Free riding the Hidden Kingdom
The Upper Mustang District in Western Nepal is on the radar of most adventure travelers. However, due to high permit costs and the expense to get there, not all make it to this beautiful corner of the Himalayas. The area still remains culture rich without having all the tourist paraphernalia and infrastructure you fine at other popular tourist spots in Nepal.
I had tried several times, unsuccessfully, to organize mountain bike trips into the region. So it was by chance my old friend, Scott Lindgren, with whom I’d been on many adventures, contacted me asking for help putting together a trip to the Upper Mustang. Scott, an Emmy award-winning filmmaker, wanted to shoot a section of a new film on which he was he was working with Freeride Entertainment and Red Bull called “Where the Trail Ends.”
With the help of another good friend, a local operator in Nepal, we eventually secured all the documentation and permits for entering the Upper Mustang Kingdom and the incredible terrain that would be the backdrop for the film. The mountain bikers I’d be guiding on this fat tire adventure included Red Bull rider Darren Berrecloth from Canada, American Cameron Zinc and Canadians Garret Buehler and Kurt Sorge.
Flying Directly to Jomson from Kathmandu on a charter flight and up the Kali Kandaki Valley is an adventure in itself. As you glide up the valley floor and peer out of the windows, 6,000-meter peaks dwarf you on both sides. From Jomsom, it’s just a short jeep ride to the entrance of Upper Mustang at the village of Kagbeni. This is a slight detour from the famous Annapurna Circuit that attracts trekkers from around the world.
At Kagbeni, we loaded our gear onto donkeys and porters to start our trek toward Lo Manthang, scouting out spots for filming along the way. The stunning views of Nilgiri and Tilicho, two spectacular 7,000-meter mountains, shadowed us on our way up the valley where we camped at a village called Chele at an altitude of 3,000 meters.
Although most of the group had been out on various far-flung adventures, this would perhaps be the furthest they had been without any modern amenities. Here they would be introduced to a bleak, yet beautiful landscape and a people with a rich culture who have learned to survive in this desolate environment.
The landscape up here is simply breathtaking, with huge cliffs and bluffs worn down by centuries of erosion. The dry, arid conditions make it a brutal place to live for locals who expertly find the precious water that runs off the surrounding glaciers. Guided to water, it’s amazing to see patches of green appear in this hostile environment. In winter, most of the locals move down to the valleys below to escape the extreme weather, leaving just a few to look after the houses and some stock that gets left behind.
From Chele we trekked over several passes where we captured some great footage on the way to Geling, another enclave with a stunning monastery perched on the side of a hill. The well-irrigated crops in the valley below put a bit of green into the brown, dusty surroundings. The group found some great lines to ride in the nearby hills. The locals watched in amazement at the routes these free riders were taking. Goats were the only ones who dared to use these trails, if you could call them that.
Moving farther up the valley toward the Tibetan border, we stopped at Tsarang, where a huge five-storey monastery fortress is perched on the edge of the Kali Kandaki Gorge. At Tsarang, we shot more footage on the east end off the village and enjoyed the warm hospitality of the locals and their customs.
Finally we crossed over a pass into Lo Manthang. Here, within the ancient walled town, the King of Upper Mustang has his residence. There are also some famous monasteries such as the three-storey Jampa Lhakhang, the red Thubchen Gompa with its massive assembly hall, the Chodey Gompa and Choprang Gompa. We based ourselves here for several days, making the most of the surrounding areas, including a trip up to Chhoser and the Jhong Caves where monks still lived until not so long ago.
Running out of time, we hired trucks to drive us back down the riverbed of the Kali Kandaki to Jomsom, a trip not to be missed by intrepid travellers. It is seven hours of some of the roughest terrain you can imagine. The views going through the canyon will take your breath away; it nearly closes over you at one stage, allowing just a crack of light to sneak through.
The drive through the riverbed can only be done in certain times of the year. When monsoon season starts, it is impossible to drive as the waters rage from cliff to cliff. We arrived back to Jomsom somewhat shaken up and keen to have a shower. Refreshed, we sipped cold beers while taking in the great views of Nilgiri, remembering the incredible experience we just had.
The sights and sounds of the Upper Mustang were unforgettable and, with the help of some generous and knowledgeable locals, the trip was a great success; the permit money well spent.
Although the riders on this trip were professionals pulling off some ridiculous maneuvers and seemingly pushing the limits of what was possible, the Upper Mustang has much to offer mere mortals as well. A moderately fit person willing to ride anything from challenging or technical ride single track to jeep trails can have a great time, and they will be able to experience a place where time has stood still for centuries, and cultural and natural beauty abounds. If you’ve dreamed of spinning some fat wheels in the Himalayas, it’s time to saddle up and ride the Upper Mustang.
When not leading first descents down some of the world’s craziest rivers or guiding mountain bikers in the Himalayas, Pat O’Keeffe lives with his wife and daughter in Hidaka, Hokkaido, where he runs Hokkaido Outdoor Adventures. He is also part owner in The Last Resort, an adventure retreat a few hours outside Kathmandu near the Tibet border. If you are ready to saddle up and explore the Upper Mustang Kingdom by mountain bike, contact Pat at Hokkaido Outdoor Adventures about an upcoming trip. Freeride Entertainment’s “Where the Trail Ends” will be released in September 2012.