The Crestone Eagle, September 2008:

Mustang in Nepal—ancient trade route gives view into past

story & photos by Larry Calloway

The carefully planned escape route of the 17th Karmapa at the turn of the millenium took the boy by Mitsubishi SUV from his monastery near Lhasa to a Chinese outpost 400 miles west on the border of a tiny Buddhist kingdom called Mustang, in Nepal. Crossing secretly at dawn, the team abandoned their escape vehicle and continued on horseback several days down the Gandaki river to relative safety in Nepal proper, where the final phase took him to Darhamsala, India, and the Dalai Lama. It was a spiritual addition to the history of an ancient trade route between Tibet and India marked in northern Mustang by fearsome hilltop fortresses.

     Last year, thanks to the innovative planning of a trusted Nepali guide named Kusang Sherpa, I went the other way, from the guarded Mustang gate at Kagbeni up the ancient Gandaki trade route to the capital Lo Montang and on to within an hour’s ride of the Chinese border. Kusang’s innovation was to keep the party small—me, a porter and himself—and stay in the guest rooms of families he knew. Since Mustang was open to tourists in 1992 (with a limit of 2,000 a year), the expensive 10-day travel permits have gone almost exclusively to large self-supporting groups outfitted for camping.

Oh, Mustang! High and dry in the rain shadow of the Himalayas. Sometimes it felt like home—gray and red desert cliffs against snowy backdrops. No, more like a dream of home—extreme, with trails rising from dark canyons to 14,000-foot passes and down again several times a day.

And this dreamland was a world of song. Some call it chanting, but to me it was sweeter than that. What I heard, without knowing most of the Tibetan words, were constant prayers. Women at sunrise carrying five-gallon jerry cans to get water from the stream outside the walls of Lo Montang sang. Porters walking alone on a trail, with loads in their baskets too heavy for the average Westerner to lift, sang. We often waited to talk with proprietors until they finished twirling their prayer wheels, singing.

One day we rode horses into a rarely visited region. “Mei Mei,” a wrinkled horseman about 80, assigned himself to my reluctant gray gelding. He pulled on the halter rope and screamed Tibetan epithets at the horse. In his other hand he held a whip, which he used aggressively until the horse came up to speed. Then just as suddenly he would sing—beautiful quiet unrushed prayers as we rode out in the morning to see some monasteries. Here were two personalities in one old man. Tough horseman, devout pilgrim.

Another old Tibetan was a hermit in a cave. Really! All my life I had seen cartoons and heard jokes about such people, never imagining they actually existed. Kusang knew of one, a Kagyu Buddhist monk named Tensing Lama, and we spent day of trek time to visiting him in his rock enclosure under a limestone arch where devout people can see images of Sakyamuni Buddha or Guru Rinpoche in the mineral deposits.

The monk was a lean and muscular old man in his seventies with cropped hair. He wore patched sweat pants and a frayed sweater. He had been living there for 24 years, supported by local villagers who brought him bags of rice and other provisions.

He remained cross-legged on the cold rock floor, where he had been meditating. Here was a proverbial holy man in a cave in the Himalayas, and I didn’t know what to ask him! What is truth? Can the Buddha escape causation? He was swaying a little on his mat and waiting. Kusang stood by to translate. “How are you?” I said. The monk answered, with a palm to his jaw, that he had a terrible tooth ache.

In the village of Geiling we stayed with a family whose devotion crossed three generations. An ancient grandmother recited Tibetan mantras and counted on beads. Her right thumb was split open, but she dripped hot tar on it painfully and continued. Her teenage grandson, Nawong Thota, who spoke English well was home on vacation from school in India. He took us on a tour of the ancient local monastery, which had long ago fallen into silence, and in the dim light we cold see tanka paintings of figures whose stories had been forgotten. Later I discovered that the teenager was called Lama and that he was the monastery abbot.

Lo Montang, the walled royal capital, had street life inside the gate. People sat and talked or bought and sold or, because it was the season, carded goat wool in groups. The king, Jigme Palmar Bista, was in Katmandu for medical treatment. Tsewang Bista, a generous friend of Kusang’s and a grandson of the king, showed us several locked temples including one reputed to have a thousand mandalas. The young prince, who buys and sells antiques, knew and valued the art treasures, which are being cataloged by a Western foundation.

We visited Lo Montang’s college of traditional medicine, also supported by Western money, which has about 20 students in a five-year program. Among other things they are expected to know the healing properties of some 250 native plants. Like Kusang and Tsewang, the young students were fluent in English and wise to the ways of Katmandu, but it was instructive to see them line up in the courtyard at the beginning of the school day, reciting vows and supplications.

Their sound filed itself in my musical memory bank of Mustang—a symphony of chants and murmurings and the watery ringing of horse bells, the soft percussion of little goat hooves, the hum of prayer flags in the Tibetan wind. As I listen back, it occurs to me that this cultural music was made possible by the presence of something quiet, Buddhist practice, and the absence of something loud, namely, the internal combustion engine. I saw no cars in 10 days in Mustang. But that’s not the end of the story.

Remember, the Karmapa’s party abandoned its motor vehicle eight years ago. This was because there were no suitable roads in Mustang. Now, there is one. And it comes down from China.

Bulldozers scraped it in a rough 4 per cent grade, zig-zagging up and down mountainsides, back and forth along the ancient trade route that connected Tibet and India and, as the fortress ruins testify, also brought invading armies and dryland pirates. The history of north-south conflict was updated after the Chinese invasion of Tibet when several thousand guerilla fighters supported by the American CIA were based in Mustang, according to Clara Murullo (The Last Forbidden Kingdom) and others. Some of the guerillas, she wrote, were trained at Camp Hale near Colorado Springs.

The new road disturbs about two thirds of the length of the kingdom from the Chinese border to Geiling, where the Ghandaki becomes an uncertain mile-wide flood plain best negotiated by horse caravans. There is no traffic on the road now because there are no bridges, which are costly. Local people don’t use most of it because the vehicle grade is too slow for walkers and riders. Still, some merchant vehicles arrive in Lo Montang from China. A Chinese Coke is half the price of one from Nepal because of transportation costs. Near Lo Montang we encountered a motorcycle with Chinese license plates. The rider pulled aside and waited so as not to spook the horses. I doubt this courtesy will continue when the bridges begin to be built. Right now the road is just a scratch, although a deep one as if made by fingernails on a blackboard.