Dressed in well-worn jeans and a green fleece jacket, the king stood in the center of a low-ceilinged room in his centuries-old palace. He was reciting a Buddhist chant and methodically fingering a string of prayer beads. Around him, the walls and wooden pillars holding up the sagging roof were decorated with intricate paintings of Buddhist deities. Some wore gold robes and reclined blissfully. Others, bearing swords and surrounded by flames, howled with rage.
It was mid-October, and tucked away in this barren range of foothills on the northern edge of the Himalaya, the cold, earthen walls of the drafty palace hinted at the onset of winter.
A window offered a view over the 600-year-old walled city of Lo Manthang, the historic capital of Nepal’s fabled Mustang region, situated just 10 miles from the Chinese border. Tight rows of whitewashed mud-brick and rammed-earth buildings extended below. Smoke curled from the rooftops, and groves of Himalayan poplars, their luminous golden leaves near their peak, shimmered in the afternoon breeze. To the southeast, braids of the Kali Gandaki River spread out like a fan across the valley, flowing toward an imposing wall of snowcapped peaks that gleamed against the deep-blue sky.
Such a view was once off-limits to foreigners like me. For much of the 20th century, access to Mustang was tightly controlled by the Nepali government. But now, the king had brought me to his deteriorating palace to show me one of the many challenges his kingdom faces in the modern age.
The king’s full name is Jigme Singhi Palbar Bista, but he’d introduced himself to me simply as Jigme. He is slender, with thinning gray hair, and possesses an energy that belies his six decades. He’d nimbly led me on a dimly lit obstacle course through the palace, which his family had been forced to leave after it was severely damaged during an earthquake in 2015. We’d climbed trembling wooden staircases, navigated gaping holes in the floor, and skirted crumbling walls decorated with mud-streaked murals.
Despite the palace’s decrepitude, the room where we now stood seemed to be extremely well preserved. Jigme noticed me looking at a portrait of a man and a woman wearing traditional Tibetan robes. “My parents,” he said. “This was my father’s prayer room. He was the last king of Mustang, the 25th in our lineage. I am the 26th.”
To my left, a sandalwood cabinet, covered in gold leaf, stretched from floor to ceiling. Inside, a jumble of bronze figurines depicting Buddhist deities gazed out through glass doors. A cluster of votive lamps burning yak butter filled the room with the distinctive smoky, sour scent that imbues Buddhist temples across the Himalaya.
Jigme explained that the figurines were more than just works of art—they were living spirits that have watched over his family since antiquity. Before placing each statue on the altar, he said, a high monk would perform a ritual to animate it with an enlightened body, speech, and mind.
Now it is Jigme who watches over these deities, at least in their physical form. In the secular world, a black-market antiquities dealer could sell this small collection for a sizable fortune. For centuries, the idea of someone taking them was of little worry here in this isolated, devoutly Buddhist city. But the outside world finally had ascended to Mustang’s doorstep, and art theft was just one of many new things that the king now had to worry about.
As Jigme and I shared this quiet moment in his prayer room, I could just make out the low rumble of earthmoving equipment improving the road that approaches the city from the south. The nearly 300-mile journey from Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, which once required weeks either on foot or on the back of a horse or yak, can now be completed—albeit not by the faint of heart—in just three days of driving. Vehicles, preferably with four-wheel drive, traverse a dizzying series of switchbacks on a rough, narrow track carved along the cliffs lining the Kali Gandaki Gorge. During my journey, I was delayed by landslides that blocked the route for hours, leaving a winding line of cars stranded across the cliff face. Nevertheless, the road is a paradigm-shifting improvement for the people of Mustang, allowing for the flow of cheap goods and easier access to modern medical facilities, among many other conveniences.
This stream of goods and people may soon become a surging river of commerce. To the north, the Chinese have anticipated a lucrative new trade route and are waiting with a freshly paved road that connects their side of the border with highways that lead all the way to Beijing. What remains is to join the roads, and a new era of trade can begin in this legendary corner of the roof of the world. The question for Jigme and the people of Mustang is whether they can preserve the parts of this tiny kingdom that for centuries have made it special.
Around us, the painted deities smiled and snarled. Jigme sat down on a bench and lowered his eyes. I thought he might be meditating or praying, but then, with a quick motion, he pulled out his iPhone and checked his messages.
