The Forbidden Kingdom of Lo is about to vanish forever
A mystical, forbidden Kingdom that for centuries lied hidden in an otherworldly mountainous valley in the northern Himalayas. There are few other words that can tempt intrepid travelers to venture forth and discover the Kingdom of Lo in Nepal than these.
Whether known as the Kingdom of Lo, the Forbidden Kingdom, the Walled City, the City Within a Wall or simply Lo Manthang there’s an undeniable temptation to visit this city of myth and fact for decades. Moreover, the journey there takes you through arid, colorful and harsh landscapes unlike anywhere else in the world. A thrilling journey to a destination many an explorer has noted as being more Tibetan than Tibet now is.
In hindsight I should have visited Upper Mustang, where the kingdom lies, ten years ago. Instead I opted to visit the tallest mountain in the world. I don’t regret not visiting Lo Manthang back then. Today I consider myself blessed with having visited it before the ancient hidden Kingdom vanishes forever. Upper mustangs interesting culture is a huge draw while the scenery is simply spectacular.
You’ll soon be able to follow me on a trek to Upper Mustang and beyond. Not just encompassing the classic route but we’ll go beyond trying to discover places few ever venture to and find out how you too can visit them. For now, join me as we look at Upper Mustang and Lo Manthang today. Discover what makes this mystical place so special. Find out why the kingdom is vanishing? Is it worth visiting and if there are other places like it and how to visiting them to.
Where is the Kingdom of Lo located?
The Kingdom of Lo is now known as Lo Manthang. It’s wedged in a valley just 20km south of the Tibetan border in Northern Nepal in an area known as Upper Mustang. It’s been a restricted area in Nepal since the 1950s, allowing in limited numbers of people to preserve the culture of the region. There are five districts in Upper Mustang and Lo Manthang is the most northern.
Most trekkers to Nepal are familiar with the “Mustang” region from the Annapurna Circuit trek. In particular Kagbeni which is a small quaint stone village used by trekkers as a stopover on their trek. It’s here that the border to Upper Mustang is marked with large “Restricted Area” signs and sometimes a police or army presence. The landscape is dry and arid. The mountains show layers of colorful rock from millennia ago. However, without a rather difficult permit, you can go no further into the Forbidden Kingdom.
History of Lo Manthang
Officially Lo Manthang’s first records began in 1380 when the walled city was founded by Ame Pal. Rising from Western Tibet the Buddhist warrior Ame Pal came to a fertile valley and built a fortress here.
Fending off other warlords and tribes Ame Pal and his son, Angun Sangpo saw the building of a walled city in the valley. A minister was appointed and throughout the city along with the surrounding hills they constructed towers and monasteries for the growing population.
It’s at this point it’s prudent to learn that Ame Pal and his descendants were not the first inhabitants of the valley. In the mountains around the valley here are scores of caves. Archaeologists have dated some back more than 3,000 years. Protected by Himalayan mountains on one side that blocked most of the heavy clouds, dry arid landscapes to the south the small hidden Kingdom remained reclusive for the centuries to come. One more facet to the mythology of Upper Mustang we’ll discover more about later.
For 25 generations Ame Pal’s descendants ruled as kings over the Kingdom of Lo. When the Shah Kingdom united Nepal in the 18th century the Kingdom of Lo was included but continued under its own rule. This all changed in 2008 when Nepal became a republic and the last official king, Jigme Dorje Palbar lost his title as did Nepal’s King Gyanendra. Palbar oversaw this change until his death in 2016. Today his son is the un-recognised king commonly known as the Raja.
The Kingdom of Lo change to Lo Manthang, a village development committee in Mustang with a population of just 876 people.
Lo Manthang today
From what we have understood so far about an elusive hidden kingdom virtually cut off from the rest of the world and the intense restriction placed on visitors to the area you’d expect it to be well protected.
