Nestled deep in the heart of the mountain deserts of Nepal, Mustang Valley has a long and vibrant history.
The Lo Kingdom
Long before Mustang Valley became a part of Nepal, this region was home to the Lo Kingdom. It wasn’t until the 8th century that this region fell under the rule of the Tibetan Empire. A couple hundred years later, the Lo region and the Dolpho region became part of the Purang Kingdom, which ruled over the western portion of Tibet.
In the 950s, Lo was conquered by Gungthang, a newly formed kingdom in the north. When the Jumia Kingdom formed in the early 1300s, it overthrew the Gungthang Kingdom and took control of Lo.
The Lo Empire was established by King Ame Pal in the late 1300s and it was very prosperous. This kingdom remained independent until the Gorkha kings took control of Lo and Kathmandu Valley in the mid-1800s, leaving both a part of modern-day Nepal.
Lower and Upper Mustang
Mustang Valley is commonly split into two parts: Lower Mustang and Upper Mustang. As of the early 1990s, tourists are allowed to visit but permits are limited and expensive, as the people who live there value their culture and independence and want to preserve their way of life.
Lo Manthang: The Capital
The capital city of Lo Manthang is part of Upper Mustang. While this region technically falls under Nepal’s political rule, it is home to the Loba people who have maintained a traditional Tibetan lifestyle. This city is extremely well preserved, boasting a medieval fortress.
The Thak District
Another part of Upper Mustang is the Thak District, where the Thakali people have made their home. Their culture is a blend of both Tibetan and Nepalese traditions.
Lower Mustang: The Annapurna Circuit
Long considered one of the most popular long-distance hikes in Nepal, this 12- to 21-day route is not for the faint of heart. The route begins in the villages of the Himalayan foothills and goes over the Thorong La Pass into Mustang Valley.
Ancient Caves and Monasteries
Two of the biggest draws to this region are the 1,000-year-old caves (manmade) and the well-preserved monasteries.
Followers of Tibetan Buddhism have trekked to the caves for hundreds of years to practice tantric yoga. It’s also a good area to practice a type of Tibetan breathing known as tunmo. Tunmo lets a person generate heat when at high altitudes and is great for conquering negative feelings.
Some of the caves even have statues or frescoes inside, not to mention that even the empty ones offer unforgettable views of the mountains and sky. A few of the cave entrances are locked and require a local caretaker to open them.
Mustang Valley is also home to a unique collection of 55 cave paintings that showcase the life of Lord Buddha. These paintings, which date to the 1100s, are in a partially collapsed cave (visiting is possible but the trek is hard and can be dangerous).
Mustang Valley has long been home to various practitioners of Buddhism. These temples, once centers for Buddhist artists and scholars, are now home to Tibetan art. Some temples even feature frescoes with Bodhisattvas and Buddha, statues of Indian yogis, sacred books penned in gold, and tantric Mandalas.
Mustang Valley is home to a wide range of religious ceremonies and festivals that occur year-round.
The Tenji Festival
Held in Lo Manthang, this festival occurs in the third month of the lunar calendar of Tibet (April or May in Western calendars). Monks perform fantastical dances that depict a traditional Buddhist tale of good and evil.
The Yartung Festival
While popular in all regions of Mustang, this festival is particularly well-loved in Muktinath and features dancing, drinking, and horse races.
Saka Lhuka Ceremony
Held every year in February, the seed-sowing Saka Lhuka ceremony involves monks reciting from religious books. During this time, new village leaders are also appointed.
The Tiji Festival
One of the largest festivals in the area, the Tiji Festival is a three-day celebration of Lord Buddha’s victorious incarnation. Monks perform several traditional dances, including Nga Chham and Tsa Chham.
Mustang Valley is comprised of many individual villages, some quite isolated, that all understand the value of eating well (something that’s particularly important at higher altitudes).
Many visitors enjoy Momo, steamed dumplings served with a spicy sauce and local vegetables. Roti is another popular dish similar to a donut. Finally, there’s Dahl Bhat, a national dish made from rice, lentils, and curry.
Mustang Valley Today
While modern touches like improved motorways are being introduced to the region, Mustang Valley is one of the few places in the world where you can get a glimpse of ancient cultures and traditions. The locals are known for being kind and welcoming, making Mustang Valley well worth the trek.