A Nepalese district now called 'Upper Mustang' is, without doubt, the origin for the legend of Shangri'La. Previously part of the ancient Kingdom of Lo, it's still much as it was for the last 500 years. Perhaps for the only time in history, the recent transition of this kingdom to communism was totally peaceful, after the Maoists conquered Nepal in 2008. Now the communists promise extraordinary new luxuries, even a paved road. But how much of the Buddhist culture there will survive the political evolution?
From its founding in the 14th century, virtually no foreigners visited the kingdom of Lo. King Angun Tenzing Trandul passed away in 1964, two years after an airport was completed at Jomsom, lower Mustang. Even by 1964, no Westerners had reached his palace in Upper Mustang, partly due to warring guerrillas from the upper mountains called the 'Khampa.' Upon the secession of Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista, planes were allowed to fly over Upper Mustang for the first time.
The first visitors were amazed to discover the peaceful kingdom existing almost exactly the same way as it has since the middle ages.
Since then, fragments of roads were built to it from Kathmandu and China, but they have not been maintained, and are basically unnavigable due to rockslides and floods. So after taking over Nepal, the Chinese are building the first complete road to the kingdom. Weaving through a hundred miles of Himalayan canyons, it was recently stated that the road will be complete next year. This video shows some trekkers at the end of the Nepalese road as it was in 2014, gazing up North towards the nether regions reachable only by foot trail. When the road is complete, modernization will begin in earnest as the buses, tractors, bulldozers, and container trucks arrive.
Meanwhile, the ancient rituals have continued, so far undisturbed, and by all appearances, as the religious order is separate from government there, it will be allowed to continue.
In 1964, the Western world 'rediscovered' about 8,000 people living in this remote, 40-mile long, Himalayan valley. Although only 200 miles Northwest of Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, they were still living in much the same culture, economy, and government as when the walled capital was first built in 1392 A.D., 626 years ago and counting.
As of 2015, the Maoist government in Nepal had planned building the first complete road to this remote glacial valley through the Himalayas, next to a deeper river valley and above the Southern Himalayan ranges. Now, it is known as a district called 'Mustang.' perhaps because outsiders dream of raising horses there, and perhaps because 'Mustang' is said to mean 'plain of inspiration' by Tibetans. It's capital, Lo Manth'ang, remains the most ancient medieval walled city to be preserved as it was five centuries ago. Lo is apparently the first and only kingdom ever to transition from an imperial government to communism without bloodshed and in total peace for the duration of the transition.
After the Summer monsoons, the LoManth'ang Mustang valley dries out, leaving a panoply rich in color and contour, but arid and moonlike. And only during the Summer was the valley even accessible at all, before its first airport in 1962.
Thus grew the myth of Shangri'La: people heard of the amazing Springtime beauty of its verdant lands and stormy rivers only by word of mouth from its austere Buddhist monks.
Even the rare Summer visitors never saw the forbidden kingdom for all that it was. When the adventurous indeed managed to climb along the steep slopes and traverse the deep ravines to reach the remote valley, they were still not permitted to stay after the first snow of Autumn. The Imperial regime knew too well how much even those born in this most remote of all places struggle to stay alive in the Winter. Those bold enough to dare the Summer mountains could easily be too foolhardy for their own survival, while weather-locked into the fortress enclaves of that ancient walled city by frozen slopes and freezing rivers.
Too far across the Tibetan plateaus from their capital Lhasa, Lo'Manth'ang was declared a self-governed province of Nepal in the 18th century, Those educated enough to speak with foreignors are usually monks, whicgh must have added to the mystery and unknowable wonder of Shangri'La.
All the native inhabitants of Mustang still practice Tibetan Buddhism, despite the ousting of the Dalai Lama from Tibet. That's partly because it is not actually in Tibet officially, but in a mountain-locked plateau in the more barren Norths of Nepal. Moreover, remote and out of the glare of the international press, this it has been able to evolve much more slowly.
While many have known of Tibet's problems due to the expulsion of its religious leader the Dalai Lama, very few know that Tibetan Buddhism still exists in this inaccessible region of Nepal, and it is much the same as it was in Tibet, as you can see from this amazing trumpets, and like Tibet, mostly unchanged for over half a millenium.
So first, while most are more interested in vistas, archaeological finds, fossils, and festivals, I am going to focus on what live has been like for people there, still living quite much as there were 700 years ago.
