Modernizing Mustang: A Hidden Tibetan Kingdom Meets Its Future

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The watch on Chime Ningjing Gurung’s wrist shines in the sun, its imitation platinum metal echoing the gleam of a Rolex. Chime (pronounced Chim-eh) is 28 years old, quick to laugh, and quick to learn the rules of Western card games. His favorite accessories are wrap-around shades and Adidas-style shoes from India.

On a busy Kathmandu street bustling with stray dogs, minibuses, and haggling shoppers, Chime looks like his fellow city slickers, a denizen of Nepal’s topsy-turvy metropolis. However, Chime comes from one of the most remote communities in Nepal, which some scholars consider the best-preserved medieval city in the world.

“We didn’t have watches, you know?” Chime laughs. “We had to tell time with the sun.”

Chime recalls what life was like when he was growing up in Lo Manthang, the imperial seat of the former Kingdom of Lo, an ethnically Tibetan enclave of northern Nepal known today as Upper Mustang. For centuries, a potent mixture of geography and politics kept modernization from touching the lives of the Loba—the people of Lo.

But now, this is rapidly changing. The Nepali government is building a new highway that will connect Mustang to the modern infrastructure of China and Nepal for the first time. Although many Loba are celebrating their long-awaited entrance into modernity, many fear a cultural overhaul that may lead to the loss of their language and intimate knowledge of the land, as well as ancestral Loba crafts, skills, and traditions. Chime’s generation may be the last that remembers what Lo Manthang and the region of Mustang used to be before the influx of the 21st century.

Just six years ago, the only way into Upper Mustang was on foot; the only way to transport goods was by pony, yak, or dzo (yak-cow hybrids). The distance from Mustang’s capital, Lo Manthang, to Pokhara, Nepal’s second-largest city, is a mere 70 miles. But because the Himalayan range separates the two cities, the distance took an average of thirteen days to travel.

“The living standards of people has increased,” says Pema Tsering, Program Coordinator at the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) in Lo Manthang. The new road has “brought new businesses that have brought new lifestyles and behaviors,” Tsering says.

There’s proof: now that trucks and tractors from Pokhara can bring rice, fresh produce, and caseloads of modern goods into the area in the space of a day, new general stores offering illegal copies of Bollywood movies and other modern sundries have shoehorned themselves in next to centuries-old stables and monasteries.

"Just six years ago, the only way into Upper Mustang was on foot; the only way to transport goods was by pony, yak or dzo (yak-cow hybrids)."

In Lo Manthang, for example, a new “Korean store” is the crowning jewel of a main thoroughfare just outside the city’s fortress walls. The young, enterprising owner, Sonam Gurung, 28, opened the shop last year and received a huge, positive response. The store offers floor-to-ceiling wooden crate shelves crammed with such Korean-imported delicacies as canned coffee and gourmet instant noodles. It became an immediate hit with Lo Manthang’s youth, who visit just to sit on the store’s steps. With its rows of gleaming soft drinks and loitering clientele sporting Western clothes, the store feels like an anachronistic glitch within the medieval city of mud-brick walls.

As residents of one of Nepal’s least developed regions, many Loba feel they have lived in the past long enough. To date, electricity lines from Nepal’s power grid reach only one district out of the seven in Mustang. Modern plumbing, consistent running water, and a functioning modern hospital do not exist. For many, the daily news arrives via bundles of backdated newspapers once a week. The main source of heat is burning cow and goat dung. To the average Loba, an upgrade in these living conditions has long been in order. But, like many developing communities around the world, a sudden influx of modernity can also mean an influx of more cultural, nuanced problems.

Historical records handwritten in Tibetan script say the Tibetan warlord Ame Pal founded Lo in 1380 when he defeated a warrior chieftain who went by the name of “Demon Black Monkey.” In 1790, Lo became a protectorate of Nepal, and the region was renamed “Mustang” (a corruption of the Tibetan “Mun Tan,” meaning “fertile plain”). While the rest of Nepal modernized under the forces of India and Britain, and while Tibet came under siege by its industrial neighbor, China, Lo remained largely ignored. Encapsulated by the mountain walls, the Loba continued to revere their king, plow their fields with dzo, build castles out of mud, practice polyandry, and chase demons out of their capital city’s fortress walls every year. Some six hundred years later, the result is a community that remains one of the last bastions of traditional Tibetan culture today.

Chime remembers trading in his clothes for his monastic robes when he was 11 years old, in 1995. All his clothes at the time were handmade from homespun wool and cut in the traditional Loba style, including his wool boots with animal-hide soles. He spent over 15 years of his life as a monk, clad in the red robes of his Tibetan Buddhist order, and roamed the halls of 16th century monasteries that Ame Pal’s descendants had built.

Ame Pal envisioned Lo Manthang to be the cultural heart of the arid, rocky land, erecting a fortress city with mighty mud buildings that still house the Loba today. The city was strategically located on the Salt Route. During Lo’s heyday, the Loba earned their living as traders and housed merchants and goods as an important outpost on the road from China to India. The new highway being built today follows this ancient footpath.

“From China to Pokhara,” says Jiblal Jnawali, a Nepali foreman overseeing a segment of the road construction in Mustang. Jnawali doesn’t speak that much English, but he gives the origin and terminus of the brand new highway with conviction and a grin. From China, a road extends through Tibet right to the Nepali border, where Mustang sits among the Himalayan peaks. South of Mustang, from Pokhara, a major artery leads to Kathmandu, and then to the markets of India.

