Roads and Remoteness: Marveling at Mustang


May 17, 2011, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol.: 04 No.-22 May 13-2011 (Baisakh 30,2068)

As I bid my family adieu at the airport I remind them of the likely poor phone connection in Mustang. As I board the plane I kick myself for having forgotten to put up the automated out-of-office message on my Gmail.

Little did I know there would better reception and faster Wi-Fi in Mustang than in all of Kathmandu!

As I flew Pokhara to Jomsom, I marveled at the snaking road below. It hadn’t occurred to me that people could actually drive right into the geographical marvel that this district is. Considering how much less costly the trip by road may be I figured it did boost domestic tourism and local transportation opportunity for Mustangis.

However, as we landed at Jomsom airport and walked the five-minute road to our hotel I did not marvel, as much as sulk to see “Lavazza” coffee being advertised in every second café. The objective of accepting MIREST Nepal’s invite to observe their programmatic activities in Mustang regarding the constitution had been appealing precisely because it was Mustang.

After having read about ‘New Death Ritual Found in Himalaya’ penned by Ker Than in the March 2011 issue of National Geographic and flicking through countless pictures of the Lo Manthang region in The Great Himalayan Trail website, I was pumped to be setting foot on sacred ground.

Only, as beautiful and breathtaking as scenes really were, it wasn’t sacred, as much as trampled upon. True, the Jomsom area is in Lower Mustang and the charm may be better preserved in Upper Mustang, but you couldn’t help notice the way the world had marched right up and into this once-hidden district. And imagine what little time is left before it enters Upper Mustang in the same scale.

As a mere visitor, a tourist myself, I was torn between sadness for the death of this no-longer-remote district and joy for the locals who were not as deprived anymore. The roads may soon make Marpha apples a more profitable product to transport to Pokhara and other cities in Nepal and pilgrimage to Muktinath more accessible for the poor and elderly. The roads may equip the state to address issues of education and health accessibility, availability and affordability of medicine and textbooks.

Sipping my Seabuckthorn juice in the hotel lobby of Om’s Home I realized my dilemma resonated with an article titled “Last Footfall in Nepal” written by travel writer, Ethan-Todras Whitehill, in which he describes “hiking the Annapurna circuit in Nepal before roads take over” for the New York Times in March 2010.

Having trekked to Annapurna Base Camp in 2007, there was only talk of a road to-be then. I cannot imagine the impact it has had on the business of those that depended on tourism (whose lodges were perched right on the pathway) or on the lives of those that depend on non-tourism (whose dilapidated huts were hidden from easy view).

The roads, I imagine, will help some and hurt some. Or maybe it will help and hurt the same individual in different ways. If hauling in the essentials (toilet paper, ketchup too but strips of paracetamol and boxes of stationary) cost more on a flight or the back of porters, then roads would permit flooding the district with such. Yet, would tourists, domestic and international alike, want to use the toilet paper and ketchup in a region that is becoming within increasingly easy-reach?

As a traveler, it’s easy to proclaim, the ones that traverse the oceans to reach Nepal do so to go where no man has gone before – or at least to where few have already reached.

More than half the charm of places like Mustang lay in it being remote, a destination that took perseverance to reach. If zooming into Jomsom was a possibility, imagine my surprise laugh when I realized you could literally drive to the foot of Muktinath in just three hours from the district headquarter. Few western backpackers waved off jeep tickets as they marched the rough, dry and dusty terrain. The deep gorge and valleys were still breathtaking and the unpaved dirt roads at least did not add insult to injury as it almost barely affected the scenery.

Kagbeni, the movie and the location, was simply a pit stop at this point and the Yak Burger available in “McDonalds” attested to this fact. While it may be a picture worth taking like that of “Starbucks” in Lukla it is also telling of the values and marketing strategies being experimented by hoteliers to lure in customers. But, perhaps I am failing to distinguish between varied customers. For, when foreigners trample into Kathmandu they maybe disappointed to see KFC and Benetton, chains they sought to exchange in traveling to “Natural Nepal”, but I know those of us who call this city home enjoy being connected to the rest of the world, albeit through material products.

And yet, while a cup of Illy’s coffee sounds delicious, it does strike one as out of place when in Kagbeni. The local Tibetan butter tea and cool sweetchhaang is what a “tourist” may prefer. Well, some tourists anyway.

When we travel, especially to places like Mustang or Nepal in general it is for adventure and to taste something different – not really to see the comforts of the same old same old. The last remaining “remote” frontiers of Nepal can decide what may or may not help them. 

Just as trekkers do not desire to walk a trail by a motor road (sidewalks are aplenty in cities as it is) the businesses that were blooming before the jeeps vroomed by are now dying. Perhaps, the ones at top are bustling. If travelers can zoom in and zoom out within a matter of days, the flirtatious few days in “exotic” terrain can be peaked at the peaks – the only places molded to appear rustic and remote to the foreign eye.

Businesses dependent on tourism may experience a loss and gain, simultaneously, as the roads dug start to be paved. More may flood in, race for the ultimate end and rush back to the comforts of Pokhara and Kathmandu.

However, communities that are attempting to be sustainable and that have been “cut off from civilization” so to speak would undeniably welcome the tar lining on their mountains.

Two years ago, I drove from Musikot to Rukumkot in two hours and hiked five hours to get to Mahat. A friend who had followed the same route during the height of our insurgency remarked with delight when I called him from the CDMA landline – “You have connection? You drove most of the way? I walked thirteen hours”. I thought of the roads being constructed even between Rukumkot and Mahat as he screamed with delight “Nepal ma samriddhi hune bho!” Yes, it would seem as the people of parts like Mahat are welcomed into the twenty-first century with cell phone and bus tickets, there would be prosperity.

That same year, I walked some eight hours from Manmga to Narikot in Jumla. I walked on a road fit for driving eight-wheelers (most of the way, anyway) and was shooed into a hut by soldiers as they were blasting off mountain-sides to assist with road construction. I wonder if you can drive right through Jumla and into the mouth of Rara Lake in Mugu today. And I wonder if Rara Lake still holds that magic or not.

The East-West highway, when built, was a revolutionary mechanism for connecting the country. In years past one had to descend the hills and flats of Tarai, enter India, travel the route through India and then ascend to one’s destination by re-entering Nepal. The Mechi-to-Mahakali single strip of highway reduced the time and cost of arduous travel and increased efficiency.

Perhaps someone somewhere in that day and age was mourning the death of the “remote”-ness of the adventurous and luscious Tarai - the joy and adventure both pahadis and westerners sought, but perhaps some were also pleased.

As I/NGOs offer food-for-work and the development agenda of the decade is road construction, the virgin hills, and now it would seem mountains, are being hacked and reshaped for motor vehicles to pass through. The proposed (and largely executed) projects will connect the country like never before as every district headquarter will be connected via roads, “Mid-Hill East-West Highway” and the “North-South” highway are more convenient to residents and readily available than rocky runways pretending to be airstrip that serve very few.

As fewer corners of the country will be deprived and disconnected, the same last few will also be corrupted - I mourn and rejoice this development.
(Sradda is an independent journalist)

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