Here are some Tibetan monks in the 11th century temple at Halji, in the far NorthWest of Nepal. While less in number, some still choose this way of life over polyandry, which is the alternative there. Rather uncommon elsewhere, almost half of all women on this 12,000-ft plateau marry more than one man. Often brothers share one wife, with the extra benefit that family inheritances are not split, enabling more prosperity and reducing family frictions. But men from poorer families, especially, often choose to join the monastery instead.
Now it should be said, the monks prefer to live in the newest buildings available, where they sleep in dormitories and work industriously. I do not know if they chant while working as the Tibetans did, but they do study Tibetan texts and still travel to such ancient temples as this for worship, because they are beautiful, even if drafty.
The monks, as well as maintaining an ancient religious practice, teach the children in schools. While some children stay with their parents, most young children board at the school in Lo Manthang during the summer, until they are 5. By the end of October, winter reaches the Kingdom of Mustang and school ceases, due to the icy temperatures and scarcity of fuel. Then most children move, often with their parents, to the lower city of Pokhara, a journey which took seven days each way, even with the improved roads so far. These children are climbing the walls in the school's backyard playground (wall climbing, as you might imagine, is more interesting to children there than in most industrialized countries).
Most homes in Lo are two stories, with a courtyard in front and living quarters upstairs. In the winter, some goats, chickens, and yaks live on the ground floor, providing heating as well as food for the residents above, but they are comparatively rare compared to the yaks, who can also go outside for some periods of the day. But at night, even the yaks sleep inside.
Upstairs, the kitchen is simple, around the fire which is in the center, rather than against the side. As in Scandinavian houses, the smoke venting pipes are also exposed, to provide more heat. Wood is scarce, so the fire is in an iron pot, within which yak dung is dried and burned. For breakfast, they have butter tea, thick and hot, with the butter made from Yak milk ( 'ghee'),.and it is salted rather than sweetened. Buckwheat, barley and millet are important cold-tolerant grains which are ground like flour, then toasted to make noodles ('tsampa'). Millet grain is also fermented to make a fierce distilled and unfiltered alcoholic beverage called 'chaang,' which makes most westerners very heady, especially because of the altitude. Some potatoes are grown, but all rice is imported. For meat, the farmers cross bread yaks with cows, as yak meat is very tough. Most parts of yaks are used in some way: dung for fuel, wool for clothes, milk for butter and tea, meat for food; and the yaks also serve by pulling ploughs, carrying heavy loads, knocking over unwanted buildings, and all such heavy labor.
In traditional dress, red and horizontal stripes are favored, at one end of the valley, and black with veritcal stripes at the other; except in festivals, which I won't be covering here. Instead, here is Miss Nepal visiting, in the middle of an array of city elder ladies, certainly a rare sight indeed.
In the nearby palace was his royal highness Jigme Parbal Bista, 25th in line of a continuous peaceful monarchy since the 14th century. He could not have known so at birth, but he was destined to be the last king of Lo. While traditionally the eldest prince of Lo assumes rule when the king is in his 40s, the Chinese takeover of Nepal took his kingdom from him, and he has no means to stop the Maoists assuming total control of his domain. The country has no army, nor real need even of a strong police force, and has existed thus for centuries.
For the last 600 years, the ancient Himalayan Kingdom was only reachable by foot during the summer months, when suspension bridges like this could be constructed over the massive Himalayan gorges. While there is now one small airport in the far South, and trekking companies have strung together mules, horses and jeeps for the journey, only 2000 Westerners have visited Lo since 1992.
For such reasons, Lo Manthang, the capital in the center of the ancient Himalayan Kingdom of Lo, is still surrounded by the same wall built by the recently deposed king's great grand predecessor Ame Pal, in 1380 AD. The termination of King Jigme Parbal Bista's reign was, to my knowledge, simply revealed as having already happened some years ago, in 2008, without other announcement or precedent.
Most people who even travel North of Annapurna make it no farther than the town of Jharkot, on the edge of a lower plateau. Here it is looking South towards Annapurna. This picture shows three complete weather systems: summer in the town, night below the Annurpurna ring cloud, and winter day above.
Above Jharkot to the North, the mountains and riverbeds start to turn grey and foreboding, as if the rocks themselves want to warn how the upper North is one of the oldest and most barren of pristine places on the planet. This hamlet on the edge of the ancient kingdom of Lo, North of Jharkot, looks empty because it is. The residents are farming yaks on the upper green pastures, and living in yurts, at this time of year.
