PICS: KUNDA DIXIT
Tashi Wangel leads his horses up to the 4,000m pass on Choya La and mutters a mantra at a cairn bedecked with colourful prayer flags fluttering in the wind.
There are eight horseback trekkers in this group, and he makes an average of six trips back and forth from Jomsom every year. Business has been good, and his customers have usually been generous with tips.
A jeep can be heard straining up the switchbacks, and soon arrives in a cloud of dust. This is the morning bus from Lo Manthang packed with traders, monks and porters headed down to Jomsom, and a noisy reminder that Mustang is experiencing the same transition from horses to automobiles that Europe went through during the industrial age.
"With the road there will be no need for my horses," says Wangel, adjusting the harness on a 10-year-old blue roan named Tomar. "This is the last of them, I will either sell them off or not replace them when they die."
Horses, mules and donkeys have always been a part of Mustang's landscape and culture. Horses, in particular, have a prominent place in Tibetan lore and language, the animal not just a means of transport but also serving as a potent symbol of speed, certitude and good fortune. But all this is soon about to change with the arrival of the road from the south that will make it possible to drive from Pokhara to Lo Manthang in less than 12 hours, and connect to the road to the Chinese border at Kore La.
Along the old Kali Gandaki horse trail there is anticipation and apprehension about the new road, and what it will mean for Mustang's 'Restricted Area' status that limits tourism and requires every trekker to pay $650 for a 13-day permit. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) makes Rs 50 million a year from trekking royalties and is supposed to plough back a third of it into the Mustang economy, but there is simmering discontent here that much of that money vanishes in Kathmandu's bureaucratic sinkhole.
"When the road is opened, Mustang should also be opened, it can't be treated like a restricted area anymore," says Deb Gurung a member of the UML district committee. Indeed, most tourists along the trails are already put off by the limited vehicle traffic along a trail they had been promised was pristine.
But Lo Manthang's former VDC chairman Indra Bista fears that abolishing the $50 per day trekking fee and lifting restrictions will turn the fragile region "into another Thamel". Chatting with visitors at the gates to the walled town, Bista said: "If we open up Upper Mustang, cheap tourists will flood in and we will see a repeat of the Annapurna Circuit where trekkers bargain even at tea shops."
As a peripheral region of a peripheral country, Mustang became a part of Nepal almost by a historical fluke after Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered Jumla.
Mustang always fell between the cracks, although it briefly became the epicenter of Tibetan resistance to Chinese occupation in the 60s and 70s with the CIA-supported Khampa uprising. But after Richard Nixon opened ties with Beijing the US withdrew support, the Dalai Lama called on the fighters to lay down arms and the Nepal Army hunted down the last remaining Khampas.
The new democratic government in Kathmandu opened up the area to limited tourism in 1992, but access to the kingdom within a republic remains restricted. ACAP's fees and rules requiring trekking groups to carry their own kerosene and account for every tin can and plastic bag they take into Mustang now seem out of date and anachronistic.
Whatever happens to Mustang's restricted status, visitors already get vivid reminders of a district on the verge of momentous change. Tractors overtaking mule trains on the narrow trails, Applebee's Café has arrived and at Kagbeni, the ACAP office carefully checks to see if trekkers have brought back all their trash, and then tosses the day's collected garbage over the cliff into the Kali Gandaki.
In Kathmandu, as the debate continues about ACAP's own future (see box) no one is thinking and planning for the future of Mustang's tourism. Because Kathmandu couldn't care less, it is the Chinese who are distributing free rice and wheat, the Indians are equipping schools, and the Americans are helping restore monasteries.
Fifty years ago Mustang's families all contributed to sending donkeys down to Butwal or Pokhara to bring up a year's supply of essentials. Wool and salt went down, grain and cloth came up. Today there are no donkeys left. The mules will soon disappear as well.
As for the horses, Wangel thinks he will keep one just for old times' sake. "But with time, even that will be replaced by a motorcycle," he adds as he corrals his horses on the ground floor of his home in Lo Manthang.
Others are not as pessimistic and say that despite the road, there are alternative high trails for trekking and horseback travel in Mustang. The road would make the trail through Tangbe, and Drakmar Valley and the Damodar Kunda treks more accessible for tourism.
"As much as possible, horses need to continue to be presented as viable and exciting modes of transport for tourists", says anthropologist Sienna Craig, author of Horses Like Lightning, a book about Mustang's horses.
