Nepal's once-forbidden Kingdom of Lo, or Mustang, hidden far from modernity and surrounded by the world’s highest mountains, continues to preserve pure Tibetan Buddhist culture. But the kingdom may be in transition as increasing Chinese influence threatens to dilute the people's distinctiveness amid its impact on geopolitics.
The Communist regime in Beijing is seeking not only to exploit not only the traditional salt trade route between Tibet and large Indian subcontinental markets, but also is trying to bully Nepal to crush the escaping Tibetans who defy China's continuing crackdown in Tibet itself.
Mustang was once an independent kingdom in its own right under the rule of Ame Pal, the founder king of Lo, who came to power in 1380. However, Mustang's status as a kingdom ended in 2008 following the end of its suzerainty, joining the Kingdom of Nepal the same year. A royal family remains that can trace its history 25 generations back to Ame Pal, ruling from the walled city of Lo Manthang and surveying a world still more in ethnic proximity to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa than to the bazaars and shrines of Kathmandu.
The population is only about 15,000 people, spread between three major towns. Most live near the ZKali Gandaki River, nearly 4,000 meters above sea level, with conditions so tough that the population migrate to lower levels during the winter. The capital, Jomsom, has an airport through which a relatively small stream of tourists flow, paying a steep US$50 a day to trek.
The isolation is beginning to change, however. The aphorism among the Loba (Mustang) people, "the only thing Tibet has got that Mustang doesn't have is the Chinese" is no longer believed. The kingdom is mostly surrounded by the China-controlled Tibet Autonomous Region from all sides except those bordering the provinces of Nepal in the south.
Despite the Himalayan region's isolation, its political significance in recent decades was most noticed when the Chinese occupation of Tibet began and Tibetans started to flee into Nepal and India via Mustang. It was in the 1960s that Mustang became the center for the US Central Intelligence Agency’s support of Tibetan guerrilla fighters and from where they carried out operations against the occupying Chinese. With US President Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972, CIA support was withdrawn and the Nepalese succeeded in dispersing the resistance.
Despite that, the flight of Tibetans taking the arduous route to freedom through the Mustang border continued, until Beijing faced one of the biggest embarrassments in the history of its harsh Tibetan policy. That was when the 17th Karmapa, Tibet's third-highest lama, who had been a propaganda tool of the Chinese, used the route in 2000 to escape into exile in India to reside with the Dalai Lama. At that point, an angry Beijing took harsh steps, sealing off the entire border to block Tibetans from escaping and also preventing passage for the people of Mustang - who used to regularly cross the border for religious ceremonies and revisiting family inside Tibet.
Today, Mustang nonetheless remains Nepal's restricted region, accessible from 1992 only to people from the West. Before, no westerner had been officially allowed to set foot in Mustang although a handful had sneaked into the lost kingdom and shared their personal journeys with the outside world.
Trekkers do a five-day walk to the walled capital, Lo Manthang. However, big changes are afoot as a road is soon to be finished to connect Nepal's capital Kathmandu and Tibet's Lhasa. China in 2001 already completed a 20 km road from the international border to the capital. Across the Tibetan Administration Region border is Zhongba County of the Shigatse Prefecture. The new road would create a volatile situation, as with the coming of the road, more Chinese influence will likely ride into the former kingdom, leading observers to fear change will come to this ancient Buddhist landscape.
Life has already started to change as the region has become inundated with Chinese goods. Every season tons of food aid enter Mustang from across the border. Schools and monasteries are also being built with the help of the Chinese government.
Some locals fear political consequences from the over-friendly Chinese activities. "Sometimes we [are] wary what the Chinese are up to in our Mustang, their influence is increasing in our daily life and so is their overall activity in the region, which is not a good sign," Khenpo Tenzin Sangpo, the abbot of Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling Monastery, told Asia Sentinel.
China's real interests lie in the long game: the beginning of a new trade route direct to Kathmandu once the road-link is completed in this Himalayan corridor of infrastructural expansion in Nepal that will undermine India's big-brother role in the Himalayan state and keep a watch on anti-China activities fueled by exiled Tibetans.
"The opening of another road from Tibet to Kathmandu via Mustang is clearly advantageous to China, which has obvious interests in Nepal," said Elliot Sperling, an expert on the history of Tibet and Tibetan-Chinese relations at Indiana University. "On the one hand, China seeks to blunt the potential for Tibetan problems stemming from the presence of Tibetan refugees in Nepal. On the other it wishes to balance-or outbalance-India within the country.”
According to Sperling, China's economic and political presence in Nepal has so far worked successfully along these two lines, and as all development does, the Chinese presence will eventually affect traditional life in Mustang.
However, for the people of Mustang, Buddhism is a way of life and their religious attachment to Tibetan Buddhist leaders based in India is of uppermost importance. This will be seen as the biggest confrontation the community will face. The royal family that resides in the fantastic square-walled town of Lo Manthang believes political instability in Kathmandu could hamper things for Mustang. However, when asked whether they support the Dalai Lama's call for an autonomous Tibet, "The Chinese government should respect human rights of Tibetans," said the King's family, showing their loyalty.
(Saransh Sehgal, a Dharamsala-based journalist, recently visited Mustang. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)