Upper Mustang Trek: A Journey into Nepal's Forbidden Kingdom

By Jan Bakker

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Upper Mustang Trek: A Journey into Nepal's Forbidden Kingdom
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The Forbidden Kingdom of Upper Mustang has sparked the imagination of many trekkers around the world. And it’s easy to see why! This wonderland of bizarre rock formations, spiky glaciated peaks and Buddhist culture is a trekking heaven. Upper Mustang is a high altitude desert that is part of the Tibetan plateau. The trek leads to the mythical walled city of Lo Manthang and is a true off the beaten track experience.

My name is Jan and I’m the trekking expert at Bookatrekking.com for Nepal. I think there is something very special about trekking on high altitude plateaus. I have trekked in the Indian Himalayas of Ladakh and the Bolivian Altiplano. The striking contrast between the barren, desolate plains and the snow-capped peaks is truly amazing. In combination with the rich culture I can safely say that the Upper Mustang trek is one of our most beautiful trekking journeys in Nepal.

Upper Mustang Trek: A Hike into Nepal's Little Tibet

Behind the towering Annapurna Massif lies a wild, barren land in an ocean of snow-capped peaks. This is the Forbidden Kingdom of Mustang, also known as the Kingdom of Lo. It is isolated from the rest of Nepal and shares a border with Tibet. Once an independent kingdom, it was annexed by the Kingdom of Nepal in the 18th century. When Nepal became a republic in 2008, Mustang sadly lost its status as a kingdom. Upper Mustang remains virtually untouched with a unique culture and rugged mountain landscape. Having said this, the construction of a road is underway and may change the character of the region in the near future. More about this in the chapter “A Road Across Upper Mustang: The End of Mustang As a Trekking Destination?” further below. Go now while it still feels like a far-flung final frontier!

From Pokhara, the gateway to the Annapurnas, you hop on the spectacular flight to Jomsom. This is where you start trekking north into Lower Mustang and climbing to Upper Mustang, sometimes dubbed Little Tibet. You enter another world where it looks, feels and smells very differently. The route roughly follows the course of the Kali Gandaki River, which slices through the dry, barren land. People have been living, or perhaps surviving is a better word, for millennia in splendid isolation. Ingenious irrigation systems ensure the villages can grow their barley, potatoes and other vegetables. From a distance the striking green, terraced fields are true oases in an otherwise stark moonscape. Along the way you will pass many well-preserved gompas (monasteries), mani walls and stupas that you may be able to visit. The trek gradually ascends to Upper Mustang’s main town, Lo Manthang (3810m). Founded in 1340, this mysterious, walled “city” hasn’t changed much since that time. Reaching this place is literally the highlight of the trip, and we spend a couple of nights here to catch a glimpse of what life in this high, remote spot is like.

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What Is The Best Time To Do The Upper Mustang Trek?

Most trekking destinations in Nepal are exposed to the monsoon rains that fall from June to half September. It is still possible to do the treks, but it may be a very wet experience with limited views. The Upper Mustang region is an exception. This high altitude desert lies in the rain shadow of the Annapurnas, and you can experience crystal clear days and dry weather this time of the year. Interestingly enough, the summer months are also relatively quiet. The best teahouses will be all yours. The most popular times of the year are spring and autumn.

In May the Tiji Festival is held. Many trekkers like to combine their adventure with this traditional festival. The three-day festival takes place on the premises of the former king of Mustang’s palace. The locals from far and wide visit Lo Manthang, Upper Mustang’s capital, to participate in the festival. You can go trekking in the Upper Mustang in winter, but it is bitterly cold and you need to make sure you bring the right equipment.

What Is The Best Time To Do The Upper Mustang Trek?

How Hard Is The Upper Mustang Trek?

