Nepali Times
The road to Lo


A new road to Tibet has brought down prices of consumer goods in Mustang, which is still a week's walk away from the nearest road on the Nepali side.

They're holding out for a trade boom in this remote finger of Nepal jutting out into Tibet. At the wind-swept trading post at the Kora La pass at 4,000m, once a vital link in the Nepal-Tibet salt trade, there are now Chinese trucks laden with beer, cement, rice, detergents. Trade has boomed, but it is mostly one-way, leading to some misgivings here about whether the road benefits Nepal at all.

Until three years ago, only yak and mule caravans plied this trail, carrying salt and other essentials. But with a grant from the Aaafno Gaun Aafai Banaun initiative of the UML government, a motorable road was built that links Lo Manthang in Upper Mustang to the Chinese border. Chinese trucks are the new caravans, plying this dirt road in less than an hour-a journey that used to take five hours on foot. In the old days, trade was determined only by the weather, but in the past two years the Chinese authorities opens the borders for a week biannually, once in March-April and again in October-November. Lo-Manthang suffered another setback in the spring trading session because of the SARS outbreak, and had to wait till mid-July to make up for it.

This year, as always, Jigme Parwar Bista, the king of Mustang, travelled to Tibet for trade negotiations, and the marketplace of his capital is awash with Chinese goods. They are found all over the district of Mustang, even as far down as Jomsom, a three-day walk to the south. There is a buzz in the thin mountain air as people examine new products, bargain, haggle and walk away with household appliances like cooking gas, stoves and solar panels, and construction material, besides food and clothing.

Staples such as uwa (wild wheat) and rice, salt, cooking oil are sold alongside instant noodles, sausages, biscuits and candy. Thirst quenchers include a variety of fruit juices, tea, beer and alcohol purportedly fortified with tiger bone extract. The clothes on display are similar to Khasa apparel: cheap polyester tracksuits, splashy dresses, canvas shoes. The most popular items, not surprisingly, are the ubiquitous Chinese blanket and thermos flasks-both available in garish red and pink. Truckloads of timber are feeding the construction boom in Mustang, and much of it is actually derived from Nepali trees logged and smuggled out of the Larkya area north of Manaslu.

Indian or Nepali goods are exorbitantly priced because they have to be flown into Jomsom and taken on mule trains to Lo Manthang. They don't stand a chance against cheaper Chinese imports. Chinese rice costs at least Rs 4 per kg less, and the irony is that much of it is actually Nepali rice that Chinese traders have bought at Tatopani and hauled all the way here to resell in Nepal for a profit.

Trade deficit

If the Lo Manthang market is any indication, Nepal has a huge balance of trade deficit with China. Over the years, Nepal's position has deteriorated. "In the old times, trade took place by barter," remembers Jigme SP Bista, Mustang's crown prince. "Nepal traded food for salt and other materials. Now, we are only consumers. We do not sell anything back to the Chinese."

And even as consumers we don't seem to have the upper hand. Gyanendra Bista, the VDC secretary, says goods well past their expiry dates are often found because there is no one to monitor quality. There is an HMG customs house, but it lies deserted. The officers prefer to stay in Jomsom, and so Lo Manthang runs without government supervision, and the burgeoning trade generates no revenue for Kathmandu.

Amgyal Bista, a former DDC member, tells us: "The Chinese businessmen basically dictate terms to us." On the Chinese side of the border, security is unfailingly watchful and merciless towards trespassers. We are told about separate incidents of an allegedly innocent VDC secretary and a couple of policemen who were caught and imprisoned blindfolded because they had unwittingly crossed the border. They were released after four days when the king of Mustang intervened on their behalf.

With the border demarcated only by the occasional pillar, it is difficult to see where Nepal ends and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China begins. On the Nepali side, it is completely the opposite: there is no army or police presence. The nearest army base is three days away in Jomsom.

It is one of the quirks of Nepali history that the Kingdom of Lo and the Gorkha kings had a cordial relationship. Unlike the titular kings of Jajarkot and Bajhang, the monarchy here still retains some power. The current relationship between Kathmandu and Lo is loosely defined, but with an eye to the future, it seems the people here desire a more tangible government presence-especially at the border. Given the new road and increasing trade, it is a legitimate concern. Locals gauge yearly imports through this border at roughly Rs 20 million, but in the absence of a functioning customs office, the real figure is anyone's guess.

Back in Kathmandu, customs officials are surprised to learn of the volume of imports and variety of goods now available in Mustang. It seems they continue to view Mustang as a minor, informal trading post. Although compared to the Rs 5.3 billion import through the Tatopani border (and Rs 371 million worth of Nepali exports), Mustang's volume may seem meagre, it's probably time for the centre's indifference to change.

The new road was meant to run from this border through all three towns of Lo. Only a third of this road, from the border to Lo Manthang has been completed. The Lobas, despite their enthusiasm to complete a motorable road all the way to Ghemi, have been stopped in their tracks because there is no money from the government. Meanwhile, another road is being built by the Royal Nepali Army connecting Jomsom to Beni and Pokhara.

A new Nepal-China highway link through Mustang down to Pokhara can have an impact in districts beyond Mustang and perhaps also boost Nepali exports to the Tibetan plateau as it has at Kodari. Now what we need is something concrete to come out of talks of opening new land routes, easing visa regulations, and increasing air linkages.

Lo and behold

Lo is located between the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. It is a Tibetan-Buddhist kingdom ruled by a monarch granted with a degree of independence within Nepal. Lo was the base of the Tibetan Khampa guerrillas during their covert war against China in the 1960s, and was classified a 'politically fragile' area and closed to foreigners till 1992. Today it is labelled a 'restricted area', and only about a 1,000 foreign visitors are allowed in annually. They have to pay $700 each for a 10-day permit, plus Rs 2,000 to the Annapurna Area Conservation Project who use the money to boost eco-tourism in the region.

The Kingdom of Lo (Mustang): A Historical Study
Ramesh K Dhungel
Tashi Gephel Foundation, 2003
Rs 2,000

The writing of 'high Himalayan' cultures in English has been mostly dominated by Western scholars, and it is in this terrain that Tribhuban University cultural historian Ramesh K Dhungel has come out with a historical study titled The Kingdom of Lo. The work, drawing on ancient Nepali and Tibetan sources and based largely on documents unearthed by the author in Upper Mustang, is published by the Tashi Gephel Foundation. It was launched Thursday at the Dwarika Hotel by Cho-gye Thi-chen Rinpoche, abbot of the Sakya Tshar-pa tradition. Dhungel visited Mustang in 1982-84 and 1995 to complete this work. Launching the book, the rinpoche said, "In these fearful times, when the inestimably precious cultural tradition established by the ancestral rulers of the Dharma kingdom of Mustang is in danger of being lost altogether, this book will help in the continuity and restoration of the traditions of Mustang." In the dust jacket, scholar Prayag Raj Sharma lauds the author's attempt to link the history of Lo not only with greater Tibet but also with the history of the Khasa kingdoms in the south and west, including Semja (Sinja), and subsequently Parbat and Jumla.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)