Lifestyle

Nepal’s Hidden Gem

Touring the majesty of Mustang, a former forbidden city with next-level luxury.

Dwarika Hotel in Mustang.
Dwarika’s Heritage Junior Suite.

A beautifully preserved wilderness dotted with monasteries, temples, forests and ravines, Nepal’s Mustang district has only been open to tourists since 1992. 

Even still, the last “Forbidden Kingdom” has remained unknown to all but the most seasoned traveler. This year, however, marks major developments in the land which attracts those who love to unearth secrets.

Originally part of Tibet, Mustang has been under the control of Nepal since the late 18th century. The earliest Western traveler to this corner of the world was Swiss geologist Toni Hagen, who first penned his eloquent descriptions of Mustang’s capital and royal palace in the early 1950s.

That was also when the People’s Republic of China invaded Chamdo in western Tibet. 

As a consequence, the Nepalese government cut off the Mustang region from the rest of the world: Merchants and caravans were banned from the area, thereby keeping it untainted by commercial transformation for decades. 

In the early 1990s, Nepal finally bowed to international pressure to open up this part of the country to trade. And only recently—in August 2023—did world-class luxury hotels like Shinta Mani Mustang open, allowing visitors to truly experience this unspoiled part of the world in style. Even so, there is far more to the region than first meets the eye. To journey to this once forbidden region means to truly step back in time. 

Location, Location, Location

Traveling to Mustang begins with a flight into Kathmandu. From there, a scenic helicopter ride over lush green paddy fields will take you to Pokhara, and then drive or take a helicopter to Mustang. Booking a premium, exclusive tour with bespoke travel company Red Savannah offers an experience where all details are taken care of in the most comfortable way possible—from booking helicopters to chauffeured four-wheel vehicles and knowledgeable guides who are experts in the geology and culture of the area. 

The journey from Pokhara to Mustang is ever-changing and particularly scenic: The route traces river valleys past glimpses of tiny villages and lush vegetation, through intricately terraced hills, where local farmers cultivate the fertile slopes. Rachel Cooper, a regional manager for Red Savannah tours, poetically directs the way along “a road that ascends and transforms into dense forests, before the majestic backdrop of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri mountain ranges.” The passage through the Kali Gandaki Gorge, one of the planet’s deepest, adds a dramatic dimension with its towering cliffs and swiftly flowing river. 

Its name derived from a Tibetan word meaning “plain of aspiration,” Mustang is the second least-populated district in Nepal. Once a part of the Lo Manthang Kingdom, it became a district of Nepal after the dissolution of the Shah dynasty in 2008. The remote location alone has drawn travelers: Having been inaccessible for so long, it has remained an untarnished and rare gem. Outdoorsy types with a taste for luxurious accommodations can now indulge themselves at Dwarika’s Hotel in Kathmandu before continuing on to Shinta Mani Mustang—both feature superb suites, spacious courtyards, spas, and grandeur that takes you back in time while being nestled in raw, breathtaking landscapes. 

Part of Gandaki Province in northern Nepal, Mustang district abuts the Himalayas to the south and the Tibetan Plateau to the north. There is a rugged, majestic beauty about it, encircled by some of the world’s tallest peaks, including Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. To fuel your expeditions, the cuisine offered in the area is ideal for the health-conscious: Dishes from the Thakali and Newari cultural communities focus on fresh ingredients, and feature lentils and a variety of vegetables and meats. 

“This area really allows you to get under the skin of the destination,” says George Morgan-Greenville, Red Savannah’s founder and owner. “It’s also truly off the grid: Once people visit, they can find it alarming but then they get used to not having cell phone service, and they just love it.” 

Luxe Lodging

Staying in a landscape that looks a lot like wilderness doesn’t mean sacrificing any creature comforts. Shinta Mani Mustang, a glorious resort designed by Bill Bensley and owned and operated by HMD Asia, opened its doors in August 2023. The brand’s first international property outside Cambodia could not be more breathtaking, located at a soaring elevation of 9,186 feet. Just 500 feet below the resort flows the Kali Gandaki River. 

The all-inclusive property—known for its sustainable design solutions—offers 29 rooms, each of them spacious: more than 2,400 square feet filled with exquisite antiques from Gandaki Province and fitted in the style of a traditional local home, with an open-plan bedroom, living room and bathroom. 

Interiors carry on the narrative from the outside, reflecting the warm tones of the surrounding landscape. Throughout the hotel you’ll enjoy the works of late artist Robert Powell, known for his detailed paintings of Lo Manthang. 

