Comings and goings in Mustang

Locals migrate overseas, and other Nepalis move to Mustang attracted by jobs in tourism

ALL PHOTOS: DINESH SHRESTHA

While much of the discourse about  Mustang district concerns its people leaving for better opportunities overseas, what is less well known is that Nepalis from other parts of the country are moving in.

Mustang's population is the second smallest among 77 districts, and it is falling due to out-migration. The resident population in the 2021 census was 14,452, with 5,882 people from other parts of Nepal.   

One of them is Nima Lama, 24. He was born and raised in Kathmandu, and migrated to Mustang to work in the service industry three years ago. He had been searching for a job in Kathmandu for months, but finally found an opening at a hotel in Mustang through a placement agency. 

Upper Mustang
Lo Manthang is located amidst rolling arid hills of the trans-Himalayan Plateau, Tilicho Peak and Nilgiri in the far distance on the southern horizon.

“I was skeptical at first, but the job felt appealing and unique, so I decided to come here,” says Lama, pointing that the region with its unique topography and weather offers good opportunities.   

Mustang is the part of Nepal that juts out into China and is geologically and culturally a part of the Tibetan Plateau. In the past five months, about 60,000 foreign tourists visited Mustang mainly for trekking and pilgrimage to Muktinath. There are many thousands more Nepali visitors. 

Mustang 2
Many of the shops in Lo Manthang are shuttered because locals moved out, and tourism collapsed for two years due to Covid.

Some 2,000 foreign tourists also travelled to the restricted region of Upper Mustang by buying a special permit that costs $500 per person for 15 days. Mustang has a range of hotels that cater to high-end and budget tourists, and everything in between.

Most homeowners have migrated, and have rented their lodges and hotels to new migrants from other parts of Nepal. Bikram BK, 27, who is from Baglung has been a horse guide for Muktinath pilgrims for the last six years. Local Mustang residents own the horses, but employ people from  outside to tend to their horses. 

“It was difficult finding a job in Baglung, and this was a good offer,” BK says. “The work is easy and I like taking care of horses.” 

Mustang 3

At Paradise Trekker’s Home in Kagbeni another worker from Kathmandu says he likes working here because it “is a unique experience”. His colleague is from Udaypur and does everything from cooking to ploughing the apple fields with a tractor.

“Locals own the majority of land and hotels but they do not work here,” explains Karma Namguyal Gurung, a 28-year-old local who has been running his family-owned hotel for the past four years, and is one of few who have remained behind. (See profile below) 

"Few Mustang people remain. Most of my friends are overseas, and lease out their hotels to people from other districts,” he adds.

Mustang 4

Mustang's Crown Prince Jigme Bista is also worried about the brain drain from his kingdom, and says this is the reason he opened his up-market Royal Mustang Resort in Lo Manthang. 

"Since our young are rapidly leaving Mustang, I wanted to create opportunities here,” explains Bista, who aims to retain them by giving them jobs, equipping them with skills in hotel management, and training them to be baristas and chefs.  

Return of a native

Karma Namguyal Gurung
PHOTO: SHRIJAN PANDEY

Karma Namguyal Gurung exemplifies the resilient spirit of a young Mustang entrepreneur committed to preserving his family’s legacy and contributing to the development of tourism in his home district. 

But Gurung is unique because unlike most local youth, he has not migrated overseas. He moved to Kathmandu as a boy to go to school at a time when he had to walk for a week to get to Pokhara. After getting a hotel management degree, he interned in Dubai for eight months and in Malaysia for three months. Gurung got job offers to stay abroad, but decided to return not just to Nepal, but to go back to Mustang.  

Read also: Mixed blessings in Mustang, Mukesh Pokhrel

“I felt homesick during that whole time abroad,” recalls Gurung, who missed the cool mountain breeze of Mustang while sweating in the tropical heat of Malaysia and the Gulf.  

Gurung’s family has been running the Four Seasons Hotel in Muktinath Valley for the past 25 years. But they moved to Kathmandu, and it was getting difficult to run the hotel remotely.  