The world catches up
Mustang's terrain inspires awe and wonder, even if you don't know about the geology of its genesis, which is probably why this has been a place of such spiritual and cultural significance. This isn't just Tibet, it is proto-Tibet. This is what the Tibetan Plateau must have been like before Buddhism arrived, and before the Chinese came. From the neolithic caves carved into the soft vertical conglomerate walls of the canyons to the historic monasteries and sacred springs and lakes, this is a valley made holy by a primordial blend of geology and mythology.
The Hindu and Buddhist sages of the Himalaya all visited and meditated here. Milarepa the poet saint passed through. Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Tibet, chased a demoness from the Samye monastery in Lhasa all the way to Mustang and finally slayed her here. It is her blood that is believed to have dyed the surrounding cliffs red. The exact spot where that happened 1,300 year ago is Lo Gekar, the oldest Tibetan Buddhist shrine in Nepal.
The kingdom of Mustang was established by Ame Pal 800 years ago, and the ruins of his imposing fortress overlooks Lo Manthang where his direct descendant, Jigme Prabal Bista, still rules 25 generations later. Now, with a new road from Pokhara snaking its way up to the trans-Himalayan plateau, Mustang's centuries-old way of life is bound to change as the rest of the world catches up.
Where horses grow swift
In ancient texts about Mustang's creation, Craig finds the following passage: 'Mustang is a centre of the sky, the middle of the earth …the head of all rivers where horses grow swift.'Horses have seen their ups and downs in modern Mustangi history. The Chinese annexation of Tibet put an end to trade, grazing and even the import of horses from the grasslands of eastern Tibet. The mule trains started travelling south to Pokhara and Butwal to ferry supplies. When the Khampa guerrillas set up camps for raids on the Chinese Army, they used war horses to travel swiftly across the mountains. Horses were always a status symbol for the Mustangi aristocracy, rather like what SUVs are in Kathmandu for high ups, but this was 'democratised' with the political changes in 1990 in Nepal and Mustang was opened up for limited tourism. The Loba started keeping horses, to rent to tourists travelling from Jomsom to Lo Manthang and back. But now with the arrival of the road, big changes are afoot again. Already tourists on horseback have to compete for space on the narrow trails to give way for the jeeps and tractors going up and down.
Tending to a sick gelding, Craig is apprehensive about the future of Mustang and of its horses: 'Like the horse's fragile health, I felt so much of Mustang's equine tradition was faced with inevitable change. Quite literally, horses were the vehicles on whose backs this culture has been carried for centuries. Given the pace with which life was changing in Mustang, and the number of young people who were vested with different educations, different expectations, and different dreams, what would they know of Mustang's "horse culture"?'Kunda Dixit
"There still a future for Mustang's horses"
Nepali Times: In Horse Like Lightning you trace Mustang's cultural roots from the perspective of horses. In your last trip this year you must have seen the progress of the road from the south. How do you think the road will affect the singular importance of the horse in Mustangi culture?
Sienna Craig: The road is transforming Mustang in a range of ways, including the horse culture and economy of the region. I do not think that horses will completely disappear, either as status symbols or as modes of transport, as the road continues to expand and become more of a constant part of Mustangi life. I think that the role of the horse will continue to fluctuate, and that in many ways this relates to concerns at once economic and aesthetic. On the economic side, people will continue to weigh the cost of hay and the cost of labor for shepherding horses against the cost of fossil fuels that now run the jeeps and motorcycles up Mustang's corridors. On the aesthetic side, nearly everyone I asked this sort of question to this summer spoke about how the speed of jeep and motorcycles is great, but it disturbs a certain kind of peace that goes with horseback travel - let alone the ability to talk with traveling companions, to make travel a space for sociality instead of motion sickness and loud noise. And the horse-related cultural events and rituals, especially Yartung, continue to be a big draw both for locals of all ages and tourists, and people recognize the joy as well as the money in continuing such practices.
And the impact of the road?
I had many conversations this summer with folks in Mustang about the positive and negative aspects of the road. Most people with whom I spoke about this topic said that the road is most important for emergencies, especially health emergencies, of local residents. It also makes the disparate nature of Mustangi family life feel not quite as disparate. Between the roads and phones, if someone has a sick relative or a crucial need of some sort, getting between Lo Monthang and Kathmandu or Pokhara is now doable in a day or two and that is simply radical, in terms of people's senses of space and time and what is possible. But people also spoke frankly about the dangers of motor accidents, the problems of becoming even more reliant on resources from outside Mustang (in this case lowland drivers and mechanics, petrol, etc) as well as the kinds of things noted above. In addition, people equate the road with the penetration of Chinese influence in the area, whereas horse travel is something that is decidedly local in orientation, not tinged with the same ambivalence or fears about losing de facto control over their region - which is something that people talked a lot about, as Chinese trucks carrying industrially farmed barley from Shigatse lumbered across the border and down to Monthang with impunity this summer.
