The Last Forbidden Buddhist Kingdom
Surrounded by Tibet on three sides and governed by a Tibetan royal family, Mustang – a kingdom within a kingdom – survives as one of the last remnants of ancient Tibet. Although nominally integrated into the kingdom of Nepal in the early 1950s, it remains largely autonomous, and much of its medieval cultural fabric has survived.
In fact, Mustang is said to be more like Tibet before the Chinese occupation than Tibet itself, filled with ancient walled fortress-villages and monasteries hewn from the rock, displaying a muted natural palette of grays and variegated rusty reds. Like much of the Tibetan plateau, the landscape is rugged and austere, a dramatic high-desert terrain flanked by towering peaks, including the snowcapped Annapumas to the south.
Though Nepal opened to tourism in the 1950s, Mustangs sensitive position along the Tibet border kept it off-limits until 1992, when the Nepali government began admitting a trickle of foreign tourists. Ironically, Mustang was well traveled in the past, its ancient trade routes dating back more than 1,000 years.
Its treeless vistas must have appeared distant and extraordinary to European traders returning from China with their precious cargo. They would have been as hard pressed as today’s trekkers to explain the otherworldliness of it all.