A Trek to the Forbidden Kingdom of Mustang

May 7, 2015 ·

Eileen Benjamin

I would like to dedicate this article to the people of Nepal. I am deeply saddened by the tragedy that has hit this amazing country and affected so many beautiful people. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

Eileen Benjamin

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Lo Manthang, Nepal

 Lo Manthang, Nepal

I traveled to the remote, walled city of Lo Manthang, also known as the Forbidden Kingdom, in April, 2013. It is located in a restricted area in upper Mustang, Nepal. It is the 500-year-old capital of Mustang, situated on the northern border of Nepal near Tibet. The trip was planned to coincide with the three day Buddhist Tiji Festival, also known as “The Chasing of the Demons”.

This trip was an adventure, a challenge and an experience of a lifetime. Packing was the first challenge of the trip due to weight considerations. Once we left Kathmandu, our luggage was restricted to one duffel bag with no wheels, including my sleeping bag rated for 25 degrees. There were two reasons for the weight limitation. The road to Lo Manthang was not complete and packhorses would be carrying our luggage, food and other incidentals over steep, rugged terrain. The other reason was that our helicopter flight from Lo Manthang back to Kathmandu could not accommodate additional weight.

The adventure began at 4600’ in the dynamic capital city of Kathmandu. The Kathmandu valley, formed by a vanished lake, is a patchwork of terraced fields and sacred temple towns.  About 10,000 years ago, the rising of the Himalaya mountains trapped rivers draining south from Tibet, creating a lake that eventually burst its banks, drained away, and created the valley.

The Bodhanath Stupa and the myriad of sacred temples are major attractions in Kathmandu; however, I was intrigued by the ancient, winding narrow streets of two medieval villages, 6th century Bungmati Central and Khokana, with its pedestrian-only streets.  In this area, a traditional life is still practiced that few tourists have seen. Most of the households depend upon farming and traditional occupations like woodcarving. Women do the agricultural work while the men are playing cards, having discussions with friends or simply meditating. Most of the activities seem to take place in the streets. These villages seem to be forgotten by time.

I met hardworking, friendly people who were happy having their photograph taken.  I shot most of my street scenes at an ISO of 250 at shutter priority of 1/125 to 1/250 yielding an aperture of f5.6/ f8.

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  6th Century villages of Bungmati and Khokana

After spending several days in Kathmandu, we flew north to Pokara  at 3000 feet where we could view the Anapurna Range in the Himalyas with peaks exceeding 23,000 feet. The following day we flew to Jomson, at 8900 feet, where our journey really began. I mention the elevations because at some point we hiked above 11,000 feet, with the Anapurna Range always in view. I live at 9700 feet, just above Telluride, CO with a view of Mt. Wilson at 14,252 feet. I have an appreciation for altitude so this experience was beyond exhilarating.

Our group included twelve people. I was fortunate to be traveling with a registered trekking company who had access to two of the only eight existing vehicles for our trip to Lo Manthang. This outfitter has been taking groups to this region since it first opened to the public in 1992.

Because it is still considered a restricted area, it only receives an average of 3,000 tourists annually. Our twelve-day adventure included some hiking, primarily where the road to the north had not been completed.  I’m sure the mystery and allure of the Mustang area will change once the road is completed. We traveled with our own cooks and porters who took wonderful care of us. All of our needs were met with sincerity and a desire to please.  Our local guide’s home was in Kathmandu. He is a highly educated man named Sri and with a great sense of humor.

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Leaving Kagbeni

Some of us hiked to Kagbeni, a Tibetan village located at 9055 feet along Kali Gandaki River.  The town is built like a series of small fortresses.  After passing the police checkpoint in Kagbeni we entered the restricted zone of Upper Mustang.

I carried a Canon EOS 5Ds Mark III with two lenses – a Canon 24-150mm and a 70-300mm. I also brought a small back up camera – a Canon PowerShot SX50 HS with a 50x wide-angle zoom along with a Gitzo carbon tripod weighing only 1.3 lbs with a Monfrotto ball head. I have since replaced it with a Really Right Stuff ball head and L bracket. I use a Really Right Stuff tripod when weight isn’t such an issue.

