High In The Himalayas, Mustang Nepal Is An Ancient Kingdom Little Changed In Hundreds Of Years
Formerly known as the Kingdom of Lo, the tiny region of Mustang, in northern Nepal, only measures 53 kilometres from north to south and 60 kilometres east to west. High on the Tibetan Plateau it forms part of the border of Nepal with what China likes to call the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Lo Manthang The Capital Of Mustang
Mustang Nepal can trace its creation back to 1380 when the warrior Ame Pal founded this Buddhist kingdom. For centuries it was an independent realm, although much of its culture and language it owed to Tibet. However, toward the end of the 18th century it was annexed by Nepal.
Even though owned by Nepal, the tiny state was allowed to retain its monarchy right up until Otober 7th 2008. A Nepalese government order then came into effect and Mustang lost its long held right to have a king.
The last official king was Jigme Dorje Palmar Bista, who traced his lineage right the way back to Ame Pal, the founder of Mustang.
Alive today, the old king is still revered by many residents of Mustang who refuse to recognise the edict from Nepal.
The capital of this ancient kingdom is the walled city of Lo Manthang whose appearance has changed little since it was founded hundreds of years ago.
The Royal Palace In Lo Manthang
The land that makes up Mustang is hard, dry and generally infertile. The only well watered areas are close to the Kali Gandaki River and this is where the majority of the tiny population resides.
The region lies in the rain shadow of the two huge mountains of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri to the south and only receives between 10 and 16 inches (250-400 mm) of rain a year.
Typical Mustang Landscape
The altitude also makes things difficult. The lowest point in Mustang Nepal is on the Kali Gandaki, just to the north of Kagbeni, where it is 2,750 metres above sea level. The highest point is a peak in the south of the old kingdom called Khanjung Himal which stands 6,700 metres high.
The cold at these high altitudes causes a large temporary migration during the winter months to lower areas of Nepal where conditions are a little easier.
Despite its lack of rainfall, Mustang does have the major water feature of the Kali Gandaki River bisecting its territory as it flows on its journey south.
For centuries important trade routes have followed the path of the river as it cuts its way through the mountains, these routes are still used today. In southern Mustang the river passes through the Kali Gandaki Gorge considered by some to be the deepest gorge in the world.
The Kali Gandaki River Valley
In recent years the influence of the outside world, especially from China, has been changing the lives of the people in Mustang Nepal. Life in the region used to revolve around trade and animal husbandry.
However, since 1992 Mustang has been opened to western tourism.
A road has almost been completed which will link Tibet in the north to India in the south. Once finished it will become the lowest driveable route through the Himalayas.
The Area Around Jomsom (Photo by Girolame)
The administrative centre of Mustang is Jomsom, a few kilometres south of Kagbeni and here a small airport has been operating since 1962. This airport is now the major entry point for tourists arriving in this fascinating ancient kingdom.
Although visitors are welcomed, numbers are regulated and foreigners have to obtain special permits allowing them to enter Mustang. There are well marked border signs and police posts that check the permits which cost each person 50 U.S. dollars a day to stay in the region.
Restaurant In Mustang Catering To Westerners (Photo by John Pavelka)
The months of August to Otober are the optimum time for visitors to Mustang Nepal. These tend to be trekkers, who follow trade routes used for centuries as they hike around Mustang, the Kali Gandaki Gorge and the Annapurna Conservation Area.
Between one thousand and two thousand foreigners a year now visit the region and the tiny population of around 15,000 people welcome these westerners.
However, the population are at odds with the Nepalese government,as none of the 50 U.S. dollars a day received from these visitors is pumped back into the economy of Mustang Nepal.
This map of Nepal shows the location of Mustang ringed in red -