Trekking at altitude is never really easy. It takes time to acclimatize and there will be some huffing and puffing during the first trekking days. The Upper Mustang trek starts relatively high at 2800 meters, however, the elevation gain is rather gradual. Does that make this hike easy? Well, not quite. There are some long days in terms of distance, up to 22 kilometers. And the combination of altitude, dry air and strong winds can bring some discomfort while trekking. So while the trek is technically not hard, some days can be quite tough and demand stamina and determination. Make sure you’re fit!

A Road Across Upper Mustang: The End of Mustang As a Trekking Destination?

The construction of a road from Jomsom into the Upper Mustang region in Nepal has brought a number of implications, influenced by both positive and negative factors, with a backdrop of China's involvement in the region. On the positive side, the road has notably improved connectivity, simplifying the transportation of goods, medical supplies, and people. This increased accessibility has the potential to create economic opportunities, particularly in the realms of tourism-related activities and trade. Supporting infrastructure development, including rest areas and fuel stations, could further contribute to the region's overall growth.

However, amidst these positive changes, concerns have been raised, particularly regarding the potential impact on the unique culture and environment of Upper Mustang. The increased human activity, notably tourism, has sparked worries about environmental degradation and the potential threat to cultural heritage sites. Socially, the influx of outsiders may trigger changes in traditional lifestyles and community dynamics.

Notably, the influence of China in the region adds another layer of complexity. China's strategic interests, economic partnerships, and infrastructure projects in Nepal may play a role in shaping the development of the road and its impact on the region. This could have implications for economic dynamics, cross-border trade, and regional geopolitics.

What does this mean for the future of trekking in Upper Mustang? The (dirt) road can already be driven by 4X4 vehicles all the way to the Chinese border. Trekking companies have diverted the traditional hiking routes away from the road, passing villages largely undisturbed by the new developments. The question is if the region can retain its unique cultural heritage and pristine mountain environment. Time will tell.

A Road Across Upper Mustang: The End of Mustang As a Trekking Destination?

What Is A Great Upper Mustang Trek Itinerary?

This 14-day trek deep into Upper Mustang gives you the chance to become one with the unique Tibetan landscape and culture. Join us on this off the beaten track trekking expedition.
Day
1

Drive to Pokhara

Early in the morning, we will travel to the beautiful valley of Pokhara via Prithvi Highway. You will see the Western Himalayas during this scenic 6 to 7 hour long bus ride. Upon arrival you will have the opportunity to explore Pokhara, the beautiful city by the lake. Alternatively, you can go boating in the shimmering Phewa Lake. We will spend the night at the local hotel.

Pokhara

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Pokhara
Day
2

Fly to Jomsom and trek to Kagbeni

Duration: 03:30 h
Distance: 10.5 km
Ascent: 230 m
Descent: 130 m
We will catch a plane from Pokhara to Jomsom, one of the main towns in Mustang. It will take around 20 minutes to get there. We will fly northwest from Pokhara over the deepest gorge on Earth between Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. You will enjoy beautiful views of the hills and mountains during your flight. From Jomsom, we will trek uphill for 3 hours alongside Kali Gandaki before we reach Kagbeni, the gateway to Upper Mustang. The village is located at the bank of two rivers. We will spend the night in a guesthouse.

Kagbeni

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Kagbeni
Day
3

Trek to Chele

Duration: 05:30 h
Distance: 14.4 km
Ascent: 610 m
Descent: 420 m
We will continue our journey towards the east bank of the Kali Gandaki climbing through numerous ridges, and then head north for the Tangbe village. This picturesque town is a labyrinth of narrow alleys amid white-washed mud and stone houses, buckwheat fields and apple trees. The majestic Nilgiri dominates the southern sky of Kagbeni. From there, we will hike to Chhusang village for 2 hours before we cross the dwindling Kali Gandaki. We will climb up to huge red mass of sedimentary rock that had fallen from the cliff above, forming a tunnel through which Kali Gandaki flows. Crossing the Kali Gandaki Valley, we will climb uphill to Chele. You will witness the slow transition in culture, from Manangi culture to Tibetan. We will spend the night in a guesthouse.

