For centuries, the tiny Buddhist kingdom of Mustang has been all but sealed, its ancient culture protected from outside influence, but now a new highway is threatening a major upheaval in the hidden Himalayan outpost.
King Jigme Palbar Bista of Mustang, who retains his title even though his realm became part of Nepal more than 200 years ago, welcomes the road as a vital link to goods and services such as healthcare that his 7,000 subjects have never had access to.
"The road would be very helpful to local people because all our supplies come from Tibet," the 75-year-old monarch said in a rare interview during his annual visit to Kathmandu.
But while Nepal's government sees the highway as finally bringing modernity to one of the most remote areas of the world, some activists who say they have Mustang's best interests at heart are strongly opposed to the project.
Plans for the 460km highway are well advanced. It will traverse some of the most forbidding terrain on the planet, linking China and India through Nepal.
The 20km section from the Chinese border to Lo Manthang, Mustang's capital, was completed in 2001, opening up a route for Chinese goods, mostly construction materials, trucked in from the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, about 700km distant, and the monastery town of Shigatse 500km away.
Each year about 80 trucks make the journey from Tibet to Lo Mantang, and that number is expected to leap once the road opens all the way through to India.
Over the next two years, authorities in Nepal say, the remaining 100km of road will be completed to open up a route that is currently only passable on foot or horseback.
Speaking via a translator, the king said the road would bring the benefits of modernity to his people.
"Sometimes people get sick and die because they can't get treatment in time, and the road might change this," he said.
He did, however, express his fear that the road could bring some unwelcome consequences, notably damage to ancient monasteries and the myriad mud-and-straw Buddhist monuments called chortens that dot the former kingdom.
"It has to be very carefully studied," he said.
The time for studying what impact the highway will have on the lifestyle, culture and landscape of Mustang may have already passed, as the government in Kathmandu is determined construction will be completed within two years.
Officials there see the road as part of their country's efforts to stake a claim in the fortunes of its enormous neighbors, with Foreign Minister Sahana Pradhan calling it a "very good step in terms of global connectivity."
Department of Roads Director Durga Prasad went further, saying that "the operation of the trans-Himalayan highway will give Nepal the opportunity to facilitate trade between two giant neighbors."
Bijaya Shrestha, a professor of economics at Nepal's Tribhuvan University, said the road would bring long-term economic improvement.
"Mustang is a very backward area and much of the younger generation have migrated to other regions for employment and study," she said. "So if the region is linked by the road we can bring in more opportunities, both for education and employment. The road could also promote tourism in the region as, at the moment, it's too difficult to get there."
For some, however, the highway can bring only bad news by making further inroads into a rare culture that is really only preserved these days in Bhutan, the remaining independent Buddhist kingdom of a chain that once formed a necklace across the Himalayas and included Tibet, Sikkim and Ladakh.
Mustang -- the name is a derivation of "Lo Manthang," which means kingdom of Lo and is the name of the capital city -- once controlled the trade route between India and the Himalayas.
At the end of the 18th century, it was annexed by Nepal and renamed Upper Mustang, though it was permitted to retain the monarchy. King Jigme Palbar Bista is believed to be able to trace his lineage back to the warrior Ame Pal, who founded the kingdom in 1450.
These days the monarch has little more than a ceremonial role. According to his son, Jigme S.P. Bista, the king "still addresses small disputes, but if anything major happens we refer it to the chief district officer in the district headquarters."
Mustang is now again at the crossroads of international trade thanks to its proximity to Chinese-controlled Tibet, the original source of its religion and culture.
Erica Stone, president of the American Himalayan Foundation which works to restore many of Mustang's ancient Buddhist treasures, sees the kingdom as one of the few remaining repositories of a culture that until relatively recently dominated the Himalayas.
"Upper Mustang is one of the few places left where Tibetan culture and religion continue to thrive relatively unhindered by outside influences," she said in an e-mail from California.
"It is not clear that the road will have any positive developmental effects on Upper Mustang, apart from perhaps giving the [people] access to cheaper goods coming in from China," she said.
"It is more than likely, however, that the fragile nature of the area's biodiversity, including its culture, will be put at risk."
She said she feared that if Lo Mantang became a mere truck stop on the long road between India and China, a "trucker culture" would bring brothels, bars and, inevitably, sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS, as well as facilitating an illegal trade in Mustang's priceless artifacts.
Policies for restricting tourists to Mustang have helped protect it on all these fronts. Since foreigners were permitted to visit in 1992, numbers have been limited by the high cost of traveling to the region, with a 10-day visa costing US$700.
Perhaps most vulnerable to higher visitor numbers could be the stunning 800-year-old cave paintings depicting the life of Buddha that only came to light last month when a shepherd from a Mustang mountain village recalled he had seen them as a boy.
Broughton Coburn, one of a team of Nepali and foreign experts who explored the previously unknown cave 3,400m above sea level, echoed Stone's fears about the potential for cultural vandalism the highway could bring.
"I fear that the [people of Mustang] will turn into gravel crushers at the side of the road, maintaining the road for wealthy Chinese bringing cigarettes from Tibet," he said.
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in her inaugural address on May 20 firmly said: “We will not accept the Beijing authorities’ use of ‘one country, two systems’ to downgrade Taiwan and undermine the cross-strait status quo.” The Chinese government was not too happy, and later that day, an opinion piece on the Web site of China’s state broadcaster China Central Television said: “While Tsai’s first inaugural address four years ago was read by Beijing as an ‘unfinished answer sheet,’ the one she presented this time was even more below-par.” Speaking to the China Review News Agency, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies vice president
French firm DCI-DESCO in April won a bid to upgrade Taiwan’s Lafayette frigates, which has strained ties between China and France. In 1991, France sold Taiwan six Lafayette frigates and in 1992 sold it 60 Mirage 2000 fighter jets. To prevent arms sales between the nations, China negotiated an agreement with France and in 1994 in a joint statement, France promised that there would be no future arms sales to Taiwan. From China’s point of view, the DCI-DESCO deal constitutes a breach of the agreement, but the French stance is that it is not selling Taiwan new weapons, but instead providing a
Affected by the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have implemented disease prevention measures such as city lockdowns, factory closures, travel restrictions and border controls. These resulted in slowing economic activitiy and dwindling global trade, which have negatively affected Taiwan’s export-reliant economy. Consequently, the Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics (DGBAS) last week revised downward its economic growth forecast for Taiwan for the second time this year. The DGBAS on Thursday predicted the nation’s GDP would expand 1.67 percent this year. The agency’s new forecast is lower than the 2.37 percent it estimated in February, and weaker than Taiwan’s economic