Over the span of a decade, segments of the highway have been bulldozed out of Mustang’s desert landscape, slowly allowing 4x4 vehicles access over the terrain. What exists now is a crude, unpaved road. Travel time has been cut down from days to hours for those who can afford to pay for a ride. It’s a sea change for the Loba, who for centuries knew themselves to be weeks away from any other civilization.

“How can we say no to the road?” says Lama Ngawang Kunga Bista, a senior Buddhist monk and chairman of the Upper Mustang Welfare Committee. “The local people want modern facilities. We, who know how life is in Kathmandu and in Pokhara, how can we say no?”

"Mud has unlimited life, but cement lasts only fifty to sixty years. That's why we have seven-hundred-year-old monasteries," says Lama Ngawang.

Lama Ngawang, like many of Mustang’s leaders, is concerned about cultural stewardship. While the Loba are thankful for the chance to evolve their economy out of its shaky reliance on seasonal trade and crops, community elders point out that Loba culture as it stands today has its own value. This value is apparent not just in the region’s unique arts and crafts, but also in the Loba’s wealth of wisdom on sustainable land and resource use, animal husbandry, social policy, and medicinal herbs. Indeed, more scientists and researchers today assert that indigenous wisdom and traditional lifestyles shed light on some of the biggest problems we grapple with in the modern world: the responsible use of land, the sustainable use of depleting natural resources, the population explosion, climate change, medical research, and energy policy, just to name a few.

Already, the values and practices of the Loba are shifting because of the new road. This is apparent at new construction sites throughout the region. Chime’s young nephew attends a brand new preschool in—the locals marvel—a wooden building. In a land like Lo Manthang where trees are scarce, the Loba have relied on mud—an ample and dependable material—to create long-standing buildings.

“Mud has unlimited life, but cement lasts only fifty to sixty years. That’s why we have seven-hundred-year-old monasteries,” says Lama Ngawang.

With the introduction of new materials, subsistence within the limits of one’s ecosystem is no longer a major concern for the Loba. And, in some years, the packed and whitewashed mud-brick houses that were once iconic of the Loba’s Tibetan roots may be completely replaced by cement or wood buildings, changing the regional identity of Mustang.

However, the homogenization of culture cannot be pinned on the construction of one highway; rather, the road is significant more for what it represents than what it does for the community. It is a symbol of modernity, of the shift from the “old world” to the “new world,” from an isolated 16th-century lifestyle to a more homogenous, 21st-century one. People are becoming aware of what is at stake if this new era is not ushered in carefully.

The entire community, for example, is beginning to fear the loss of Lowa, the Loba’s unique Tibetan dialect. Free government schools located throughout the Mustang region are underfunded and operate exclusively in the Nepali language. To provide children with an education that is more competitive in a globalizing world, the Loba are now sending their children to Kathmandu, India, Europe, or even the U.S. where they grow up ignorant of the language, history, values, customs, and beliefs of their homeland. This saddens many Loba parents: while they know they cannot offer the same level of opportunity at home, they worry about their children growing up abroad, strangers to their own heritage.

Fewer Loba are practicing traditional skills and crafts. Although once seen as necessary skills for survival, these talents are increasingly being seen as relics of an obsolete era. As cheap denim jeans flood the Loba marketplace, many young women are putting down their sewing needles. Mass-manufactured textiles are replacing homespun yarn and weaving techniques, which the Loba were once famous for. As the new highway nears completion, more Loba are planning to pool their money to purchase a communal truck or tractor to share among neighboring farms. As the Loba put it, this type of equipment allows one man to do the work of ten. However, the intimate knowledge that comes from working the land by hand is no longer being passed down to younger generations.

“People like modern things—development,” says Raju Bista, a Loba who owns a guesthouse for the growing number of tourists who visit Mustang, now that the region is accessible by vehicle. “But there’s one thing—to young people, we can give one thing: what is our culture, traditions, religion? We must teach this to them.”

Bista believes that cultural heritage gives one a sense of identity, providing a cultural and moral compass in life. Simply put, it gives one a sense of place within the world. Bista says this applies to everyone. The Loba are just one example of a traditional culture at a crossroads; all over the globe, many indigenous and minority groups are being pressured to assimilate into a rapidly developing world. As the international community comes to realize that traditional knowledge can help address many of the world’s pressing problems, the loss of such diverse cultural knowledge and identities is becoming as much a global issue as it is a local one.

Two years ago, Chime decided to give up his monastic robes. Now, instead of waking up in a medieval monastery to chant daily prayers at dawn, Chime rises to the sound of busses honking outside his room in Kathmandu. He has chosen to assimilate into the modernizing world; he still stands by his decision. But whenever he gets a chance, Chime travels over the road that follows the ancient Salt Route to his sister’s mud-brick home in Lo Manthang. He switches his speech from Nepali to Lowa, greets his neighbors and elders, and visits the neighborhood’s monasteries, prostrating himself in front of every Buddhist statue. Chime knows that when his nephew is a grown man, the neighborhood they both called home will look vastly different. Stripped of his robes but still wearing his faith, Chime hopes Mustang will continue to maintain the essence of its unique culture despite its physical changes.

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