Looked upon as a mystical Shangri-La and dubbed the “Little Tibet,” the enchanting tiny enclave hidden within the folds of majestic mountains on the Tibetan Plateau, the 500-year-old capital of Mustang, “the Kingdom of Lo”–Lo Manthang–was off limits to foreigners until 1992. For old folks, Mustang was a fabled “himal pari ko desh,” a land beyond the Himalayas.
In 2018, I traveled to Lo Manthang (3,840m), Upper Mustang, on a 13-day cycling trip with three companions and turned my long-cherished dream into reality. It stood out hands down as the most memorable journey of my life—one of a kind. Among many other breathtaking landmarks, the mysterious 2,500-old Shija Jhong cave at Chosser village boggled our minds.
Following a two-day respite and a thorough tour of the walled city of Lo Manthang, including its medieval gompas (monasteries) and the 14th-century Tashi Gephel Palace (undergoing renovation then), we wished to make our last day worth the effort by exploring a little farther the city.
We set aside two destinations: the Korala border with China, some 28 km away, and the closer Chosser Jhong Cave. Our team captain, Khashing Rai, and I favored the historic cave; my other two mates, Shayeet and Diwas, were for the border. After a bit of bickering, we finally settled upon Jhong cave.
After gorging on dal-bhat at the hotel, we dusted our bicycles, hopped into our saddles, and hit the dirt road to Chosser (3,916m), some 19km away.
It took us over an hour to arrive at Chosser—clusters of adobe houses scattered around a close-knit community. The wind that escalated into a full-blown gale made our pedaling an ordeal. We left our bikes at the village square tea shop and hiked to the cave.
The landscape of Mustang never ceased to baffle us right from day one. On the way to the cave, the weird rock formations in phenomenal sizes and shapes in the bare, parched, dusty, wind-ravaged, and arid terrain gave us the impression of having landed on a different planet—so other-worldly. For all that, the charm the rugged environs held for us was mystifying.
As we advanced toward our destination, November’s biting wind seemed bent upon brutally lashing us. The chill seemed to cut through the layers of our thermal wear and windbreakers to our bones.
Small wonder Mustang earns the notoriety of diurnal gale force gust with speeds outstripping 40 knots. You won’t believe it! At the wind-torn Nyi La pass (4,020m), the highest point en route to Lo Manthang, the wind threatened to sweep my bike off a cliff.
Following a 45-minute walk in that stark wilderness with no such things as greenery and habitation, we arrived at Jhong cave that towered above us—defined against the clear indigo sky.
All four of us froze to the ground as we watched the massive rock formation in all its glory—the spectacle as much for the eyes as for the mind. The near vertical face of the craggy cliff held pockmarks, which we soon figured were gaping holes, presumably serving as crude windows for a light source.
Awestruck, we set foot on the monumental Shija Jhong Cave, just one among over 10,000 human-made caves that pepper the cliffs of Mustang, near-impossible to access.
A concrete flight of steps led to the cave’s entrance. Next, we had to climb narrow wooden ladders to the upper stories. Each landing opened into passages and multiple chambers. The ladders kept going up to a soaring fifth story. As the rickety ladder shook and wobbled, I stomached my fear and climbed to the fifth floor.
Exceeding 40 chambers, some needed access through narrow tunnel-like entrances and stooping too; we negotiated past them cautiously, as there were gaping pits too. One false step, and you would take a fall to the lower story.
Several chambers had crude tanks and bins hued into the walls, probably to store water and grain; others appeared like sleeping quarters. Several chambers held ceilings blackened by soot; they must have served as kitchens. How on earth those middle-era people, against all odds, dug caves into sheer rock faces is nothing short of an enigma yet unraveled.
Undeniably, the Jhong cave is a living testimony to the phenomenon that the ancient people of Lo lived in caves for millennia. Nearly every chamber had a gaping opening that opened to a stunning view of the rugged wind-sculpted landscape and the Chosser valley in the distance. With no head for heights, it gave me the creeps, even peering from the fifth floor’s hole.
The presence of thousands of human-made sky caves chiseled into Mustang’s near vertical sedimentary cliffs substantiates that cave civilization was inseparable from its past. “People still live in some caves around Garphu and Chosser,” said Wangchhen Lowa, the owner of the Mystique Hotel in Lo Manthang.
Besides being used as living quarters, archaeologists speculate people used the cave shelters for diverse purposes, from burial grounds for the deceased to meditation chambers for the monks, a refuge from enemy aggression, storing grains, and battle lookout posts. Caves such as the Luri and Tashi Kabum house mural paintings—believe it or not—even mummified human remains and stupas.
Today, the Jhong cave and the rest of the sky caves remain a Chinese puzzle for the stumped archaeologists, inviting many hypotheses. As it is, those dark caves of Mustang, to this day, remain shrouded in profound mystery and intrigue.