As you open your curtains in the morning, the rising sun fills your room and gently rouses you to greet a day of discovery in this mountain kingdom. (Or you may not want to close your curtains at night: The views are so magical that if you wake up for a glass of water, you’ll marvel at the nocturnal landscape surrounding you.)

Four-wheel drive Land Rovers transport guests to local attractions and trekking spots—and because the resort has a unique adventure every day for up to two weeks, no two days will be alike. One day could take you to the beautifully preserved Marpha Village, and another to a local hike. Created by expert guide Jason Friedman over the course of three years, the mini trips are led by Bensley adventure guides and are completely tailored to individual families and personality types, covering cuisine, culture, physical activity and geography. 

Food for Thought

There’s no lack of great culinary options: The 60-seat Nilgiri Restaurant, named after the grand mountain that it looks upon, boasts a modern menu using local delicacies. Every night has a theme that reflects various parts of the country in recipes that are both ancient and modern. For example, the Foraging Dinner offers guests an herb salad harvested in the nearby forest and just-picked local mushrooms in risotto. Freshly caught pan-seared trout is sourced from a river mere minutes away from the property. Another highlight is the Himalaya Dinner, a nine-course degustation menu featuring traditional momos (local dumplings) that are truffle-infused, filled with Himalayan yak meat and spiced with tomato achaar (South Asian pickle). 

Luxury accommodations in Shinta Mani Mustang.
The serene pool of the Shinta Mani Mustang.

Rejuvenation Nation

A trip to Mustang’s lofty altitudes means going the extra mile to take care of oneself. The world-class spa treatments at Shinta Mani Mustang tap into ancient holistic practices and centuries-old Himalayan healing techniques, such as the SoRig massage (targeting the body’s energy flow to restore balance and reduce stress) and Himalayan Indigenous Medicine practices. A trekker’s massage—intended specifically to improve flexibility, soothe tired muscles and reduce inflammation—should not be missed, paired with at least 20 minutes in a steam pool. 

At Dwarika’s Hotel in Kathmandu, the Pancha Kosha Himalayan Spa draws on traditional Buddhist and Ayurvedic rituals for its treatments. Every treatment here is intentionally crafted to cater to the five layers of existence: Anamaya kosha (pertaining to vital or food aspects), Pranamaya kosha (related to the muscles, organs and life force), Manomaya kosha (which focuses on emotional alignment), Vigyanmaya kosha (which encompasses intellectual development), and the fifth dimension, Anandamaya kosha (which represents the growth of positivity and happiness).

No visit to Mustang is complete without a visit to Marpha Village, located in the southern part of the region. Famed for its apple orchards (Marpha is known as the “apple capital of Nepal”) as well as traditional stone houses, this village is a beautiful glimpse into Nepal’s untainted rural life. While you may be off the grid of cell phone coverage, you’ll still want to snap pictures of just about everything here, from the narrow flagstone streets to the stunningly painted Buddhist monasteries. The tour includes a lunch by Mrs. Kamala, a renowned Thakali chef who will prepare an authentic meal for you—perhaps followed by a taste of the local apple brandy and cider.

For those who love wilderness trekking, Jomson and Jomsom Valley are the gateway to Mustang’s rugged landscapes, beautiful streams and forests and breathtaking views of the Himalayas, including the Dhaulagiri and Nilgiri peaks. The area is unique in its treasures: The trekking trail that passes through Jomsom follows the Kali Gandaki River through its chasmic gorge and past stunning mountainsides forested with rhododendrons (which are native to the region). Along the riverbanks are strewn black shaligram stones found nowhere else in the world, fossilized ancient sea creatures called ammonites which are related to squids.

Not far from Jomsom is the famed Jwala Mai Temple, a pilgrimage destination for both Hindus and Buddhists. Standing at an elevation of 12,170 feet, this site contains an idol crafted in gold. Another notable feature is the temple’s eternal flame—believed to have been lit by Lord Brahma millennia ago, and still burning in the presence of 108 water spouts. End your trip in serenity at Chhairo Gompa, situated near the village of Chhairo in the Upper Mustang region. This Tibetan Buddhist site offers stunning views of the surrounding Chhoser hermitage, an ancient cave monastery carved into the cliffs above Lo Manthang. It is here where the quiet, the sacred and the ancient remind you that this part of the world is on its own path, embracing a natural splendor that counters all the hyper modernity of the outside world. 

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