By Avant Shrestha
There are numerous hotels and lodges scattered across the country with interesting history and stories. However, only a few can match the magic and history behind the doors of the Red House lodge. Located in the village of Kagbeni in Upper Mustang alongside the mighty Kali Gandaki River, Red House Lodge is an old home that has been providing accommodation for travellers for decades.
In 1997, Manang and Mustang regions were declared Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) and eventually tourists started to travel to this region. Seeing an opportunity, Pema Doma became the first person to start a small lodge in Kagbeni by providing basic facilities and hospitality she had to offer. As beautiful and mysterious the lodge and its surroundings are, the story behind the name ‘Red House’ is even more intriguing.
Behind the name lies a story of a true friendship between Pema Doma and Sydney Schuler. A traveler, Sydney Schuler, came to Kagbeni to study the women of Baragaon, Mustang and the status of women in Nepal. During the course of her research, Sydney stayed at Pema’s lodge for two months. Over the period of her stay, her friendship with Pema blossomed. Sydney noticed that the home she was staying in had no name. She then decided to bring a signboard inscribed with ‘Red House Lodge’ to symbolise the colour of the lodge which was painted all red. The name struck a chord and over time the moniker given to the building based on its colour still stands true today.
The journey to Kagbeni’s Red House is exciting. After what seemed like a chaotic 15 hours of constant violently shaking bus ride added with constant blaring of Nepali and Bollywood songs and the constant profane chattering of my fellow passengers, reaching the outskirts of Kagbeni was pure bliss.
Walking through the windy and narrow cobble stoned paths of Kagbeni towards Red House Lodge was unique. For a city dweller, who was dodging the pacing vehicles on the streets of Kathmandu a day earlier, finding myself in a village which was designed as a fortress and trapped between hordes of goats almost being trampled to death was nothing short of extraordinary.
Taking a local bus is standard arrangement for travellers making their journey towards Kagbeni. But for those with bad back and because of the precarious condition of the roads, different travel arrangement is highly recommended. Then again, for adventurers, getting on a motor bike or trekking the entire way would be more attractive.
For travellers who would prefer a more comfortable route should be able to book a flight to Jomsom. From Jomsom, Kagbeni can be reached via hired jeep or bus in half an hour and travellers who prefer to walk can reach the destination in three hours, depending on the pace.
The Red House
Red House hides itself behind unchanged hundred-year-old mud and stone houses and newly erected hotels and cafes. The timeless mud and stone houses are a visual delight among the new hotels and cafes set up to accommodate the influx of tourists that Kagbeni has experienced in the recent times. However, there is nothing endearing about the exterior of Red House. The simplistic design and few shades of white paint on the red walls is nothing out of the ordinary. However, the lodge’s intricate details and features slowly start to unravel once you enter the building.
Every corner of the lodge carries history. The former owner of the house, Pema, who everybody respectfully addresses as Ama (mother), still resides in the premises. She claimed that the wood that was used to construct the house were from a nearby jungle which is now sadly just miles of barren land. Additionally, the walls of the building is decorated with centuries old Thangka art and aligned with equally aged utensils, weapons and Tibetan text books. At the center of the house stands a 5-foot tall Buddha statue, which is the second highest in the Mustang region with the first one located in Lo Manthang.
Red House only has five staff members with no defined roles; in fact, they help out where they are required to. To think about it, it houses an unconventionally low number of staff but based on how properly the lodge is managed and how welcome they make the guests feel, these handful of personnel are more than enough.
The lodge offers a total of 20 bedrooms. 11 rooms in the main quarter with 10 attached bathrooms and one common bathroom and 9 rooms in the newly acquired quarter. Two of the best rooms in the lodge are Lo Manthang and Lake Tilicho which overlook the vast majesty of the surroundings. The mud walls in Lo Manthang are replaced by glass windows so that the occupants can appreciate Dhaulagiri massif on the right and Nilgiri Himal on the left.
The main aim of the hotel is to offer its guests simple yet a comfortable stay with all basic necessities. The minimalist décor of the rooms is in tandem with the pristine mountains and the lakes the rooms are named after.
The common area and the dining hall are left relatively empty during the day with only natural light giving it a rustic hue. During the evening, it is quite the opposite. With reasonable priced fast food and local dishes on offer and the murmur of the travellers chatting about their journey and lives in faraway places brings the entire place to life. And yes they do have Wi-Fi. In the words of Karl Mordo from Dr. Strange, “We are not savages.”
The lodge has a central sanctum space which acts as the core binder of all the areas of the house. Within the sanctum is the aforementioned 300 plus year old statue of Maitreyea Buddha. On the right hand side of the sanctum, the ancient ruined place of Kagbeni can be seen. Below the sanctum, passages interconnect the entrance to the main quarter and the newly acquired quarter. Guests can quite easily get lost within the passageway of the lodge. However, it is very interesting exploring and navigating one’s way around the different alleys and entrances of the building.
Much emphasis has been given to retain the historical artifact and architectural elements of the house binding it in a certain way to make the lodge not just accommodating for the guests but to preserve the spiritual essence of the lodge as well. Guests wishing to explore every nook and cranny of the lodge will appreciate the fact that the lodge is not just a tourist accommodation but a museum with a functional purpose.
For years, travellers have treated Kagbeni as a mere resting stop before they trek on to another destination. However, Kagbeni deserves to be known as a destination in its own right, instead of a pit-stop for travellers. Apart from its exquisite expansive beauty, there are lots of activities such as short hikes to Tiri Village, Phalak, Jong and Seldhak where one can observe and get first hand glimpses of the local lifestyle, culture and traditions.
The Red House has done a commendable job in preserving the lifestyle, traditions and cultures of the Himalayan people as well as artifacts that hold historical significance. Along with doing its part in the preservation and restoration of artifacts that hold historical significance for Kagbeni, Red House has been providing guests an excellent homely accommodation and as a result has received the deserving title of Kagbeni’s premier lodge.