Running in the forbidden kingdom

Posted: 07/12/13 3:01 PM

She ran along the thin trail scattering small stones down the slope. “Ma ek dam busy chu,” she apologised. “I’m really busy, I have to go. Tell them sorry, hey? Just close the door and bring me the key. I’m really sorry.”

The late-afternoon sun bathed the ancient chunk of seabed under our feet in warm light, accentuating every water or wind-eroded wrinkle with a shadow. The infamous wind that roars up the Kali Gandaki valley had all but become an occasional breeze so far up this side valley, just enough to blow her hair behind her as she stopped and posed for a photograph. This was Ambu, intensely likable, early twenties, married with three children already, a husband immobile with a strained back, managing family, tea-house and campsite on her own. A smile and a wave bye bye and then she was gone leaving us alone at the cave. From the entrance high up the canyon cliff, she was a tiny dot moving quickly along the stony riverbed, running back to all the things she was busy with, and a stride as long as her long skirt would allow her.

Next year she should run in the race, I thought.

Earlier in the day we’d arrived in Yara after completing the fifth stage of the Mustang Trail Race, an eight-stage foot race on the ancient (and not so ancient) high-altitude trails of Upper Mustang. With just 12 competitors, it was as miniscule as races go, although four of the field happened to be international class runners attracted by the offer of something different to the usual competitive races.

Holly from Britain was using the week long challenge to train for a big international ultra race in South Africa and Lizzy Hawker, a North Face sponsored athlete was preparing for the trail running season in Europe. Fiona had, “never done anything like this before.” Famous ultra runner Ryoichi from Japan was following in the 150 year-old footsteps of a Japanese monk (and to try new kinds of beer). Arthur from the Phillipines wanted to get far out of reach of the business he ran, or was running him. All wanted to combine the enjoyment that running mountain trails gave them with the exploration of a remote and historic place perhaps soon to be tickled by the long fingers of globalisation.

Llo Manthang from windy pass
The trail leaving Lo Manthang, ‘The plains of aspiration’.

Yara was reached after a short stage from Lo Manthang, the capital of this ex-kingdom. Turning our back on the mud-walled city of no more than a thousand people, we ran along a traversing path along a barren grey ridge that wound between rounded hilltops. The trail plunged into a dust filled (and shoe filling) gully emerging above the emerald fields of the village of Dhi, where the Kali Gandaki River divides the Himalayas East and West in unfathomably intricate canyon landscape befitting of its 50 million years of uplift and erosion.

Descending dusty canyon trails to Dhe village on the Kaligandaki.

The stage finish in the small village of Yara was overlooked by a remarkable sculpted cliff peppered with caves stranded out of reach – any access routes long having been eroded away into the smooth slopes of scree below them.

lizzy-hawker-in-yara mustang nepal

While waiting for energy-restoring lunch for 17 to be created by the owner of the pretty tea-house and her teenage daughter on the floor of the tiny kitchen, a lone Frenchman in the dining room began talking of his day’s exploring. He’d dismissed the frescos in the Luri cave monastery that we intended to visit as ‘nothing special’. However, there was another cave about an hour away where the Buddhist art was the finest he’d seen, but we’d need a guide to find it, and a key to open the door. It was called Tashi Kabum, pronounced with an explosion-like boom. We had only two hours left before dusk and legs were tired, but with a name like that, how could we not go?

The door was hanging on a single hinge – easily pushed down by prior visitors – no need for a key. Our sporty running clothes seemed a little incongruous with the setting, but then so was the artwork that appeared in an anonymous cave dug out of loose mud and pebble conglomerate 50m above the canyon floor. Inside the cave was a large white chorten with just enough room to walk around. It was damaged, long ago smashed open for its contents, and the remains of those prayer texts lay in a torn heap in a corner. A floral pattern decorated the ceiling, and portraits of religious figures adorned the walls, the finest of which was a fresco representing Chenrezig, whom Tibetans believe is incarnated repeatedly as Dalai Lama.

lizzy hawker in tashi kabum cave
Lizzy Hawker in Tashi Kabum cave.

That it was painted not on a canvas or hard rock, but a thin layer of mud over the lumpy conglomerate visible in detached sections and widening cracks seemed incredible. “Scrambling up over the crumbling earth to the cave, I started to realise the intensity of devotion and belief that must have led to its creation,” said Lizzy, herself no stranger to intensity having run 319km in one go just a month before. This had survived already for hundreds of years, but it looked like nature would some day soon send it to the riverbed.