It would be fitting for Mustang to become once again a hub for trade. The palace Jigme had shown me was a relic of the city’s golden age, dating back to the 15th century. At that time, the upper portion of the region was known as the Kingdom of Lo. Its people, the Lo-pa, ethnic cousins of Tibetans, had amassed great wealth by controlling trade through the Kali Gandaki Valley. Flanked on the west by the world’s seventh highest peak, Dhaulagiri I (26,795 feet), and on the east by the 10th highest, Annapurna I (26,545 feet), the gorge offered one of the most direct trading routes between the rich salt deposits of the Tibetan Plateau and the markets of India. Here, the Lo-pa taxed the yak caravans, which, in addition to salt, carried barley, turquoise, and the glands of musk deer (used for medicine and perfume). The name Mustang derives from a Tibetan word meaning “plain of desire,” a reference to the potential riches to be gleaned there.
But even before Mustang had evolved into a vibrant trading hub, it had been an important crossroads for Buddhist scholars and pilgrims moving between India and China. Eventually, Buddhist teachings were fused with the region’s animistic practices, and Tibetan Buddhism was born. Over time, the kingdom embraced this new faith and built ornate temples and monasteries. According to local legend, the first Tibetan Buddhist temple in the kingdom was constructed a few miles south of Lo Manthang by an Indian mystic who destroyed a demoness there. Today this temple, known as Lo Gekar, sits among a stand of twisted willow trees at the end of an isolated canyon, where locals believe it still pins down the heart of the slain demoness.
By the 18th century, with powerful states rising on Mustang’s borders, the king of Lo traveled to meet the king of the newly united Nepal. Jigme described how his predecessor brought offerings of milk, mustard seeds, and soil to demonstrate that Mustang had land and wealth to share. Impressed by the gesture, the Nepali king offered Mustang protection in exchange for nominal taxes and an annual tribute.
Two centuries later, this affiliation would save Mustang from the ravages of China’s control of Tibet, which began shortly after Mao Zedong invaded in 1950. Over the next decade, as thousands of Buddhist sites in Tibet were closed, Mustang’s treasures remained untouched.
But the kingdom’s isolation wouldn’t prevent it from getting pulled headlong into the Cold War. In the early 1960s, a secret army of CIA-trained Tibetan guerrillas trekked into Mustang. Supported by U.S. airdrops of arms, supplies, and trained radio operators, they planned to launch cross-border raids on the Chinese army and then set up bases in Tibet. Despite capturing some important intelligence documents, they achieved little and were disarmed by the Nepali government in 1974. The political fallout led the Nepali government to seal the region more tightly than ever before.
This was the world in which Jigme was raised, a forbidden kingdom isolated among some of the planet’s most forbidding terrain. As king, his father kept an eye on the border, but his primary job was to keep the peace. He traveled constantly between villages, settling local quarrels and disputes over property. “He rarely spent even two days at home,” Jigme told me. “He would hear of a problem or a fight, jump on his horse, and go there. His word was the final say in the kingdom.”
When he wasn’t settling disputes, the king oversaw religious ceremonies. One of the most important is a lavish three-day festival known as Tiji, where dozens of monks, hidden under ferocious masks, dance before the king in the square just outside the palace in Lo Manthang, to celebrate the triumph of good over evil.
When he was 21 years old, Jigme left Mustang to attend college in Kathmandu. Each winter his father would visit, making the three-week journey across the mountains as his ancestors had done to honor the treaty with the Nepali king. “He’d bring local products for the king—wool carpets, blankets, and horses,” Jigme said. “And while he was there, he would reconcile accounts for how government funds were spent and ask for money for new projects.”
Things began to change in 2008. After a decade of civil war, Nepal adopted a new constitution, reinventing itself as a federal republic. All monarchies were abolished, and Jigme’s father was stripped of his official position. Suddenly, the role for which Jigme had been preparing was eliminated, at least officially.
“It didn’t upset me,” Jigme said. “I recognized that times were changing and had my own life to focus on. We were never proud of our position, and we didn’t receive any compensation for it. So we accepted it.”
After his father passed away in 2016, Jigme was thrust into an awkward position. Most of the Lo-pa regarded him as the rightful king but one with no official power. Yet they still depended on him to lead religious rituals and occasionally to adjudicate local disputes. And the people’s veneration of him is plain. Earlier in the day, as we walked through the narrow alleyways of Lo Manthang, everyone we passed reverently removed their hats and bowed their heads to him. Jigme, smiling and jovial, greeted each person by name.
