I am travelling in Mustang, the ancient Himalayan Kingdom of Lo, on nothing but a mountain bike. I cycle through the Kali Gandaki and the feet of Annapurna. I am heading to Lo Matang, the capital, following the ancient road of caravans. As I go deeper into Mustang, I leave the main paths and enter a journey of self-discovery.
Isolated from the world, in the Tibetan Plateau, beyond the great Himalayan Mountains, lies the Kingdom of Lo. It is a high-altitude desert of rocks, boulders and disperse soil in ochre shades set against the infinite blue sky. It is known in Tibetan as the “fertile plain”, or Mustang.
It is a special place. In the 8th century, the legendary tantric guru and magician, Padmasambhava, was the first in a series of Buddhist Masters who came here, travelling between India and Tibet. They influenced the assimilation of Buddhism, the making of stupas, temples, monasteries, and the hoisting of prayer flags on high mountain passes. In that way, an already inspirational landscape assimilated the religious architecture. They became one with each other.
Wandering in these valleys one can feel a palpable energy. Mustang is a residence for the divine, a mandala in the landscape.
The Kingdom of Lo was annexed by Nepal in the late 18th century. Mustang then remained closed to outsiders, and spared from China’s occupation of Tibet. It is one of the few places where the Tibetan language, religion, customs, art, and social forms have been preserved.
For many, reaching Mustang means entering paradise, the Shangri-La of dreams.
I brought a mountain bike to Mustang. My journey began in the small town of Jomsom, at the south gate of the Kingdom, guarded by the majestic 8,000m peaks of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. I cycled north towards the capital, Lo-Mantang, three days away.
My route used to be Mustang’s main thoroughfare. Kali Gandaki Gorge was used by caravans transporting salt from the Tibetan plateau to the plains of India for centuries.
Unbalanced by the panniers and jolted about on the hardtail mountain bike, I slowly made my way through the rough dirt road along the world’s deepest river gorge, which majestically showed the signs of glacial erosion and the patient work of the chilling winds.
I was attracted by the holes that dot many of the cliffs, clustered high on the sheer rock faces. It was here that the travelling ascetics performed their advanced tantric yogi practices in absolute seclusion.
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At a monastery near Nubchokling, the Lama told me that when you meditate in a cave where venerable monks meditated, you can benefit from their energies. He told me how to reach one of them, and, following his advice, I hiked on a steep trail that became narrower and more precipitous.
I crawled into the cave and sat in silence.
I am not sure what the Lama meant about old saints’ energies. I simply took in the peacefulness and the mesmerizing views of the sky and the mountains. One thing is true: the ego shrinks when confronted with the sublime.
Later, I climbed down and asked the Lama what were the ascetics looking for in the caves…
When I arrived in Lo-Mantag, I avoided the guesthouses that can be found outside the city walls. Rather, I sought to stay in a local home, which is the quickest way I know to have a meaningful cultural exchange even out of brief encounters. Finding a place to stay is an adventure in itself. I call it generating benevolence. It entails finding a person who is willing to draw on the universal values of hospitality. One has to inspire sympathy, necessity, and interest.
Dikee Dolker Gurung, 29, guided me through the labyrinthine alleys of the capital until we reached a small door. We entered a stable where a solitary cow sat ruminating peacefully. The ground floor of Mustang’s homes is usually occupied by the animals.
We climbed a set of narrow stairs that led into the living room on the first floor. Her mother was churning fermented milk in a wooden cylinder, making fresh butter. Her father was lying on the sofa, spinning a prayer wheel. The stove was fired by cow dung, and a soup with pieces of yak meat was simmering on it.
“Foreigners can experience the gentleness of the people of Mustang,” Dikee told me. “They can make it theirs and carry it back home to their life.”
Walking in the streets of Lo-Matang, I wondered about the happiness that the local people projected, despite their modest means and notwithstanding their obvious interest in the material aspects of modernity.
“Mustang is a happy land because of the people’s devotion to Buddhism, their strong sense of community, and their contentment to live simply, like their ancestors did,” told me Lama Thashi, principal of the Cheri monastery school.
He noted that it is hard to learn about the Tibetan religion and culture abroad. “Cultural understanding is not just about studying books. It is about experiencing the way of the people, attending to the dying, herding the yaks, doing community work, feeling the winds, and watching the sky of this landscape.”
The darkness of the Thubchen monastery praying hall was broken by spotlights focusing on details of the painting of the eight Bodhisattva, now almost back to its original splendour. Tsiweng Jigmeted, 30, was perched on the scaffolding, colouring a lotus ornament. He started working on the renovation project at age 14, when his talent was already evident.
“I am proud of my work. I am a Buddhist. I am saving my culture. I am earning good Karma. And I get paid for it!” he said laughingly.
In the 15th century, the Kingdom of Lo was a vibrant centre of Buddhist scholarship and art. Temple-hopping in Mustang is a treasure hunt. Not discouraged by closed doors or temples in decay, I kept looking and was rewarded by rare, magnificent works of Tibetan art: frescoes with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, tantric Mandalas, sacred books written in gold, silk Tangka, and statues of Indian yogis in bronze, copper, and clay.
These works of art are symbolic representations of the various qualities of the enlightened being. They remind us of the different elements of our spiritual paths: compassion, patience, equanimity, wisdom, and generosity.
Contemplating those virtues, I saw how they could lead to happiness. If I was able to nourish them once I was back in Hong Kong, I might gain the capability to respond to the psychological frailties of living in a modern city: pride, vanity, touchiness, and acrimony.
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“Did you feel how strong the sense of religiosity is here in Mustang?” Luigi Fieni asked me. He is in charge of the restoration work being carried out by the American Himalayan Foundation in Mustang’s most important monasteries, preserving the treasures of Tibetan art.
“How many people in Italy go to pray in the Sistine chapel?” Luigi continued. “People all over the world are interested in art but they forgot why it was done. Here in Mustang, it is the opposite. It does not matter who the artist is that painted the big cosmic Buddhas in the Shaluis style. What is important is that it helps the act of praying.”
The rituals are helpful also to the non-religious like me. Praying calls for contemplation, and bowing the head in respect acts as antidote to pride.
Instead of cycling, I walked the journey south, out of Mustang, back into the world. I take, quite literally, the road less travelled. The Kali Gandaki Gorge attracts everyone entering Mustang, it has done so for centuries. However, other magnificent trails are left empty, and they lure me with the promise of adventure amidst the most spectacular landscapes. I walked through Yara to Muktinath at the base of the Annapurna.
The trail touches beautiful villages. Goes past rivers that need to be forded. Braves passes over 4,000 meters that need to be crossed. The reward is immense: a hike where the mountains become sharper and wilder, the gorges steeper, the silence louder, and the atmosphere more solemn. I wondered if this was paradise. What was the secret of this place and this people?
Books are my best travel companions. I found a hint to the answer in Fosco Maraini’s Secret Tibet, written in 1951 during the turbulent times of China’s annexation of Tibet. Maraini’s Tibetan muse, the Princess Pema, tells him:
“We are so different from what people imagine us to be, you know... Often when I read books about us by foreigners, I think that they don’t understand us at all. A country of saints and ascetics who care nothing for the world, indeed! Ah! You must read the life of Milarepa if you want to understand us. Greed, magic spells, passion, revenge, crimes, love, envy, torture . . . . Besides, what need would there be to preach the religious law to us so much if we were always good and full of virtue?”
Its secret is that there is no secret. It is a normal country with real people. The Lama at Nubchokling told me that the ascetics who inhabited the caves of Mustang were not looking for anything. Well, Mustang’s nothingness is full of meaning.