11-day trek is now a day’s drive in Nepal

From Korala Pass on the Nepal-China border facing south. Annapurna and Nilgiri in the distance.

As the road meanders uphill towards my village of Dhee in Upper Mustang, I recall my childhood amidst these mountains. Life was hard then, things people take for granted now were privileges only few could afford.

I walked 11 days to Pokhara for my SLC exams. Seeing cars was magical. We were more likely to see helicopters in Mustang than vehicles.

There was only one primary school in whole Kingdom of Lo then. It was a six hour walk away, and the only secondary school was in Jomsom, three days away.

Thanks to the secretary of the late King of Mustang, Chandra Bahadur Thakali, I stayed with his family in Jomsom paying his family a rent of Rs310 a month in 1976. That was a what a full-grown sheep cost then.

Mustang was a restricted area, outsiders were rare. Today, there are western trekkers, Nepalis on motorcycles all on the motorable road that joins Lo Manthang to Jomsom. In fact ‘domestic tourists’ are more visible than non-Nepali visitors.

And that is the biggest change in Mustang today: The Road. Accessibility has accelerated change in this kingdom within a republic. The 11-day trek from Pokhara can be done in one day – the highway may be precarious but it is a new lifeline.

Subsistence agriculture and pastoralism have been replaced with trade, and now with outmigration and tourism. The road connects Mustang’s pristine culturestark beauty and fragile ecosystem to the outside world.

Accessibility has also helped upgrade health facilities, improve education and brought modern everyday necessities which were nearly non-existent in the past. With no knowledge or access to primary health care, locals mostly depended on traditional amchis healers. With modern medicine and better nutrition, most health indicators have improved.

Food was always a scarce during my Mustang childhood. Mules, horses, yaks, people and sometimes even goats had to travel for a week days to transport grain to the villages, making it expensive.

Although we ate nutritious local produce like buckwheat, beans, wheat, potatoes and barley, the road has brought processed and packaged food. However, the road has also contributed to food security by bringing down the cost of grain and other essentials.

One big change now is that the few local primary schools that did exist are now all closed. With increased income, locals prefer to send their children to Jomsom, Pokhara or even Kathmandu. Even so, education and exposure to the wider world has given Mustang’s youngsters a deeper understanding of the value of their cultural and natural heritage.

Also adding to the exposure is the interaction with tourists, who come to Mustang to admire its unique cultural heritage and stunning scenery. This has allowed locals to realise that they are worth preserving, and has contributed to restoring pride in their way of life.

However, development comes at a cost. With the road, there is now pressure on the region’s fragile ecology. Haphazard road construction has triggered landslides, and added sediment to the rivers. Drainage has been disrupted, creating water shortages as springs go dry. Climate breakdown has exacerbated this crisis.

Traffic will increase once the Kali Gandaki Corridor is upgraded to connect to the China border at Korala. It is essential to urgently carry out an assessment of its impact on the environment and plan for sustainable and green infrastructure.

Climate change has changed rain and snowfall patterns, but on the flipside, it has also had positive impact: cucumbers, tomatoes and  vegetables never used to grow here because of the cold are now plentiful. Mustang apples can now grow in areas which were not suitable for the orchards.

On balance, road connectivity has provided a strong boost to the economy through tourism. It has connected produce to markets, workers to jobs, students to schools, and patients to hospitals.

The once forbidden kingdom is now connected to the world, and is now at the crossroads, it is vital that decisions to balance development with conservation of nature and cultural heritage be taken now so Mustang’s fragile beauty is preserved for the next generation.

Ghana S Gurung is the Country Representative of WWF in Nepal and Snow Leopard Champion for the global WWF network. The views expressed here are personal.