Chele

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Chele
Day
4

Trek to Syangboche

Duration: 07:15 h
Distance: 15.4 km
Ascent: 1390 m
Descent: 680 m
Our trek today goes along a steep barren land, alongside the copper red canyon. We will make a gradual descent to some chortens on a ridge, and after hiking downhill for some more time we will reach the beautiful village of Samar. From there, we will climb a ridge and descend into a giant gorge. We will keep trekking through another valley and cross a stream and before we climb up a ridge which lies at 3,800m. We ascend yet another pass, go across another ridge before we can finally descend to Syangboche.

Syangboche

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Syangboche
Day
5

Trek to Ghami

Duration: 04:30 h
Distance: 11.5 km
Ascent: 470 m
Descent: 680 m
From Syangboche, we will gently hike uphill until we reach a pass at 3770m and trek downhill to reach the village of Geling. From Geling, we will go uphill passing through fields to the center of the valley. Then we will climb a tough terrain across the head of the valley to the Nyi La pass (3840m). From there we will descend for half an hour until we reach a trail junction, the right trail is a route to Charang while the left one leads to Ghami. It is a village of clustered white washed mud and stone houses canopied by an overhanging cliff. This is a great place to spend the night.

Ghami

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Ghami
Day
6

Trek to Charang

Duration: 04:00 h
Distance: 10 km
Ascent: 470 m
Descent: 480 m
We will trek to the driest part of Mustang today. It will be a strenuous trek crossing fairly rough terrain. But upon reaching our destination, we will be rewarded with splendid views of the remote countryside, and we will be able to see mountains in all directions. Upon reaching Charang, a large village at the top of the Charang Chu Canyon, we are due for some rest. At the east end of the village, you can find a medieval fort and a red gompa which house a spectacular collection of statues and thangkas.

Charang

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Charang
Day
7

Trek to Lo-Manthang

Duration: 06:45 h
Distance: 18 km
Ascent: 770 m
Descent: 500 m
We will trek to one of the major attractions on this trip: Lo Manthang. This was the walled capital of the Kingdom of Lo. The city was founded in 1380 by Ame Pal. It consists of around 150 households and residences for lama gurus. We will trek through Lo-Gekar, which is the oldest gompa in Nepal and older than the Samye Gompa of the Tibet. On reaching the walled city of Lo, you will have the opportunity to visit the ancient temples and monasteries of the region and the periphery of the King’s impressive palace, where the King and Queen of Lo- Manthang reside. You will have the chance to go horse riding and see the beautiful valley.

Lo-Manthang

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Lo-Manthang
Day
8

Exploring Lo Manthang

We will explore the mystical town of Lo Manthang, starting with a 2 hour visit of the Namgyal Gompa. This beautiful gompa is situated on a hilltop, which is of high social, religious as well as legal importance as it serves as a local courthouse. After that, we will visit the village of Tingkhar, northwest of Lo Manthang with its 40 households. We will also visit Champa Lhakang where you have a chance to admire a large Buddha statue and intricate Mandalas painted on the walls.

Lo-Manthang

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Lo-Manthang
Day
9

Trek to Dhamkar

Duration: 06:20 h
Distance: 16.3 km
Ascent: 730 m
Descent: 740 m
We will leave Lo Manthang taking the upper highland trail. It will reward us with splendid views of Lo Manthang and the Charang Valley, with snow-capped mountains in the background. We will cross the Dhi Pass at 4,100m and reach Dhamkar. Here we will spend the night.

Dhamkar

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Dhamkar
Day
10

Descend to Syangboche

Duration: 06:15 h
Distance: 16 km
Ascent: 720 m
Descent: 750 m
With Dhaulagiri and Nilgiri among other giants standing tall in the background, we will hike down to Syangboche. On the way we pass through Rachen Gompa, mystical gompa at the entry of a rocky cave. We will spend the night in a guesthouse in Syangboche.

