Trekking in the Himalayan Kingdom of Mustang was everything I’d imagined and much more. The land was shockingly beautiful at every turn, the people endlessly sweet, and the villages simple and incredibly photogenic. The trekking itself was often extremely hard, testing my physical and psychological limits for hours at a time. Fortunately, I had no altitude sickness, even though the 13,700’ passes took every ounce of strength and determination I could muster. The air is thin up there, however, within minutes of crossing a pass, I was happy to hike on, as if no trial ever existed. Pain is forgotten in the face of such beauty, joy, and a powerful sense of accomplishment. The trek was about living in the present. It was a joy to be free, “off the grid,” and filled with simple happiness. That joy grew each day, as the world I once knew receded and the now became the all.
One of my greatest joys here was experiencing the utter authenticity of life. Stone Mani (prayer) walls were built by hand over the centuries, some being 1,000 years old and stretching over a kilometer. Each stone was hand carved with inscriptions and prayers to be sent to the heavens by winds through time. Every home and monastery was built with rock, adobe, and wood, and every roof is stacked with firewood for the long, cold winter. The monasteries have remained virtually unchanged since they were built. I never saw or heard a television or radio. Instead, there are prayer wheels everywhere, used daily by young and old alike. Here, people mostly cook with dried dung or very limited local firewood. In the distance, the sounds of goat, pony, and mule bells intermingle with the quiet muffled chanting of “Om Mani Padme Om” by someone with prayer beads. A soft, “Namaste” comes from passersby, along with the sound of hooves on stone, as goats are herded through town. If this sounds like perfect simplicity, it is. This is a rare, authentic world. The only thing that reminded me it’s 2012 were the modern sunglasses worn by young men in the villages.
Hot coffee was brought to my tent early each morning. Getting ready, we’d ask our guide Hem for details of the day’s trek and he’d smile and say, “We are in the mountains, what do you do in the mountains?” We’d laugh, “We trek! First up, then down, up then down, up and down.” We hiked most days between altitudes of 12 and 14,000 feet, up and down, up and down. We watched our footing at every step on the rocky trails to prevent a twisted ankle or a fall off a cliff’s edge. This was our moment-to-moment, Zen, be-here-now practice. The ever-changing mountains loomed another 14,000’ above us. We were never prepared for the inevitable awestruck moment when we did look up.
On the trail, mule drivers, horsemen, and goat herders have their own language to direct, encourage, and calm the animals. I loved to walk near them and listen to the endless chatter of whistles, songs, repetitive humming, and quick shouts that created a comforting, mesmerizing rhythm. I was happy to pretend be in the line of mules, guided and soothed by the punctuated drone. After all, we were doing the same thing as the mules, walking up and over the passes and through the valleys of the Himalayas. Their sweet song said, “Keep moving. Don’t stop now. The land is beautiful. Dinner is waiting. Now, just keep moving. Next step, next step, we’ll rest when we get there…”
The land and the villages are untouched, real. The people are beautiful with a healthy, pink color coming through their brown Tibetan faces. The harsh climate makes people age early, but with deep character. They live without pretense, not trying to be something other than what they are. Life is hard, real, and simple. The Kingdom of Mustang is in a state of being more than becoming. In joy and pain, we trekked the middle ground, halfway between heaven and the sea.