"...magnificent desolation."....Colonel Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Tranquility Base, July, 1969
Mustang Trek, Day 5. Lo Monthang and Surrounding Area
Today was our day of "rest". We are all so tired, this was a day we were all looking forward to. We decided to take a horse ride 1 1/2 hours north of here to a complex of caves called Johng. Caves dot the landscape here and most were made 1500 years ago or more. I always thought it would be fun to go into one of them and now would be our chance. KB arranged for us to ride some of the local horses and they were waiting outside our hotel this morning at 8am.
We headed down the ravine on he north side of town, the huge monastery above us. At the bottom of the ravine, along the creek, were several houses. These were the houses of the Gara tribe, the outcasts of Lo Monthang.
"I discovered that there were about twenty families of the Gara tribe outside the city. The members of this tribe, although ethnically Tibetan in physical appearance, are treated as outcasts. The Garas are the blacksmiths of Tibet and while all other classes in Tibet benefit from a remarkable democratic status, the Garas have since time immemorial been regarded as pariahs, and are not allowed to live within the city walls. Besides being blacksmiths, they also operate water mills for grinding grain. Each of their houses, built beside the torrent, incorporate a water mill. Apart from these Garas, the inhabitants of Mustang vivid a very close knit life."...Michel Prisell, 'Mustang, The Forbidden Kingdom', 1967
Once on the Tibetan horses, we were off to the north along an old dirt road. We passed old, dilapidated monasteries and on the top of a hill, Ame Pal's original fortress. Ame Pal was the founder of the Mustang kingdom and its first king. The current king is a direct descendant. There were several small villages along the way, a surprising number considering how few we saw on our trek up here. The landscape was like the moon; barren and totally desolate except in the river valley where there were villages and fields. Looking north, we saw a series of small mountain ranges. The furthest, maybe 15 miles away, was in Tibet. We were very near the border.
After about 90 minutes we arrived at a small village and walked up a valley to the base of the cave complex.
The Keeper of the Keys, a nice Tibetan lady, led us up a stone stairway and into the cave complex. From the outside, there were several openings and it was hard to comprehend how they were connected. But inside, we saw that were connected by passageways and modern wooden ladders. The funniest thing was when we got to the second room, there was not only a case displaying artifacts, but two tables with souvenirs, "antiques made to order"; Tibetan knives, religious artifacts, etc. the same stuff you see everywhere. We made our way up 4 flights of caves by the ladders. The caves all had large holes in the walls looking out. This was never a temple or burial cave, but a cave for the locals to protect themselves when bandits would raid the village.
The souvenir stand, inside the cave. Always an opportunity to sell to tourists!
We headed back to Lo, had lunch, and then went back to Tupchen Gompa. Now, the restorers and painters were there with their brilliant lights up on the walls. Yesterday we only had our puny headlamps, but now we could see these magnificent frescoes in all their restored glory. The restoration of Tupchen has been going on for 16 years and has been funded by the American Himalayan Foundation, headed by Diane Feinstein's husband, Richard Blum. These paintings are beyond belief. The Buddhas look down on you with beautiful faces, so exquisitely painted with great finesse and detail. For the top two thirds of the wall the paintings have been cleaned and restored to their near original beauty. The bottom third was too far gone, so modern experts have come from Kathmandu and other places to teach the locals how to paint in this style. The result, after many long years, is nothing short of remarkable. We were shown around by the head restorers, and they told us how they mix the paint in the original style. They take things like lapis lazuli and malachite and ground them up to make paint. Sometimes it will take them 4 days to get the paint just right to match the original colors. They use real gold for the gold paint. They have to redo the plaster walls first, which is a long process, and this includes things like ground up rock, dirt and cow dung. Then they sketch the painting they will do, and then they paint it. The modern paintings are very good and every effort has been made to match the original style as much as possible. Most of the modern paintings are the small side figures, not the large main Buddhas. No modern artist can replicate exactly the beauty of the 14th century masters, none of whom we will ever know their names.
Entrance to Tupchen...
Most of these pictures were taken before the current restoration...
One of the masterpieces in Tupchen. They just don't make 'em like this anymore...
After the restoration in Tupchen an Jompa temples...
This all takes place in the Assembly Hall, a huge room with 35 big wooden pillars that were originally brought from Tibet. There is a large skylight that gives the great hall its light. Up in this skylight are carved lion heads, most original.
Afterwards, we walked around the tiny streets of Lo, meeting cows, goats and
Lo Bas. One of the older, odder customs here is that you stick out your tongue when greeting someone. I think this particular custom is pretty rare, but I saw one old lady do it to an old man.
At one communal spot were several women washing clothes and gossiping, not any different then other parts of the world. One woman was spinning two different colors of thread together. With this, her niece told us (who spoke very good english), they make clothes and other things.
My room and the kitchen at the "Mystic Himalayan"...
"I soon discovered that this life of small hardships is the common fare of the Lobas, who live a life quite devoid of excessive pleasures. This austerity, though, is never marred by sad faces, and one of the characteristics of the people of whom I now lived every hour of my day, was their love of laughter and their propensity for making jokes."...Michel Peissel, "Mustang, The Forbidden Kingdom", 1967
So tomorrow it's back on the trail. We will visit Mustang's oldest temple and hike for 7+ hours. I guess we are ready.