What could be done to preserve this way of life for a while longer?
I think that part of the preservation has to come from a local sense that there is not only beauty and different forms of cultural preservation tied up with riding horses (which I think most people feel and realise) but also that the labour and resources that go into keeping horses is ultimately more or at least quite differently sustainable than jeeps and motorcycles. I don't think jeeps will disappear but some of the models that have been forged in certain areas of lower Mustang - where there are alternative footpaths / riding trails and then the main jeep road - needs to be further developed. As much as possible, horses need to continue to be presented as viable and exciting modes of transport for tourists. This may help with incentivising local labour related to horses and keeping local expertise alive. I was actually quite astounded at how many tourists there were this summer, and I imagine this will continue to increase as Tibet remains so fickle in terms of foreign tourist access.
You worked and learnt from Mayala and Tshampa, and they appear in your book. What will become of them?
As is the case with many householders in Mustang, these folks have always managed a combination of income-earning strategies. Mayala has now passed on but Karchung, another horse healer I spent a lot of time with, continues to see animals on a regular basis. He's able to make ends meet because his daughter has a government job and another family member is in NYC and sends remittances. Tshampa is actually quite well off. He comes from a prominent family, has three children living in the US, owns a hotel, and has siblings who are successful businessmen in the region. He doesn't really make much from his medicine practice, including veterinary care, but this is also a cultural norm that is tough to change - particularly now that people are more aware also that biomedical options in the district, whether through ACAP funded health posts or state health posts, is nearly (or fully) free.
For less wealthy horse owners, they sometimes form kin-based networks of informal local pools of horses to be used by specific hotels or trekking agencies and that has allowed them to maintain income. Some of the biggest problems here can actually come from the fluctuating costs of fodder and also the increasing difficulty of finding good, reliable herders to watch horses when they are not being actively used for tourism. The other increasing problem is viable winter pasture, as Pokhara gets more built up and the old areas like Kaji Pokhari, about which I write, are now filled with homes instead of fields.
As something of an aside, while I was in Monthang there was a horse-related catastrophe that happened in which a non-local veterinary technician, someone apparently right out of vocational training and from another part of Nepal, inadvertently killed nine horses in a matter of days while he came up to do castrations. Some said that the tetanus shots he gave the horses after the operation were bad / off while others just attributed the deaths to improper castration techniques that resulted in too much blood loss. At any rate, it reinforced a lot of the sensibilities about which I wrote in Horses Like Lightning - the sense that only local people should be taking care of local horses and that horses are a point of pride. It also revealed just how valuable horses still are, in that the owners of these nine horses each estimated that they lost more than 1lakh per horse - these were all riding horses. Even to compensate the owners at Rs.40,000/horse would have basically wiped out the district veterinary budget for the year - so this was impossible.
What could be the future of the ACAP $50 a day fee in the restricted area after the road gets there? I found the Lobas pretty ambivalent with some for retaining restricted status and others for opening it up?
Ah, this is a huge question, and a very loaded one. A short answer to this is that unless the $50/day actually begins to go to local organisations in upper Mustang directly the funds are really doing Mustang very little direct good, and it would likely not radically increase the number of tourists if the fee were lifted or seriously limited; and, in fact, Upper Mustang could likely handle this increase in tourists and attendant ecological and economic costs in some proactive and interesting ways - learning from the positive and negative lessons of Mustang's unrestricted area, which they all know well. Some do feel that the area should be restricted, in part because of existing capacity to handle people in hotels and campsites, but many feel that these funds are simply going into the coffers of people in KTM, at ACAP, and at the district level at this point, without fair allocation to the VDCs of Upper Mustang, as was the original promise made back in 1991 to the people of upper Mustang by the then HMG Nepal.
Horses Like Lightning:
A Story of Passage Through the Himalayas
Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2008
On a high horse
Conservation of interests,BHRIKUTI RAI
Nepal's internationally acclaimed Annapurna eco-tourism project has also fallen prey to political interference
In the shadow of Annapurna, GOPAL GURAGAIN
The Annapurna conservation project must find ways to reconcile its conflict with locals over resources
The future catches up with Mustang, MARK WHITTAKER
Mustang is usually preceded with words like 'lost', 'hidden' or 'forbidden', today it is none of those things
The kingdom within the republic, CAILIN KEARNS in MUSTANG
Not everyone is happy with Mustang turning into Thamel
Last trek to Jomsom
It may not be long before you can drive a Mustang to Mustang