annapurna ranges have for generations provided just enough water for the rivers of Mustang to sustain agriculture and families in the area.
While we have watched climate change impact small island nations across the world, so too has it begun to threaten the life and traditions of ancient communities in the mountains of Nepal.
In the upper Mustang area, the average temperatures have risen at 5 times the rate of the global average. Glaciers are disappearing and with it, rivers are drying up. For many communities, life has become impossible to sustain.
Some have chosen to relocate within the area to towns where the river still flows year round. Others are choosing to migrate to the city where some will be lucky enough to find jobs while others will resort to settling among the Tibetan displacement camps or informal settlements along Kathmandu’s river ways.
In either case, with migration the people of Upper Mustang lose access to the ancient spiritual practices and the tight knit community that makes The Forbidden Kingdom so unique and special.
We must hope and speak out for a different solution; for the establishment of water infrastructure that will give the communities of Upper Mustang the chance to maintain life and protect their ancient practices.