New Chinese highway exposes medieval Tibetan kingdom to the modern world

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Cheap denim jeans replace handwoven textiles and ancient farming techniques give way to tractors as the ancient Tibetan Kingdom of Lo gets a long-awaited taste of modernity. 


In one of the best-preserved medieval cities in the world, a new highway is bringing all the comforts of modern technology. And all the consequences.

Lo Manthang, an ancient fortress city nestled deep in the foothills of the Nepali Himalayas, has a dwindling community of people whose lifestyle is mostly unchanged from their kingdom’s heyday in the 1500s.

It was a thriving capital of the ethnically Tibetan kingdom of Lo, now known as the district of Upper Mustang.

The new highway from China to the Kingdom of Lo means more travelers than ever before to this well-preserved city. (Photo by Taylor Weidman)

The new highway from China to the Kingdom of Lo means more travelers than ever before to this well-preserved city. (Photo by Taylor Weidman)

For centuries traffic into isolated Lo was limited to the seasonal merchants and adventurers traveling the Salt Route to reach the markets of China or India.

More visitors fill CenturyLink Field on any given Sunday than have ever set foot in Lo since 1992, when the region was opened to tourism.

But today, all of that is changing. Under pressure from the Chinese government, which is seeking better access to commerce in South Asia, Nepal is building a highway that connects Lo to the modern infrastructure of China, Nepal, and beyond, for the first time.

“The living standards of people has increased,” said Pema Tsering, Program Coordinator at the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) in Lo Manthang. “[The new road] has brought new businesses that have brought new lifestyles and behaviors.”

Trucks and tractors from Pokhara, Nepal’s second-biggest city, bring rice, fresh produce, and modern goods in a short day’s journey.

New general stores offering illegal copies of Bollywood movies and other modern products have shoehorned themselves next to centuries-old stables and monasteries.

A costumed monk performs a dance at the Tiji festival in the town square of Lo Manthang. Many in the kingdom fear ancient traditions will be lost as modernization takes hold. (Photo by Taylor Weidman)

A costumed monk performs a dance at the Tiji festival in the town square of Lo Manthang. Many in the kingdom fear ancient traditions will be lost as modernization takes hold. (Photo by Taylor Weidman)

As residents of one of Nepal’s least developed regions, many Loba feel they have lived in the past long enough.

To date, electricity lines from Nepal’s power grid reach only one district out of the seven in Mustang. Modern plumbing does not exist, and neither does consistent running water or a functioning modern hospital.

For many, “daily” news arrives via bundles of backdated newspapers once a week. The main source of heat is burning cow and goat dung.

To the average Loba, an upgrade in these living conditions has long been in order. But, like many developing communities around the world, a sudden influx of modernity can also mean an influx of more nuanced problems.

“People like modern things, development,” Raju Bista said, a Loba who owns a guesthouse in the village of Ghemi. “But there’s one thing—to young people, we can give one thing: what is our culture, traditions, religion? We must teach this to them.”

In teahouses and village squares, Loba swap opinions about the new road, comparing predictions about what their new access to the modern world will bring.

Loba farmers gather outside of Lo Manthang before a prayer ceremony. It is increasingly common for locals to be seen in western clothing, due to the new road which is nearly completed. (Photo by Taylor Weidman)

Loba farmers gather outside of Lo Manthang before a prayer ceremony. It is increasingly common for locals to be seen in western clothing, due to the new road which is nearly completed. (Photo by Taylor Weidman)

Everyone approves of faster access to better hospitals, which used to be several days’ travel away by foot or on horseback. Many are excited to see and use modern goods.

But not all the chatter is positive—some realize that all good things come at a cost.

“How can we say no to the road?” said Lama Ngawang Kunga Bista, a senior Buddhist monk and chairman of the Upper Mustang Welfare Committee. “The local people want modern facilities. We, who know how life is in Kathmandu and in Pokhara, how can we say no?”

Already, the values and practices of the Loba are shifting because of the new road. At new construction sites throughout the region, wood and cement buildings are replacing mud brick.

“Mud has unlimited life, but cement lasts only fifty to sixty years. That’s why we have seven-hundred-year-old monasteries,” Lama Ngawang said.

The entire community also fears the loss of Lowa, their unique Tibetan dialect. Public schools in the region are underfunded and operate exclusively in the Nepali language.

Fewer Loba are practicing traditional skills and crafts. Although once seen as necessary skills for survival, these talents are increasingly being seen as relics of an obsolete era.

As cheap denim jeans flood the Loba marketplace, many young women are putting down their sewing needles. Mass-manufactured textiles are replacing homespun yarn and weaving techniques, which the Loba were once famous for.

Students learn the national curriculum in the mother language at an NGO-supported private school in Lo Manthang. The community hopes to preserve their unique Tibetan dialect, Lowa, for future generations. (Photo by Taylor Weidman)

Students learn the national curriculum in the mother language at an NGO-supported private school in Lo Manthang. The community hopes to preserve their unique Tibetan dialect, Lowa, for future generations. (Photo by Taylor Weidman)

The new highway nears completion and more Loba are planning to pool their money to purchase a communal truck or tractor to share among neighboring farms. As the Loba put it, this type of equipment allows one man to do the work of ten, but at the cost of lost knowledge passed down to younger generations.

“Young people should know our culture, traditions. It gives them an identity. We must put these kinds of things in the younger generation’s mind. Then we won’t damage our culture,” Bista said.

In addition to fostering a healthy sense of identity, indigenous knowledge is increasingly being sought as alternative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems, such as resource use, climate change, population control, and energy policy.

In a world where sustainability is no longer a buzzword but a necessity, scientists, engineers, policymakers, and other cultural leaders are now looking to indigenous knowledge for answers.

In Lo, it’s a hard life of labor and subsistence. But it’s also a lifestyle steeped in deep knowledge of the land and climate—a lifestyle perfectly adapted to its surroundings, offering innovations in thought, values, and practices that are more valuable than ever to this modern world.

Taylor Weidman

Taylor Weidman

Photographer & Co-founder at Vanishing Cultures Project
Taylor Weidman is an award-winning documentary photographer and co-founder of the Vanishing Cultures Project. His work focuses primarily on the effects of modernization and human rights issues.

Nina Wegner

Nina Wegner

Writer & Co-founder at Vanishing Cultures Project
Nina Wegner is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-founder of the Vanishing Cultures Project. She is the author of two books on the traditions of indigenous cultures, Mustang: Lives and Landscapes of the Lost Tibetan Kingdom, and Mongolia's Nomads: Life on the Steppe.

Nina Wegner is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-founder of the Vanishing Cultures Project. She is the author of two books on the traditions of indigenous cultures, Mustang: Lives and Landscapes of the Lost Tibetan Kingdom, and Mongolia's Nomads: Life on the Steppe.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful if depressing piece. The photography is beautiful too. I suppose it is a form of selfish romanticism to wish these beautiful cultures could remain the same instead of all being ground into modern sameness. I was able to travel in a nearby area in Nepal in 1972. It all seems like a dream now.

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