The truth is that the very “protection” offered to Lo Manthang may have ultimately led to its demise much like the Kingdom of Lo.
For over ten years there’s been a USD $500 10 day permit, minimum two person, mandatory guide set of regulations placed on anyone wanting to visit Upper Mustang.
The idea was that the $500 permit would be used to help preserve, protect and indeed carefully maintain Upper Mustang and its heritage. The $500 would be split, in differing percentages over the years, between the Nepali authorities and the local Mustang region.
It all seemed to work well for the initial few years. However in the past eight or so years Upper Mustang has claimed they either did not receive their share or not enough of the Upper Mustang permit fees. Meanwhile, avid trekkers numbering only about 3,000-4,000 a year paid up and ventured into the forbidden kingdom for a glimpse at what few others could or would see.
The Kingdom’s Fall
All seemed to be pretty isolated in Upper Mustang until about five years ago when it was revealed that the road from Pokhara to Jomson would also reach the fabled city of Lo Manthang. Dubbed the Annapurna Circuit Killer (ACK), the road was already controversial amoung trekkers for chopping up Nepal’s second most popular trek into a dusty 1/4 of what the trek once was.
Locals were told the road would make their lives easier and more prosperous. Goods, medicine, food and water would be cheaper and faster to obtain. Moreover, affluent trekkers from Korea, Japan and China would prefer to drive up to see the mountains than trek. Thusly there would be more trekkers stopping by local shops, restaurants and hotels. That was the selling point locals bought into.
Ten years after the road was started the reality is much different. The un-surfaced road is badly constructed to say the least. Dust spews into the air whenever a vehicle barges through. Motorbikes are tolerable. Jeeps chaotically speed passed the old tea houses while buses create a veritable storm of bellowing fumes and dust. The promises of more trekkers vanished faster than the settling dust. Nobody wanted to walk or trek alongside such conditions. The Annapurna Circuit was cut not in half but in quarter.
Promises of a New Annapurna Trekking Trail were made and started but like the road, never finished. Villagers could indeed make it to larger communities and towns for supplies, schooling and medical facilities. But the landscape was forever transformed from idyllic teahouse villages to cold side of the road houses.
As if no lesson had been learned nor cultural protection in place it was then revealed that the road would continue on to Lo Manthang.
In 2015 Nepal began warming up to China’s intent to enter economically into the country and beyond. The roads destiny suddenly became obvious. It was not so much as to bring a road to Lo Manthang as it was to bring a road to the border of Tibet/China. The road would become China’s main trade route into Nepal and down to India.
The road was an economic sword that would cut the heart out of the Forbidden Kingdom forever.
The King of Lo Manthang’s son was aware of the imminent cultural danger and apparently said he had warned the people to be ready for the great change that would be coming.
However if history is any indication at all in Nepal’s track record of protecting culture and ways of life similar to the Kathmandu Valley and Pokhara then the same fate will await Lo Manthang. Indeed, the change is already underway.
Did the high permit fee to Upper Mustang help destroy the very kingdom it was meant to protect?
The USD $500 restricted area permit is only one of several payments needed to enter Upper Mustang. Part of the money was meant to go towards protecting the area. Personally I have seen little to no “cultural preservation” in Upper Mustang. Least of all anything that mentions the high fees “foreigners” pay to enter compared to the zero fees Nepali pay for party going weekends away in the capital. Lest we mention if the Chinese will also get free entry to the “restricted area” when the border opens.
Most signs point to local initiatives and funding. Some are partly funded by the Annapurna Conservation fees. Schools and hospitals are virtually non-existent. Indeed Upper Mustang seems positively devoid of teenagers or children from 8 to 12. Why? Most are sent to school in Kathmandu, Pokhara or Chitwan because there is no higher education facilities in Upper Mustang.