Syangboche

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Syangboche
Day
11

Trek to Chhusang

Duration: 07:45 h
Distance: 18 km
Ascent: 730 m
Descent: 1560 m
We will continue our trek over steep ridges and over hills. We will trek to Tetang, the upper village of Chhusang which lies between two hills. It is a safe escapade from the fierce wind that hits the Kali Gandaki valley frequently.

Chhusang

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Chhusang
Day
12

Trek to Jomsom

Duration: 07:30 h
Distance: 21.7 km
Ascent: 480 m
Descent: 690 m
On the last day of this memorable trek, we will pass Jharkot village and visit the local monastery, the grand Tibetan Herbal Medicine Center and see an ancient fortress which once was a palace. During our descent to Jomsom we will enjoy the view of Kali Gandaki Valley and Kagbeni Village. This is the gateway to Mustang. We will celebrate the last day of the trek in Jomsom with all our staff.

Jomsom

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Jomsom
Day
13

Flight to Pokhara and Exploring the City

After taking a 20 minute flight to Pokhara, we will spend the rest of the day in the city to explore and relax. If you haven’t yet, go boating in the exotic Phewa, Rupa and Begnas Lakes, visit the beautiful hilltop monastery or go explore the mystical caves. You will have the chance to buy some souvenirs and enjoy the nightlife in the vivacious city.

Pokhara

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Pokhara
Day
14

Drive Pokhara – Kathmandu

After breakfast, we will travel back to the capital via Prithvi Highway. Once again the scenic bus ride will keep you refreshed throughout the journey. We part ways when we are in Kathmandu. May you enjoy the rest of your time in Nepal! Namaste!
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Upper Mustang trek map

This map gives you an overview of the route that we follow on our Upper Mustang trek.

What Accommodation Can I Expect On The Upper Mustang Trek?

The trek in Upper Mustang is the only tea house trek in Nepal you can do without being affected by the monsoon rains that prevail in summer. In similar regions that dodge the monsoon, like Inner Dolpo and the far west of Nepal, you are required to camp. There is no continuous formal accommodation that enables you to do a full tea house trek.

Are the tea houses in Upper Mustang different from the ones in other Nepali trekking regions? Yes, they are. In Mustang the architecture is Tibetan, with flat roofs and distinct window frames. On the roof tops wood and shrubs are dried to be used as fuel in winter time. Don’t expect luxuries like on the Everest Base Camp trek. The region still doesn’t see many tourists and accommodation remains fairly basic, though very authentic. So while WiFi and hot water may not be available, you will have the chance to taste local food, such as yak cheese and yak butter tea. Staying in an Upper Mustang tea house is a truly local experience that gives you an idea how people in this part of the world live their lives.

What Accommodation Can I Expect On The Upper Mustang Trek?

What Permits Are Needed For Upper Mustang?

To do the Upper Mustang Trek, you'll need two types of permits, both arranged by our local team in Kathmandu.

ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Permit)

Entering the Annapurna Conservation Area requires a permit priced at USD 20 per person. This permit grants a single entry and remains valid for the entire trek. It is also obligatory for the other treks such as the Annapurna Circuit and ABC trek.

RAP (Restricted Area Permit)

There is no specific duration restriction for staying in the ACAP area. However, those progressing into Upper Mustang (from Kagbeni onwards) need a Restricted Area Permit (RAP). This permit costs USD 500 per person for 10 days, with an additional USD 50 per day for extended stays. There is no TIMS (Trekkers Information Management System card) required for the Upper Mustang Trek as the Restricted Area Permit (RAP) is sufficient. It provides details of the trekker and his/her destination in case of an emergency or problem.

What Permits Are Needed For Upper Mustang?

Packing List for the Upper Mustang Trek

Trekking in Nepal requires decent gear. Especially the basics like an 80-90 L backpack and quality trekking socks. Read an extensive blog here about what to bring with you.
  • Documents

  • Sleep

  • Footwear

  • Clothing

  • Accessories

How To Identify and Prevent AMS On The Upper Mustang Trek?

