PICS: DINESH SHRESTHA
It was the sort of Facebook message one can only dream about. My friend Dinesh Shrestha from Kathmandu wrote: 'We are interested to write a book about Mustang by you.' I inferred that Dinesh, a photographer, wanted me to write some words for his latest book.
Dinesh had produced some stunning books like Timeless Kathmandu and Nepal and its Splendour. Who wouldn't want to get in on some of that grandeur? I knew that Mustang was a rarely visited pocket of Nepal, nestled between Tibet to the north and the Himalaya to the south. While trekking on the Annapurna Circuit in 2002 I'd stood at the sign which said: 'Halt, you are entering the forbidden kingdom of Mustang. Trekkers found beyond this point without a permit will be thrown in the Raja's dungeon.' Well, not exactly those words but that was the gist of it.
So as I had looked along the enormous stony valley 10 years ago, a chain of donkeys seeming to barely move in the distance, I was captivated by the romance of the forbidden.
But also the absolute timelessness of the scene. Marco Polo could have looked at the same view and seen nothing he didn't recognise.
No European had been allowed to set foot in Mustang until 1952 and even after that only a handful were let in until it was opened to very limited tourism in 1992. Now, it averages about six visitors a day. They had always faced a five day walk to the walled capital, Lo Manthang, but big changes are afoot.
I didn't realise it, but Dinesh was asking me to come and see a place that was in the midst of being connected by the arteries of the modern world. A year-round road and Lo Manthang will no doubt soon be changed irrevocably by its pulse.
'Will I get to meet the king?' I messaged Dinesh.
'I'm in then.'
Mustang usually has words attached to it like 'lost', 'hidden' or 'forbidden' perhaps preceding the word 'kingdom'. Today it is none of those things, yet it has maintained something of that mystique. Since 2008, it has been possible to travel all the way there from Kathmandu by truck in the dry months (surely one of the most spectacular road trips on the planet), but Mustang is still relatively difficult to get to and it still surprises the visitor with its stunning vistas and the stubborn way it clings to its culture.
Indeed the culture is fighting back. Crumbling holy art is being restored, monasteries have been rebuilt and refilled with the sound of young monks in robes studying the ancient Buddhist ways. Dinesh's photos will go down as a historical monument to this pivotal moment in Mustang's history because it's never going to look this way again.
On a high horse
Monsoon in the rainshadow, KUNDA DIXIT in MUSTANG
May be one last time on horseback to Lo Manthang
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