It is time to open up the “Forbidden Kingdom”, so that it, like Lower Mustang, can benefit from tourism and development.
Lower Mustang, home of the Thakalis with its district capital at Jomsom, has gradually been transformed by trekkers on the “Annapurna Circuit,” pilgrims to Muktinath, and apple farming.
In contrast, the Bhutia inhabitants of Upper Mustang, the ancient kingdom of Lo, live much as their forbearers did for centuries, farming in the spring, taking their animals to high pastures in the summer and engaging in trade in the winter.
Mustang, the stub that juts from the high central Himalaya into trans-Himalaya Tibet is two worlds in one.
For the Loba from Upper Mustang, change has often taken away, not brought, benefits. Since 1959, the Chinese Government has prevented access to the traditional grazing grounds north of the border, so livestock has dwindled. Because farming on the wind-swept, desert land remains as unyielding as ever, seasonal migration has increasingly become a necessity. Cultural poverty has come hand in hand with material poverty. There are fewer artisans and the Lobas’ gompas seem neglected and in need of repair.
Upper Mustang, up from Kagbeni village, two hours north of Jomsom, is restricted territory to non-Nepalis. This restriction Makes the people of Lo live a life protected from outside change, but also with little development. The government has given running water to most villages and brought in a few health posts and schools, and the price of rice is subsidised. Clearly, such measures are inadequate, and cannot substitute for the development activity and alternate sources of income mainly from tourism, that the Loba sees when he looks south. And he is asking for the same.
Geographically and culturally Tibetan, Lo has always been an enigma within Nepali borders. Until Ame Pal, a local chieftain, unified the various principalities of the area in the 1380’s, Mustang belonged to western Tibet. The kingdom remained independent until the end of the 18th century, when warriors from Jumla marched across Dolpo and conquered Lo. With the Gorkhalis’ capture of Jumla in 1850, Lo came under Nepali suzerainty. The Mustang kings, descendants of Ame Pal, were allowed to keep the title of raja, though their functions became increasingly ceremonial.
Except for a brief period in the early 1950s, Upper Mustang has been closed off from the south and, obviously, the north. Its special geographical situation, of being surrounded on three sides by Tibet, made upper Mustang the ideal base for the Tibetan resistance to carry out operations against the Chinese. Under pressure from Beijing, Kathmandu disbanded the guerrillas and made Upper Mustang off-limits.
Today, though the Khampa “marauders” have been forgotten, the Nepali government continues to close off the area north of Kagbeni. Perhaps the restrictions remain due to bureaucratic inertia, and a long-standing and perhaps ill-founded fear of ruffling Chinese feathers. These are insufficient reasons to deny opportunities to an impoverished people, local spokesmen maintain.
Aside from keeping out tourists, the policy has also kept out foreign development agencies. According to Bishnu Raj Hirachan, former District Chairman of Mustang, foreign agencies say they are not interested in funding projects in areas that are out-of-bounds to their expatriate staff.
Among those advocating the. opening of Mustang are many inhabitants of Upper Mustang, from the walled township of Lo Manthang and villages such as Charang, Ghemi and Samar.
“Over 90 per cent of the people of the upper areas want Mustang to be opened,” asserts Jabyang Bista, who lives in the northernmost village of Chosyere. “Maybe some people in southern Mustang want it closed, but the people in the north want it opened.”
Opening Upper Lo could make the villages of lower Mustang mere night-stops for tourists headed for the Tibetan culture of the north. Understandably, some lodge-owners in Tukuche, Jomsom and Marpha prefer to keep the northern areas closed. Most, however, recognise the windfall that could accrue to the whole area from the opening.
Thus, when King Birendra made an unofficial visit in January 1990, the 16 Pradhan Panchas of Upper and Lower Mustang presented him a binti patra with the plea that the north be opened.
According to Tashi Tampa, who was then the Pradhan Pancha of Lo Manthang, another similar document had been presented to the king six years earlier. According to Jabyang Bista, after the King’s last visit Mustang was presented “one or two lakh rupees, but we saw only a few thousand.” The money, says Bista, was used for gompas in Lo Manthang.
Unfortunately, the Lobas have little political clout, with no ethnic representation during the years of the Panchayat rule. It is unlikely they will do any better following the multi-party elections slated for 12 May.
Most believe that the promise of an untouched Tibetan culture more Tibetan than Tibet itself will lure Westerners in search of new Himalayan destinations. Travel agents in Kathmandu, eager to cash in are pushing for an early opening. After all, with the veil off Bhutan, Tibet, and Ladakh, Mustang stands out as the most-isolated out-of-bounds “Tibetan” society.
Tek Chandra Pokharel, President of the Nepal Association of Travel Agents, believes that tourists’ eagerness to enter Mustang would prompt them to pay high rates. Also, because Mustang lies in a rain shadow area, it could be promoted as a viable destination during the monsoon, the low tourist season. In any case, Pokharel says, “People should not be made to live in a museum.”
The government, meanwhile, continues to show ambivalence. Damodar Gautam, Secretary of the Ministry of Tourism till recently, agreed that isolating Mustang from the world “will push it further into darkness.” He has advocated opening all of Nepal’s restricted areas.
