By Shristi Kafle
Mustang: The trans-Himalayan district of Mustang was once known as the forbidden kingdom of Nepal.
Located just in the lap of Mount Nilgiri and other Himalayan ranges, Mustang is a unique travel destination due to its remoteness and exclusive high-altitude deserts.
Often listed among the top tourist destinations in the world, Mustang in 2016 alone attracted nearly 40,000 foreign tourists compared to less than 500 a quarter of a century ago.
Foreign tourists are usually found trekking in this Himalayan region that comprises the world’s popular Annapurna trekking circuit.
“The flow of tourists is increasing every year due to its beautiful landscapes, accessibility by road and hotels,” Bal Bahadur Gurung, an officer at the Annapurna Conservation Area Project Mustang, said.
“The fact that the culture and tradition have been preserved by the locals also adds to Mustang as a favorite destination for tourists,” the officer added.
Although Mustang has the second lowest population of all regions in Nepal, it boasts more than 200 registered hotels with 4,500 rooms, with more hotels currently under construction. Also catering to visitors are restaurants serving European coffee, modern bakeries, souvenir shops and pool houses.
Between five and seven morning flights connect to the district headquarters of Jomsom from Lake City Pokhara every day.
One of the major features of Mustang, which lies along the Kali Gandaki River, is its pristine geography and climate. The landscape there reflects a natural architecture and where the weather, usually dry and windy, can be also be unpredictable.
Beside its geography, spectacular lifestyle and unique culture are also attractive. The region hosts a number of prominent festivals like Tenji, Yartung and Lha Phewa in which former royal family members, monks and locals participate.
Though Lower Mustang is easily accessible for travel, foreign tourists need to receive a special permit from the government by paying 500 U.S. dollars to visit Upper Mustang, known as “Lo Manthang,” the unofficial capital city of Mustang.
Lo Manthang, also known as the walled city, is popular for monasteries, centuries-old caves and archaeological sites.
Muktinath temple is one of the major attractions of the Mustang district as it is a pilgrimage center for both Buddhists and Hindus.
Hindus believe that the temple is associated with Lord Vishnu while Buddhists consider the place to be linked with Buddhist master Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava.
Located at an altitude of 3,800 meters above the sea level, the temple attracts 200,000 pilgrims every year.
“The cycle of life, death and rebirth goes on until the soul is freed. So this is the place where any human can attain salvation and they will rest in peace after this life,” Krishna Prasad Subedi, who has been serving as the main priest of the temple for the past 20 years, told Xinhua.
The temple is located in the middle of an oasis filled with lush green forest and was established centuries back. The Buddhist-Hindu temple of Vishnu and Chenrezig was built in 1815, according to commonly believed accounts.
One of the most interesting things about Muktinath are the 108 water taps with chilled water in its courtyard. This is where devotees take a bath with a belief that it will wash away all the sins they have committed.
“Muktinath temple is a place for liberation. Our religious leader Shree Swami Narayan travelled to this place many years ago and practiced penance for a long time. So, I wanted to visit this place at least once with my family before I die,” Dr. Mahendra Parmar, an Indian pilgrim, told Xinhua.
After years of isolation, the development of Mustang is now rapid. The road improvement project has already started from the nearest city of Beni to Jomsom, while a two-lane road is being constructed from Jomsom to Koro La Pass.
According to authorities, these road projects will be completed within three years. With the ongoing construction of bridges, schools and health centers and the opening of modern hotels, the once hidden kingdom is witnessing signs of modern progress.
Government authorities believe that Mustang’s potential can be further developed economically through the advancement of tourism, thus enhancing local entrepreneurship and economic growth opportunities.
“There are many important plans for the development of Mustang. Currently, we are constructing five major bridges and a small-scale hydropower project as well as upgrading the roads. The tourism sector is growing very fast, which is the backbone of development in this region,” Bhim Prasad Pokharel, chief district officer of Mustang, told Xinhua,
With a population of just 15,000 people, most of the locals are either fully dependent on tourism or on apple farming. Both avenues can generate an attractive income for individuals and their communities.
Having been exposed to the outside world and modernization, a visible change can be seen in the lives of the locals in terms of awareness and lifestyle.
The locals of Mustang are hopeful that the completion of road construction projects and the opening of the Nepal-China border at Koro La in the near future will provide a new life to this once isolated Himalayan region.