Marpha casts a spell with its quaint architecture, traditional lifestyle, and all things made from apple.
The small window of your room frames branches of an apple tree. You go to breakfast, and one of the things on the menu is an apple pie. After breakfast, as you set out from your lodge, apple orchards sprawl out in front you; it is an oasis nestled at the foot of the wind-scarred mountains. It is a delicious sight. The place is Marpha, Mustang.
Marpha’s postcard-perfect main street provides a clear picture of the town’s character. Front doors flank the narrow street; glimpses of households (which are also lodges and restaurants) are easy to get. Tibetan women, descendants of the fiery Khampas that once waged a guerilla war on the Chinese, stand in the shade, chatting with each other. When they spot you, they hurriedly get up and take out the trinkets they have come to sell. The tone of their voices is so soft that they sound like they are inviting you in for tea. Whether you buy from them or not, they send you away with the memento of a sweet smile.
When the road came to Thak Khola, Marpha was an exception in that it decided to keep the road at arm’s length. It opted to keep its stone-paved narrow street. The road in Mustang has irreparably disfigured and destroyed the uniqueness of many villages in Thak Khola. Banished to the fringes in Marpha, it lies several hundred meters away like an outcast.
The decision to preserve the street has saved much more than traditional architecture. Old people set out chairs on the street’s edge to bask in the sun and chat with friends and relatives. An irrigation canal runs on one side of the street, its gurgling muffled sometimes by Mustang’s notorious winds, sometimes by the tingling of bells as a herd of goats go by, and sometimes by a motorbike (those are allowed) that roars through.
Traditions have survived remarkably well in Marpha. They live on in the entire village coming together to celebrate weddings. Tradition is also on the roofs, in the form of stacks of wood. It is seen increasingly as an aesthetic element. Some explain it as a status symbol: the more wood on your roof, the richer you are. But a local had another explanation. “Some of the wood stacked on our roof was cut and hauled by my grandfather,” he told me. “We are very frugal when it comes to wood. There is always a chance that a winter might be unusually cold and long. We save wood for such a winter.”
Like their wood, the people of Marpha have also preserved their culture and customs. And like their stacks of wood, the Marpha way of life is conspicuous. It is a life still lived in the old rhythms of long chats with friends on the street and in orchards, under ripening apples.
This whitewashed slice of a big rock is an ancient shrine. It is the village’s spiritual heart and heritage. The shrine lies a short walk up from near the village’s northwestern gate.
Ekai Kawaguchi’s Home
Kawaguchi is the stranger in Scott Berry’s book A Stranger in Tibet. He arrived in Marpha in 1899 and lived there for two years before sneaking into Tibet. The house he lived in during those years has been turned into a museum containing some of his possessions. The house’s prayer room contains several books encased in wooden covers.
This small monastery is the ideal place if you want to spend some time in silence or want to witness the daily rituals of a Buddhist monastery.
The present day Marpha was moved from its original location higher up in the mountains. The Old Marpha is now nothing but a small plateau that is planted with apple and apricot trees, but it is worth a visit for its history and its views of the mountains.
The bigger and more developed cousin of Marpha, Jomsom is a short walk north from the former. It may not be the prettiest place in Thak Khola but it’s the place with the ATM and bakeries. If you do visit Jomsom, also go across the Kali Gandaki from it to Thini village.
This small lake of turquoise waters is like a precious stone set into the arid expanse of the area. It is also a place of sanctity for the locals. The lake is a two-hour walk from Marpha.
The Horticulture Development Center
Several varieties of apples, from Red Delicious to crab apple, are grown in this farm. You can get the staffers to pluck apples and apricots fresh off the trees if you are visiting in the fruiting season. If not, it is still a place to visit for its beautifully tended gardens and fruit trees.
This gumba is nearly a kilometer from the southern end of Marpha and across the Kali Gandaki River. Hiding behind an encirclement of tall pines, this quaint monastery is a stark contrast from the large, colorful and conspicuously located monasteries in Thak Khola. It has stood, according to the head lama, for nearly four centuries. The walls of its altar room are covered in faded frescoes showing Buddhist deities, and several rolls of old scriptures rest on the altar. In an adjoining room, a large Padmashambhava statue glares down at the door. Barely a hundred meters south of the monastery is a historical attraction: the ruins of a Khampa camp.
Thak Khola’s aridity, cold, and the high-altitude sun take a toll on the skin. A bottle of sunscreen and a hat are thus indispensible. Carry sunglasses for protection against the daily dust storms that Mustang’s winds whip up.
There are daily flights from Pokhara to Jomsom. From Jomsom it is a thirty minute walk to Marpha. Fifteen minutes if you catch a ride on a vehicle. Buses and 4WD jeeps ply the road, which begins at Beni. A road journey from Beni takes around nine hours to get to Marpha. However, the hazards of that dirt road and the beauty of the landscape make trekking the safer and the more rewarding way of getting to Marpha. The trek from Beni to Marpha takes between four to six days, depending on your walking abilities.
Where to Stay
The couple that owns Hotel Mount Villa belongs to the generation that saw Khampa warriors rove on horseback in Thak Khola. The husband’s stories about the Khampas are reason enough to opt for this hotel. The other appealing features are its clean rooms with attached bathrooms and a cozy dining room with a view of the main street. If you are traveling in peak trekking season (March-May and October-December) it’s better to book rooms in advance. Hotel Mount Villa: 9746718170.
Dhaulagiri Guest House has the best food in town. Thakalis are known for their sumptuous dal-bhat meals, and in Dhaulagiri that culinary tradition has gone up a notch. Neeru Guest House’s dining room has arguably the best view in town. It’s the place to get your fix of coffee. While there, try their famous apple crumble.