Heavy Heart on Horseback: My Pilgrimage Through Mustang

Mustang lies in the north-central part of Nepal, bordering Tibet (now sadly referred to as China).
The Kingdom of Mustang​ in Nepal​​, despite the connotation,​ has nothing to do with mustangs​!​ ​Mustangs are in fact, truly American, feral horses. But that is not to say​ the people of Mustang aren’t horse-people, because th​at is precisely who​ ​they ​are​​. ​The Kingdom of ​​Mustang = horse culture. ​Horses are a prized possession in this region not only as a primary form of transportation (though a perilous, steep, and untrustworthy road has just opened up the valley) but as a source of family pride and wealth. The horses that occupy this region are mostly Tibetan as are the people, though more and more a blend of Tibetan and Nepali as the years go by. When Tibetans began escaping the Chinese occupation and the resulting genocide began of Tibetan people (and continues to this day), the valley of Mustang was ​a​ popular route taken for exile. Sad signs of war still remain in the valley. And until ​1992​, this entire region was closed off completely to foreigners.

 A few of our horses taking a break on a mountaintop.

Hanging with nomads, drinking salt butter tea over a yak dung fire…I’m so not in America!

Meet Thomas Kelly!
When I determined that I was going to be heading to Nepal after India​ on my service trip, I ​found that I ​was to be hosted by a ​gentleman ​named Thomas Kelly who not only helps Acupuncturists Without Borders in their clinics in Kathmandu, but he ​is​ also a professional photographer and a professional guide ​in many parts of the world including Mustang. It turned out that he was to be leading a trip to Mustang at the end of my month in Nepal and he invited me to join. I looked at his photos and books of the region, read through the 16-day itinerary, and got ridiculously excited about the prospect of riding a horse for days from village to village in this spiritual sanctuary known as Mustang.

Our tiny plane that flies only once or twice per day due to the volatile weather at that altitude: Pokhara to Jomson.

That’s right, nothing exposed.

Twelfth century monastery.

Just a glimpse into the landscape…(Photo by Thomas Kelly)

No matter what your reason is for wanting to go to a place so remote as Mustang, you are going on a pilgrimage nevertheless (and with lots of others because you are required to have guides and then you need horses, horse caretakers, and sherpa’s too!). Even if you say, “oh just looking for an adventure!” of which some ​folks in the group ​I was to be traveling with were saying initially, you wont meet this valley without something deep within you shifting. This is an extreme place: dusty, windy, and dry with only barley, sea buckthorn and apples for crops. Electricity is sparse as is warm water, toilets, and beds. You must travel from village to village to have your most basic needs met having a full day on horseback (or several days on foot) ​marking the ​distance between each one. You have elevation gains and losses with each footstep and the stark sun riding above you all day,​ ​threatening even the slightest bit of exposed skin. The daily dust and wind storms that arrive around 10​ ​am and subside during the dinner hour​s​ are always testing your footing and ​the ​elasticity of ​your mind, and spirit. Trusting your sure-footed horse is the best choice you could make​ for yourself​. Oh, and try​ing​ not to look down at the ever-winding cliff ledges ​of​ which you will ride for days on end​.

Expansive views and heights is just the ​language​ of this landscape. Then there are the caves, namely, the Caves of Guru Rinpoche. Legend says that Guru Rinpoche walked through these valleys, meditated in these caves, and thus infused this place with much mystery and lore, especially for Buddhists. These caves are what bring many people to this valley from all over the world. In fact, one of our guides, Tenzing Paljor was bringing along his father’s ashes who had passed away very recently. In Buddhism, it is common practice to place the ashes of a loved one high up inside one of these caves to help liberate their spirit. So many of these caves were littered with the remains of loved ones. All this being said and partly ​​because of all this being said, the Kingdom of Mustang is one of the most spiritually rich places on Earth​. And I can now attest.​

Caves high on the hillside, Kali Gandaki river below.

We lit butter lamps and sat in meditation in an ancient puja room.

Tenzing Paljor, guide extraordinaire!

After a harrowing ride straight up a scree field, we took a rest mostly in breath and silence. (Photo by Thomas Kelly)

One of the many crossings of the  Kali Gandaki river. (Photo by Thomas Kelly)

A small village we stopped in for masala tea and a break from the wind.

Lama Tashi’s family in Lo Monthang.

Our horses waiting for us so we can make a big river crossing.

My loyal horse boy, Norbu.

