Sunday, May 18, 2014

Mustang Trek, Day 4. We Reach Lo Monthang

"May one be liberated as soon as he sees this temple of the body, speech and 
     mind of the Buddha. 
May one be liberated as soon as he hears about it or touches it. 
May one be liberated as soon as he prostrates and circumambulates it. 
May one be liberated as soon as this temple is even thought of."
---Inscription in Jompa Gompa, 'The Temple of the Future Buddha', Lo Monthang, 1435 AD

Mustang Trek Day 4, Tsarang to Lo Monthang. 8 miles, 1200 feet climbing, 4 1/2 hours. Highest point, 12,600 feet. 

We made it. After 4 days, about 50 miles and about 9,000 feet of total climbing, we are in the amazing town of Lo Monthang. When we got to the final ridge, there it was, far down in the valley, the ochre buildings of Jompa and Tupchen and the huge, white royal palace. It seemed all worth it, looking down; the long flight and the difficult trek. Finally, here was the place that I had been dreaming about visiting for years. The only thing that was missing was Amy. I would have to experience it for both of us. 

We started off with a nice breakfast at our tea house in Tsarang. I had Tibetan bread, like an Indian fry bread, and eggs. The owner of the tea house, an old Loba gentleman, went through the place on his morning ritual, waving an incense burner, cleansing away the energy of evil spirits. 

Nance is ready to go...

A couple of snot-nosed kids, as my mother use to say...

The trek today was relatively easy. Only about 6 miles and 4 1/2 hours. The only difference today was the number of trucks, carrying tourists and locals. Before today, we only saw a few cars everyday, most of them local people in jeeps or large trucks. There was also a helicopter that flew overhead about 6 times, ferrying tourists back and forth to Jomson. 

One of the many chortens along the route...

We saw several caves today, mysteriously built, thousands of years ago, way up on the cliff side, with no apparent way to get to them. Most of these caves are empty, but some hold temples or burial chambers. It's still a mystery to scientists who built them why and how. But some think that there may have been carved staircases that have long since eroded in the wind. 

I hiked ahead of the group, finally coming to a rise and a pass. Going a little further up a side hill, there it was, in all its glory below us. What I had dreamt of for years was sparkling in the bright Himalayan sun; the capital city of Lo Monthang. 

"Coming up a hill, we reached a narrow passage between two bluffs, a natural gateway through which the dusty trail slithered...what I saw was beyond description - so were the emotions that flooded me as I stood in the howling wind that raced through the narrow corridor. 

"At first I could not believe my eyes, and felt like the incredulous mediaeval travelers looking for the first time at Rome. Not even my wildest flights of imagination could have pictured what lay before me. It seemed that I, too, was living the age old legend that has haunted the mind of man for generations, and which in our times of modern stress has increased as a form of escapism: the legend of the lost city - of Shangri-La, of a Paradise Lost, a land where ageless men thrive beyond the borders of our busy, unromantic world. A place where time hangs frozen upon a secret universe."...Michel Peisel, 'Mustang, The Forbidden Kingdom', 1967

I sat there on the dusty hill top staring at this beautiful site with our two porters, who looked relieved to be here. Soon, Nance, Trina and KB joined us and we all stared silently at Lo Monthang, the wind howling through the prayer flags that were strung up on the pass. Wondering where Ron, Sheila and Nirajan were, we headed back to the trail and they had walked right past the viewpoint and were heading down to the town. In Sheila's delicate condition they were in no mood to dilly dally.

Our tea house, The Mystic Himalayan, abuts the outer wall of the town. There are no places to stay within the walls. And the nicest thing about this place?  Sit down toilets!!  For everyone who takes this modern convenience for granted, just go without them for four days, and have stomach problems at the same time. Also, there is an instant hot shower, actually, the third hot shower we've had on this trek. I don't think I've been quite so dusty in my life as here. The constant wind and dust makes a for dirty trekker!

After we checked into the tea house, I took a quick stroll through Lo Monthang. This place consists of tiny, narrow streets, seemingly going nowhere. Around every corner is something going on, a lady washing clothes with her grandchild by her side, or someone leading a few goats in town. One nice lady leaned out of her window and asked where I came from and how I liked the town. People are very nice here.  There are several souvenir stores, all selling the same Tibetan trinkets and the owners can be a bit a bit aggressive getting you in the store. But I have the excuse to tell them that our guide won't let us buy anything until we get back to Pokhara, as it's too heavy for our porters. Most of the stuff comes from Pokhara anyway. 

