Mustang was once an independent kingdom, closely tied by language and culture to Tibet. From the 15th century to the 17th century, its strategic location granted Mustang control over the trade between the Himalayas and India. At the end of the 18th century, the kingdom was annexed by Nepal and became a dependency of the Kingdom of Nepal from 1795.
Though still recognized by many Mustang residents, the monarchy ceased to exist on October 7, 2008, by order of the Government of Nepal. The last official and later unofficial king (raja or gyelpo) was Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista (1930–2016), who traced his lineage directly back to Ame Pal, the warrior who founded this Buddhist kingdom in 1380. Ame Pal oversaw the founding and building of much of the Lo and Mustang capital of Lo Manthang, a walled city that has changed little in appearance since that time period.
In 1999, I was able to obtain a special permit to enter the restricted Kingdom of Mustang. My good friend and geographical photographer, Vassi Koutsaftis, and I, together with a small group of Sherpas and a rather tepid Liaison Officer from the Nepalese Government, set off on one of the most grueling treks we had ever undertaken. Vassi had previously met the King and his son when they had visited California, and so we were honored to receive an invitation to dinner with the last of Mustang’s kings.
Our progress through Mustang towards the historic capital of Lo Mantang was slow-going due to my having contracted severe bronchitis, which was not helped by the extreme temperatures between daytime and nighttime, the high winds and dust, and an average elevation of 14,000 feet. And our return ten days later was again constrained when Vassi contracted serious heat exhaustion.
Nevertheless, it was an extraordinary, unforgettable journey that provided a glimpse into an ancient and vibrant culture that, sadly, is slowly dying.