I’ve been travelling to Nepal for some twenty years now and finally last year I had the opportunity to visit the remote region of Mustang. My first brush with this region was some 17 years ago when I descended from the Thorung La pass and looked up the valley of lower Mustang. In those days trekking permits were very expensive at something like $500 a day, which made the trip an impossible one for me.
Fortunately, today a two-week permit in Mustang will set you back about $500. This amount of money still is enough to put most tourists off, so this region has very little foot traffic when compared with that of the rest of the world. Couple this with the fact that if you are going to Nepal, most people want to see Everest and this keeps the Mustang region free from the hordes of tourists that trek that region.
So why choose Mustang? Well, with very little outside influence (western culture) this area has remained unchanged for centuries. It has the most beautiful little villages nestling at the bottom of some of the most awesome mountains and a real sense of isolation that is so difficult to find on this planet. Just a one-day trek from the airport in the Kali Gandaki valley puts you into the most photogenic and magical world imaginable.
I started to plan this trip while I was in Nepal on a commission for Yeti Airlines photographing their luxury lodges in the Everest National Park region; a trip in which I nearly lost my life - but that’s another story! I hooked up with a travel company in Kathmandu recommended to me by my travel business partner back in the UK. This was a small and friendly organisation that spoke passionately about its country. They put together a programme for the Mustang area that coincided with a festival which was taking place in the Kathmandu valley in April 2011. The scene was set now for this awesome trip with the intention of turning it into one of my overseas photo tour locations. As with every “recce” that I do, I invite past clients to join me in the adventure, and on this occasion I was joined by my friend Paul who came to know me after booking on many of my previous photo tours around the world.
Setting off from London Heathrow airport we faced a long journey via the Middle East before arriving in Kathmandu totally exhausted. This time of the year can be very wet and this occasion was no exception. Thunderstorms raged most nights, taking out the electricity and leaving the city in darkness for many hours. We spent two days in the Kathmandu valley photographing the festival before flying to Nepal’s second city, Pokhara. We had a one-night stay there and then we were up for an early flight into Jomson. WOW! What a flight this turned out to be! To get to Jomson you have to fly between two mountains, each 8,000 metres high. The view from the plane window was simply fantastic as the mountains towered above us.
The first thing we noticed after landing was how different the climate was this side of the Annapurna mountain range. It was hot and very dry with clear blue skies, such a stark contrast to the thunderstorms we had left behind in Kathmandu. Our guide for the tour of Mustang was a young chap called Thanker, very experienced in this particular area of Nepal. He informed us that Mustang was the driest region in Nepal with an average rain fall of only 48 cm per year and with April only receiving 9 mm. We were taken to a hotel for breakfast and to meet with our team that would be looking after us on our journey. We had a total of seven staff comprising two guides, a cook and his assistant, one man to look after the four mules and the rest were porters carrying food supplies and cooking equipment. We packed three tents, one for me, one for Paul and one for Thanker, the rest of the team would bed down in local houses. Most of the bulky equipment was going to be carried by the mules, leaving Paul and me to concentrate on the job in hand (indulging in photography). After some good strong Nepalese coffee we were off trekking up the Kali Gandaki valley - the world’s deepest valley. Today’s walk was to be only some four hours’ duration to get us to the start of the Upper Mustang valley. The first night was to be spent in a small guesthouse with a hot shower and electricity, so needless to say I made the most of the facilities. The rest of the trip was going to be under canvas, which was something that I was very excited about. An early night was in order, as the following day was to set the precedent for the rest of the trek. Most days hereafter were going to average out at about 8 hours trekking, some of which would be uphill. The majority of the Mustang trip is made more difficult by the fact it is at altitude and the air is noticeably thinner here.
The landscape in this region is like nothing I had ever seen before. Although this may sound off-putting, it is predominantly mud, but even so is incredibly stunning. The colours were so beautiful and you could see the layers twist and contort where they had been pushed up to form the mighty Himalayas. Life would spring from this desert landscape where melt water flowed off the massive snow covered peaks and villages would appear amidst green fields that surrounded them. The villages were the most amazing sight to behold; built from the surrounding mud they had this most amazing medieval presence. It was like stepping back hundreds of years. No shops, no garages, no pubs, bars or restaurants – I say again, it was simply stunning.
Most nights our tents were pitched somewhere among the buildings in these villages, giving us the most humbling insight into how these friendly people lived. Horses play a big part in the daily life of these people and are the common form of transport for locals to travel between villages. It would be rude to come all this way and not try out the local transport, so I arranged a couple of trips on horseback to see some of the off the beaten track sites. We noticed a lot of caves that had been built into the hillsides and some of these had been turned into places of worship. So we saddled up and set off to explore. On one of these occasions, unseasonably it decided to snow, and I found myself in what can only be described as a life changing moment. I looked up and through the blizzard made out the huge mountains that surrounded me, and looking down from the narrow path that I was riding along saw the valley floor hundreds of metres below. I looked ahead, only to see the path disappear into the white void. I felt the most overwhelming feeling of isolation and was left wondering how these people could survive in such harsh conditions. This trip was starting to turn into something very special.
One of the highlights of the trip was a place called Lo Man Thang, the capital of Mustang, a small city (about the size of a small Derbyshire village in the Peak District in England). Lo Man Thang is a walled city that sits near the Tibetan border. It has a small collection of guesthouses that boast bizarrely, free Wi Fi; needless to say, this does not exist. All this adds to the amusement and charm of the place. It has beautiful Buddhist temples which you can wander around freely to soak up the atmosphere, and photographing the surrounding hills will make memorable images to be cherished forever.
The whole experience of this unchanged area is truly unforgettable; the people are amongst the most friendly that I have ever met. The cooks provided culinary delight after delight each and every mealtime and the hot bowls of water for washing at the start and end of each day were a most welcome refreshment. The equipment provided was far more than satisfactory and not once were we too hot or too cold (despite the unseasonable snow). Both down jackets and sleeping bags kept us toasty on the colder nights and the sun cream came in handy for the warm sunny days on trek. I was so pleased with the whole experience that I’m proud to offer this exciting opportunity as a new addition to my overseas photographic holidays. This clearly is a trip for the photographer who has vision and the spirit for adventure. Not a stroll in the park, but for those who are fit, this is the perfect opportunity to take photographs that no other photographic holiday can provide.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 12 of Landscape Photography Magazine.