One of the odder things people do here is stick their tongue out when greeting someone. We wave, the Lo Bas stick their tongue out. You are especially supposed to do this, along with scratching your head, when you greet the king. Luckily, we didn't have to test that tradition. In fact, I think the whole tongue thing is a dying tradition, as I only saw one old lady so it. But it was still a bit shocking. 

Street scenes from Lo Monthang...

After lunch and a quick nap it was off to see the temples, Tupchen and Jompa. First we had to go the monastic school to get the tickets. Here, boys of all ages were playing cricket in the large playground, all in their monastic red robes. It was quite a site. They were batting the ball all over the place and I wondered why they didn't occasional break a window. Here, we saw a small temple with beautiful, 600 year old frescoes. These hadn't been restored and were very dark. Luckily, Trina had the idea to being our flashlights so we could see, as the electric light was very dim. No pictures are allowed in the temples (unless you pay a $100 camera fee!!!) so all pictures here inside the temples are from Google images. 

Next up was Tupchen, also a monastery from the 15th century. This is an absolute incredible place, as you walk into a huge hall, the walls of which are covered in Buddhist masterpieces. Large frescoes of the Buddha and other masters cover the walls. It was very dark, but we were told we could come back tomorrow to see the restoration in progress. 

Before the restoration...

"We found ourselves in a short yard leading to a high, wide, covered porch. Here I stopped in amazement, for on either side of this porch sat two huge painted clay statues about four yards tall. With gigantic pot bellies, outsized faces and impressive features, these divinities stated at us reproachfully. They were the "Four Kings of the Quarters", the fierce guardians of a Tibetan temples

"Like an ugly insect dwarfed by the fierce guardian kings, the old man got to work once again with his rattling keys and led us through the door into a black hole - where apprehensively, feeling as if we were about to penetrate the dark, cold bowels of the earth, we followed him. 

"I had never seen anything more impressive than this majestic hall - an eloquent monument to the great architectural talent of the Tibetans. Slowly, the vast empty hall became populated by divinities as, like children, we paced along this huge picture book, accompanied by the guardian of the temple, who pointed out the more frightening divinities to us with his crooked, dirty fingers.

"Here were the oldest and most beautiful works of art of Mustang. 'Only the most beautiful monasteries in Tibet have comparable paintings,' Tashi commented, and then added 'But in Tibet you would never see such a beautiful gumpas uncared for and abandoned.'

"I wondered whether it was not a blessing that this great assembly hall was abandoned?  Had monks still lived and prayed here, no doubt they would have found it necessary to 'renovate' the frescoes and replace with shiny, less beautiful designs then those drawn by monks who had died four centuries ago. Although over the years techniques have hardly changed in Tibet, and designs have remained the same, there is a certain quality and finesse in the art of past centuries which cannot be found in more recent creations."...Michel Peissel, "Mustang, The Forbidden Kingdom", 1967

The next temple was Jompa, a three story Gompa just a few yards from Tupchen. This place is also amazing as it has a 45 foot statue of the Buddha of the future, lit only by the light coming in from the doorway. On the walls were incredible mandalas, all with the most finely detailed little figures, mostly Buddha, that you can imagine. Look closely at these and you will,see a 5 inch high painting of the Buddha with the eyes, ears, arms, everything very finally painted. These are also around 500 years old and had been recently cleaned, bringing out the detail even more. 

When the Tibetan scholar Giuseppe Tucchi visited Lo Monthang in 1952, he had this to say about Jompa and Tupchen's paintings...

"The paintings are so blackened, in some parts erased by the water dripping from the ceiling, that it is not possible to take photographs of them so these two notable monuments of the best period of Mustang are also fated to disappear. It is very lucky that I arrived in time to collect the memories of them which still remain."

Again, from Michel Peissel...

"We found ourselves in a gallery. It was dark and it was with a shock that I suddenly saw looming before me the frightening figure of the most colossal statue I have ever seen. It rose up into the tower from the ground - a huge fifty foot high figure of 'the Buddha who is next to come'. Its hands, half the size of my body, were raised in the gesture of turning the wheel of life. Its gigantic face stared at us from the lofty dimness above, while from its outsized fingers dangled countless katas thrown there by devout pilgrims.  Fifty feet high, and representing a seated figure, its proportions were truly monstrous. The head alone was as big as a stout man. Painted gold, with gilded copper plate over its arms and shoulders, the huge Buddha glimmered eerily."...Michel Peissel, "Mustang, The Forbidden Kingdom", 1967

The gigantic statue of "The Buddha Who is Yet to Come", which is over 50 feet tall...

An example of one of the incredible masterpieces in Jompa...

At dinner we were able to make call to Amy and I was able to talk to her for 5 minutes or so before Nirajan's SIM card ran out. It was great hearing her voice and how good she sounded!  

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