The air up there: An introduction

Posted on May 7, 2011


Hiking into the thin-air mountain tops of Upper Mustang, or the former Kingdom of Lo.

After a month-long hiatus from blogging, I’ve got a lot to share. But I’ll admit it’s mostly about Upper Mustang, a remote northern area in the Nepali Himalayan range where I spent two weeks in April.

Getting up to and into Upper Mustang is no easy feat. As a “restricted zone,” foreign nationals are required to pay an exorbitant $50 per day permit fee, enter the area as part of an organized tour group, and be accompanied by a Nepali guide just to be allowed entrance into the area. Obtaining the permit is a fairly complicated process that involves interviewing myriad travel agencies for the best price, attitude, and service, and many foreigners don’t feel it’s worth the money or effort organizing such a rigidly regulated trip. However, I was lucky enough to know two friends through the Fulbright program who were interested in going, and after a tedious, several-days-long process, we were equipped with permits and a guide and were ready to go.

So why all the hubbub over this bit of northern Nepal? Why all the regulations and why were we so determined to go?

Pony train carrying goods out of Upper Mustang near the low-lying entrance to the restricted area.

Fields of Tsele, a town that lies just before the steep climb into the higher peaks of Upper Mustang.

Chortens, which are Tibetan Buddhist spiritual monuments, on the mountain road.

Mustang is nestled into the folds of the Himalayas and was, until very recently, an independent kingdom called Lo. Its people, the Loba, are descendants of Tibet, and though they developed their own dialect, traditions, and lifestyle, they are a cultural reflection of the old Tibet before the Chinese invasion. The Kingdom of Lo sat right on the ancient salt route between China and India, and since their topography of great canyons and desert mountains weren’t given much to agriculture, they thrived as a trading outpost instead. When Nepal annexed the area in 1795, Lo retained its traditional culture and was left pretty much to its own devices as an autonomous region. But when the salt trade became obsolete, so did the region. Because Lo was so hard to get to and its climate so harsh, with the only entrance and exit through the rocky Himalayas, it remained largely isolated; nobody had much reason to go there. So the Loba have lived undisturbed for centuries, without many traces of the modernizing world making it into their lives and villages.

Therein lies the answer to both questions: why the area is restricted and why we wanted to go. As a largely untouched region, the natural landscape is pristine, and Lo holds one of the last pockets of traditional, ethnically Tibetan culture left in the world. For political reasons, no foreigners were allowed into the area at all until 1992, and then Nepal decided to allow 1,000 foreign visitors to enter a year. Just recently, that number was bumped up to 3,000, but this still means that there are less than 20,000 non-Nepalis in the whole world who have entered the area. My friends and I are 3 of those people.

Taylor and I were interested in documenting the Loba culture, to photograph and write about it before the quickening forces of modernization change the desert mountain culture forever. So, dutifully, Taylor left in early March to spend a month photographing the people, culture, and geography of the area. I was to meet him in Lo Manthang, the territory’s capital city, in April and to spend some time observing and writing there.

So what did we find when we arrived in the Kingdom of Lo? More details to come in the next post. Stay tuned.