Far away from the bustling town squares and temples and dance festivals of the towns and cities of Nepal, the village of Kagbeni awaits you with its audacious beauty. Officially Kagbeni is a settlement that bridges the gap between Lower and Upper Mustang, right at the feet of Muktinath Valley by the River Kali Gandaki. But spiritually, Kagbeni is every bit of a Tibetan village, stuck somewhere in between centuries. There is something irresistible about the windswept barrens of the high Himalayas. There is nothing ostentatious about this village - there are no frills or frivolity to hide behind when you step your foot in Kagbeni. The haunting beauty of the blatant wilderness that Kagbeni holds hits you right in the face with all its brazen glory, and you will only be left wanting more and more.
What it Once Was
Kagbeni was once part of the kingdom that ruled over Muktinath. The more you explore the cobbled streets of Kagbeni, the more remains you will find of what once used to be a fortress of the kingdom, whose capital lied further north in Lo Manthang. The ruler of Muktinath Valley built this here for its geographically favourable position, as four legs of trade routes met here, and the king used to collect taxes from all those entering his kingdom.
Back in those days, Kagbeni used to be an important centre of trade for Tibetans and Indians. The famous Salt Trade Route between the two countries went right through the village. Thousands of caravans used to come down from the treacherous Tibetan plains and met the merchants from the plains of India with their merchandises and goats. The vast plains covered with nothing but ages after ages of mud and snow can almost paint the picture for you.
The desolate ruins now tell a tale of some sort of dispute that must have led to the downfall of the fortress. It could also be because of the declination of trade as Indian salt became a more popular commodity, and Kagbeni lost most of its settlements as well. The locals believe in their own Loch Ness Monster - a lion-headed, serpent-bodied creature that demolished the previous villages. The lore sound very much like every fantasy tale ever, including the famous Smaug from Tolkien's Hobbit. Whatever be the reason, new settlements grew up with time, which now comprises of the small Village Development Committee that Kagbeni currently is.
What it Has Become
Today, there are no colourful caravans, nor smiling men and women in vibrant wools trading goods. The majestic Tibetan Himalayas rise beyond the abandoned plains in all their herculean glory, in stark contrast to the transience of human life. The people left, but they left behind a village that still reverberates with their footsteps and clutches on to the reminiscence in a melancholic way. The goats are still there in herds. And if you spend time on the streets of Kagbeni, taking in the mystifying landscape, you will certainly come across some on your way.
The Upper Mustang, though a more favourable spot for many, requires a special permit and USD 50 per day per person to stay. This is the reason why, of late, so many travellers prefer Kagbeni - the Gateway to Upper Mustang instead, to get the ambience of high mountains, and Kagbeni is not disappointing them at all.
The Trotter's Map
On your day out, the most soul-stirring activity is to walk around the village and take the whole place in. For anyone who is used to mountain walking, it will not be a trouble to explore the old part of the city surrounding the ruins of the fortress, which still clings on to its past. Hotels and restaurants have not yet started encroachment in this area much. Neither have the place undergone much of a change from old days.
During the day, the locals are usually out grazing their cattle, most mountain goats with thick fur and elaborate horns. The remains of the fortress are beautiful yet quite haunting. The silence creeps on to you occasionally, and one can't help but wonder how they used to be bustling with soldiers and citizens and buyers and sellers once - a different time, a different picture!
The Trekker's Trail
There are many trekking trails from Kagbeni, that lead up to the old royal capital of Lo Manthang. While trekking, you will come across some Chortens and prayer wheels. Chortens are Buddhist tomb shrines, which are common in Tibetan culture, and must always be crossed by the right side. The Tibetan Buddhists consider it bad luck to cross by the left. You will see numerous colourful Buddhist flags as well, planted here and there.
From the summits, the entire valley can be seen down there, still like a painted picture on an artist's canvas. A raw cold wind blows at this altitude at all times, and the view opens up to the vast expanses of mountain desert plains stretching into Tibet. It feels mysterious and intoxicating, but most importantly, insignificant. To stand there in front of the historical and unfathomable terrains of the Himalayas is as humbling an experience as it can be.
Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling Monastery, or in short, the Red Monastery is the most famous landmark here. Built in 1429, the beauty of the monastery matches perfectly of its surroundings. From outside, it looks colourful and desolate, just like the rest of Kagbeni. Inside there are sculptures of Buddha and friendly monks and a tranquil environment, where you can sit and take in how authentic Tibetan Buddhism looks and sounds like. The strain of musical tune that you had heard earlier came from this monastery, and you can hear it every day in the morning as a harbinger of goodness.
Photography is prohibited inside the monastery, and you should respect their privacy too. So, the lens of the eyes and the memory of the mind are the only way you get to take this place back as a souvenir.
Kagbeni is not a place a lot of people will ask you to visit. However, you will miss out on something spectacularly and dauntlessly beautiful if you don't.