Sometimes when the trail got too steep or narrow, we’d hop off our horses and hike while our horses went ahead. You can see them waiting for us down below.

Taking in the mountain air!

However, having just come from my project in India and volunteering a ton more in Nepal, one could say that I was exhausted at a pretty deep level before beginning this trip to Mustang. Not only that, but I had been holding so much in response to my time in India that was as of yet, unprocessed and calling the attention of my heart and mind.

It was a feeling of heavy-heartedness. I was holding so many questions about my time there, about the politics, about the suffering, the oppression of women, and the means to end it. Sitting in the space of hopelessness is my personal nightmare. Luckily, even though I could feel that so strongly, I couldn’t buy it entirely. So while one part of me was getting very doom and gloom about the world, this part was also living alongside the part of me that was thrilled to be hopping on the back of a horse and going on pilgrimage through the most stunning and challenging landscape I could imagine. And the part of me that was grateful every single day for having the resources I do have. And the part of me that was excited and curious about this group of people I was to spend these two weeks with who I didn’t know and who didn’t know me or anything about my last two months. So I rode on, straddling both worlds, honoring the dichotomy in my heart.

Found a stillpoint on top of a mountain….where it was quiet and there were vultures circling above.

(Photo by Thomas Kelly)

​Thankful for my tentmate Cynthia, as she got to bear witness to all the parts within me as they converged and diverged over those 2 weeks. I spent a lot of time in quiet contemplation, in prayer, in question, as well as throwing it all to the wind and just having fun trotting around on mountain-sides, wading through rivers, and galloping through the dry riverbeds.

Needless to say, it was of no surprise to me that I ended up getting a respiratory infection halfway through our trip. I could feel it coming on for a couple of days…that sense of dread in the back of your throat and tiredness at the end of even the smallest of tasks. When I could feel it coming on, we just so happened to be camped out in an amazing apple orchard with tiny baby goats running around our tents. I decided to lay down in this orchard the rest of the day following our arrival on horseback. This village was beautiful and serene and I needed it to simply hold me. I inhaled and exhaled the fragrance of the sweet blossoms, deeply into my lungs. I knew what was coming: it was grief I was carrying for all the children, girls, and women I had held space with those last couple of months. I let it flow through me…

In Chinese Medicine our lungs are the home of our grief (think about how much our lungs get involved when we are really grieving, wailing, and heaving!). And as I began to process all that I witnessed in India along with the orphans, lepers, diseased dogs and disfigured children, it’s no wonder there was grief to be had. How can we hold all of this in our hearts without feeling it? Indeed my lungs needed to take part in this process, too and not just because of the grief but also because of all the pollution and dust I had been exposed to for the months prior, whew! What a relief. So the following days of the trip I rode on horseback, heavy-hearted with grief but allowing my body to do what it knows to do in order to keep me congruent. And being the resourced wilderness gal that I am, I kept asking the land to hold the grief with me, to help me transform it. And I think it did, at least for now. Ahh.

Receiving a yak butter “smudge” from a village woman.

On another note, nearly every village we stopped in for the night or a few nights like in Lo Monthang, locals asked if we had medicine. People were coming to me with sherpas as their translators telling me about their back pain, the pain in their (obviously rotting) teeth, about their stomach acidity, headaches, diarrhea, you name it. I was able to practice some acupuncture but being that I wasn’t in each place for very long, and was pretty tired at the end of each travel day upon our arrival in these villages, I didn’t have too much to offer. Herbs to ease their digestion and relieve their pain was what I could leave behind as we traveled onward. Of course I couldn’t help but to think of returning to offer more. The people of Mustang are so kind and welcoming. They are hearty and will-full. They band together in difficult times and welcome strangers with kataks and swipes of yak butter on the forehead (a gesture of kindness and kinship). These (mostly Tibetan) people have seen so much trauma in their lives and yet they have very little access to resources like medicine. What would it be like to go back to the Kingdom of Mustang and travel village to village, spending a few days in each, offering acupuncture, herbs, and other holistic medicine? What would it be like to educate one or more of the locals on basic healthcare (food, hygiene, lifestyle, home remedies) and leave them with a medicine bag full of supplies? Maybe this is my next project?

Our sherpa’s made us heart-shaped veggie patties! I had to snap a photo 🙂

Thanks for checking in and much love,


Interested in supporting the Inner Ocean Empowerment Project’s next mission? Please visit www.inneroceanempowermentproject.org.

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