When the first road is finished to the ancient kingdom of Lo, these yaks will be out of work, replaced by tractors and bulldozers. Will the owners keep them to make butter tea from their milk and clothes from their coats? Or will they be replaced by Starbucks Chai shops and nylons?
When next year, cars arrive for the first time from across hundreds of miles of once impassable mountain cliff and glacier, will there still be tents of yak hair atop the pastures in the ancient kingdom of Yo? Or will they ditch the nomadic life? Will they munch on flash-fried frozen french fries at food vans in bulldozed parking lots, until the tourist motels finish installing the oxygen masks for tourists who fly in too fast and cannot cope with the thin air at 12,000-feet?
But there is a prophecy, gratis the history of Lukla, the closest town to Mount Everest. When the airport there was finished, a Japanese conglomerate built a five-star luxury resort hotel above it, at 13,000 feet--highest 5-star in the world. "Views of Everest and Oxygen in every room," the ads boasted. On its extravagant opening night, executives flew directly from Tokyo and drank champagne for a few hours before one fell ill. Shortly thereafter he died from altitude sickness. Lawsuits ensued. For many years the hotel closed down. For want of other use, Yaks dozed in its gilt lobby--the best stable any giant long-haired winterbeast has ever known. But time passed, and 30 years later, with doctors attendant and local hospital rebuilt by airport just in case, the hotel is open again, and again sporting nightly rates more than equal to its altitude. So then, the Maoists must have already shrove the fate of the ancient kingdom of Lo, the last Shangri-La, in the Beijing stock exchange. Lessons were learned. Now profits will flow....
So now we can ascertain, despite the apparent benefit of air travel, it is of limited use in the Himalayan plateaus, not only because the weather keeps the runway closed most the year, but also because it is just not possible to fly directly up there. The long, slow journey up from the lower elevations is necessary to acclimatize visitors to the thinner air at such high altitudes. Thus a real road is of absolute necessity for the future inevitable expansion, as more people leave China for the opportunities and open space of the upper plateaus.
And with prior experience in Tibet also, we can answer all the other questions. Most obviously, the yaks will start to disappear, and horses will arrive instead. More educated people will move there to start businesses from the natural resources, and the local people will find their traditional ways ending. The results are mixed.
On the one hand, they will find it difficult to compete with lowlanders, and they will find themselves regarded as lower in class, despite their indigenous roots. More monasteries will shut down. Outsiders will take positions of authority and the local people will have less power over their own lives. The children will start to marry outside their traditional families. Polyandry is likely to disappear, even if not outlawed directly. Unfamiliar crimes and exploitations will become a problem. The bad people may not receive the mercy they would elsewhere, and may get away with more evil deeds. There will be some increase in drug problems, but not so much as Western people would expect. There will be more smuggling, prostitution, and perhaps of greatest need for compassion, problems with forced child labor. For a while all other problems may seem insignificant compared to those resulting from an influx of guns and other weapons.
On the other hand, children will not leave so much for the cities, and more will stay with their families, because there will be new business and new construction. They will have better schools, and better medicine. there will be more varied foods, better shoes, clothes which are easier to wash, and some access to the fun but relatively unnecessary trinkets of civilization (more than before, but not as much as they may hope). There could even be some streetlights and electricity generators, and possibly improvements in sanitation, but all such utilities may take a long time to develop due to the extreme weather conditions and altitude, which renders most tools for commercial utilities ineffective. And we can reasonably certain of this future, because it already happened after the Chinese conquered Tibet.
And the Chinese have certainly learned how to conquer. The international outcry after the invasion of Tibet still reverberates today, but when the Maoists followed the Dalai Lama over the Himalayas and took over Nepal, there was hardly a blink from anyone. They deposed the King in Kathmandu, and at one point it was feared they would even remove its living Goddesses, after some extremists stormed and attacked their temples. But it transpired the living goddesses were allowed to continue. So now with the road to Lo Manthang underway, we have good reason to hope the Chinese are kind to the poor and peaceful people of ancient Lo.
And so ends the story of the oldest and most enduring medieval kingdom in all of history: the hidden mystery of Lo, whose King has simply stated, he stopped being King some years ago; possibly making the end of this Shangri-La the most peaceful hostile takeover of a medieval kingdom in all of history.
