Time, which had passed Mustang by until recently, is now catching up with this once-forbidden kingdom, one of the last-remaining showcases of what Tibet used to be like.
But even here, in this remote district of Nepal that juts out into the Tibetan Plateau, the world is catching up. Mustang is a land of lore: enchanting stories of the monastery of Lo-Gekar built by Guru Rinpoche, the famous red cliffs of Drakmar, the walled town of Lo Manthang and the presence within it of King Jigme Prabal Bista, a direct descendant of Ame Pal who established the kingdom
Just as there are myths about Mustang, there are also misconceptions. One of them is the advice to avoid going there during its harsh winters. It is cold up there at 3,500m, no doubt, but it is mostly sunny and as long as the wind is not blowing the afternoons can actually be a balmy 15 degrees.
PICS: DUKSANGH SHERPA
The great thing about wintering in Mustang is that you have the place all to yourself: there are hardly any tourists and the locals have all moved down to Kathmandu or Pokhara. But go there in December before the snow arrives and the temperature is still bearable, and be mesmerised by its magical wonders in peaceful solitude.
The other myth is that Mustang is remote. Not anymore. After flying to Jomsom, or driving up from Pokhara you have the option of the new motor road (see map) to Lo Manthang, or the river road in lorries that drive up the Kali Gandaki in the dry season. Lo Manthang has been linked to Kora La on the China border since 1999, and the highway linking Upper Mustang to Jomsom to the south has taken 15 years. The Mustang DDC and VDCs along the way contributed to the budget allocated by Kathmandu to fund the construction. A national policy requiring all district capitals to be connected to the highway grid got Jomsom connected to Pokhara. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) supported the remaining road construction from Kagbeni to Samar, and the final stretch from Samar to Shyangmochen recently was added.
Today, there are trucks, tractors and jeeps where hiking and riding horses was the only way to get around. There were some misgivings, especially among tourism entrepreneurs, that the road would kill tourism. But the roads have increased accessibility, increased the number of tourists and added to the region’s income. Despite the road, villagers who can still afford to keep horses say that horses will never completely disappear since they will be needed to venture to side valleys. The highway is still blocked by snow or monsoon rains, and horses are still needed along the main trail.
The long-awaited completion of the motor road has been greeted with enthusiasm by locals, but it is crucial to understand and assess the impact it is going to have on the delicate environment of the arid trans-Himalaya, the sensitive culture and the local economy which depends on trade with Tibet, and tourism.
Conservation officer Santosh Sherchan with the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) is concerned about balancing development and conservation. ACAP has been working in Mustang since 1992, when the restricted area was opened to limited tourism.
Besides enforcing an Environmental Impact Assessment for projects, ACAP works to try to preserve the fragile culture of Mustang’s Lobas. ACAP may also have to revise rules on whether to keep, reject or reduce the special permit fee structure. A fair portion of the $500 fee that ACAP charges every tourist for a 10-day permit is supposed to go to Upper Mustang, but local authorities complain that this hasn’t happened.
The wheels of Mustang’s development are now in motion. Where once the only wheels were prayer wheels there are now tyres churning up the dust along the dirt highway past the holy Lo-Gekar. One wonders whether Guru Rinpoche would approve, or did he preordain it?
On a high horse
The future catches up with Mustang
Maya Bista from Tsarang, a village below Lo-Manthang feels a lot more comfortable travelling these days, now that the road is there. The 45-year-old runs Maya’s Inn in Tsarang and says transporting supplies is now a lot easier and cheaper. What used to cost Rs30 per kg to bring up from Jomsom by mule is now only Rs13. Her only point of concern is that trekkers who used to stop in Tsarang can now go directly to Lo Manthang. Bista has also seen a spurt in the number of Nepali tourists coming up from Pokhara and Kathmandu now that the road is there.