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Reports

Photos from inside the once-hidden Himalayan former kingdom of Mustang, and the road that will connect it to Tibet

By Marianne Leitch
September 9, 2014

Upper Mustang is a remote region in the Himalaya sandwiched between China and Nepal. It is part of Nepal, but is culturally Tibetan Buddhist. Westerners have only been allowed to travel there, on foot or horseback, since 1992.

Now a road is being constructed across the mountains all the way to the Tibet border. It will increase economic and educational opportunities, but there are fears that Mustang's unique Tibetan culture may be lost.

A team from Foreign Correspondent drove the length of the road to bring back a glimpse of the place many believe is now more Tibetan than Tibet itself.

Frontier outpost is gateway to Mustang

The journey begins in the frontier town of Jomsom, after a hair-raising flight over the mountains from Pokhara in a light plane. As they disembark, passengers are treated to the sight of the remnants of a former crash still sitting on the edge of the runway.

The new road follows an old trade route along the Gandaki River. For centuries, salt was brought down on horseback from Tibet to India via this route.

But that stopped in the 1950s when China closed the Tibetan border. Nomads could no longer graze their animals on the other side of the plateau.

Nepal also barred foreigners, due to the unrest in Tibet, meaning Mustang missed out on the tourist trade and the development that comes with it.

Mustang's fragile economy was destroyed, but now there are hopes that the road will open Mustang to trade again.

Vehicles a new addition in remote Buddhist area

The new road means locals can now travel around more easily for leisure and for work. Hardly anyone in Mustang owns their own car. 

In the picture above, pilgrims are heading off in a tractor trailer to visit a nearby monastery.

People living in Mustang are nearly all Tibetan Buddhists and they practise their religion freely. They still live a very traditional lifestyle based around agriculture. The remoteness means educational opportunities are limited.

The swastika, once misappropriated by the Nazis, is still a common decoration in the region. In Tibetan Buddhism it is a symbol of the element Earth.

Road incomplete, river crossings without bridges

Most people in the region still move around on horseback, and the Foreign Correspondent team found it often was not that much faster to drive.

The road is still incomplete and some of the river crossings are yet to have bridges, so it is not possible to drive the route in one vehicle. 

At each river crossing goods have to be unloaded and carried by mules or porters to the next waiting car. It is a slow and laborious process.

Mustang's landscape is harsh, but beautiful - a high-altitude desert with pockets of green.

The main cereal crops are barley and buckwheat, irrigated with glacier water.

Houses are built out of mud brick. The tall white building in the background of the photo above was the second palace of the local royal family.

Warlord founded kingdom in 14th century, and monarchs ruled to 2008

Mustang was formerly the Kingdom of Lo, founded by a Tibetan warlord in 1380.

Many locals still see themselves as "Lobas" - subjects of the Lo king. This is despite the royal family being stripped of its powers in 2008 by Nepal’s Maoist government. 

The Crown Prince's wife comes from Tibet, as is still the tradition, but their children were educated in Kathmandu and abroad.

The Crown Prince believes passionately that education is the key to improving the lives of his father’s former subjects and is a fan of the new road.

Secret CIA-backed war against Chinese occupation

One of the main bases for a secret American-backed war against the Chinese occupation of Tibet was located near the area visited by Foreign Correspondent.

Following the occupation of Tibet in 1951, bands of guerrillas based in Upper Mustang conducted raids across the border.

Many of the guerrillas were trained in the United States by the CIA. After Richard Nixon recognised the communist government of China in 1974, the US ceased funding, and the guerrillas were forced to disarm.

The town where time stands still

Even though tourists have been permitted to enter Upper Mustang since 1992, in many ways the capital of Lo Manthang still resembles a town from the Middle Ages.

Women still wear traditional clothing and the locals keep their animals inside the town walls at night, taking them out to pasture each morning.

Chiring Dolkar, 34, and Karsang Sancho, 26, are brother and sister and are from Chung Chung, the village closest to the Tibetan border.

Their family lives off the land. They say the influx of tourists since Nepal allowed organised treks has been good for the economy, and many Westerners now sponsor local children to go to school.

No-one in their family has been to high school, but Karsang would like his young daughter to attend when she gets older.

However, there is no secondary school within walking distance of the village and he doubts he could afford to send her to a distant boarding school. 


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