Features | Society | Central Asia

China Finds the Lost Kingdom

Some of the last vestiges of traditional Tibetan culture are under threat as Nepal’s Mustang region opens to the world.

One of the most isolated regions in Asia, Mustang lies in the north of Nepal, nestled between the Chinese border on the Tibetan plateau and the Nepalese provinces of Dolop and Manang on the other. For centuries, this land has been closely linked by language and culture to Tibet. Indeed, many believe that Tibetan culture, region and traditions are at their most unadulterated here.

Protected by forbidding mountains, Mustang was once an independent kingdom that controlled trade between the Himalayas and the plains of India. Known as the lost kingdom, Mustang is slowly beginning to feel the influence of the outside world, most notably China. For Beijing, Mustang has strategic importance, enabling it to not only exert influence in Nepal and block fleeing Tibetans, but also to reopen ancient trade routes that lead to the borders of India.

Soon after Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama escaped into India in 1959, numerous Tibetans used this traditional salt trade route to traverse arid moonscapes and plunging valleys as they fled their homeland, escaping Chinese rule.

It was here that four decades ago Tibetan Khampa warriors, trained by the CIA and hosted by local Lo (Mustang) people, staged for attacks on Chinese troops in Tibet. While the Khampa’s rebellion did not last long, the free border continued to offer Tibetans safe passage into Nepal and India. In 2000, in what was an embarrassment for Beijing, Tibet’s third highest lama the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorjee escaped into India via the Mustang route.

Since then, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has closed the border, blocking not only Tibetans but also local Mustang people, who traditionally crossed into Tibet to attend religious ceremonies, make pilgrimages and meet relatives. Meanwhile, Mustang lost its status as a kingdom in 2008, accompanying the end of the Nepal monarchy. Since then, the people of Mustang have come entirely under the control of Kathmandu, which has in recent years been increasingly oriented towards China.  

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Today, life in Mustang revolves around Buddhism, controlled tourism, animal husbandry and trade. Within a geopolitical context, however, much of Mustang can now be seen in transition, and increasingly influenced by forces across the border.

Local shops are filled with Chinese groceries and supplies from Tibet, which locals’ trade during an annual fair. Food is given as aid to the people by the Chinese, and some local monasteries have been built with Chinese money.

For decades, China showed no interest in Mustang. Given the recent attention, locals say they are slowly becoming more worried about Beijing’s intentions. 

“The Chinese officers often come here in jeeps and keep a check on our activities. Sometimes they even interrogate locals asking about various things. Somehow we feel that their over-friendly nature is just propaganda,” says Pema Bista, a local living in the medieval walled city of Lo Manthang that used to serve as the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Mustang.

One Tibetan living in Mustang who asks not to be named even alleges, “The situation is such that the Chinese army is paying bribes to Nepalese forces at the border to keep control of Tibetans fleeing through this route. The problem of Tibet is the problem of China and because of that there are many Chinese spies in the region that provide regular information across the border.”

For its part, the West has only been able to get glimpses of the former Buddhist kingdom of Mustang since 1992. Since that year, the Nepalese have permitted only a few select trekking groups each season into the region, part of their controlled tourism as they struggle to preserve an ancient culture and a pure Buddhist lifestyle.

However, sweeping change is coming, in the form of a new road linking Mustang to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) to the north, and the rest of Nepal to the south. With the road nearing completion, many say it will change the entire outlook of the former kingdom. Some see the development as a threat to Tibetan Buddhist culture.

“When the road comes, this place will change. The beginning of the outside world here is the rising Chinese influence. Our culture will be more distracted. Mustang is special as it is full of minerals like Tibet and the Chinese are starting to come here in the name of development while the Nepal government seems to neglect us,” Tsering Tashi, chief abbot of Shree Mahakaruna Sakyapa Vidhyalaya in Lo Manthang tells The Diplomat.

Experts believe Beijing’s activities and influence in Nepal should be seen in a broader geopolitical context. Dibyesh Anand, Associate Professor in International Relations at London’s Westminster University and an expert on majority-minority relations in China and India explains: “China’s approach to Nepal, including its intensified activities, should not be seen as an isolated phenomenon, but placed in the wider context of China’s approach to its frontier provinces and neighboring countries, China's overwhelming desire to subdue Tibetans and prevent Nepal from serving as a hospitable refuge for Tibetans, and India-China geopolitics in the Himalayan region.”

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He continues: “Beijing’s friendly overtures and the use of investment, infrastructure and trade in the region are meant to provide economic benefits and soften the image of China while increasing the cost of defiance by locals. Whether the economic ties dilute the religious loyalty or strengthen it, only time will tell. A lot will depend on the extent to which the Nepalese government acts in a sovereign manner and takes care of its own population, including Tibetan refugees and Tibetanised Nepalese. So far, the prospect of Nepal acting autonomously of India and China is bleak.”

For the people of Mustang, then, when the road link is complete, connecting Lhasa and Kathmandu, traditional Buddhism will meet trade from China. Will their cultural heritage and religious attachment to the Dalai Lama survive the change?

Inside the royal palace in the walled city of Lo Manthang resides the last monarch of Mustang, King Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista, who traces his lineage directly back to Ame Pal, the Tibetan warrior who founded the Buddhist kingdom of Lo in 1380. Even though the monarchy has ceased, for the Mustang residents he remains a king, who helps to preserve the cultural identity of Mustang.

Agreeing that Chinese pressure on Nepal is rising, a member of the royal family tells The Diplomat, “For Mustang, at present we are getting support from both China and India, but we can’t say what will happen in the future. One can hope our government will maintain a balanced relationship with both neighbors, China and India, that protects Mustang,”

Saransh Sehgal writes about Tibet and geopolitics in the Himalayan region. He is currently based in Dharamsala, India and Vienna, Austria.