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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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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