It's essential to understand that altitude sickness can affect anyone, regardless of age, fitness level, or previous high-altitude experience. These days there are several tools to monitor your health at altitude. A widely-used (analog) method is the Lake Louise score card. It ticks the altitude symptoms while keeping the severity in mind. It’s a common tool used by guides. Nowadays, most trekking and mountain guides bring a blood oxygen saturation meter, which also measures the heart rate. These are key indicators whether a person adapts to altitude well or not. AMS can occur when trekking the Upper Mustang Trek. Below you can find everything you need to know about altitude sickness.

  • Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

    Altitude sickness, also known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is a health condition that occurs when someone is exposed to low levels of oxygen at higher altitudes. AMS is a serious condition and as the name suggests acute. It needs to be dealt with immediately, as it is potentially life-threatening. Most people will experience some mild symptoms of altitude sickness. It’s important to be aware of these symptoms and act before symptoms become more severe. Below we break down the different forms of AMS and how you can reduce the risk of getting it.

    AMS symptoms

    It is key to know how to identify altitude illness. You may experience the following symptoms due to the jump in altitude: headache, lack of appetite, breathing difficulties, insomnia, nausea and vomiting. The intensity and severity of these symptoms may increase with altitude and an overall feeling of fatigue will take all your joy away. This may further deteriorate to one of these life-threatening conditions.

    High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE): HAPE is a condition in which fluid accumulates in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Symptoms may include shortness of breath, a persistent cough, chest tightness, and an increased heart rate. It can be a life-threatening condition and requires immediate descent to lower altitudes and, in severe cases, medical treatment.

    High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE): HACE is a more serious condition in which fluid accumulates in the brain. Symptoms may include severe headaches, confusion, loss of coordination, and altered mental status. HACE is also a medical emergency and requires immediate descent and medical attention. Below 7 ways of minimizing the risk of AMS:

    • 1. Gradual Ascent

      One of the most effective ways to prevent AMS is to ascend gradually. When traveling to high altitudes, try to take several days to acclimatize before going higher. This allows your body to adapt to the reduced oxygen levels. All our treks in Nepal keep sufficient acclimatization into account.

    • 2. Stay Hydrated

      Dehydration can increase the risk of AMS, so drink plenty of fluids. Avoid excessive alcohol and caffeine consumption, as they can contribute to dehydration.

    • 3. Diet

      Consume a balanced diet with adequate carbohydrates and avoid heavy, fatty meals. Carbohydrates can help your body utilize oxygen more efficiently at high altitudes.

    • 4. Medication

      Some individuals may consider taking medication, such as acetazolamide (Diamox), to help prevent AMS. Consult with a healthcare professional before using any medication, and be aware of potential side effects.

    • 5. Rest

      Ensure you get enough sleep and rest during your ascent. Fatigue can increase the risk of AMS.

    • 6. Avoid Overexertion

      Pace yourself and avoid overexertion. Listen to your body, and if you experience symptoms of AMS, rest or descend to a lower altitude.

    • 7. Descend if Symptoms Persist

      If you experience symptoms of AMS, such as headache, nausea, dizziness, or difficulty breathing, it's crucial to descend to a lower altitude. Symptoms should not be ignored or dismissed.

Where Can I Book the Upper Mustang Trek?

At Bookatrekking.com you can book this trek and many others. Our guided options come with experts on the ground, and offer you a convenient, stress-free, safe, and educational way to explore the outdoors. Find our offers here. Our easy-to-use platform allows you to browse and compare different trekking options and find the perfect fit for your interests, abilities, and budget.

If you have any questions about a specific trek or need help choosing the right one for you, our team of trekking experts is here to assist you. Simply reach out to us and we will be happy to provide you with personalized recommendations and advice to help you plan the trekking adventure of a lifetime.

Is this not your cup of tea and are you looking for other epic adventures? Check out one of our blog posts:

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