Mustang -- An ancient kingdom on the threshold of change
February 14, 2010
By Tim Farr
The Ottawa Citizen (Canada)
February 13, 2010
Late September found us in Lo-Manthang, the
capital of Mustang. The former ancient Kingdom of
Lo, Mustang is now part of Nepal, in the
northwest corner bordering Tibet. It's in the
rain shadow of the Himalaya, high on the Tibetan
plateau. It's just 80 kilometres long, 24
kilometres across at its widest part and at an
elevation of higher than 2,500 metres.
Mustang has acquired a Shangri-La-like reputation
because of the pervasive influence of Tibetan
culture (it is known as "Tibet outside the
Tibetan border") and the fact that it remained closed to foreigners until 1991.
Even now, the high cost of a trekking permit
($500 U.S.) and the difficulty of accessing this
area discourage many travellers. But the chance
to visit such a remote area, to climb beyond the
main range of the Himalaya, and to walk in the
footsteps of ancient caravan routes was too exciting for us to ignore.
After acclimatizing for a few days in the
Kathmandu Valley, our journey began with a flight
to Jomsom, a small town squeezed between the
mountains in Nepal that boasts a tiny airport on
the banks of the Kali Gandaki River. You need to
book an early flight because, by late morning,
high winds sweeping up the valley make conditions too dangerous for flying.
Just outside the airport gates, accompanied by
our sidar (or guide), we met the cook, support
staff and the small Tibetan ponies that would
carry our gear. We quickly grew to rely on them
for our well-being and enjoyed their camaraderie
at our campsites over the next three weeks.
Our first day was spent walking directly up the
river's flood plain. Where the river pierces the
Himalaya, it creates the deepest gorge in the
world, and we felt dwarfed by the immense cliffs
on either side. In the village of Kagbeni, we
were stopped at a police checkpoint to ensure that our permits were in order.
Gazing north, we could see dust devils swirling
up the river bed, before disappearing into the
restricted zone of Upper Mustang. This valley is
part of a traditional route used to bring wool
and salt down from Tibet in exchange for trade
goods from Nepal and India. Virtually everything
in Mustang arrives on the backs of pack animals
and porters because there is no road access for motorized vehicles.
We followed the river's course for another day,
then began climbing in a slow arc through a chain
of isolated villages, where we would stop each night to pitch our tents.
We quickly learned to keep close to the mountain
sides whenever we met caravans on the narrow
trail. But it was hard not to be distracted by
the awe-inspiring scenery: picture the Grand
Canyon dropped onto the Tibetan plateau. One day,
we trekked seven hours and ascended four passes,
including the Syangboche La, at nearly 4,000
metres, an impossibly beautiful place marked by
long strings of Buddhist prayer flags fluttering
in the breeze. The views to the south were
breathtaking, with the Annapurnas and Dhaulagiri,
the seventh highest mountain in the world,
soaring above the skyline, while to the north,
our route was visible as a dusty scar etched
across the arid hills sheltering Lo-Manthang.
Mustang's walled capital was built in the 14th
century and is still entered through an enormous
wooden gate, which used to be locked at night. It
is truly medieval: a warren of narrow laneways
that provide fleeting glimpses of a remarkable
way of life. You may see a pilgrim spinning a
Buddhist prayer wheel, saffron-robed monks deep
in conversation, dung drying on a window sill to
make fuel, or you may experience the shock of
encountering a snarling Tibetan mastiff securely chained to a doorway.
During our visit, many of the townspeople were
busy harvesting wheat and we squeezed past locals
stooped under heavy sheaves. This crop, which is
grown in small irrigated fields surrounding the
town, is totally dependent on snowmelt and glacier runoff from the mountains.
As befits a town built in 1380, Lo-Manthang
houses some remarkable antiquities. Jhampa Gompa
(gompa means monastery) contains an enormous
statue of "the Buddha yet to come" which, from
our vantage point on a second-floor gallery,
gazed at us impassively through dusty shafts of
sunlight. Thupchen Gompa is decorated with
extraordinary frescoes and murals, including a
frightening deity draped in a skull necklace,
which is being painstakingly restored by a team
of Italian conservationists. Visitors are no
longer allowed to take photos inside these
shrines because art dealers were identifying
relics from the photos and then commissioning
thieves to steal the most valuable items.
Nevertheless, such images leave an indelible
impression, which the passage of time cannot erase.
We felt privileged to visit Lo-Manthang, because
there is a sense that this area is on the
threshold of great change. Evidence of Nepal's
civil war -- such as the stenciled
hammer-and-sickle emblems of the Maoists and
signs advocating a "Himal Autonomous State" --
are giving way to advertisements for tea houses
and solar-heated showers. Farther north, the
Chinese are building a road down to the border,
which will inevitably increase the number of
visitors and, possibly, Mustang's reliance on its
powerful northern neighbour. This has always been
a sensitive area because Mustang was a refuge for
Khampa tribesmen who fought against the Chinese
occupation of Tibet and it remains one of the
last outposts of traditional Tibetan culture.
We detected a resilience and strength, however,
which encourages cautious optimism. On our last
day in Lo-Manthang, we visited the Great
Compassion Monastic School, which allows local
students to pursue their religious studies
without having to leave their homeland. Its
enthusiastic abbot proudly showed us a classroom
of boys with shaved heads who were memorizing and
reciting Buddhist scriptures, in addition to
studying secular subjects such as math and social
sciences. These students represent an un-
broken link to Mustang's past and a bridge to its
future, upon whose shoulders the area's future likely depends.
Tim Farr is a former public servant who recently
spent five weeks in Nepal and Thailand
celebrating his retirement. It was his second
visit to Nepal, but he and his wife Melanie hope to return.