Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Mustang: a lost Tibetan Kingdom

A friend lent me a book she thought I'd enjoy - I do like travellers' tales about remote places, and Michel Peissel was one of the first Europeans to visit the Kingdom of Mustang, on the northern edge of Nepal, and surrounded on three sides by Tibet. He visited at a difficult time, 1964, when there were Chinese troops in Tibet, and Khampa troops loyal to the Dalai Lama actually in Mustang. The country itself, though, was so remote few elements of modernity had arrived there.
Michel Peissel had the advantage that he could actually speak Tibetan, at least in the colloquial form, and he had a Tibetan friend, Tashi, who could handle the more formal language and reading the books they were searching out at the various Buddhist monasteries of the country. They were looking particularly for history books about the region.
He's a fascinating guide to the country, from the king's summer palace to remote villages, and the capital city of Lo Mantang, a walled town where he lodged in a "duke's" house, sleeping in a chapel on the roof. He was also fortunate to find a local friend early on, Pemba, who gave him a lot of useful information and went with him on some of his travels round the country.
Near the end of the book, he mentions that he also wrote an article for National Geographic, which appeared in the October, 1965 issue - which I managed to find! Here, the pictures are in colour, and rather better than the black and white ones in the book.

So I've been looking online to see what the country is like today, and I see from the Wikipedia entry that Jigme Dorji Palbar Bista, the prince who was seriously ill during Michel Peissel's visit, later became king, and ruled until 2008, when his title was abolished by the republican government of Nepal. He died in 2016 in Khatmandu, where he moved shortly before his death.
There's also now an airport, at Jomsom - it took Michel Peissel fifteen days to walk up the Kali Gandaki River with his porters and yaks when he went there. Tourism is limited, though, in an attempt to preserve the unique culture of the area. However, there are now solar panels on rooftops, and TV and radio, and cheap Chinese clothes coming over the border. There are even mobile phones, a few computers, and some internet connection. There are also post offices, police stations, health centres and piped water for many households - in 1964 the women were still going down to the river for drinking water.
Looking further, I find that the novel Merlin's Keep, by Madeleine Brent, is mostly set in Mustang - I read it and loved it when I was a teenager, but hadn't remembered that detail!

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