Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Kingdom of Lo: lamas, yaks and CIA (2)

Inside the walls of Lo Manthang the urban layout consists of a series of narrow and dark streets, similar to a Kasbah of a Magrib city. Buildings are built in traditional Tibetan style: houses have extremely thick walls (and slightly inclined) with flat roofs where people usually dispose under the sun cereals, firewood and, especially Yak dung to dry. The difficulty of obtaining firewood (in Mustang, like in Tibet, trees are harshly available) so the best alternative to wood is to use Yak dung as fire fuel.

It must be weird to "enjoy" a Tibetan tea (considered by many non-Tibetans as a disgusting drink made with tea, yak butter and salt) while you smell the delicate perfume of the burning yak dung! But that's life when you have to adapt to a hostile environment as hard as the Himalayas!

But who cares about Tibetan tea when you realise how extremely hospitable are the inhabitants of Lo Manthang. First westerners that had access to the Kingdom of Lo explain that, as there was no accommodation offer for travelers, people queued just to offer them their home to stay.

The neuralgic point of the city is the Royal Palace. In fact, formally, the Lo King has lost his title since Nepal, a few years ago, abolished his monarchy to become a republic. Until then, the King of Lo was a vassal of the King of Nepal. But despite the formal changes, the title of King of Lo continues, informally but de facto, meaning being the main authority of the Kingdom. And the holder of the crown remains a very respected man all around Mustang. The last formal Mustang king was His Majesty Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista, who was reigning since 1964. He was a direct descendant of Ame Pal, the founder of the kingdom. Bista Palbar's son died very young, so when the king abdicated, he was succeeded by his nephew Ashok Bista. The new Kingreceived just an "unofficial title" as Nepal was recently converted to a republic. The latter, Ashok Bista, received an European education, speaks fluent English and is struggling to help modernize his kingdom.

Mustang has always been a poor kingdom, and its king is no exception. It was very common that when the king received visitors and tourists coming to the capital, as in all Tibetan houses, chickens romped around the palace because its temperature, fresher than in the chicken's enclosure. So it was not surprising that, being received in audience by His Majesty the King of Lo, when sitting, visitors had to remove from the seat a hen defiantly looking at them. Nowadays, however, conditions have changed, and altough the former king, Palbar Bista, is still alive and continues to receive visitors at the palace, Ashok Bista, the new ruler, has made chickens disappear, and the room where receptions take place looks, let's say, more "royal".

Former king Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista

And CIA? What the hell was CIA doing in Mustang?

When in 1950 the Chinese army invaded Tibet, Tibetan regular army could not oppose any resistance. After the defeat a guerilla was created, mainly small isolated groups basically consisting of Khampa warriors, so, inhabitants from the Tibetan region of Kham (remember the -pa sufix so: Kham-pa, inhabitant of Kham).

Khampas are hard and rude people and lightly....warlike. Traditionally, the bandits who assaulted roads in the remote regions of Tibet were bands of Khampas supplementing family income by doing "extra odd jobs outside home." A wise tip said in Lhasa (capital of Tibet) was that the worst thing you could do in a tavern was bothering a Khampa; they liked a lot to drink chang (a strong Tibetan beer) and always wore their greatest asset in his waist: a dagger; so better get unnoticed!

It is clear, therefore, that Khampas have never been "Sisters of Charity". Thus, the Chinese occupation and brutality, made many Khampas enrole in the guerrillas starting then small attacks against the Chinese army. The Khampa guerrilla had a style that, being generous, should be called "amateur": 19th century weapons and tavern style swagger.

And here comes CIA! They created a plan to destabilize the Chinese communist regime. 1500 Khampa "irregulars" were transferred to Camp Hale, Colorado, where they were trained and armed with modern weaponry. Later, a base was established from which guerrilla operated actions against the Chinese army. A place outside of Tibet had to be found, near the border, but staying on the north side of the Himalayas (so avoiding to cross high altitude passes every time they were on a mission). And where could this place be? Obviously, the Kingdom of Lo, Mustang.

The base was established (more or less) secretely and Americans were supplying everything needed by Khampas. Given the unstable situation that was suffering the region, the Nepalese government decided to close access to Mustang for all foreigners. Only a frenchman, Michel Peissel (yes, the same who had ascended the river Kali Gandaki by hovercraft), obtained (nobody knows how he achieved to get it) permission to access Mustang in the 80's, and so, he was able to meet with the few remaining Khampa soldiers who were still operating in the area.

During the 70's, with the improvement of relations between China and the US, the Agency canceled the Khampa military program Khampas, and offered money and  a piece of land in India to those brave guerrilla men in order to stop their activity. Only a few decided to continue a harsh fight, reduced then to small skirmishes.

Finally, in 1991, the Khampa guerrilla was totally disbanded, with the last soldiers settling among the communities of Tibetans in exile in India. Then, Nepalese government decided to reopen access to Mustang, but not for free! They were charging (and still do) a daily "stay rate" to try to avoid a large number of tourists visiting the Kingdom of Lo and risking to damage the ecosystem and the traditional Lhoba lifestyle.

No comments:

Post a Comment