The Unexpected Familiary: Finding Myself in the Kingdom of Lo (Mustang)
After two weeks in Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal, I became bored. I was itching to get out. Several friends on Facebook suggested I check out Sherpa country or Mustang, and then I remembered my friend Tsering Lama. She had traveled to Lomanthang several years back and I remembered her mentioning how she had gone up to the border to see Tibet. I knew nothing about Mustang, apart from seeing a few documentaries, but I knew, like Tsering, I wanted to travel to Mustang so I could see Tibet. I knew seeing Tibet would be emotional, but what I didn’t expect was the emotion that the journey itself provoked.
In the articles and films I had read and seen before this journey, Mustang had always been explained by non-Mustangis as a distinct Himalayan territory with people who practiced Tibetan Buddhist culture but with a distinct Himalayan political and cultural identity. With this in mind, I thought I would find maybe cultural similarities with people in Mustang but nothing more. The first shock came upon landing in Jomsom. Tenzin, my travel partner asked a local man in Nepali where we could get a room. As the man began to reply in Nepali, I asked Tenzin in Tibetan if we could catch a bus or a car straight to Lomanthang, which I thought was Mustang—thinking Mustang was one specific place as depicted in documentaries and not knowing Jomsom was actually part of a vast territory and kingdom called Mustang. To my surprise, the man quickly changed from Nepali to Tibetan and asked, “Are you guys Tibetan?” When we confirmed we were, he continued in Tibetan and explained with a chuckle how we were already in Mustang territory and Lomanthang was not going to happen since we had missed the only jeep that sometimes went up in the mornings. He told us we could try catching it the next day instead and took us to a guesthouse owned by his nephew. Once the man told his nephew that we were Tibetan, the nephew automatically gave us a discount on the basis that we were Tibetan, the matter-of-factness took me by surprise. At lunch, although everyone mostly spoke their local dialect or Nepali, since I could understand neither, they spoke Tibetan when addressing us. The same man, who we began calling Chocho (big brother), explained how to get to Lomanthang and other sacred Guru Rinpoche sites scattered along the way by local jeep. From Jomsom on up, he explained we no longer needed to use Nepali since everyone further up spoke fluent bho-khe (Tibetan). I was shocked, I had assumed people either spoke a different kind of village dialect, which I assumed would sound unfamiliar, or that they mostly spoke Nepali, but I was wrong.
Journey to Lomanthang and the Lo Palas
We arrived early at the local bus stop, which was located right next to a new Sakya monastery that had recently been finished, and asked if any jeeps were headed up for Lomanthang. Just as Chocho had explained, the person at the counter told us a jeep would only go if enough people joined us to fill the jeep for the journey. After waiting maybe thirty minutes, three palas who were short, stout, and full of jokes—who looked and reminded me of the typical Tsangpa Tibetan palas I grew up with at the usual Tibetan community gatherings—showed up. One of them, like Tenzin, was wearing a bhosu-wonju, a Tibetan shirt. Tenzin asked in Tibetan if they were headed for Lomanthang, they said yes, followed by, “Yul gapa ney yin” (which place are you from)? We said, “we are Tibetan,” and they said “oh nyingjey” with a smile and asked if we were headed up for pilgrimage. Tenzin explained that he was but that I was particularly interested in seeing Tibet. One of the Lo palas explained, like other Mustangis we had met in Jomsom, that Mustang had been part of Tibet until about two hundred years ago after which they became their own separate Kingdom, and followed this with, “Ngantso chikpa rey da” (we are the same). Tenzin and I both felt the familiarity and agreed that we did indeed share many similarities culturally, and I would find out later, overlapping histories with Tibet. As the jeep climbed higher and higher up the mountains, the Lo palas began dozing off, perhaps tired and bored from the long all-too-familiar journey. I, on the other hand, hung my head out of the window to gawk at the beautiful landscape that kept changing the further we went. It was my first time being in this sort of landscape, this high, this close to Tibet and I was mesmerized. I put on my headphones and played “Bless This Morning Year” by Helios on repeat the whole ride up. During one of the stops, another Lo pala and two older monks joined us in the jeep and sat in the back where Tenzin had been sitting, they asked where we are from, before we could answer, the other palas—who all seemed to know each other—answered for us and told them we were Tibetan. As we rode further up, the older monk told Tenzin stories about Guru Rimpoche and other great saints, some of whom Tibetan that occupied the sacred sites we passed by while the palas’ pointed out camps that former Chushi Gandrug fighters–Tibetan resistance fighters that fought the Chinese till the late 70s–had settled in and said, “these camps are both Lo and Tibetan.” They told us about witnessing the resistance fighters as young boys and agreed with one another when one of them mentioned how brave they were against the Chinese. The jeep made short stops in small Lo villages where we were treated to local chang (homebrew) and tea without charge. It seemed they all knew each other. The familiarity with which the Lo palas embraced us, the landscape that matched rural Tibet, and the same song blasting in my ear made me more and more emotional as we got closer to our destination—wondering if this familiarity and beauty is what Tibet actually felt like. As the palas began getting off one by one, they told us to come visit and stay at their homes if we found the time and bid us farewell. One of the palas had decided we were staying at his house and he would show us how to get to Ghar Gompa, a sacred monastery built in the 8th century connected to Samye Monastery in Lhasa, which was located close to his village. We agreed and got off at Marang with him—mistakenly thinking we had arrived in Lomanthang.
