Mustang Trail Race

Running across a bridge in Mustang – Richard Bull photo

“Every place distills an atmosphere–a state of mind–that can more easily be felt than described, a something that overshadows all activities and bathes all events in a peculiar light. Some places have a feeling of sleepiness, others one of loneliness and desolation. But every place in Mustang was, I felt, characterized by dynamism and an enthusiasm that infected the entire population.” – Michel Peissel, “Mustang”

“A rocky cave in the wilderness was the home of your spiritual Father. A deserted and solitary place is a divine abode.” – Marpa the Translator, from “The Life of Milarepa”

The wall of Lo Manthang on a fresh morning after snowfall – Richard Bull photo

The idea of visiting the forbidden kingdom of Mustang first entered my mind as I descended from the summit of the Thorung La pass on the Annapurna Circuit last year. The Thorung La is the highest point on the famous circuit and from it’s 17,000+ ft. summit the views in every direction are expansive to say the least. Technically, as one descends into the town of Muktinath far below you are entering the Nepali district of Mustang, but the heart of the kingdom, the area which the country restricts access to – Upper Mustang – remains mostly invisible behind 4,000 meter passes and peaks to the north. As Paulo and I walked slowly down from the culmination of our Annapurna trek, I peered restlessly off into that dry and desolate land hidden from view, feeling as if I could perhaps stand a little higher on my tippy toes and see what lay beyond the barren dirt hills, catch a glimpse of a magical land which had no reality to me but was only a concept. I don’t know why I was drawn to look yearningly in that direction in the first place, except perhaps for the mystique the area generated amongst the other Annapurna trekkers. The high cost for a permit and the low number of trekkers allowed in by the government of Nepal turned it into a fable around evening dinner tables in guesthouses from Chame to Manang. Everyone seemed to agree on one thing about Mustang: while very few had visited it, they all had heard that it was amazing. But our trail bent off in another direction, which we eagerly pursued in search of more adventure and growth, and Mustang was filed away into the very large mental bin titled, “places I would like to go one day.”

Flash forward almost exactly one year and I was poised to enter Upper Mustang from the town of Kagbeni, a green farming oasis on the edge of the wide stony Kali Gandhaki river gorge. The water carves its way through the hills and mountains blocking the way into Upper Mustang, yet still bends out of sight just above town so that the mystery of what lies to the north prevails. The circumstances which led to me being there were so bizarre and seemingly disconnected that I can only percieve them as a long tangled thread perfectly described as, “what is meant to be.” If I had set out with a firm intention to visit Mustang within a year it seems likely that other plans, obligations, new decisions – Life – would have inevitably intervened, as it always seems to do. But instead Life decided that my path needed an adventure through Mustang in order to develop the way that it is supposed to, and so the many random ocurances and decisions that could only be seen as related after the fact worked their magic, and I stood alone in Kagbeni awaiting the group with which I would venture into Mustang.

A happy group of runners above Kongcholing Cave on stage 4. L to R -> Mira Rai, Matt Moroz, Upendra Sunewar, PhuDorjee Lama Sherpa, Nicola Bassi, Marco Baretta, Andy Wellman – Richard Bull photo

The reason for me going to Mustang was an event which was right up my alley – the Mustang Trail Race. This second year race winds its way through the highlights of the land in eight running stages spread out over the course of nine days and covers roughly 200km of rocky desert on very runnable trails mostly at elevations of around 4000 meters. As the culmination of a seven week long “Nepal spring training running camp” of my own design, it was the perfect chance to inject a significant amount of volume into my training (the most running I had ever done in one week) as well as some intensity and speed – and I would get to explore Mustang! Buzzing with anticipation would be how I would describe myself at that moment.

