Sky Running through Nepal’s Lost Kingdom
The Mustang Trail Race traces a winding route through the peaks and valleys of Nepal
Photo: Chris Hatherill
Sometimes the further you get from civilisation, the more civilised life seems to get. To reach the starting point of Trail Running Nepal’s annual Mustang Trail Race, a bus weaves its way up towards one of the country’s most isolated and untouched regions. Trundling out from Kathmandu bound for Pokhara, we pass through clouds of dust, burning rubbish, streams strewn with debris and all the other obvious outward signs of a developing country at the mercy of foreign aid.
As the main roads disappear behind us and we weave our way up a Himalayan valley towards Beni, life starts to slow down. By the time we get to Jomsom in Lower Mustang, the 21st Century is firmly behind us, with mules and yaks trotting down the main cobblestone road and traditional apple orchards stretching up the terraced slopes.
Once known as the Kingdom of Lo, this part of the Himalayas was until recently completely closed to the outside world. Nepal itself only opened up to foreign visitors in 1946, Mustang was a restricted region until 1992 and it remained a separate Kingdom as late as 2008. This isolation, the area’s seeming desolation and a hefty visitors’ trekking fee has kept its valleys, rivers and trails relatively empty compared to other parts of the country, where trekkers can trudge in vast, snaking lines along the more popular routes around Everest and Annapurna.
The Mustang Trail Race is one of the Himalaya’s most challenging and adventurous running races. A 160km dash through the arid but spectacular landscapes of Mustang. Over eight days, the run will take us up and down almost 11,000 metres, which, by the way, is more than the height of Everest. Beyond the altitude, the climbs and the steep descents, there’s a blazing sun, extremely dry air and fierce anabatic winds to contend with. On the flip side, all our bags are taken ahead of us each day, we’re travelling with our own chef and every evening meal begins with a steaming white towel—well, after all that exertion who’d begrudge us a little luxury?
We start from Jomsom with an acclimatization hike that takes us 934 metres up and 21 kilometres over a mountain pass and into another world. We slide through a small village where an archery competition is underway and loud gambling game unfolds in the corner of a whitewashed house where we’re taking tea. After catching our breath, we trace the route of the Kali Gandaki, a river which cuts through the Himalayas (forming the world’s deepest gorge) before joining up with the Ganges far below.
The next day the race begins for real, with an early morning start that sees just over 20 runners rushing through the picturesque town of Kagbeni, which grew rich by taxing passing caravans bringing salt from Tibet. When we hit our first hill, I’m breathing so hard it’s impossible to even to sip water and a mild panic sets in. We scramble up a rocky embankment and an uphill road winds on forever. This, I remind myself, is just stage one.
The run takes us past terraced barley fields, ultracold streams and ancient villages. As we climb the final, brutal hill towards our first night’s stop at Tsaile, it feels like we’ve truly arrived in Upper Mustang. Despite the beauty, life here is hard. Firewood is scarce, and what timber there is stacked on top of homes as a status symbol. Many of the villages’ youth have left for work and school in other parts of the country, leaving behind a mix of children and the elderly. Hospitals and healthcare facilities are thinly spread, and many homes still have mud floors.
Beyond the obvious backdrop of some of the world’s most beautiful mountains, Mustang is full of well-hidden surprises. We rest at the Chungsi cave temple where Padmasambhava—an 8th-century Buddhist master widely known as ‘the second Buddha’—stopped to meditate. We run past the striking red cliffs of Drakmar and later on to Lo Mantang, the ancient walled capital built in the 1300s and little changed since. Rising early we watch the moon set over the mountains and pick out distant planets in the morning sky. We climb to Konchok Linga, a recently-unearthed cave with exquisite Tibetan Buddhist artwork.
As the kilometres add up, so do the wonders. We trek up to Luri Gompa cave one morning to shine our headlights on medieval depictions of the ‘unorthodox’ Buddhist Masters. There are river valleys with prehistoric ammonite fossils, distinctive black stones that Hindus believe are the manifestation of Vishnu, who disappears if the rocks are broken open.
It’s a physically tough nine days of racing, but the Himalayan peaks of Annapurna and Dhaulgiri mean we wish it wasn’t over. After a final willpower-testing ascent that takes us up another thousand metres, the last leg is an exhilarating run down towards the town of Muktinath, which lies on both a Hindu pilgrimage route and the popular Annapurna trekking circuit.
Crossing a suspension bridge brings us back into the modern world with a jolt, smoothed over by our first beer in weeks, yak burgers for the carnivores and the obligatory furious social media activity all round. All that was left to do was watch the likes roll in. Hello, 21st century.
For more information on 2018’s Mustang Trail Race, head here.