by Rick Green
It had taken us four days of strenuous trekking through the rainshadow of the Himalayas to reach Manthang, capital of the legendary Kingdom of Lo, or Mustang. For our efforts, we had hoped for an audience with the royal couple, but they were still en route from their annual sojourn in Kathmandu.
With the duration of our trekking permits limiting us to just one full day in Manthang, we managed to persuade the palace caretaker to show us around.
Unlocking the heavy timber door, he led us down a dark, dank, earthen-floored hallway. Ahead of us a lifeless figure materialized from out of the murk, a stuffed dog hung piñata-like from the ceiling. It was the raja's (Lo Gyelbu) first dog, a rare red mastiff preserved for posterity, forever on guard.
I was surprised by the sparseness of the royal household. Perhaps it reflected the increasing loss of Mustang's autonomy to Nepal and the uncertain future of the current royal line, there being no direct heir to the current ruler.
However, when making our way onto the rooftop, the view dispelled any thoughts of disappointment. A jumble of whitewashed houses lay before us on a backdrop of bald, gray, wrinkled hills. A medieval maze of alleyways dissected the dwellings, punctuated by three large red gompas and enveloped by 20-foot-high earthen ramparts. I savored the view, knowing I was one of the privileged few to have such a chance. Who knows what the future has in store for Manthang?
The next day our comprador lama, blissfully inebriated and proffering candies, saw us off to the edge of town as we set out on our return journey.
In an odd way we must have been blessed because early that evening, after setting up camp for the night, word came that the king and queen had arrived. They would be staying with the raja's (Lo Gyelbu) brother who just happened to live in this same village. It was quickly arranged for our group to have an audience with them in the morning.
I imagine most of us were anxious to reach this crowning moment on our already momentous expedition. For coastal dwellers, everything noticeably slows at significant altitude. And while we became accustomed to this labored pace, the unhurried lifestyle of the Lobas, and our lack of the regular day-to-day commitments of work, waiting for the King built up a restless tension comparable to the runs.
The Royal Yak Butter Tea
After breakfast the next morning, we were led into a house that was cleaner, lighter, and better appointed than others. Under the stairs leading up to the living quarters was an ample supply of dried yak dung for heating and cooking. Brass, copper, and stainless steel cookware glinted from the kitchen.
The women of the household were smartly dressed in brightly striped homespun, hand-woven aprons worn over a plain dark smock in the Tibetan style, which contrasted with their patterned blouses and heavy necklaces of coral, ivory, and turquoise. The harsh climate enhanced their natural beauty with bright red cheeks.
One by one, we individually performed the prescribed greeting of bowing while extending a white silk scarf to the king with both hands. He then took the scarf and placed it around our necks as a blessing.
King Jigme Palbar Bista is the 25th ruler of Lo, a direct descendent of Ama-dpal who founded the kingdom in 1380. Although dressed no better than the rest of us, his regal bearing complimented a distinguished, striking appearance. One could not help but notice his large round head with a small light blue turquoise earring in his right ear. His smooth face was marked with decades of responsibility and tanned by the more intense exposure of Mustang's barren landscape.
Rani Sahib, his wife, sat quietly off to the side. She came from an upper class Tibetan family, as is the tradition with all the kings of Lo. In contrast to her husband, she was thin, pale-skinned, with a narrow, oval face.
We sat opposite the king on a long wooden bench and were served Tibetan-style tea, a thick yellowish beverage that is salted and mixed with yak butter. Its texture, color, and oily surface make it appear unappetizing, but I found it surprisingly satisfying.
The pleasantries aside, we talked to the raja (Lo Gyelbu in Tibetan) about his current concerns-the increasing difficulty in getting his people to plant the annual crop, the erosion of cultural traditions. These we expected, such are the common issues Asian societies have historically faced when exposed to outside influences.
Still, the king was pleased with the discussion since one of our group could speak his native Tibetan. He was unable to converse with most trekking groups visiting before us as most spoke no Tibetan and he neither English nor Nepali.
Our audience nearing its end, we all posed in turn for photos with the king, then wished him well with hopes for a better future for his kingdom.
What that will be is difficult to say. The inhabitants of Lo are unable to produce enough food to be self-sufficient and somehow must make up for that shortfall. Traditionally it has been through trade. Mustang lies along an old route connecting Tibet with Nepal and India, but traffic has waned with the construction of the Friendship Highway by the Chinese.
Since Mustang opened to tourism in 1992, it was thought this could be a lucrative alternative. To date, however, very little of the revenues collected from trekking permits has reached the Lobas.
Nevertheless, Mustang is in a strategic location. Despite the cultural affinities of the Lobas with their Tibetan brethren, it is in Kathmandu's interest to have Mustang remain firmly within its orbit. The Nepalese government may maintain Mustang financially, but in exchange for a greater allegiance to Nepal, which might explain the Nepalese teachers educating Manthang's children.
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