While Mustang is remote, Yara is remote in Mustang, and for all the talk of the changes that the future road ultimately connecting India and Tibet will bring, Yara seems for now more or less as it ever was. As we returned the key to Ambu, we waded thigh-deep through hundreds of goats returning from grazing the barren hillsides we enjoyed its almost biblical timelessness.

herds of goats returning to yara mustang nepal
Shepherd returning to Yara in Mustang.

‘Kiki soso lha gyalo!’ say the locals while throwing another pebble for good luck onto the heap atop a pass,  ‘May the Gods be victorious.’ Ryoichi raises his arms feeling victorious himself, breathless from the 1,000m climb straight up to this pass from Tanggye, the poorest and most traditional village we’ve stayed in. Stretched out ahead of us is the Siyarko Tangk Danda, a long ridge with an almost level path at around 4,100m.

The next hour is spent running along one of the most engrossing trails in Nepal. A constant to the south the Great Himalaya Range: Dhaulagiri, the Annapurna massif, the steep face of Nilgiri. Between ramparts, were occasional glimpses below to Gaudi-esque experiments in erosion cutting through shades of clay from pale grey to wet rust.

The memorable mountain flight to Jomsom

A week earlier we’d flown like a mosquito through a doorway along the five-kilometre deep valley between Annapurna and Dhaulagiri to emerge in desert-like Jomsom. Now to the north and west, from this high vantage point we could the full extent of our running journey from Jomsom, village by village, to fringes of the Tibetan Plateau. We’d run between 15 and 30 km each day with up to 2,000m ascent and descent. It may or may not sound like a lot, but it was the air missing a third of it’s oxygen at that altitude that made running tiring and recovery slow. The sore feet, the finishing times or position on each day would not be remembered, but the places encountered that we could see before us would be.

Ryoichi Sato Mustang nepal
Ryoichi Sato enjoying a magnificent view across Mustang towards Tibet.

Ryoichi and I picked them off: That is Samar, and there must be the hidden cave monastery of Chungsi. There we took time to throw a khada, a silk scarf, wrapped around a ball of clay, upwards to stick on the ceiling under the guidance of the mute caretaker; Konchock Ling, aka the Snow Leopard Cave, rediscovered in 2007, where the race was interrupted by more than an hour as nobody wanted to leave and a non-religious runner was moved to say a prayer; Lo Gekar, one of the oldest Tibetan monasteries, where unusual red chortens represent the claws of a legendary slain demon poking out of the earth; and there nearby in Ghami, Mustang’s longest mani wall, each stone hand carved with prayer texts, built upon the same demon’s intestines.

Descending to Chuksang to the south of Upper Mustang we heard a single bus horn, evidence of  the jeep road from Jomsom pushing northwards (with now just a few kilometres of construction remaining to connect it with Lo Mantang and Tibet), and a reminder that our journey was almost over.

ryoichi sato japan runner at muktinath nepal
Ryioichi Sato and Upendra Sunuwar.

Muktinath, as a pilgrimage destination, seemed a fitting location for an end to a race and a journey. Ryoichi had been here some two decades before and was excited to visit again. We left the idyllic riverside village of Chuksang with its surrounding green oceans of barley and climbed another 1,000m over the Gyu La, the border of Upper and Lower Mustang, where our $US 500 entry permits ceased to be useful.

It’s a small temple sacred to Hindus and Buddhists alike, one of the few places on earth where the Panchamahabhutas, the five natural elements of Ayurveda, earth, sky, water, air and – the tricky one – fire, can be found in one place. It’s also famous for its 108 freezing water spouts under which pilgrims can wash their well journied heads.

As scenic and spiritual as it is, it lacked a supply of food and drinking water for tired runners, and crucially, a celebratory supply of beer, and so the finish was shifted a short distance away downhill to the road head at Ranipauwa. While the road that reaches here makes it easier for urban pilgrims to arrive (and trekkers to leave) en masse by jeep, it has become (to this outsider) a village of tawdry cement and steel architecture with little connection to traditional style.

After all we’d seen, it would be he stone-built ‘Hotel Bob Marley Rasta Rock Restaurant and Reggae Freedom Café’, perhaps the smartest building in town, with a 7-Eleven store beside it, would provide the backdrop for our finishers’ photos.

“It is very different now,” observed Ryoichi from Japan, summing up 20 years of progress in his own quiet way.

In the narrow valleys of the Annapurna Circuit, where the trail was also the path of least resistance, and became road, the trekking tourism industry has been reduced to almost nothing, but Upper Mustang will prosper. Whatever happens after the road is finally completed, with its many alternate trails and secluded treasures, far from the path of a Trans-Himalayan road, Upper Mustang will remain a place of pilgrimage for curious outsiders like us. Yara will probably always seem timeless, and if you were to visit there, Ambu will probably still be busy.

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