The Road to Lo Monthang

Postcard from Lo Monthang, Nepal

The stairs reached upwards through the darkness of the castle. Their angle of ascent, more appropriate to a ladder than a staircase, forced me to clutch the sides as I groped along in a decidedly unroyal manner. Two stories above, I emerged from the false dusk into an open-air corridor lined with plants potted in a variety of old tin cans. Our guide motioned us to wait while he checked if the king would see us now.

I took the moment to absorb my surroundings: The white-painted mud walls and floors, low ceilings, and dirt forced me to reconsider my mental image of a sumptuously decorated and immaculate king’s castle. The building’s only regal element, to my American mind, was the unavoidable feeling of centuries of use, of stately age.

At the end of my six-month stay in Nepal, my father joined me for a weeklong trek in the kingdom of Upper Mustang that had culminated with a night in the walled city of Lo Monthang and a visit with a king.

Known as “the thumb in the eye of Tibet” for its northward-bulging border, the kingdom of Upper Mustang once lay along the major salt trade route from Tibet to India. It is part of the Annapurna Conservation Area, a small piece of Nepal that borders China and Tibet. The king’s title is the rather grandiose and redundant "King Mustangi Raja" followed by his name, Jigmi Palbar Bista. Although he holds less power since the constitutional monarchy began in 1951 (the central government controls most matters), he still wields a fair amount of ceremonial power within the district itself.

The peak of the agricultural and trade-based Mustang culture came five hundred years ago, before outside states first annexed the kingdom of Lo. But the outside world’s changes during the intervening centuries have largely left behind the roughly six thousand Loba, as the people of Mustang are called. Yes, I saw two huge satellite dishes in the town of Tsarang and listened to the Eagles’ “Hotel California” while sitting in a traditional kitchen sipping milk tea. But I also watched farmers transform the desert to vivid green with centuries-old techniques and implements, saw Buddhist temples almost unchanged by time, and witnessed a sunset from a roof built hundreds of years ago. I walked for days without seeing a motorized vehicle, calling out to monks as they rode by on horseback with their red robes streaming behind.

All this could soon change. A road is slowly creeping through the heart of Upper Mustang. It connects Lo Monthang to Tibet, carrying cheap Lhasa beer and change to the walled city. Workers are painstakingly hacking out the northward road from the rock along the Kali Gandaki River as I write. Within decades, maybe far sooner, the old trade route from Tibet to India will be revived in far different form, Tata trucks rumbling over the ancient paths on which yaks once marched.

The ancient kingdom has remained mostly isolated from the modern world: The Nepali government has allowed trekking there only since 1991 and allows just 1000 foreigners to enter each year. The road, the trucks, the commerce between the giant nations of China and India will cause a sea change in Upper Mustang.

When ushered in to meet the old king of Mustang in his castle of 108 mud rooms, I asked him in my best Nepali how he thought the road would change the area. He replied it would be good economically, but detrimental culturally and environmentally; and his eyes grew melancholy.

I cannot guess how the road will transform the Loba’s lives in infinite positive and negative ways. I am frightened that the road may destroy what makes the area incomparable to any other. But I am selfishly happy to have seen the windswept canyons, the brilliant red Buddhist temples, the fields of impossible green in the midst of barren browns, and the beautiful, friendly faces of the Loba before a road transforms them into a mere glimpse captured through the window of a car along a highway.

Allegra E. C. Fisher ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a special concentrator in ecology and development in Leverett House. She has spent seven weeks, not years, hiking near, not in, Tibet.