Understandably, the Tourism Ministry advocates Mustang’s opening, but the decision rests with the Ministry of Home Affairs. Bhakta Bahadur Koirala, the then Secretary of the Home Affairs, acknowledged that the villagers’ binti patra did make the issue “pressing”. The government would not open Mustang before establishing proper trails, police checkposts, health posts, a communications network and lodges, he said. However, no move has yet been made towards building such infrastructure.
There are some who argue against exposing upper Mustang’s fragile ecology and culture to the consumerist world outside.
Bishnu Raj Hirachan says that the desert environment cannot support the demands of tourism. “People will sell their firewood for a little bit of money without realising the long term problems this creates.”
The ecology of Upper Lo certainly requires detailed study. Today, villagers from Chuksang and Chele, north of Kagbeni, have to hike two days to the sparse forests near Samar for their firewood. The inhabitants around Lo Manthang only use dung. Both sources of fuel are dwindling. There are three micro-hydro projects in Upper Lo, but electricity has been expensive and labourious to install.
Hemanta Mishra, chief of the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation in Kathmandu, opposes opening Mustang for environmental reasons. Mishra also argues that Mustang’s culture, one of the last representing old Buddhism, should be protected. Besides, he contends, the people of the area itself will benefit little from opening. “First, travel agencies in Kathmandu will benefit, and then other outside communities, but not the Loba.”
But both Hirachan and Mishra concede that if the area’s natural resources and the cultural heritage can be safeguarded, then the veil on Mustang may be lifted.
The important question, then, is not whether Mustang should be opened, but how and when. Is high-cost low-volume tourism a la’ Bhutan more attractive, or the come-one-come-all variety prevalent in Leh?
Arjun Tulachan, originally from Tukuche in southern Mustang, says of his family’s experience with mass-scale, low-cost tourism: “We, too, were happy at first when foreigners came to stay at our lodge for two rupees a night. But the long-term effect on the environment and the low economic benefit to the people makes this kind of tourism unwise.”
Some advocate “controlled tourism”, but in varying forms, and for different ends. Those in the high-end of Kathmandu’s tourism industry propose low-volume access which they say would protect the natural and cultural environment as well as bring most benefit–but to whom?
A.V. Jim Edwards, chairman of the Tiger Mountain travel group, suggests the government charge an entry fee of around U$ 100 per person and “allow only a few travel agencies with the highest foreign currency turnover to take in a limited number of persons.” Opening the area without consideration of the cultural and environmental issues would destroy what it is that attracts tourists in the first place, believes Edwards.
There are other more creative, if unlikely, proposals. Keshab Lamichane, who runs Nepal Cultural Experience, a special interest tour operator, submitted a proposal several years ago to conduct exclusive tours in the restricted area for “high class” tourists. Among other things, Lamichane proposed that three houses of the King of Mustang be turned into a museum, and that programmes be organised to educate travellers about the natural and cultural heritage of the region. According to Lamichhane, his plan would maximise income while minimising the adverse cultural effects of tourism. “Let the local people improve the quality of their lives, but let them not wear ties.”
While Kathmandu’s trekking agents would obviously prefer to take in groups themselves, some Lobas advocate decentralised, locally controlled tourism. Tashi Zampa suggests that a law be passed curtailing the rights of people from outside to buy property or to run business in upper Mustang. Only that would ensure that the people of the area benefit from tourism, he says.
But such ideas would dampen enthusiasm in Kathmandu corridors. Damodar Gautam dismisses them as “highly parochial,” saying that competition among businesses is essential for the development of the region. T.C. Pokharel, while agreeing that steps should be taken to ensure benefit to the locals, voices skepticism: “Do these people have resources to start their own business?”
Another Loba, Kelsang Tashi, is confident that the Loba can learn to handle tourism when it arrives. ‘The younger generations arc not like their elders. They have seen the way things are in the rest of the country. They have studied. Even the Sherpas did not know how to run businesses in the beginning. Like them, we will learn.” Tashi’s wife, Chimi Dolkar, is convinced that Upper Mustang must be opened. “Some can be porters, those who are able will run hotels. Right now, even those who want to cannot earn money.” She says the suggested entry fee into Upper Mustang should go directly into development programmes for the region.
Mustang’s future is, surely, not its continued isolation. Even today, in contrast to 30 years ago, a traveller from southern Nepal has no difficulty finding people who speak Nepali in Charang or Lo Manthang. Names like Chandra Bahadur and Kamala, rather than Sonam and Dolma, are not unusual today. Pictures of King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya hang over many hearths.
In spite of all the talk of “proper infrastructure,” in all likelihood, Upper Lo will be flung open without any preparation when the time comes. Neither the Home Ministry nor the Tourism Ministry have taken steps to prepare Loba society for the inevitable opening. A study of the effect of opening Ladakh, Tibet, Bhutan, Southern Dolpo and Kanchenjunga, as well as the ample sociological studies of the Sherpas since the 1960s should provide valuable material for discussion and action.
On how best to open up the area, many heads will have to come together: government officials of the various ministries, the representatives of Upper and Lower Mustang, the travel trade, conservationists and specialists in the relevant academic disciplines. A commission comprising of such individuals, with a workable mandate, might be the first step towards a proximate and sensible plan of action.
Thapa is a photographer and writer who travelled to Mustang last summer.