NEPAL: PART 3 - THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM
WORDS AND PHOTOS BY OLIVIER DE VAULX
After having explored most of the villages and trails in the lower Mustang, it is time to prepare for the last and most exciting part of our trip. The Upper Mustang valley is a part of Nepal where nobody in our group has ever been before, our guides included. At the eve of our ride to this restricted area, everybody feels the thrill of the true adventure.
A forbidden kingdom
In many other countries, going from the lower to the upper part of a valley wouldn’t be a big deal. You would basically just have to keep following the same route. But the reality of Nepal is that the Lo Kingdom is more or less closed to tourists, mostly to prevent any infiltration of smugglers through the close border with China. In this context, traveling in this area requires a great dose of patience, a decent amount of money and some local contacts. Christophe Noel, in charge of this trip with his tour company farXplorer, and his friend Chris, who both have been traveling in Nepal for a decade, have been meaning to visit this part of the country for years. Yet, due to the low number of permits emitted and also the closure during the heart of the Covid pandemic, they never have been able to ride here yet
For this trip, Christophe didn’t leave anything up to chance and just went for it. While we were exploring the lower Mustang, he asked Biki, a trusted Nepali guide, to bring all our passports to the administrative center in Kathmandu. There, all the requirements had to be checked: as foreigners, we needed to have a Nepali guide, which was easy to prove since Biki was there; we had to be part of a group of minimum two people, again an easy check since we were a group of 6 riders; then, things got more complicated, as we had to have our tourist visa extended by 10 days, which is the maximum duration of these permits, and to pay a $500 fee per person. While the whole thing was supposed to be doable online, it took Biki 4 days to get it done. No wonder why the relief on Christophe’s face when Biki showed up in the morning was so visible.
With the precious sesames in hand, we finally start our journey toward Lo Manthang, the forbidden city at the end of the Upper Mustang. In the chill morning, our Royal Enfield Himalayans roar at the first solicitation of their electric starter. The rising sun warms us quickly, which proves to be a blessing when our trip is confronted by a road block only 20 minutes after departure; a furious river washed out the trail, and crossing this torrent looks challenging to say the least. Yet we have no choice but to go blindly into the furious water. Some riders spin their rear wheel on the hidden rocks underneath the surface and put their not-so-waterproof boots to the test. The only way to go successfully is to stand up, keep a steady pace, and hope for the best. Still, even with a perfect crossing, the water reaches knee high. The Alpinestars adventure boots covered by the Mosko Moto Enduro OTB pants do an amazing job of keeping my feet dry, a fact made even more remarkable by the fact that I’m the only one whose socks are not soaked. The show must go on though, and we keep climbing, on a dirt road that is large, well graded and much more comfortable than anything we rode on so far. It looks like the military is taking good care of its vehicles!
A first stop to a police check point is the opportunity to proudly show our expensive documentation to the officer in charge. We’re quickly cleared to go and keep on exploring. Not wanting to catch a cold, we stop at the first village to dry everybody’s feet and enjoy a hot tea. We kill the time watching a charming lady weaving on a hand-made loom. She’s doing an amazing job and we end up buying beanies at a price so low that we ask her twice to be sure we understood it right.
It doesn’t take long after this village to enter the heart of the Upper Mustang and discover what we all have been dreaming of: the imposing peaks of the Himalayas, so close that we could almost touch them. It’s an optical illusion of course, as their menacing silhouettes are miles away but our brain can’t really cope with the scale. From there, we literally stop at every corner, enjoying a constant change of scenery. From one vista point, you admire the dark rocks of a mountain highlighted by some eternal snow. On another corner further up, you have a perfect vantage point and view of the valley below, with layers of blue mountains vanishing in the distance. We ride slowly, not because of the altitude or a lack of power, but because we don’t want to miss anything. A turquoise lake, a curious formation of hoodoos, some canyons hand-dug during the construction of the road, there are so many things to see! As we reach the highest elevation on the road, we find a natural terrasse that has been decorated with prayer flags. It might be the altitude, or the influence of the Nepali culture, but we stop here for a half hour, lost in our thoughts, experiencing some sort of collective meditation.
Passing underneath the monumental arch that welcomes the travelers, we ride through the main streets of Lo Manthang to reach our tea house for the night. Once the bikes are aligned in the backyard and our bags dropped in our rooms, we go for a tour of the six hundred year old town. The only walled city in Nepal, Lo Manthang is the capital of the Lo Kingdom. Beside the royal palace, closed to the public, we find monasteries that are six centuries old. Young Buddhist monks speaking perfect English give us a tour. Adamant that we’re not allowed to take pictures, we try to entrench in our memories the warm atmosphere of the red rooms, the colorful paintings, the sparkling shapes of the golden Buddhas, the 30 feet tall wall hangings.
Going back in the maze of narrow streets, we stop to admire the fine pieces of silver jewelry hand made by local artists. We leave room for a woman pushing a few cows, surprisingly not bigger than a pony. The town is quiet, and nobody pays close attention to us. We witness some intimate demonstration of faith, like these people being blessed in the streets, as well as older women chatting and knitting at their front door.
The next morning, the sunrise lights up the surrounding mountains and gives the signal for another part of our exploration: 15 miles from here, troglodyte caves once used by the king to hide and protect his people from invasions, are opened to the public. We cross the desert landscape, riding around boulders the size of a car, before reaching the cliffs. Caves are everywhere, like windows on a skyscraper. The similarity stops here, as there’s no elevator but rather a succession of wooden ladders. The network of tunnels made for the tiny people of Nepal is difficult to navigate with our huge build of westerners, but we’re amazed by the depth and the complexity of these primitive human constructions. Archaeologists have found remains of lost civilizations older than 4,000 years here, and we walk cautiously, as not to disturb some ancient spirits who could still haunt the place.
A trip out of time
Back in town, we return to the small shops one more time, buying stuff we don’t need but that are impossible to find anywhere else. Besides, these small artifacts will be for us the witnesses of a culture so peaceful that we can’t resist. We have a small talk with mechanics working on Chinese bikes, and say Namaste countless times to people of all ages. We feel like we’ve been accepted already. Later, when the time is coming to go back to the valley, the 40 year old woman who owns the tea house asks us to wait; she comes back with a handful of khatas, the soft silk scarves that are offered to travelers to wish them good luck. It’s not without emotion that we start our Royal Enfield Himalayans and head down, passing once again under the city’s portal. In two days, we will be in Kathmandu, and less than 48 hours later, most of us will be back in the USA. But for now, it’s all about enjoying the Upper Mustang while we can, with different views on the downhill. We all feel sad, having to leave this valley that welcomed us so warmly. Yet, we know that we will probably come back, with friends or family, to share the incredible serenity of these sparsely remote areas, out of time and still miraculously preserved from the craziness and the greed of our modern world.
Special thanks to Christophe Noel, the CEO and owner of FarXplorer www.farxplorer.com for the opportunity to join this unique trip to Upper Mustang; Thanks to Suzan, who’s probably the best guide to visit Kathmandu and go off the beaten paths; Thanks to Biki and the FarXplorer crew members, who fed us and took care of our bikes as well as our tents; Thanks to Donna, Bob, Joey, John and Chris who coped with my need for pictures at any given moment; Last, but not least, thanks to all the anonymous Nepali we met along the way, you guys are awesome!
For Nepal: Part 1 - Highway to the Himalayas: CLICK HERE
For Nepal: Part 2 - Wandering the Lower Mustangs: CLICK HERE