Mustang 4

So, he came back four years ago and now manages the family hotel, providing food and lodging especially for pilgrims to Muktinath. 

“The natives don't run things here, they have mostly left,” Gurung says, admitting that he has also thought of going to a bigger place to earn more.

What encourages him to stay is feedback from visitors about his hospitality. “It is really encouraging when guests acknowledge our effort,” he says. ",Mustang is no longer a village, as it was during my childhood. It is becoming cosmopolitan.  This place will never be the same again.” 

The pace of change is evident even in Lo Manthang, where Mustang's Crown Prince Jigme Bista runs the high-end Royal Mustang Resort which fuses traditional and modern architecture.       

“We’ve seen tourists leave on the very first day of a seven-day program due to a lack of facilities,” Bista says. “Our goal is to give tourists who come here for our culture, traditions, and location a fascinating experience.”

The hotel sees 4,000 international and local visitors every year, and Bista says the hotel can accommodate many more if the restricted area designation for Mustang is lifted. 

Read Also: Mustang forced to adapt to climate crisis, Ronan Wallace and Yungdrung Tsewang Gurung

Better connected

Mustang map

Once Nepal’s most isolated region, new road connectivity has made Mustang much more accessible. What used to be a 11-day trek from Pokhara is now an eight hour jeep ride, and this may come down to five hours once the highway along the Kali Gandaki is upgraded.

The river slices through the mountains between Annapurna and Dhaulagiri and is regarded as the deepest gorge in the world. Besides the unstable geology, it also gets heavy rainfall.   

“This is very difficult terrain to build and maintain roads,” explains Lokendra Adhikari of the Annapurna Conservation Area project. “The road from Ghasa to Lo Manthang is smooth and intact because there is less rain, and the terrain is gentler.”

Despite the rough road, Mustang is changing rapidly, and accelerating out-migration of locals. But it has also brought people from Pokhara and Kathmandu to set up businesses here. 

There is a building spree, and fancy new hotels are coming up to cater to an expected tourism boom. The road has made it easier for children from Upper Mustang now to join boarding schools in Pokhara or Kathmandu. 

Mustang

Hoteliers in Jomsom say there would have been more tourists if the road condition was better and flights safer and more regular. Two crashes of flights from Pokhara in 2016 and 2022 deterred many trekkers and pilgrims.

“The Tara Air crashes led to a sharp drop in foreign tourists, so if the road were better we would have seen a rebound,” says Tripple P Gurung, owner of Redhouse in Kagbeni. He adds that most of his guests prefer to brave the road. 

The monsoon is the lean tourist season in most of Nepal, but it is peak period here in trans-Himalayan districts like Mustang and Dolpo because the weather is milder and drier during June-September. Mustang is becoming especially popular with Nepali tourists who come here to explore the scenic trails on mountain bikes or motorcycles.

Now that there is a motorable road right up to the Chinese border at Korala, many hoteliers say it does not make sense to keep Mustang restricted. The hefty fees and the bureaucratic hassles in Kathmandu to get permits are keeping many potential tourists away. 

“The policy about the restricted area and fees was made 30 years ago taking into account Mustang’s fragile ecology and culture to keep visitor numbers low, but that is not an issue anymore with better connectivity,” says Gurung.

Mustang


Getting there

Now an eight-hour drive from Kathmandu to Pokhara because of highway widening and traffic.

Overland:

Pokhara to Jomsom 6 hours

Jomsom to Lo Manthang  6 hours

Flight:

Kathmandu-Pokhara (overnight)-Jomsom

Upper Mustang beyond Kagbeni is still restricted, and foreign tourists have to pay $500 per person for the first 10 days and an additional $50 each day of their visit to the region. Of the nearly 60,000 foreign tourists so far in Mustang, only 2,000 or so continued to Upper Mustang. The fee was reduced in 2005 when Mustang became more accessible, and the restriction on the number of visitors has also been lifted. 

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