Welcome to Mustang – Part 1

While during Tihar holidays, when Kathmandu streets are deserted as most of the Kathmanduites keep it to indoor activities, I decided to make it outdoor to Mustang. Mustang one of the remotest high mountain districts in Nepal, but well linked by airways and recently by motorable road also, has always welcomed tourists, trekkers and the pilgrims alike. Whether it be the himalayas, or the high altitude surreal desert landscape, or the traditional majestic mountain settlements and cultures, or the lush apple orchards, that one would like to spoil oneself with, then Mustang always welcomes you to savour it. A not so happy looking fellow tourist on the flight to Jomsom from Pokhara on landing at Jomsom airport was “wow” when he was to witness the brimming Nilgiri himalayan range.

I was in Mustang after more than ten years gap. When I went to Mustang a decade ago, upto Muktinath from Beni, trekking, though one could easily fly upto Jomsom also then, it had taken me four days to reach my destination. Now lower Mustang is well linked by a motorable road from Beni to Muktinath. One can easily reach upper part of Mustang like Muktinath in 5-6 hours on a good four wheeler drive from Beni bazaar. From Beni to Jomsom there are scores of nominally priced local bus service available these days. From Jomsom one could get ample four wheeler jeep services to go to Kagbeni, the point where the trail diverts to Lo Manthang, Muktinath and other high mountain sites such as Dolpa. From Jomsom to Kagbeni on a four wheeler jeep it costs Nepali Rupees 150 and in just about an hour one would be in Kagbeni to see the Thorong pass. Or for the Hindu and the Buddhist pilgrims to line up for the prayers at the Muktinath temple.

With my five year old girl on her just third trek, I could not be ambitious enough to go to Muktinath or Lo Manthang as it was trying both time and family wise. However, the five year old walked to Kagbeni from Jomsom, though it took us almost double the time taken by the locals or a fit adult trekker to reach Kagbeni. With the five year old savouring every moment of the walk from Jomsom to Kabeni it was informative to stop at Eklaybhatti and talk with Furba. As the Nepali name of the place itself implies, this place just about an hour walk before reaching Kagbeni used to be a stop point with only one local food and drink joint when it first started. Now it has several restaurants and lodges. Furba who came down from higher up Muktinath to settle some 30 years ago at Eklaybhatti, now runs a restaurant and a lodge when quizzed about how the motorable road has fared to him, said, “My business has gone down. I don’t meet the people travelling from Lo Manthang or Muktinath these days. Locals don’t stop at Eklaybhatti for food these days as they take the taxis to Jomsom.” I thought so much of economic benefits to small mountain entrepreneurs like Furba by building roads. Furba told me, weather has also changed in Mustang. It has not snowed for the last two years in Eklaybahtti, which is not normal. Though the high mountain areas of Mustang do not normally get rain, in the last few years what little rain they used to get has been less. Though the world is so much gaga about climate change talks and the COP 15, Furba a simple villager in the mountains of Nepal has knowingly or unknowingly been subject to the impact of climate change. More interestingly Furba has already been using for practical reasons or maybe because of access to technology, environment friendly solar energy technologies. He has a big solar disk at his backyard which he uses to boil waters as well as to power some of his CFL lighted house.

Bidding farewell to Furba walking further up to Kagbeni was welcomed by a clear sky which has turned amazingly pink. Kagbeni the gateway to further up upper Mustang like Muktinath and Lo Manthang was as majestic as ever. Though some of the old stone traditional styled houses have been replaced by Swiss design houses and one could see signboards of local adaptation of 7/11 and the big Mac with names of Yak Donald’s and there is a taxi stand, the people are still welcoming. So are the natural aesthetic and the ancient heritages like the Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Gompa (The Monastery of the Place to Stop and Develop Concentration on the Teachings of the Lord Buddha) founded in 13th century in Kagbeni. What my five year old found thrilling was walking through the narrow lanes in Kagbeni’s unique settlement and cluster of houses. The old lady who started the Red House Lodge some 40-50 years ago told me, in Kagbeni also it has been less cold than earlier. “I don’t have to wear Dochas these days during winter.” Docha is a traditional Tibetan warm snow boots. It was amazing to see how the Red House Lodge is powered by solar energy with scores of solar panels and disks on the roof, which I found was a common site in Kagbeni. I thought, do this mean the mountain communities have already or always been adapting to climate change? Do we need to transfer the climate change friendly technology from the so called developed countries? Or we just build and expand on what has already been adapted by the communities in the mountains?

The day after morning in Kagbeni was welcomed by a clear sky and the Nilgiri range and the Tilicho Peak looking ever majestic and captivating. It was scenic except being deterred by view of a yellow bulldozer in a distance. Tenzing, in his early thirties, son of the Red House Lodge told me, “What to do? Every village now wants a road. So we see lots of bulldozers eating into the mountains these days.” I thought the people in the mountains of Mustang do deserve modern facilities and amenities. They can not always be the exotic people and communities for the pleasure of tourists and be deprived of roads and always marginalised. But what happens to trekking and tourist economy of Mustang? My positive thoughts floated… the mountain people are hardy, tough and innovative people, and are survivors. They will find a way to sustainable development in terms of economy, environment and culture. They will survive and sustain as it is the wealth of the community. It is their community and social capital. I ruminated, my five year old  when she can trek on her own will see the 13th century Samphel Gompa in Kagbeni. The children of Mustang in Eklaybhatti and Kagbeni will play in snow. And Mustang still will be welcoming…

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