Let’s do some math. USD $500 per person with a minimum of 2 people equals USD$1,000. There’s an average of 3,700 people paying that sum every year. This equals USD $3, 700,000 in restricted permit fees per year alone. Multiply that by 10 years and you get USD $37,000,000. Even if halved that’s a lot of cash and probably enough to build more than one school or hospital.
Instead what does Upper Mustang receive? A trade road linking China to Pokhara, Kathmandu and beyond to India.
As you trek into Upper Mustang one can’t help but feel and wonder if your $500 has helped create the very road that threatens to end the cultural uniqueness of not only Lo Manthang but all of Upper Mustang.
Again, I’ve thought about this a lot. I wonder if the money I paid for the permit is going into this road instead of preservation of a culture as it was “sold” to me as being for.
I rest my quandary on the fact that I believed and was told my permit fee was indeed for cultural preservation and not a road.
It’s only when you actually trek though Upper Mustang that you realize that perhaps you were indeed duped. Rest easy fellow trekkers, it’s already too late to worry ever more.
How Lo Manthang has already changed
The road still has about another five years to go before completion. Unless the Chinese step in, this is likely to stretch on for 7-8 years. Tarmacking or sealing the road properly is yet another thing Nepal is not known for doing well.
That said, three times a year the Chinese open their side of the border to trade with the locals. This is not an official trade route nor opening. Officially it does not happen. There’s virtually no border control along this part of Nepal. It’s all on the Chinese side.
From Tsarang (5 hours trek south of Lo Manthang) all the way to Lo Manthang itself shops are full of Chinese goods. Everything from Chinese Coca-Cola and Sprite to plastic quick noodle pots, candy and beer pack shop shelves. Trying to find something Nepali or even Indian (main importer) to buy is becoming difficult.
Imagine what happens when the border is fully open let alone when the road is complete.
To be quite honest, Lo Manthang doesn’t stand a chance at survival as it currently stands.
One snippet of an example that surprises many in Upper Mustang is the amount of local people who will put up their hand and say “no photo” if they see you point a camera anywhere near their direction.
While this is becoming more common in urban Nepal it’s less so in rural Nepal where people or more than happy to pose for a photo. I found this quite strange and started asking about this “no photo” phenomenon in Upper Mustang. My answers came from the Kings niece, monks and some business owners.
Over the past decade Upper Mustang and more specifically Lo Manthang has been inundated with film makers, documentary film crews and indeed journalists from all around the world. From National Geographic to the Nepali magazines they’ve all had “special reports” from the Forbidden Kingdom.
The result has been rather devastating. Money was paid to many for staged or set-up photoshoots. Others who were not paid soon discovered their faces in glossy magazines, documentaries and newsreels. One can imagine the years of pent up confusion, rumor and the snowball effect that led to the general population simply saying “no photo’. One can’t blame them either.
As an example the three (there’s actually four) monasteries in Lo Manthang now charge USD $100 for one day of filming inside the buildings. It doesn’t matter if you only want to take one photograph inside a monastery – it will still cost you $100.
While some of these monasteries are indeed quite old there are some equally ancient monasteries in the Kathmandu Valley. But such is the influence that such “journalism” has had on Lo Manthang despite it being nominated a restricted area to protect its culture.
Should Lo Manthang stay as it is or be allowed to develop?
There’s this old cliche that states that an idyllic or ideal tourist place should never change. Thereby keeping tourists happy. This gilded bird notion is one that thespians and the occasional Phd philosopher seem to enjoy disparaging. Their argument is that it’s positively inhumane to let a town, settlement or culture develop or grow into something new at the expense of a tourists picturesque notion of what the place “should be like”.
This is a half-baked argument which justifies modern concrete buildings, motorways and neon street signs instead of pristine heritage buildings just because people can have them. Others would call it gentrification.
What these academics have not considered, especially in Nepal, is that a heritage site or indeed a Forbidden Kingdom can have all the luxuries and benefits of modern development while still maintaining the aesthetics that made the area so special in the first place.