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The Dream is to be Healthy and Balanced so that I can Run

Pumori, Khumbu, Nepal

“The first step of the dream-change process…is to define what we want, to make certain that it is a dream, not a fantasy… An essential next step is to give the dream energy. Constantly bring your dream out into the light of day. Think about it, meditate and journey on it. Talk about it with everyone you meet. Shout it out. Share it with the Earth, the sky, the clouds, the sun and moon, and with all the plants, animals, and minerals of the Earth. Give it voice and song!” – the shaman Manco, from The World is as You Dream It, by John Perkins
“The energy created by our dreaming is like air. It travels everywhere. Your ability to use this energy is limited only by your dream of its power. Your faith. Our dreams can affect everyone and everything else–if we energize them with enough power.” – the shaman Manco 

There was a specific moment which occurred this past year while trekking in Nepal when I truly came to realize what running means to me. My brother Paulo and I walked downhill in the morning sun along the main trail through the Khumbu region, the trail leading away from Everest Base Camp, which we had left that morning. As we strolled along we talked–musing, dreaming, contemplating–as we usually did. We were essentially ‘homeward bound’ as we were now headed out of the mountains on our final trek of the long three-month trip, so our thoughts naturally journeyed forward to what we would do next and where we were going. Within a few short weeks we would split and continue on following our own individual paths. Both of us intended to keep on traveling for many months. I had an entire itinerary planned for the next many months: the beaches of Thailand, then the northern mountains, on to the Indian Himalaya, Sri Lanka, then New Zealand… It was a dream trip that anyone would be envious of, but instead of looking forward to all the amazing sights and places I would see, I was instead pre-occupied with a dream of heading home and spending the summer in the mountains of Colorado, simply running.

Paulo walking down the trail where this story takes place, between the towns of Gorak Shep and Chhukung in the Khumbu

It didn’t make much sense, and I voiced my confusion to my brother in what I thought was a rhetorical question. “Why can I only think about running when I have so many amazing travels to partake in?”

By his immediate and pointed response, it seemed that he knew exactly why: “You need running to be who you are.” Continue reading

Soul Rebel – Trekking the Khumbu

“If you’re not living good, I beg you to travel wide, travel wide.” – Bob Marley, Soul Rebel

“Feel them Spirit…I rule my Destiny.” – Bob Marley, Put It On 

As Paulo and I walked out of Namche Bazaar on a stunningly clear morning towards the west and our eventual destination for the day of Thame, we looked up at the mountains surrounding us, very short by Khumbu standards, but wonderfully adorned with a fresh snow from the previous evening’s storm. I asked Paulo, “what do you think the frame is for this trek, what is the general theme?” We had been in Nepal adventuring about for over two months at that point, and to us it had felt like each thing we had done and place we had visited had been imbued with a special purpose as it related to our own journey. By the time we had walked out from Annapurna Base Camp we understood the meaning of our pilgrimage there, and had left the past up there in the snow, in the past, where it belonged. As we followed the long circuit around the Annapurna Massif we spun the wheel of our lives back into action from the stagnant, stalled state which they had degenerated into. Upon our return to Pokhara we felt like we had a purpose again, there was a path in front of us that we understood and could follow, life had motion. A week of intensive practice at Sadhana Yoga Center had taught us some methods by which to implement our quest for self-betterment, and had more importantly intoxicated us with a fresh breathe of progress. So in a way, as we embarked on another 20 days of wandering around the mountains, something we were getting fairly proficient at, I wondered if perhaps this mission would merely entail sightseeing, if perhaps the mountains had given us all that they could for this go-around, and hoped that as we walked we wouldn’t fall into some form of spiritual holding pattern, a bardo.

The path we walked in the early morning sunshine traversed along a south-facing slope through pine and rhododendron forests. The rhododendrons were in full bloom at this particular altitude, which was incredible because it seems that everywhere we have walked in this mountainous country, for three months, the rhododendrons have been blooming. Instead of the ubiquitous pink and sometimes dark, rose-like red, this day we experienced a pale off-white interspersed with yellow, a color grouping we had not yet seen. Trampling the carpet of fallen blossoms below his feet and strolling beneath the canopy of still hanging blossoms above him, Paulo replied something like, “I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve been waiting for it to hit me, what this trek is supposed to be all about, what we are supposed to learn. But we didn’t know at the beginning of the other trips either.” Patience: ponder it and walk on, through meadows, under rocky peaks, across clear brooks, past monasteries, and through our minds…

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