It’s eight o’clock in the morning in Lo Manthang. The monks are still asleep, just like the five Tibetan mastiffs guarding the courtyard of the monastery. We peek inside the temple door, where a young monk looks back at us, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He jumps up from his thin mattress and puts on a red robe, followed by a red hoodie that says ‘Team Tibet.’ Then he puts a cap on his short cropped hair, and smiles at the visitors: ‘Namaste!’
We follow the monk to a tiny kitchen above the Thubchen Monastery, where we warm ourselves by a stove fueled with dried cow dung. A fellow monk introduces himself as Kunga Lama; he has a friendly round face with a thin moustache. He pours us milk tea from a thermos. The walls are adorned with images of Buddhist icons and colourful prayer flags. On the kitchen counter stands an antique TV and DVD player. ‘We like to watch movies together,’ says Kunga.
We are in Lo Manthang, the walled capital of Upper Mustang, in the north of Nepal. Because of its location on an isolated rugged plateau hidden behind snow-capped Himalayan giants, and because it managed to keep the Chinese outside its borders over the past century, Upper Mustang is considered to be one of the best-preserved examples of Tibetan culture in the world. Until 1992 it was forbidden for foreigners to enter the area, and access is still restricted to those willing to pay the (expensive) permit to visit.
When we enter the medieval fortress city we actually do feel thrown back in the Middle Ages. The tiny city is a densely built labyrinth of whitewashed houses made of mud and stone, with narrow alleys where woolly cows run amok, usually followed by a tawny old lady slapping the cows’ unwilling buttocks with a twig, urging them to move on. The city has two centuries-old monasteries. Kunga shows us the beautiful red and gold images of Buddhist icons painted on the walls, while telling us about his life as a monk in Lo Manthang.
On a square in the middle of the labyrinth the city’s elderly gather to warm themselves in the afternoon sun. The women are spinning their miniature prayer wheels, combing sheep wool, and making braids in each others’ long hair. A younger woman holds a baby, its face burnt red by the merciless sun at 3800 metres. Another is collecting goat dung with a broom, to fuel her stove at home.
After watching this scene for a while we set out for a walk, getting lost immediately in the walled alleys ending in private houses and cattle stables. We enter a small café, where locals are gathered around the stove in the middle, drinking traditional Tibetan butter tea. Curious, I ask for some too. The owner pours me a mocha-coloured liquid with an oily surface. I take a sip: it tastes strange, salty, but delicious in a way.
When the night falls, the Loba – the people of Lo, as the former kingdom of Mustang is also known – walk a clockwise circle around the city walls, spinning every one of the numerous prayer wheels along the way, while humming Buddhist mantras. Om mani padme hum! We decide to do the same, spinning the creaking century-old wheels and enjoying the view of the mountain-tops surrounding the fortress, endless and desolate, amazingly beautiful.
It’s November, so winter is near and temperatures already get well below zero at night. Cold to the bone, we arrive in our guesthouse, where the friendly owner makes us lemon tea and thukpa, a sort of Tibetan noodle soup topped with grated yak cheese, to warm us up before crawling into our sleeping bags, calling it an early night.
The history of Mustang goes back to the end of the 14th century, when a Tibetan warlord called Ame Pal founded the Buddhist Kingdom of Lo. Thanks to its location alongside the Salt Route, an old trade route connecting India and Tibet, the kingdom would soon flourish. But at the end of the 18th century the kingdom was incorporated into Nepal and slowly fell into oblivion, hidden behind the mountain ranges of the Himalaya. When the Chinese entered neighbouring Tibet in the mid-20th century, Lo was largely left alone.
And so the Loba simply kept on doing what they had been doing for centuries, plowing their fields and herding their goats, spinning their prayer wheels, performing Buddhist rituals and chasing their cows in the alleys of the numerous small villages of the kingdom. As a result, the former Kingdom of Lo has become one of the best-kept secrets of Tibetan culture, maybe better preserved than in neighbouring Tibet itself.
But as in all parts of the modernizing world, also here change is coming. The Chinese and Nepali governments are planning to construct a highway to connect the two countries, right through Mustang, following the old Salt Route. Construction may already begin this year, local people told us.
Go now, is all I can say. Getting the chance to observe the Buddhist culture of the Mustangi, so completely different from my Western, modern life, was an unforgettable experience.
Article by Ynske Boersma.
Top image by Jean-Marie Hullot.
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