Lush green foothills dotted with quaint villages set against the backdrop of soaring, breathlessly high mountains. This is the image most people conjure in their minds when they think of Nepal.
However, hidden behind the giant 8,000-meter peaks of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, lies the Mustang Region. It’s a mysterious, arid-looking place of cliffs and canyons. Rainfall is rare, and the fields surrounding the compact, earth-toned villages here are irrigated by snowmelt from the nearby mountains.
This sunburned landscape is the canvas for the first Mustang Trail race, an eight-day multi-stage trail race along inter-village trails of the former “Forbidden Kingdom.”
Mustang is reached in a small Dornier plane, via the deepest valley in the world, which follows the Kali Gandaki River and cuts a five-kilometer deep V-shape between the two 8,000-meter mountains. Against this massive scale, the plane feels like a mosquito flying between two houses.
Experienced Japanese ultra runner Ryoichi Sato (51) from Kanagawa Prefecture was one of the 12 participants in the inaugural race.
He came to Mustang to follow in the footsteps of two legendary Japanese runners: Ekai Kawaguchi, the Tibet-exploring Buddhist monk who was the first Japanese visitor to Mustang and Nepal, and Toru Kondo, the ex-JICA worker who dedicated more than 15 years of his life to Mustang development.
“The trails were safe; they were trails used by the people living in Mustang. It was very changeable scenery and a feast for the eyes that was a lot of fun,” said Sato.
Each stage was between 15 and 32 kilometers with up to 2,000 meters of climbing. This may not sound overly challenging to some trail runners, but at an altitude of 3,500-meters, there is only 66 percent oxygen available and even a slow jog can feel like a sprint.
The natural scenery features the fiery red cliffs above Dhakmar village and the Grand Canyon-like badlands of Konchok Ling. The dramatic color changes from place to place and according to the position of the sun and clouds. The area’s rich culture includes numerous monasteries and sacred caves, sometimes far from the nearest habitation.
Competitors were able to sign in and out of certain checkpoints, so they could take as much time as they needed to visit cultural sites such as the 800-year-old Lo Gekar Monastery, with its exquisite carved and painted stone images.
Famous British trail runner Lizzy Hawker, who came in second overall, says, “Multi-day races are excellent training for ultras. Back-to-back days really build endurance.”
Sato, a Team Otori Ultra Runners club member, will need all the endurance he can muster in his next challenge. He’ll be back in the Himalayas in July, this time in Ladakh, India, where he’ll take on the 222K La Ultra high-altitude race.
The next Mustang Trail Race will take place Nov. 23 to Dec. 6. Sign up on the Web site at www.mustangtrailrace.com. Check out more Nepal trail running events at www.trailrunningnepal.org/events