Upper Mustang $500? For the future or to save the past?
Mustang is a magical place, there is no doubting that, even the Royal Family would agree. Many years ago in a bid to limit tourism and protect their culture, they imposed the $500 restricted area fee for visitors. This resulted in a cap of around 4000 visitors per year and added to the mystical allure of the Kingdom.
But the area is fast changing with a proposed 16 meter wide Chinese funded highway from the Chinese boarder all the way down the Kaligandaki River to India. The red spray paint marks of road widening scar the ancient white buildings of Lo Mantang, yellow bulldozers look like sinister monsters amid the barren landscape. Change is coming here and many tourists are asking for what are they paying $500 to visit what was once coined as the “Forbidden Kingdom”?
Tourists are easily outraged by such developments in remote places as it spoils their wilderness experience, embellishes their selfies and intrudes on their senses of adventure. But is it wrong or right? As a recent visitor to Upper Mustang, it is so hard to put into words the feelings for the place and how the future is slowly creeping in on the past. But I will try because the story should be told.
The 5 O’Clock Parade
It’s five pm, a pony plods into Lo Mantang. The wind is howling down the cobbled streets and the sun is sinking slowly behind the snowcapped mountains. One pony, then another and another, soon the streets are full with ponies and Changra (Mountain Goats). Next come the small Himalayan cows, scrawny and thin. Each animal stops at its respective gate, knowing its home, its shelter, its food source. Housewives or school kids scuttle to let in the small herds, throw them dried grass and corn to keep them going for the night. Lastly comes the horseman on his sturdy pony, his face weather-beaten, his head half hidden under an animal skin hat, his pants of leather and his jacket of hand spun wool. Once he was a legend here. Now he is a fading hero of the past.
We called this the 5 o’clock parade, for the days we spent in Lo Mantang, it became the way to tell the time. The time when the sun sinks and everyone heads inside. It was like a lost world, so far removed from our normal. It was peaceful, then a new sound startles the ponies, one snorts and shies, a car horn, a motor revving, the smell of burning rubber and petroleum fumes. A young local parades his newly purchased Scorpio FWD up and down the dusty streets, as if strutting like a cock, the king of his roost boasting to his friends.
Here begins the future, a new age cowboy, his mode is four wheels not four legs. Driving on the dangerous mountain roads, passed rolling rocks, landslides, sheer cliffs and through raging mountain rivers. His face is young, his hair is slick, his pants are denim and he pokes at his iPhone like a New York business man. Immediately we want to resent him for his roll in breaking the culture and romanticism of what we came here to see. But, is he any less a hero than the weather beaten horseman? Is he too not just trying to feed his family and carve out a life from this desolate hostile landscape?
A cow here takes a full day of labor to feed, it gives on average two liters of milk a day. A laborer smashing rocks on the road side earns 1000 nrs per day, enough to feed the family for a week. A lodge owning a jeep can earn 20,000 nrs a day in tourist season. You do the math of survival.
These roads carved into the cliff faces and dusty valley floors are they the road that brings life? That brings the future to this kingdom clinging on to the past? Or is it the clock striking the last hour for a culture that has so far managed to survive in harmony with nature and the might of the Himalaya?
I’m a romantic, I love the notion of nostalgia and the past, but the road we ask all to selfishly, what does it bring for us the tourist? When we should be asking what does it bring for the people that live here? Well it can give access to the people better health facilities and technologies and also open up the area to many other kinds of tourism. Tourism is important as it shines a light on the culture and heritage and can help with the fight to preserve it. But it must be done correctly in a sustainable way.
And here we are, riding our bikes through the wilderness for our own reasons, our bikes worth more money than many of these people will see in a life time! Who are we to complain the rolling tide of change, who are we to complain a small fee for the privilege to be here? After all it is not our place or our time. It’s so hard not to hate that road, so hard and with every bone in my body I wish to deny the road. But it is right to let the road come.
Yes the road needs to come, but my message to the local people it this – Know the people building the road are not your friends, they have their money driven reasons, the riches of trade and tourism, hydro power and the minerals that lay hidden beneath your earth, let the road come it can help you and yours … but always keep a place for the past, for the past is your heart and soul, it’s what made your strength and the vibrancy of your smile, the warmth behind your eyes and the wisdom in your words. Oh dear Mustang embrace the future but please don’t change to much. Fight to save your buildings and your heritage, don’t let those red spray marks herald the destruction of your homes. There is room for both the future and the past in Upper Mustang. There is a place but you have to fight for it … otherwise it will disappear like the dust in the wind, that same wind that swept through Tibet to reach your door, the wind that took with it a culture.