On the couch with Margie Thomas: Nepal’s Upper Mustang

One of the last places on earth to find untouched Tibetan Buddhist culture is in Upper Mustang. It’s a unique corner of the Nepalese Himalaya. Here’s why this region and its people hold a special place in Margie’s heart.

Veteran trekker Margie Thomas has undertaken numerous treks in the Nepal and Indian Himalaya, but Upper Mustang is an area that has captured her heart time and time again.

“Upper Mustang is just so different from anywhere else in the Himalaya. It’s sort of similar to Ladakh but is far more untouched, and far, far fewer tourists go there.”

Where it all began: first impressions of Mustang

Lonely Planet author Stan Armington, who was one of the first Westerners to go into Mustang when it opened its borders and an old friend of Margie’s, invited her to visit Mustang with him back in August 2013 and it left her spellbound.

It was really like one of the last bastions of pure Tibetan Buddhist culture outside Tibet.

"Because it’s just 40 kilometres inside the border of Nepal and Tibet, it's remained untouched by the Chinese as there was no way that they could infiltrate and breakdown the culture. So, there’s a rich Tibetan Buddhist culture up in Lo Manthang.”

“It was an amazing trek up there," Margie recalls. "We trekked all the way up along the Kali Ghandaki, the deepest gorge in the world, and across a breathtakingly beautiful remote high-altitude desert... The countryside was absolutely spectacular, and we visited many small settlements, villages and nomad camps including the old royal capital of Tsarang, on the way to Lo Manthang.”

“It was summer, so the harvest was on. So, in this vast, barren landscape there were fields of pink and green and mustard... it was so beautiful.”

Stunning views are to be found at every turn on our Upper Mustang Horse Trek |  <i>Sandra Shrubb</i>

Upper Mustang opened its doors to visitors in 1992; however, this isolated and remote northern region still remains largely unexplored by foreigners.

I think the great attraction is that, up until last year, you really saw very little change from the 14th century.

"Lo Manthang and much of upper Mustang is as it was; hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. I just do not see that anymore. It’s also because its cultural horizons focus toward Tibet, rather than Kathmandu. The lack of tourists is another big plus; things have changed slowly up there.”

Completely captivated by the culturally rich and deeply spiritual place, Margie was determined to revisit Upper Mustang and within a year she returned for a second time, taking a trekking group with her. This time in the company of Australian/Tibetan musician Tenzin Choegyal, whose family had escaped from Tibet when he was a small child. They retraced her first trip and, at Lo Manthang, arranged for Tenzin to perform for the locals inside the walled city.

“All the locals came to hear Tenzin’s concert and they absolutely loved it. It was a beautiful night in the walled city, and the King and Queen were looking down from their window over the village square, listening to Tenzin’s haunting music. It was quite magical.”

It was Margie’s extraordinary journeys among these remote communities and her experiences in such a relatively untouched region that inspired her to continue to trek to Lo Manthang with World Expeditions, which she has been leading annually since 2017.

Margie is looking forward to returning with a newly devised and rarely trekked route on her Upper Mustang Pony Trek in 2020.

“There are some long hard days – eight-hour days – so it’s not a soft option. You’ll get the best of both worlds. You’ll have a remote trek, particularly with this new route coming back through Luri and Yarra and out through Tetang and Chhusang on the banks of the Kali Gandaki. Thankfully, there are no vehicles out there.”

The trek is graded a Level 5 by World Expeditions, which is the same as a trek to Everest Base Camp… but you’ll almost have the place to yourself. You might only see a dozen other tourists.

Meeting the royal family

Margie’s connections extend to that of royalty – the nephew of the Last King of Mustang, Tsewang Jonden Bista.

“Tsewang, being part of the royal family, has been wonderful in opening doors for us that very few tourist have been opened for, so we’ve had access to all sorts of unique, off-limit places and old palaces.”

Private puga at Tsarang Gompa in Mustang |  <i>Margie Thomas</i>

“The experience has been quite remarkable; going into his home and meeting other members of his family. The King – although not recognised by the Nepalese government, is revered by the Lobas in Upper Mustang. We met him and his son on our previous trek, so again, we had an insight into royal life and into many aspects of the villagers’ lives, which just aren’t accessible to other travellers.”

Charitable support for a Chosar school

Behind each trip Margie's embarked on to Mustang, she would raise funds for a little school out in Chosar, located about two hours northeast of Lo Manthang. The school provides free education and food for around 25 students who are from very poor and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Village women in rarely seen traditional dress worn at festival times, Chosar village, Upper Mustang. |  <i>Margie Thomas</i>

“I was enamoured by then, and what happened on that trip was I got to know more local people and I could see the need up there for support, particularly for the children and for education. Many of the children just know the local dialects, so no knowledge of Hindi or Nepali, sometimes, let alone English. Without those language skill they really are hampered in terms of employment later on.”

“I talked to World Expeditions and said, what can we do? Could I put a group together and raise funds through the World Expeditions Foundation? And that’s what I’ve been doing every year since."

We’ve raised significant funds over the years. We usually average about $10,000 (AUD), but in 2019, we’ve raised more than $13,000.

“We received one generous donation of $2000 from a family trust and with that money we put solar panels on a hostel (Himalayan Children's Care Home) for children from Upper Mustang. 75 children now have access to hot water. They’re down in Pokhara but believe me, it gets very cold during winter in Pokhara. Previously the children had cold showers or a weekly bathe in the river. So people have been incredibly generous in making this happen.”

In addition to these projects, Margie’s philanthropic efforts have helped provide funds for female students at a small nunnery in Tsarang, for Amchis (traditional Tibetan medics and healers) who provide essential support for residents in these remote areas, as well as provide an annual donation to the cave monastic school at Gharpu.

“The main benefits I’ve seen is in the confidence in the children at the Chosar school. Their English language skills have grown enormously, because they’ve been able to employ better teachers and more teachers, and bringing tourists there regularly also helps because they’re interacting with Westerners and practicing. The confidence in those children through better education has been really the most remarkable change I think.”

So, what's Margie’s advice for travellers to get the most out of their travels?

“An open mind, an open heart, along good sense of humour are the top three, definitely. It’s hard not to have those in Nepal because the people are so wonderful… Just open yourself to the experience. To quote Stan Armington, ‘Nepal is here to change you, you’re not here to change Nepal’.”

Pony trekking, Mustang, Upper Mustang, Nepal, Tibet, tibetan culture, kingdom of mustang, trekking, himalayas, gompa, lo manthang

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