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Kagbeni to Muktinath

I fell in love with photography when I got my first SLR in the 1982 and took my first darkroom class. In 1984 my focus shifted to large format 4×5 black and white landscape photography after attending an Ansel Adams workshop and a planned move to Telluride, Colorado. It was a perfect fit. I learned to focus on the light and meter for the shadows – key elements to a successful a black and white photograph.

In 2000 I began the process of shifting to digital and color.  It was daunting. It was like learning a whole new medium. Workshops, books, tutorials and a commitment to make the shift became my new focus. Today, my approach to photography remains the same. I still focus on light and how it impacts the subject matter only now it’s with a digital cameral. At first I didn’t take digital photography seriously after going through all the mechanics of 4×5  and using the zone system both in the field and in the darkroom. I have happily made the shift and can still have black and white if the image lends itself to it. I’m happy to not be in the darkroom. Digital photography has also afforded me the ability to develop other creative interests using mixed media, which is a total departure from my landscape and portraiture work.

Our first destination was Muktinath a sacred place to both the Hindus and Buddhists, each of whom have built temples on top of the eternal flames fed by the escape of natural gas from the earth. It is known as a “place of liberation”.  Devotees come to take their sacred bath under the 108 holy Taps that are around the central temple.

As we entered the temple area we met six Hindu sadhus who were resting in the shade. A sadhu is a holy person who lives a life of prayer and meditation eliminating familial, societal and earthly attachments. We said hello, pointed to our camera and smiled “Can we take your picture?” They were kind, gentle men and gladly accommodated us. They posed providing us all the time we required. We thanked them and gave them all some money.

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Hindu sadhu in Muktinath

After our visit to Muktinath, we made our way back to Kagbeni where we spent the night.

It took us four days to work our way to the valley of Tsarang, Mustang’s second largest town and home of our guide Tsewang Bista, the grand-nephew of the king of Lo.   We passed eroded desert canyons, chortens and ancient gompas (monasteries).

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Trek to Ghiling

All along the way we stayed in trekker hotels. The hotel owners were friendly and the accommodations were pleasant and clean. The rooms, however, had no heat. I was glad I had a really good down sleeping bag even though some nights I slept with all my clothes on. The community squat toilets were usually down the hall or outside. Few hotels had showers and because of the water shortage only three people were allowed to shower on any give day. Few people took advantage of them because there was no hot water. This trip was not for the faint hearted.

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Trek to Ghiling

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Buddhist stupa near Ghami village
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Red cliffs in Ghami

We spent four days hiking, horseback riding, and motoring from Muktinath to Tsarang, home of Tsewang Bista, We photographed mainly in the early mornings before getting on the road and late in the day after we settled into our village when the wind was less of a factor and the sun was lower in the sky. The scenery was breathtaking as the clouds floated in and out of the snowcapped mountains. Sometimes the landscape was quiet, creating a very peaceful mood. There were a few locations where I wished we had more time because there was so much to see, feel and experience.

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A village outside of Tsarang & Ruins of Former Royal Palace in Tsrang

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Tsarang is the second largest town in Upper Mustang and home of the former royal palace. The huge, five-story fortified palace and striped gompa are perched on the edge of the Kali Gandaki gorge at the eastern end of the village. The former palace was built in 1378 and once boasted the greatest library in Mustang, but it has been empty for the last 70 years. In the protector chapel we saw a stuffed snow leopard, a cache of old weapons and the mummified severed hand of a thief. There were many stories about these items, depending on who was telling the tale.

From Tsarang we traveled to our final destination, Lo Manthang, the backdrop of the Himalaya. It is a city influenced by Himalayan Buddhism, which reflects a Tibet-influenced culture, rich and historically complex.

Our excitement was building as we entered the walled city for the first time, our final destination.  There was a quiet excitement among us to witness people gathering for the annual Tiji (Tee-jee) Festival that began that day.

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Tsewang took us to monasteries and schools. We learned a lot about the history of his native land and his life. His dedication to helping his people became obvious. Young and old greeted him. He was like the pied piper of Lo. When he was recognized, people gathered around him, and he was greeted with hugs of love. Because of that, Tsewang made this trip incredibly unique. We were so fortunate to have such a treasured guide.