So how does a king—who has no real power or authority—preserve his kingdom’s cultural heritage? Jigme’s decaying palace is just one example of the challenges he faces. Said to have been built in 1441 by the son of Ama-Pal, the legendary first king of Mustang, it’s listed by UNESCO as a potential World Heritage site, but due to damage from the earthquake and an increasingly wet climate, it needs extensive funds just to prevent further decay. Meanwhile, beyond the walls of Lo Manthang, the kingdom’s numerous valleys and canyons hold many more ancient palaces and temples, each inhabited by its own deities and filled with its own treasures.
I’d heard about one site in particular—an abandoned Buddhist nunnery called Gompa Gang, which sits on a bluff above the Kali Gandaki River, midway up the valley. The next morning before sunrise, Jigme’s cousin, Tsewang Jonden Bista, and I set off to see it.
With the landscape coming alive in the early light, we drove along the Kali Gandaki as it flowed lazily across a wide plain, and passed foothills stratified into a layer cake of grays, browns, yellows, and reds. Herds of shaggy pashmina goats trotted alongside the road, tended by dust-covered teenage boys and girls. Terraced fields lined the fertile land along the river. It was harvest time, and whole families—children included—were headed into green fields of buckwheat and orchards brimming with apples.
We parked at the base of a towering mud cliff. High above, its face was pitted with dozens of dark, windowlike openings. Tsewang, who runs a trekking company, switched to tour guide mode and explained that Mustang is famous for these mysterious “sky caves.” Thousands of them are bored into cliffs across the region. Carbon dating suggests that some were excavated more than a millennium ago. In 2008 a National Geographic team managed to access a cave 700 feet above the ground. Inside, they found a large room containing thousands of manuscripts with Buddhist and pre-Buddhist writing and imagery. Other caves held skeletons, but no one knows exactly who dug them or why they went to such lengths to create these caches.
We made our way up a trail to a ridge overlooking the river. There, a thick grove of willows surrounded a whitewashed earthen structure. We pushed open an iron gate and walked into the courtyard. A weathered prayer flag was mounted on a wooden pole driven into a pile of stones and bleached yak horns. The flag snapped in the wind as Tsewang explained how, during the nunnery’s zenith in the 1700s, pilgrims traveled to this site from all over India, Nepal, and Tibet to pray and receive blessings. As Mustang’s prosperity waned, the nunnery slowly fell into disrepair.
We stepped through a low door into the main hall, where a colossal, two-story statue of the Maitreya Buddha dominated the room. Its head extended through an opening in the ceiling into a second-floor chamber, where rays of sunlight illuminated its face. Tsewang explained that this incarnation of the Buddha represents a future teacher who will spread wisdom across the world after a long period of famine and war.
Tsewang shined a flashlight onto the wall, and I saw the room was covered in murals. One depicted a Buddha who sat cross-legged atop a cloud beside a bare-breasted woman holding a conch shell in one hand and offering a silver bowl in the other. There were endless figures set in complex and colorful, if faded, scenes. As we worked our way through the darkness, Tsewang pointed his light to images representing the cosmos, the wheel of life, and hundreds of deities. “There is Guru Rinpoche,” he said, illuminating a figure in blue and red robes, the principal founder of Tibetan Buddhism, who is believed to have traveled through Mustang in the eighth century.
Upon closer inspection, I noticed that many of the paintings were disintegrating. One was riddled with pockmarks. Another was furrowed with cracks, and in places the plaster bulged like a blister. For centuries, this region near the Tibetan Plateau got little rain, but the climate here is changing rapidly, and the rammed-earth structure is facing moisture levels it was never designed to handle.
“In the past, the rain and melting snow would only soak through one layer of brick,” Tsewang said. “Now the storms are fewer but bigger. Sometimes we’ll get a winter’s worth of snow in one big spring storm. When it melts all at once, this is what happens.”
Moisture seeps deep into the earthen walls and penetrates the dry interior. When the water evaporates, salt crystals form behind the paint, causing the murals to peel. This process is occurring at sites across the Himalaya and is virtually impossible to stop once started. “Even the weather is conspiring against us,” Tsewang said.
In a passage behind the towering Buddha, Tsewang pointed to a spot on its hip where the statue was crudely patched with mud. “About 20 years ago,” he said, “thieves broke in here and stole the gsung”—the treasures that consecrate and animate the statue.