Dinner Conversation in Marang
When we arrived at pala’s house in Marang, the house was already packed with four other younger men from the town. They were sitting around the fire stove with water boiling for tea on top. Ama la, pala’s wife, immediately seated us and handed me a cup of tea but served Tenzin a glass of local chang. After pala explained we were Tibetan, one of the men looked over at me and said, “we are the same, we are just like the Tibetans.” To my surprise, the pala interjected and asked, “what are you trying to say? That we aren’t Tibetan?” The man quickly replied, “of course I’m not saying that, we most definitely are.” The exchange made me think about how fragile nationally defined identities are. Although Marang is located geographically within Nepal, the Lo pala identified himself as a person of Lo first and as a Tibetan second. What was even more interesting was that there were two Nepalis doing construction work in the town there that night. After they left, the pala explained, “they are rongpa [a Tibetan word for valley people, associated now with non-Buddhist Nepalis], they do construction work here, we don’t have any [cultural] similarities to them but they are very nice.” Pala’s strong cultural identification with us as Tibetans versus his cultural distancing from the rongpas surprised me, and made me think about the blurriness of geopolitically defined identities, especially when it came to border communities such as Marang.
Showtime in Kagbeni
On our way back from upper Lo, we decided to spend a night in Kagbeni so we could go to Lo Chimi Gyatso (Muktinath) the next day to visit the famous Buddhist site, Dolamaybar Gompa. The jeep stopped near a hotel located next to the local school. We decided to go in but before we took a step the girl sitting at the hotel counter came out and asked if we were Tibetan. She overheard us while we were talking outside and asked if we needed help. We told her we were trying to find a cheap hotel room; she asked a friend to step in for her and took us to another hotel affiliated with the one she worked for. On the way there, we asked if she is also Tibetan since she spoke Tibetan with the same exile accent as us. She explained she’s from Kagbeni but had attended a Tibetan school in Pokhara. When we arrived at the hotel she spoke to the manager who gave us a discount on a room after she told him we were Tibetan, just like in Jomsom. Later that evening, we decided to go to the show that the local school was putting on, as the same sweet girl had told us that the school was celebrating its anniversary. We decided to sit in the back and local amalas and palas lined up on our right speaking Tibetan in the local village dialect while young girls and boys stood behind us speaking Nepali—although they could also speak Tibetan when addressed in Tibetan. The school children performed Newari, English, and Bollywood numbers. They also danced to songs by exile Tibetan pop stars Phurbu T. Namgyal and Tsering Gyurmey, and we all sang along. When people close to us overheard us speaking Tibetan, they asked, “yul gaba ney yin?” (Which place are you from?) in the village dialect. We answered, “we are Tibetan,” and they responded with a smile, “oh nyingjey, here for pilgrimage right?” Throughout the show, with school children performing Tibetan numbers in between Nepali songs, hearing people speak both Nepali and Tibetan, I was yet again reminded of the blurriness of nationally defined identities. Here, as in Marang, I was reminded again of how local identities refuse to fit neatly into identities prescribed by the state.
Finding Myself Amidst Familiarity
What I found most surprising about my travel throughout the Kingdom of Lo was the unexpected feeling of familiarity. I thought I would feel like a tourist throughout the journey, however, to my surprise I was greeted with familiarity each and every time. The Lo Tibetan palas’ readiness to embrace us, local tea shop owners’ readiness to offer tea in welcome, local girls speaking Tibetan in exile dialect offering us help—such readiness made me feel safe and familiar with people whom I had never met. It reminded me of the everyday members of the exile Tibetan community I had grown up with. This familiarity matched how I felt in the environment, when we walked long distance from town to town, we were always greeted with the familiar Tashi Delek by local people passing by who readily gave us directions. I’ve lived as an exile Tibetan my entire life; for me living with that identity meant I never felt quite-at-home anywhere except for when we create communal spaces during Tibetan celebrations in the States or when living in an exile community like McLeod Ganj. However, for me, the feeling of exile meant knowing that once I left those small communal spaces, I would land right back in a foreign space, whether in the US or India. A feeling of foreignness has always been my norm. That’s why feeling safe and familiar in Lo towns or plains as a first time visitor, whether alone or not, was something I didn’t expect. I felt completely and utterly at home in Lo and that was something I had not anticipated. So when I wasn’t able to make it to the border to see Tibet, I was reminded of what the pala in Marang said, “it’s as if here, you are in Tibet.”