Mustang: Hiking to the "Sky Caves" of an Ancient Kingdom

Cliff Villages, Cave Temples, and a Tibetan Buddhist Festival with Devendra Basnet

Overview

Come with us to Mustang, the once-forbidden Kingdom of Lo, isolated on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Officially part of Nepal since the 18th century, Mustang is actually a time capsule of ancient Tibetan heritage. This stunning high-altitude realm of medieval towns, cave shrines, ochre cliffs, and deep canyons under an infinite blue sky was once a vital part of the trade route from Tibet to Nepal and India. All that changed with the Chinese takeover of Tibet in the 1950s, when the border was sealed. Mustang was left isolated for decades, explored by just a few hardy trekkers who ventured up the Kali Gandaki gorge. With our Himalayan expert Devendra Basnet, we’ll experience Mustang’s mystical beauty on daily hikes and 4WD explorations, with overnights in simple, yet welcoming lodges. A wonderful benefit of our stays in these lodges is the opportunity for authentic cultural interactions, learning about our host families’ lives: seeing them milk their yaks, churning butter, weaving yak wool, and going about the everyday chores of life in these incredibly remote Himalayan villages. In Mustang’s walled capital, Lo Manthang, where the crown prince of Mustang is in residence, we’ll visit 15th century monasteries where the masterpiece Buddhist wall frescoes are being restored by the local people, trained by a restoration artist from Italy with the support of the American Himalayan Foundation—an organization that Wilderness Travel contributes to. You’ll meet these dedicated artists, and see this priceless cultural heritage being brought back to life. We’ve timed our journey for Lo Manthang’s multi-day Tiji Festival, with its chanting monks, clanging cymbals, and leaping masked dancers—an incredibly colorful event. On our day hikes and 4WD travels, we’ll explore whitewashed cliff villages and eerie cave complexes—the “meditation sky caves”—surrounded by Mustang’s otherworldly moonscape of rock chimneys and ravines flanked by majestic snow peaks. Join us to experience a high-altitude cultural and hiking adventure (with comfortable, if simple, overnights), witness a joyous Tibetan Buddhist festival, and savor an insider’s experience of one of the most extraordinary places on earth.

Itinerary at a Glance

Days 1-2, May 12-13, 2020
Kathmandu

Kathmandu is a busy urban capital, but one still finds magic here, especially in the ancient, narrow streets and in the countless temples and shrines where Buddhist and Hindu iconography mix in fascinating ways. Our explorations include Asan Bazaar, with its bustling lanes, and Durbar Square, a showcase of Newari palace architecture.

Hotel Shangri-La
Kathmandu, Nepal
Days 1 to 2 (2 nights), Day 15 (1 night)
Days 3-4, May 14-15, 2020
Pokhara / Kagbeni

We fly to Pokhara, where commanding views of the Annapurnas can be seen on a clear day, then on to Jomsom where the 8,000-meter giants of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna tower on either side of the Kali Gandaki Gorge. A short drive brings us to the ancient village of Kagbeni, set on edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The centerpiece of Kagbeni is its 16th century fortress-ruins, built at the convergence of four historic trade routes.

Hotel Barahi
Pokhara, Nepal
Day 3 (1 night)
Mustang Lodges
Nepal
Days 4 to 14 (11 nights)
Days 5-6, May 16-17, 2020
Muktinath / Chusang / Gami

After visiting the holy site of Muktinath, one of the most venerated pilgrimage sites in the Himalayas, we journey to the village of Chusang, where we visit ancient, man-made cave-temples carved into red, orange, and silver cliffs. Heading northward, we’ll take a day hike to the sacred Chungtse Rangchung cave-temple, where the great guru Padma Sambhava is said to have meditated, then cross the Nye La, a mountain pass, to reach the small settlement of Gami, with its stunning views of the arid Tibetan plateau landscape and snow-capped mountains.

Mustang Lodges
Nepal
Days 4 to 14 (11 nights)
Days 7-9, May 18-20, 2020
Lo Manthang (12,000’) / Tiji Festival

We arrive at fabled Lo Manthang, Mustang’s walled capital. Here we’ll visit ancient monasteries and meet the local artisans who are meticulously restoring the treasury of 15th century Buddhist murals within them, and witness the processions and festivities of the annual Tiji Festival, held in the courtyard of Mustang’s royal palace. Masked dances, festive processions, and the sound of Tibetan horns fill the town square as the story of “the chasing of the demons” is told. While in Lo Manthang, we also have an option to hike up to the pastures above Lo Manthang to visit semi nomadic yak herders and their camps.

Mustang Lodges
Nepal
Days 4 to 14 (11 nights)
Days 10-16, May 21-27, 2020
Chosar (12,790’) / Explore Cave Complexes / Charang / Luri / Kathmandu

We make our way north toward the Tibetan border to visit some of the settlements and cave complexes around Chosar. Some 10,000 man-made caves are found throughout the area, many dating back 3,000 years. Our vehicles bring us up to the Lo Dela, a mountain pass, for a lovely ridge hike. On a clear day, we should have wide-open views southward toward the Annapurnas and the Dhaulagiri Himal. After an overnight in Charang, the old capital of Mustang, we make our way to the remote villages of Dhi and Yara, then hike to the little-known group of caves at Tashi Kabum, a recently discovered 14th century site that houses some of the richest wall and ceiling paintings in all of Mustang. We also explore Luri, a cave temple tucked into a cliff face. On Day 14, we head back to Jomsom, then fly to Kathmandu, departing on Day 16.

Mustang Lodges
Nepal
Days 4 to 14 (11 nights)
Hotel Shangri-La
Kathmandu, Nepal
Day 15 (1 night)

Highlights

Highlights

Experience the authentic Tibetan culture of Mustang, once a forbidden kingdom
Witness the colorful Tiji Festival in Lo Manthang, Mustang’s walled capital
See the extraordinary 15th century murals now being restored in Mustang’s monasteries
Stay in village lodges in Mustang, enjoying wonderful cultural encounters
Explore the monuments and bazaars of Kathmandu, enjoy lakeside Pokhara

Details

Length: 16 days
Cost From: $7395  
Arrive: Kathmandu, Nepal
Depart: Kathmandu, Nepal
Lodging: 4 nights hotels, 11 nights basic lodges
Meals: All meals included except 1 lunch and 1 dinner (B=Breakfast, L=Lunch, D=Dinner)
Activity: Hiking / Trekking, Cultural Adventures, Walking
Trip Level:

Moderate to strenuous hikes, 2-7 hours a day on high (9,000-13,678') mountain trails, 4WD travel, cultural exploration