MUSTANG, THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM IN THE HIMALAYAS

Mahendra Giri

Preamble: The Kingdom of Lo was founded in 1380 AD by Ame Pal who constructed the city wall and many other outstanding structures within the city called Lo Manthang, the capital of Lo. After the Shahs of Nepal annexed the Kingdom of Lo, the Upper Mustang remained as a part of the Mustang districts of Nepal. It was a forbidden district of Nepal to the outside world until 1992 when the government decided to open it for a limited number of tourists. There was a hefty fee to receive the permit to visit Mustang. Then, the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation (KMTNC), responsible for managing the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), was entrusted with monitoring the impact of limited tourism while it carried out the task of conservation and preservation of natural and cultural assets of the ancient kingdom.

Planning: There are many things that attract people to this, then relatively difficult and remote district of Nepal, namely: Physiography of the district, the ancient history of the kingdom, age-old Sino-Tibetan culture, one of the deepest gorges, Kaligandaki (photo 1), considering the Dhawalagiri (8167 m) on the west, and Annapurna (8,091 m) on the east; Muktinath, the famous Hindu pilgrimage, and the sacred Damodar Kunda (Pond). It also is a part of the world-famous trek, “The Annapurna Circuit”. These days, it is also popularly known to tourists by the nickname “Apple pie trek”, particularly from Kagbeni to Marpha, just because one horticulturist successfully encouraged people to plant apples along the trek.

The author is sitting on the pillar of the border with China.

Back then, I was the chief of the Natural History Museum located at Swayambhu. Someone contributed funds for my travel and I was very happy to have an opportunity to visit Mustang, the Forbidden Kingdom, because, in those days, it was like a dreamland for those interested in tourism. A two-week plan was made for me in April 1994, starting from Jomsom, to travel up to the northern border with Tibet.

Travel: I took a flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara with a connecting flight to Jomsom. Both flights had so amazing sceneries, flying above the cloud with world-famous peaks on my right side that made me feel so heavenly and exciting (Photo 2). If the cloud cleared, by any chance, the green hills below are equally enticing. That will throw you in trance without any effort.

Finally landed at Jomsom airport (2700 m), which is located on the bank of Kaligandaki River. All the commercial flights have to land at and take off from Jomsom airport before 11 am because, thereafter, the wind is very strong to allow normal landing. I was received by the Chairperson of the District Panchayat, Mr. Thakali, and his couple of assistants. He lived quite close to the Airport and I was taken there. I was staying with them for the night and preparing our trip for the next morning. It was a nice opportunity to know the local fellow travelers as well. I was briefed about the trip and the terrain we would be passing through.

The author (with cap) is sitting with Raja Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista (1930 -2016) and the Queen.

The next morning we got ready to start early. We all were riding a horse. I was an inexperienced rider and my control of the rein was not good. I was feeling a bit nervous, but my luck saved me from a serious accident happening. It so happened that I had to pass through a narrow suspension bridge over Kaligandaki. I was more nervous by looking at the fast-flowing river below. I decided to dismount the horse but couldn’t. There was a door frame at the beginning of the bridge I held the head and let the rein go. Luckily I could get my legs out of the stirrup so that I was freely hanging on the head and the horse went ahead across the bridge. In this maneuver, my cap fell on the river and was swept away. I crossed the bridge and rode the horse again.

Kagbeni: The gravel road goes along the side of Kaligandaki. After 2 hours we reached Kagbeni. It is another Tibetan village and is considered the get way to Upper Mustang. From here, a road also diverts to the famous Muktinath (temple) Kshetra (area). Some 37 years ago there was Nepal’s first wind turbine installed here at Kagbeni for electricity generation under the Danish government.

Muktinath: It is a famous Temple of Lord Vishnu (Photo 3) located at Ranipawa (3750 m). It literally means the “Liberator’. A lot of Hindu and Buddhist devotees come from Nepal and India to have a“Darshan”, visit. There are different reasons for its popularity:

One: As we know, the Himalayas arose from the ocean floor before the great landmass, Gondwanaland, was together 200 million years ago. There was an ocean where we see the Great Himalayas now. One of the proofs is the availability of different species of fossilized marine Mollusca, known as ammonites (See: The Museum of Ammonites: Souvenir 2019, Nepali’s Society, BOP, NZ). In Hindu mythology, an ammonite is an icon of Lord Vishnu. Ammonites are found in different parts of the upper Mustang. Religious people come to collect them. There are as large as 2 m diameter ammonites in the township of Ranipawa.