Traditionally, ritual sculptures, regardless of size, have a hollow center. During the consecration process, they are filled with written prayers and valuable objects like agate beads, bronze figurines, gold, and precious stones. The treasure helps animate the statue, but the valuables also can be used to rebuild the monastery should it ever be damaged or destroyed.
According to Charles Ramble, a scholar who researched the theft, and local leaders, a Tibetan lama arrived at Gompa Gang around 2000 and offered to reestablish a community of nuns. Thrilled by the offer, local representatives let him see the karchak, a book that includes key facts about the building, including the location of the gsung. Afterward, the visiting lama departed, promising to return soon. A short while later, a caretaker discovered the hole in the Buddha’s hip. There was no record of what had been hidden inside the statue, but whatever treasures had been animating this deity for centuries were gone. The lama was never heard from again. Ever since, Gompa Gang has been considered powerless. Tsewang told me hardly anyone goes to pray there anymore.
“Did you see the bus?” Jigme asked, as we sat drinking tea one afternoon. Earlier that day we’d watched an Indian-made bus grind and sway up the dusty switchbacks leading into Lo Manthang. The bus had left the town of Jomsom, a 60-mile drive south of Lo Manthang, before dawn, and every seat was packed with locals mixed in with a few Nepali tourists. A large banner decorated with Nepali script was strung loosely across the flat nose of the vehicle, announcing it as the first public bus ever to make the journey. “As a child, I never imagined that one day we could drive here from Kathmandu,” Jigme said.
But for years that perception had been changing. As China’s economy boomed and other parts of Nepal developed, Jigme, and everyone else in Mustang, could see that a road was inevitable. In fact, we were sitting in the most tangible example of that knowledge: the Royal Mustang Resort. Jigme had built this 22-room hotel just outside the city walls of Lo Manthang on land that had been passed down to him by his father. It resembles a whitewashed citadel, with miniature watchtowers on each of its four corners, and its broad rooftop terrace offers a postcard-worthy view of Kali Gandaki Valley. We sat in plush leather chairs in the reception area, sipping our tea in front of a woodstove stoked with a crackling fire of dried willow branches.
Tourists were finally allowed to visit Mustang in 1992, but relatively few permits have been issued each year. The pace has remained slow until now, but Jigme is confident that will soon change. And while Nepal is famous for Mount Everest expeditions, much of the country’s half-billion-dollar tourism sector is driven by trekkers and religious pilgrims—for whom Mustang has a special appeal. Mustang, Jigme noted, offers spectacular landscapes but also a window into Tibetan culture that has largely evaporated elsewhere.
Despite Jigme’s optimistic outlook, it seemed that the return on this sizable investment was still a long way off. At that moment, Tsewang and I were the hotel’s only guests. And Jigme isn’t the only one banking on tourism. At the time of my visit, there were dozens of hotels in Lo Manthang, a town with only 1,300 official residents. And Mustang’s harsh climate makes visiting feasible for only about six months each year. Winter temperatures regularly drop far below zero, freezing pipes and making hotel toilets inoperable. During summer, landslides triggered by monsoons often block the road for weeks.
While Jigme hopes the road will bring people to Lo Manthang, it makes it easier for the town’s dwindling population to leave. Over the past several years, young adults have been departing in droves to seek their fortunes in Kathmandu, Japan, Korea, and the United States. The valley’s economy has long relied on the large herds of goats and yaks, but now that brutal work is rapidly losing its appeal. (By one count, more than 2,000 Lo-pa live in New York City, which is more than the entire population of Lo Manthang.) If this trend continues, Jigme predicts, the region will lose 80 percent of its population over the next 20 years.
The picture has been further muddled as the promise of tourism has spurred rampant land speculation. “There was once an unwritten rule that Lo-pa could not sell property to outsiders,” Jigme explained. But as values skyrocket, this taboo has been ignored. Jigme told me that a single acre of rock-strewn pasture, not far from where we sat, had recently sold for $700,000. “Can you blame a farmer who only makes $700 a year for selling out and moving to Kathmandu or New York City?” he asked.
I had mentioned to Jigme that I wanted to visit the Chinese border, so one morning he sent Tsewang and me off in a four-by-four. We traveled along a smooth gravel road that led us northward toward a range of brown hills, their crests dusted with snow. After an hour we rolled up to a Nepali Army checkpoint. A young soldier saw me in the back seat, frowned, and said something in Nepali. “He says that foreigners aren’t allowed to visit the border,” Tsewang said. “This is new since the last time I was here.”