And as for its King himself? Well...What did China do with its emperor? Yes, China has learned the new rules of conquest well. No worries, here is the old man, once king, no longer, definitely aged by the whole affair, but smiling. Would that the USA to stop to think the Chinese may actually know a better way, and at least learn faster, than dropping a million tons of bombs filled with a million pounds of depleted uranium all over a country's palaces, dams, and power plants. Would that it could. Oh, would that it were. And so the last Shangri-La was won, not with a bomb, nor a song, nor even a whisper, but only with an ancient Buddhist smile, and the ancient kingdom of Lo is already gone.
Several thousand people read this post in the first year, and a number wrote expressing surprise at its unique perspective. One Nepalese politician wrote thankfully that he had never read such a clear explanation of the social conflicts arising from modernization, which he had never really considered before. Several Mustand residents wrote similar letters. In the following year the US ambassador to Nepal visited Lo Manthang, resulting in this amazing Youtube video.
On Dec 17, 2017, the last king of Lo passed away.
When Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista, who was revered as king in Mustang culture, turned frail a few months ago, he sensed that the end was near. He then suggested to his son, “Never migrate from the village and the district”. Family members said these were the last words he uttered. Bista, who was king of the remote district of Mustang from 1964 to 2008, died on Friday. He was 86. Mustang, a trans-Himalayan district, was a small princely state. "During his last days, he repeatedly said he wished us to continue living in Mustang and serving the people there for their advancement," said Jigme Sinki Parbal Bista, son of the late king“We will not compromise in honoring his wishes.” the son was participating in special rituals for the deceased being held at Jamchen Shakya Gumba, Bouddha. “We plan to do much more in Mustang in the days to come,” Jigme Sinki explain amidst the chanting of monks and the sound of trumpets. Tsering Tashi, vice-president of the Mustang Shakya Bouddha Union and a monk, said, “We will continue the special rites until Sunday and on Monday the body will be cremated amidst a function in Kathmandu.”
Born in 1930 in Lo Manthang as the youngest son of Mustang King Angun Tenzing Tandel, the last king of Mustang inherited the throne in 1964 and continued to reign for a few years even after Nepal was declared a republic. As he and his wife Sidol Palwar Bista had no children, he had adopted Jigme Sinki as his son. A spiritual leader who never received any formal education, he was considered the preserver of Tibetan Buddhist culture in Mustang. (Last King of Mustang Dies at 86,MyRepublica).
News on the changes are slow. After the last elections, I asked half a dozen residents in Mustang who won. None could actually say. Very soon after the King's passing, the Kathmandu Post reported that the King's adopted son lost to the Maoist party candidate, Indra Dhara Bista, by 1167 votes to 657 (Candidate Bista emerges victorious in Mustang-province 'Ka"). On Facebook Bista states he is not there very frequently, which might account for why so few people know whom he was. It must be hard work getting the government to do anything to help such a remote and impoverished community, which certainly does not speak much English, let alone Chinese. Here he is visiting in Mustang for a few days in July 2018.
Bista purportedly won the election on the promise to pave the road, and apparently is leaving the local culture to its own devices. Here is Bista in a meeting with local people in traditional dress.
As well as improving the road, Bista is particularly concerned with medical care. Meanwhile, we may hope that the local people seek better education, so that their own children will be able to complete successfully with the more educated profiteers arriving from China. In this photo of the ancient Mustang monastery, which now doubles as a school, one can see how the children's desks there are designed fvor very small children.
One observation stands paramount. Events happen more slowly in Lo'Manth'ang Mustang, partly because its connection to the rest of the world is so tiny; not only over decades; not only over seasons; not only over distance; but also, in our own ability to comprehend what life is really like for this tiny outpost of humankind, now totaling over 8,000 for the first time in history.
As one example, try to imagine what it was like in 1962, when airplanes first landed at an airstrip in Jomsom, lower Mustang. Virtually no one in Upper Mustang had ever seen an airplane at all. So at first, it seems strange to us, in the continually accelerating pace of the modern world, that it took 2 years for a plane to fly over the upper valley. It's difficult for us to imagine the most bizarre thoughts of people in Lo'Manthang looking up, to see a flying object like an airplane, for the first time. The industrialization so familiar to use is totally alien to them.
Its gradual introduction so far has been enforced by limits in transport and telecommunications. Now those limits are removed, the local people are simultaneously seeing wealth, power, and knowledge at a scale and rapidity which too frequently overwhelms members of our own industrialized societies.
For maybe the last time ever, we have the chance to completely create a perfect transition to a better world, rather than another rampage of economic, political, sociological, and spiritual destruction.
I continue to make corrections and update this article as information becomes available.