Phaaper (Buckwheat), Fagopyrum esculentum is flowering in Mustang

Two: Geographically, 3500 m is the tree-line in Nepal above which the big trees do not thrive. However, in the Muktinath area (3750), there are large trees, and shrubs and people also grow vegetables during summer.

Three: This falls on the route of the world-famous trek, “Annapurna Circuit” of about 131 km (81 miles). If you are coming from Manang, then you cross the Thorong La (pass: 5416 m) to reach Muktinath where tourists usually like to stop and take a hot shower (hot spring water or Solar heated water). Then, depending on the personal choice, these days, one can catch transport or keep walking further.

Rock caves south from Lo La 3960m

Cave Dwelling: About 10,000 caves on the sidewall of Kaligandaki and other rivers in Mustang (Chhoser and other places, photo 4) are seen. Researchers and archeologists are trying to understand who and why they were built in ancient times. Some are well decorated with paintings and even have partially mummified human bodies and bones, 2000 – 3000 years old were recovered. Some are still occupied as human shelters or running monasteries.

We proceeded northwards with a two-night halt in between, but the important place was Sarang (Charang) with a historical and mystical collection of mythology-related sacred books and artifacts (Photo 5). A rich collection of such things are found in other places including Lo Manthang.

Kaligandaki is considered one of the deepest gorge with Dhawalagiri (8167 m) in the west and Nilgiri (7,061m) and Annapurna (8091 m) in the east.

Lo Manthang: In this walled city, there are two important structures in the middle: one is the Royal Palace where the King and the queen lived, and the other one is the ancient and famous shrine of Lord Buddha where many of the religious and cultural treasures are archived. It was renovated during 1994-95. As we were with Mr. Thakali, we were invited for dinner, and I had the opportunity to meet King Raja Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista (1930 – 2016) and Queen Rani Sadol Palbar Bista. They were married in the 1950s at the palace (Photo: 6). However, in the recent change in Nepali politics, on 7th October 2008, the official title of Raja (Gyelpo) was revoked by Nepal Government. Jigme, who died on 16 Dec. 2016, was a kind and soft-spoken person. I dedicate this article as my respectful tribute to his memory.

The same ages-old ancient Tibetan culture continues to live to this date. They had a drinking water project for Lo Manthang. However, unofficially they had a good supply of consumer goods from China (Autonomous Region) because of the closeness of the border.

Muktinath Temple in summer

The next day, we went up to the border, which was a couple of hours’ walk from Lo Manthang. It was so amazing to see that the land was so flat although we were at 4200 m ASL. The surrounding Himalayan peaks looked smaller. We took some photos (Photo 7) before leaving the area for the return journey.

Thakali: This article will not be complete if I do not mention how enticing Thakalnis of Thak Khola are. The Thakalis belong to a beautiful ethnic group of Tibetan-Nepali mix. They are fair-looking, clean, and hardworking; inclined to business, particularly, running a restaurant by the side of main highways. They are spread widely, but originally come from Thakkhola, south of Jomsom. As soon as you enter their houses you know you are entering a Thakali-house. They are helping promote Nepal tourism significantly.

This is the type of celetial panorama you get to see on the way to Jomsom.

Tourism – Mustang attracts a lot of tourists for the reasons mentioned above. It is a unique trekking destination. Once visited, the tourists love the nature, landscape, people, their culture, tradition, and way of life. Although it is a semi-arid; trans-Himalayan zone, where irrigation reaches, the soil is very fertile. People are humble and friendly. The southern part is wet and green.

Once, the local youths had protested, genuinely, demanding a fair share of tourism income for Mustang. Now, even domestic tourism is quite significant to support local businesses. Another attraction of Mustang is the local festivals including Tiji in Lo Manthang. In the right season when Phaaper (Fagopyrum esculentum, a cereal), flowers the whole area looks pink (Photo 8). Tony Hagen was the first westerner to visit and report (1952) about Mustang.

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