I first heard of Mustang-The Former Tibetan Kingdom of Lo during one of those late night candle lit conversations while trekking high in the Himalayas. Wrapped in blankets and sipping yak butter tea, Tashi told stories of a medieval Tibetan Kingdom untouched by time; the terrain and weather so unforgiving that no roads could be built and army could control it.

It’s a land of outlaws and bandits, where nomads still live in yak hair tents and feed their dead to the giant Himalayan Griffons.

He had never been but often dreamed about visiting this forbidden place, over the impossibly high, 24,000 ft peaks just north of where we sat. The King of Lo was rumored to be stepping down, and the Chinese and Nepali governments were in the process of building the first road over the Himalaya, connecting China and India. This road leads directly through The Kingdom of Lo. This is probably the only place where traditional Tibetan culture remains untouched.

I had to see it before it was changed forever, and over the summer of 2014, I did.

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I walked over those snow capped mountains three days after this photo was taken.

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Tsarang Monastery, Tsarang, Upper Mustang. The name of the village means, “Eagle rips the flesh” and people here still practice the ceremonial Sky Burials where giant Himalayan Griffons eat the the dead..

 

Chhoser Village, 13,000ft, near the Nepali-Tibetan border. My favorite place in Mustang. Here, people live as they have for thousands of years, no english signs, no guest houses, no phones or wifi. In the evenings, the women of the village would all come sit in the middle of the village and catch up on daily gossip. Kids squealing and playing between houses; a long line of goats being led in to mud-brick enclosures for the night, having spent the day grazing the dry hills at 15,000ft.

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So of course, I found a cave to sleep in.

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In the summer, villagers cut grass and use some of the caves to store winter food for the horses. Dried grass is a great insulator and I decided to make a nest for myself. The temperature dropped to freezing that night and I didn’t have a sleeping bag or blanket, but I actually slept. Not amazingly well, but, you know, survival.

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I was picking grass seeds out of my underpants for days.

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Drinking a cup of tea at sunrise in Chhoser, Upper Mustang. Tea was crucial for staying warm and I probably drank two liters of Masala tea every day. Before retiring each night I filled my one liter bottle with hot water and cuddled with it for additional warmth. 

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I stayed with this woman in Chhoser. You can see her home in the Chhoser village pic (5 pics above this one). The white house against the cliff with a red blanket drying out front. Mustang women still dress more traditionally than the men, with brightly colored robes, skirts, and head wraps. Sun-kissed rosy cheeks create a natural rouge on their dramatically board cheekbones. Most of them wear gold earrings and nose rings which makes them look like beautiful, colorful pirates. This woman also had a gold tooth which I though was extra classy.

Traditionally, polyandry was practiced here in Lo. This woman has two husbands who are also brothers. This has some practicality because agricultural lands are not devided between family members. 

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Tibet lies Just over those 16,500ft mountains. In the video, I’m walking along the narrow ridge in the upper left of this pic.

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Horses along the Tibetan border. I rode a horse for half a day but the owner of the horse insisted on walking in front of me and holding the bridal. I got off in frustration and walked the remaining 20 miles. At this altitude it was absolutely brutal. 

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Cave paintings, recently discovered.

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Dhakmar, Upper Mustang. The village name means “red blood” for the cave filled red cliffs were people once lived.

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Found this in Tibet inside an ancient weathered shrine and then put it back where it belongs šŸ˜‰

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“Om mani padre hum,” a Buddhist mantra carved into stones along the trail in Mustang

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Yak skull on my search for the Dhokpas (nomads). That morning an old Tibetan man pointed his binoculars up into these mountains before advising, “Dhokpas! Go, look. Yak!”

If I find the yaks, I’ll find the Dhokpas.

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Having yak butter tea and yak milk with a Dhokpa family. Grandmother and granddaughter. Notice the little girls sun kissed rosy cheeks.

The Dhokpas are a very small cultural group and some of the last remaining Tibetan nomads. 

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Maoist (Chinese communist) rebels had a stronghold in Mustang until just recently. It’s pretty safe these days. 

 

As I’m approaching a village from below, i see movement on the ridge above me. Camouflage and rifles line up in sentry positions, aiming over my head. I stopped and waited for my interpreter to be sure things were ok before continuing. “I think so…”

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This is all my gear. I took this before going over 17,769ft snow covered mountain pass.

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This is Throng La pass. I came up the hard way, from the northwest. Nobody comes up the backside of the mountain and everyone told me I was insane to try. It is incredibly steep, slippery, and most of the time I couldn’t even find the trail. I just kept going up and figured I’d know it when I saw it. I hear it is the “World’s Highest and Steepest Ascent.”

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Duct tape bandaged feet and a Griffon feather, half a days walk after crossing the pass. I nearly killed myself getting this shot. Camera propped in a cactus, crumbling sheer sandstone cliffs on three sides of me fall hundreds of feet to the valley below. 

In total I walked for three weeks and covered over 350 miles: beginning in Jomsom, north for a week to Lo Manthang, then to more remote villages, and  into Tibet (illegally. shhh) before walking back to Muktinath and ditching my interpreter. I then continued alone over the highest and steepest pass in the world and down the Annapurna circuit. 

I wore only flip flops for this trek. I always carry superglue and duct tape so I was able to repair them every time they broke, which was often. Why flip flops you might ask. I have seen Nepali porters do the same and I figured if it was possible, then I could do it. 

Besides, going over the highest pass in the world wearing flip flops sounded like a nice challenge. I passed a few locals on way to the top and they looked me up and down (confused as to why I was going the “wrong way” up the pass), before pointing at my sandals and commenting to each other with a wide smile and a thumbs up. 

Two days after crossing Theong La, I found myself back in Manang (on the Annapourna side of the mountains), the village where Tashi first told me about the legendary Kingdom of Lo. I felt a sense of completion; a sort of nostalgia, knowing I would forever remember this day. Here I was, alone in the Himalayas, living my legend. 

Ever thankful to Tashi for his stories, I wrapped myself in a blanket, lit a candle, and in his honor, poured a cup of yak bitter tea.

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    -Leah- (Cebu, Philippines)

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