The Forbidden Kingdom: In search of Lo Manthang
The ancient walled city of Lo Manthang is hidden away in Nepal’s Himalayan mountains. To get there you’ve got to ride the legendary Upper Mustang first…
September 4, 2022
By Andy Davidson
Mad or Nomad
The Kingdom of Lo was strictly off-limits until the early ’90s when the Nepal government granted access to a handful of trekkers. But it was only around 20 years later that the first motorcycle travellers pioneered a treacherous route to Nepal’s little-known and isolated northern kingdom. Now it’s our turn…
Sweating in Pokhara
Tourists swarmed the streets in their colourful trekking trousers and stalls selling North Face jackets lined the roadside. Pokhara is a base for mountain climbers and hikers and one of Nepal’s most popular cities. I wanted to explore its bustling streets and ogle the Ghurkha kukri knives proudly shinning in shop windows, but along with everyone else on this Royal Enfield tour, we all had our minds firmly set on the mountains in the distance – like soldiers waiting to be deployed.
So, while the tourists shopped for walking poles, we inspected our machines, strapped our bags down, wiped our goggles and filled our bladder packs ready for the mission ahead.
Trucks billowed black smoke and hammered their horns around every corner as our Royal Enfield Himalayans scratched behind, beeping, dropping gears and overtaking in flurries of hot dust and close calls. We had just started the ride so were trying not to be too keen with the wrist, but those conditions demanded a brave hand.
It was such a mess of vehicles, screaming engines, risky riding and broken roads that by the end, I wasn’t sure if the sweat stinging my eyes was from the humidity or because I nearly flew off a cliff…
The fan whirred in my hotel room, drying the sweat on my forehead after our first day’s ride. Outside, rain hammered the tin roof as I fell asleep with that smug feeling you get knowing you’re safe and dry inside.
That smugness quickly disappeared the next morning when I realised the day’s entire route had been turned into a river of gloopy slush. With the sun burning the back of my neck and my bladder pack in constant use, I kept the Royal Enfield steady in third. The bars were let loose, the throttle held at a delicate sweet spot, the little single-cylinder puttered away and the rear Ceat Gripp tyre chewed up and spat out dirt all the way to Jomsom.
My goggles were speckled with muck, the Himalayan was caked like a pig in mud and I was loving it!
Only when the mountain tracks narrowed did the chugging busses want to pass in the opposite direction. It’s as if they waited around corners for us – and crumbling cliff edges were their favourites.
With nowhere to pull over and busses almost scraping against the cliff face, motorcyclists have no choice but to throw the dice, hold their breath and pass on the edge. The busses pushed us so close to the brink that if you tried to put your outside foot down, it’d be reaching for air and would mean you’re going over.
But by this point, our confidence had grown so much that it was just a normal part of the day. Squeezing past as my shoulder wiped the dusty bus clean while watching stones fall down the mountain now seemed perfectly acceptable. The trick is to just make sure you don’t eat a big breakfast…
Gorges and bridges
We chased the Kali Gandaki River as it snaked its way north through the Himalayas. It lured us in until we turned into tiny ants scuttling through the world’s deepest gorge. Mountains towered 8,000m high either side of us and almost blocked out the sky.
We crisscrossed the river over little suspension bridges connecting towns. Each bridge grew longer, higher and wobblier until we found ourselves riding over the world’s longest pedestrian bridge (567m).
I’m not afraid of heights, but haven’t had great experiences riding bikes over them in other countries, so it was a chin up and don’t look down moment. I’d hoped to get across without stopping, but groups of local women chatting away and carrying umbrellas for shade were intent on poking my goggles with their brollies. Dodging them with millimetres to spare meant stopping in the middle causing the bridge to sway – and my stomach to churn.
Into the clouds
The mud, humidity and greenery faded away as the days went by. The sky expanded, the mountains stretched further and for the first time on this trip, I closed a few vents on my jacket. The sweaty mayhem of the south felt like a long time ago.
There was nobody and nothing here. Rocky gravel tracks disappeared into the far distance and snow-capped mountains lined the horizon.
The many police checkpoints marked our entrance to Nepal’s Upper Mustang region (previously known as the Kingdom of Lo). From here on you need special permits (around £500) and an accompanying licenced guide. The idea is to preserve this area’s ancient way of life, so the government has put strict, expensive and limited controls on entry.
Permits stamped, we were free to enter and ride even higher into the clouds. It’s as if we rode into another country perched in the skies above Nepal. The mountains of Jomsom were tiny hills compared to this otherworldly kingdom.
The gravel tracks sharped and narrowed as they chiselled their way over jagged mountains. At the beginning we gingerly rode round perilous bends; now we were skidding to a stop alongside one another to laugh: “Argh, you nearly flew off that cliff! That was a close one!”
To the Kingdom
The mighty Himalayan crested the last stretch of mountain track and surveyed its conquest. Sat atop the plateau at 4,673m, I could see the ends of the Earth.
The Himalayan mountains formed a protective circle around this little pocket of the world. And at its centre lay the walled city of Lo Manthang – the capital of the Kingdom of Lo.
There had been plenty of sand up to this point, but surrounding the little city was a deep moat of silt: the last barrier before reaching the prize. The Himalayan’s 400cc engine was by now battle hardened and ready for anything. We charged ahead, winding on the throttle, rocking back in the seat to put weight over the rear while letting the front tyre find its own way and kicking up plumes of dust. I could almost taste our victory if it weren’t for the sand in my mouth.
Strolling through the ancient streets and alleyways was like stepping into another world. The smell of mutton and smoke filled the air. Prayer flags fluttered on every building. Young monks ran past, their red robes whirling behind them as their sandals clapped the stone path on their way to morning prayers. Children played outside their school asking ‘What is your name?’ only to be stumped with any reply. Horses were herded through the streets and into tiny doorways as villagers walked by smiling, spinning their Buddhist prayer bells and carrying wicker baskets strapped to their heads.
I sat sipping lemon and ginger tea, nursing my headache from the altitude. Chewing on sweets had me out of breath, but I wasn’t going to miss this. We had made it just in time for the yearly Tiji festival (cancelled for the last two years due to Covid) where the people pray for world peace and follow Tibetan rituals. The small fortified city was full of monks, locals, tourists who endured weeks bouncing over rocks in 4x4s to get here and us dust-caked riders.
The main square turned into a red and gold twirl of colours, dances and mysticism. The deep sound from bellowing Tibetan long horns bounced of the mud brick walls and echoed over the Himalayas – calling for the next adventurers…
If you’re interested in motorcycling to Lo Manthang, check out our packed guide. It explains everything you need to know about getting there. You’ll also find recommended tour companies in the guide too.