Monday 24 October 2011

Mustang moments

I’m in limbo. Just returned from a trek in a remote region of Nepal called Mustang, once the Kingdom of Mustang (there is still a king, whom we met for tea one afternoon). And I'm about to go away again. So I'm in-between and out of sorts. Coming AND going. Washing and re-packing. Longing and looking forward, and trying to be here too – by surfing, swimming in the sea, pegging clothes on the line...Still, I miss the simplicity of being “away” too.

This two-week World Expeditions trek was one of those stripped-down, pared-back experiences I so love. Upper Mustang, where we were, has only been open to trekkers since 1992 and access is still restricted (our permits cost $US500pp for 10 days), partly because of its proximity to Tibet. Tibetans fled across the border into Mustang after the 1959 Chinese invasion, the pro-Tibet resistance movement based itself here for many years and it's still more Tibetan than Nepali.

That’s one layer of the place. Another is its incredible landscapes. Wind-carved ranges, snow-capped peaks and valleys where tiny villages nestle. 

Only about 5000 people live in Upper Mustang and everything man-made comes from the earth anyway: mud-brick houses, thick wooden doors, monasteries painted with clay, stone walls against the fierce winds.

Mules carried our kit-bags and we had a crew of Nepali cooks and sherpas. So all we had to do was walk (with daypacks) - up and down and up again (it is Nepal after all), climbing to 4000-metre passes, descending to rivers, stopping to look inside dark, incense-choked monasteries.

I like the fact that, on trips like this, you're just in one place, with a relatively small group of people to interact with. You do one thing at a time, take one step at a time. My only distraction was a copy of Wuthering Heights (!) that I read by the light of my head-torch at bedtime.

My mind calmed down, my body became stronger. After a few days, I even stopped looking forward to reaching the next pass or the next village, started just enjoying the walking, tough though some of it was. 

And every time I lifted my eyes, there was an open, earthy spectacle. It was like being at sea, only with more dust.

One day I stopped to pee (with a view!); my fellow trekkers went on ahead and out of sight, others behind me had not yet caught up. I looked around. There were no villages. No prayer flags or chortens. I was absolutely alone, in spacious solitude. 

Back in the big city now, I'm wary of romanticising Mustang; for those who live there, life is desperately hard. Most people spend winters in Kathmandu or Pokhara; it's just too bleak and cold to stay. But for those of us privileged to come, and go, it's one of those places that takes you out of your world and into another. 

So I pore over my photos and show them to friends. See, I want to say, this is what I mean...Until I can go away and be simple all over again...

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