Sat, May 19, 2007 - Page 9 News List

New highway divides isolated Buddhist kingdom of Mustang

While the government expects great economic benefits from the road, critics fear it could destroy one of the last few places where Tibetan culture continues to thrive

AFP , KATHMANDU

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.

global connection

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.

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