We turned around, and a few miles back down the road we stopped for noodles at a small restaurant. The proprietor, when he heard the story, said that there was an alternate path to the border. “I can show you,” he said. Soon he and I were speeding along a dusty trail on the man’s motorbike, me on the back, my arms wrapped tightly around his leather jacket. Heading north, we ascended rutted switchbacks that led us up and over the Kora La, at 15,290 feet. A couple of miles beyond the pass, the road abruptly ended at a barbed wire fence stretching across the barren land as far as we could see.
The wind howled. Broken beer bottles and plastic wrappers littered the ground. A sign in English read: “No Parking in the No Man’s Land” and “No Photography.” Some Nepali tourists, who’d also arrived by motorbike, ignored the sign and took selfies around a squat concrete pillar that marked the Nepal-China border. A few hundred feet behind the fence, on the Chinese side, three monolithic buildings, each roughly the size of a Walmart and clad in what appeared to be white marble, completely blocked our view to the north. Numerous video cameras mounted on metal poles pointed in our direction.
Later, I found satellite images that revealed what lay beyond the giant marble buildings—structures that locals said were military barracks and a long black ribbon of pavement heading north across the Tibetan Plateau.
It’s no coincidence that Nepal’s roadbuilding boom is occurring concurrently with Chinese president Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure campaign designed to expand China’s economic and political influence from East Asia all the way to Europe. When complete, it will include multiple roads across the Himalaya, but perhaps none will offer a more direct route to India than the one I had just followed from Kathmandu to this spot on the border.
Also, weighing in the background is the 2014 discovery of a large deposit of uranium in Mustang. China is rapidly building nuclear plants to meet its growing energy needs and carbon-reduction pledges. Though no mines have opened yet, it seems logical that at some point uranium will become another of Mustang’s coveted treasures.
That evening Jigme invited me to dinner at the Royal Mustang Resort. Next to our table, a propane heater warded off the chill in the dining room decorated with Tibetan paintings and sepia-toned photographs of the royal family.
As we ate, Jigme predicted that within a few years the Chinese would build a business park on the Kora La with Western-style hotels, casinos, and maybe an airport. “Tourism will grow massively,” he said. And a boom in tourism and industry might be exactly what Mustang needs. But, he acknowledged, it could also bring a tsunami of outside influences that might subsume what it means to be Lo-pa, yet it was a risk every Lo-pa I spoke with felt they had to accept. “In order to save our culture, we need tourism,” Jigme said. “And in order to have tourism, we need the road.”
On my last morning in Mustang, I met Jigme for breakfast at his hotel. Over coffee and eggs he told me that he had something special to show me. Like many people in Mustang, Jigme was reluctant to share information about his own artifacts. To date, he told me, he hadn’t allowed anyone to see the treasures passed down to him from his family’s royal dynasty.
He took me to a location I promised not to reveal. We opened a creaky wooden door in the floor leading to a crude stairway. We clicked on headlamps, and I carefully followed Jigme down to a windowless room. We had to crouch to avoid hitting our heads on the hand-hewn beams. The air was stale and heavy with dust. Jigme lit a single yak butter lamp, and out of the darkness a row of almost-life-size bronze statues appeared—a pantheon of deities, decorated with gold, silver, turquoise, and coral. They glowed in the yellow light. In the shadows beyond, I could see the rest of the room was filled with dusty wooden boxes, like cargo stacked in the hold of a ship.
“I’ve inherited all this,” said Jigme, with a sweep of his hand, “and I have to do something great with it. I’m showing you because my dream is to create a living museum where I can display these items and keep them alive. Then, someday, I can hand it all over to my children. But that takes a lot of money, which I don’t have.” Laughing, he added, “What I really need is a dollar machine.”
For the moment, there was nothing for Jigme to do but pray and hope that he can somehow find a way to protect what he has. Maybe the road will eventually bring enough tourists to fill his hotel, and it can become the dollar machine he needs to preserve his family’s treasures.
None of this seemed to weigh too heavily on Jigme as he approached the statues and bowed his head to light a second lamp. As he prayed softly in Tibetan, I wondered if he felt the body, speech, and mind of these ancient deities flowing into him, like they once might have done into the Mustang kings before him. As the wick crackled and the flame cast dark forms on the crumbling walls around us, I thought about this kingdom—not just its historical treasures but also the mesmerizing grandeur of its wild landscape and soul-calming stillness. There’s so much here to preserve. And even more to lose.
This story appears in the January 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.