The first afternoon in Lo, Tsewang arranged for us to photograph the monks as they prepared for the festival and to shoot the festival from a rooftop overlooking the plaza.  This was a lucky and rare opportunity.

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The festival is held at the Chho-dyi Monastery. The tradition goes back several centuries. “The festival centers on the Tiji myth. The myth tells of a deity named Dorje Jono who must battle against his demon father to save the Kingdom of Mustang from destruction. The demon father wreaked havoc on Mustang by bringing a shortage of water (a highly precious resource in this very dry land) and causing many resulting disasters from famine including animal loss. Dorje Jono eventually beats the demon and banishes him from the land.”

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Monks open the festival

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Tiji Festival dancer

Using a telephoto lens allowed me to consider many possibilities. Shooting tight or opening up the lens can tell two stories. In this example, each image tells a different story.

In the mornings we walked around the village and photographed daily life along narrow winding streets.

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Streets of Lo Manthang

And then it was time to leave. We flew by helicopter from Lo Manthang to Jomson, refueled, then to Kathmandu. It was an amazing experience to see the trails we hiked from the air. I was fortunate to fly in the helicopter that the King and Queen had arrived in that morning which made me feel secure.

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Helicopter flight out of Jomson

Back in Kathmandu we visited Patan’s Durbar Square, a compelling architectural urban and Hindu temple. Patan is known as the City of Artisans where the country’s most talented wood carvers and bronze casters reside, dating back many centuries.

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Patan’s Durbar Square Palace

The time had come to head home and process my many images. It was a trip of a lifetime.

Because of the weight restriction, I didn’t have a laptop to do any processing during the trip. I did, however, download all of my cards onto two external drives and never used the cards a second time.

My post processing began with downloading all of my cards onto my external drive. After my images were organized by date, I imported them to Lightroom where I rated them, giving the best images 5 stars. I did some minor work in Lightroom, which I primarily use as a catalog for my photographs. Then the majority of my work was done in Photoshop, creating a duplicate image from which I could work. I cropped and spotted on that layer. I adjusted exposure and color and created another layer for HDR tone mapping where I could really take advantage of shooting raw. Sometimes I used other third part software to work on an image. I added some dimension where the tone mapping may have flattened the image and sharpened. Saving it as a copy, I then imported it back into Lightroom where I put it in a collection of final images. I make final adjustments in Lightroom for my website or for printing. My workflow is pretty simple.

In conclusion, my goal on these trips is to capture the special moments I experience in these remote landscapes and the people who call them home. Every day presents itself with its own uniqueness, whether it’s the ever-changing landscape or the people I encounter. I love sharing my experiences.

www.eileenbenjamin.com

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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Eileen Benjamin

Benjamin is recognized as one of the most accomplished black and white photographers in the state of Colorado. Benjamin’s early work was with a 4x5 film camera. She has since migrated to digital format and color. Beside the work of Edward Curtis, Charles Russell, Frederic Remington and Thomas Moran, Benjamin’s photography was part of a collection of Art of the American West, exhibited at the U.S. Embassy in Spain. Her photographs are included in personal and corporate collections throughout the United States and abroad. Benjamin’s first book, If You Listen: Poems & Photographs of the San Juan Mountains, was done in collaboration with poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer. Other publications by Benjamin include a self-published book, Telluride, Landscapes and Dreams, foreword by Jay Dusard, and A Spiritual Connection, Living on the Edge of the American Rockies, foreword by Richard Moe, President of National Trust for Historic Preservation. She has just completed a mixed media project entitled “The Fabric of a Woman, A Celebration, a book she has worked on for the past decade and is in the process of getting it published. While working on the mixed media project, Benjamin has traveled abroad capturing moments in time of people and places. Her travels have taken her to Scotland, Ireland, Turkey, Jordan, Bali, Viet Nam, Peru, the Galapagos, Guatemala, Nepal, Myanmar and South Africa. Benjamin is currently working on a project of women in remote regions of the world and will be an instructor on the 2016 South Georgia and Antarctica trip sponsored by Luminous-Landscape/Rockhopper Workshops. Her passion for photography has no boundaries and she is open to all possibilities. www.eileenbenjamin.com

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