Cappadoica in Turkey also has ancient cave dwellings but with electricity, wifi, plumbing and so forth while still retaining their ancient look.
Paris, London and Rome all have modern facilities throughout their ancient buildings and tourist sights. Small rural villages look as they did centuries ago. However they are well kept and supported with grants or private funding. Indeed one could argue that by retaining the old looks of many places and incorporating modern facilities they made them even more attractive.
Even some of the Kathmandu Valley boutique hotels have lovingly restored old Newar houses into modern well equipped buildings for people to stay in.
So when one walks through Lo Mathang’s wonderful stone paved streets between whitewashed mud walled buildings it’s not hard to imagine the same could be true here. There is no need for the dreaded square concrete framed plain blocks that dominate much of modern Kathmandu. Yet, this is the likely outcome for Lo Manthang in the next decade.
Ironically it’s some of the new monasteries leading the charge for concrete buildings in Upper Mustang. Donations to rebuild a sturdier building are easier to come by for a monk than a regular house owner.
The Royal Hotel in Upper Mustang is perhaps one of the better though admittedly a more affluent example of designing in the old style with modern technology. The hotel stands out not just because of it’s crisp appearance but also due to its excellent maintenance.
As I crossed over the last ridge leading to the Forbidden Kingdom in Upper Mustang two things stuck me. The first was how small the capital of Lo Manthang was nestled protectively in the center of the valley. The second thing that stuck me was how one building stood out like an eyesore. The grey concrete frame of a new hotel. It clashed terribly with the natural sandy and white colors of all the other buildings. It reminded me of Pokhara 10 years ago before the boom and the legoland of hotels began popping up everywhere.
This alone is one the major threats to Lo Manthang’s unique heritage.
If Pokhara’s natural beauty fell to modern Nepali construction and haste what chance does the relatively isolated township of Lo Manthang stand?
Indeed in April 2018 a new gate was constructed alongside the main ancient wall leading into the city. Legend has it that years earlier there was a giant wooden gate there. How nice that would have been to replicate. Instead there is now a rather tardy concrete framed gate painted red and with some forgettable lengthy municipality name. Ironically just beside the gate is a far more apt old style Annapurna Conservation board welcoming trekkers to the “Kingdom of Lo”. Just one of only 5 signs from the conservation group I counted in Upper Mustang.
Should you visit Upper Mustang & Lo Manthang?
Now this is an interesting question. My answer is yes. In fact as others have written I would encourage anyone on the fence about visiting to bite the bullet and just go. Especially when it comes to Lo Manthang as it simply will not be the same after the road is finished.
Rarely in the world today can we visit such an isolated place knowing that it’s about to vanish forever.
Similarly if you’ve visited Nepal anytime in the past 20 years I can promise you that parts of Upper Mustang are just like Nepal use to be like all those years ago. Friendly people, who are just happy to see you and not because they want to sell you something or what you to stay in their accommodation. Wholesome food grown from natural fertilizer and literally just brought in from the garden. Mountains so colorful and aesthetic you’ll think they were from the middle east or Tibet. Landscapes so grand and vast that they could be the set for a Martian movie.
Forget the road for now. It’s there and there’s no stopping it. A permit fee or not will not make a difference. It’s no longer about Lo Manthang, it’s about a commercial gateway. It wasn’t our choice. We were duped into thinking the permit fees were being used to preserve or even enhance the area. It’s too late to take it back. But it’s not too late for a chance at a glimpse at the Forbidden Kingdom of Lo before it vanishes into folklore.
Over the next few weeks join me as we explore everything from permits to Upper Mustang, getting there, trekking the classic route to trekking the lesser known western and eastern routes.
You’ll meet the real people of Upper Mustang, desert dwelling nomadic monks, Upper Mustang horses, forgotten places, mud fortresses and of course epic landscapes and hidden treasures.
Helpful links found on this site about Upper Mustang:
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