Mustang, ‘the Last Forbidden Kingdom’ In Nepal
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Over the past few years, Mustang, as a tourist destination in Nepal, has transitioned from ‘where is it?’ to ‘wow, I just can’t wait to be there’. Only a few years ago it was “nobody’s been there”, now it’s heading towards “last chance to see”!

Despite being a far-western chunk of Nepal, the ‘Lo Manthang’ or ‘Mustang’ as you may call it is often referred to as “little Tibet” or “the last forbidden kingdom”; one of the reason of this nomenclature could possibly be Mustang’s proximity to Tibet. This secluded region of Nepal lies to the north of the Himalayan watershed and on the Tibetan plateau, just south of the border with “big Tibet”, the Chinese one.

Life in Mustang revolves around tourism, animal husbandry and trade. Apart from nine kilometers between Chhusang and Syangboche (just south of Ghiling (Geling)), it is bisected, as of August 2010, by a new road linking it to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) to the north and to the rest of Nepal to the south. The highest point would be 4660 m at ‘Kora La Pass’ on the Mustang-TAR border. Currently, the easiest and only widely used road corridor, from Kathmandu to Lhasa via the Arniko Rajmarg (Arniko Highway), traverses a 5125 m pass.

Mustang is an abode to one of the world’s greatest archaeological mysteries. This dusty, wind-savaged place and arid landscape, hides within the Himalaya deeply cleaved by the Kali Gandaki River and is dotted with an extraordinary number of human-built caves enticingly tucked on the giant rocky walls. Some sit by themselves, a single open mouth on a vast corrugated face of weathered rock. Others are in groups, a grand chorus of holes, occasionally stacked eight or nine stories high, an entire vertical neighborhood. Some were dug into cliff sides, others tunneled from above. Many are thousands of years old.

The history of these enigmatic caves is pretty hazy. Some believe these caves and cavities on the rocks served as the battlements in the then kingdom of Mustang. Seven hundred years ago, Mustang was a bustling place: a center of Buddhist scholarship and art, and possibly the easiest connection between the salt deposits of Tibet and the cities of the Indian subcontinent. Salt was then one of the world’s most valuable commodities. According to Charles Ramble, an anthropologist at the Sorbonne in Paris, Mustang during its heydays, was characterized by the caravans moving across the region’s rugged trails, carting loads of salt.

Mustang has an average elevation of 13,000ft and is located to the north of the mountain giants of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna. It is therefore north of the main Himalayan range and geographically is part of the highlands of Tibet. It is a vast high valley, arid and dry, characterized by eroded canyons, colorful stratified rock formations and has a barren, desert like appearance.

Naturally, most of the history is now a matter of legend rather than recorded fact, but it seems clear that Lo was once part of Ngari, part of Tibet and a rather loose collection of feudal domains. It was incorporated into the Tibetan Empire under one of the most famous of the Tibetan kings Songtsengampo. It was an important means of crossing the Himalaya from Tibet to Nepal, and many of the old salt caravans passed through Mustang. Over time, much of ‘Ngari’ became part of the Malla Empire, whose capital was Sinja in western Nepal. It became an independent kingdom in its own right, under the rule of Ame Pal, the founder king of Lo in 1380. The present royal family can trace its history some 25 generations back to Ame Pal, and the city of Lo Manthang, was the centre of their power.


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