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To See the Queen

Adventures in Sacred Nepal

Article and photos by June Calendar

Fresco of a Queen of Mustang, Nepal.
Crumbling fresco in a shrine in Tsarong, the second largest town in Mustang, Nepal.

Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to see the queen.
Pussy cat, pussy cat, what did you there?
I spied a little mousy under her chair.

At the foot of the steps into the little plane, a flight attendant handed each of the fourteen passengers a couple of hard candies. She did not board with us. There was no room for her. During the half-hour flight from Pokhara, Nepal, I felt like a flea clinging to an eagle's belly as we flew among the shoulders of the Annapurnas. Because I sat under the wing, I could not see their snowy crowns; I could only look down at fir-covered chasms that plunged into invisible depths.

A space opened, and the plane descended, making a tight circle to position for landing. My ears popped; I swallowed and held my breath. The aircraft dropped onto a slick, muddy landing field the size of my father's barnyard cow lot in Indiana. We met our guide and sherpas in the one-street town of Jomson, which consists of trekker inns, restaurants, a bank, and a few shops. Here, we began a 12-day trek into the little-known Land of Lo — properly called Lo Monthang, mistakenly called Mustang.

In the late 1980s, the intrepid Peter Mathiessen, with a photographer — Peter Laird, trekked into Mustang looking for the mythological yeti. Only two or three British "Great Game" players had entered the hidden mountain sub-kingdom. In the 1960s, Michel Pissel, a Frenchman in love with Tibet, went to Lo Monthang because he could not visit Chinese-controlled Tibet. Pissel wrote the only book about Mustang available in English before Mathiessen, and photographer Peter Laird wrote an article for National Geographic Magazine that spawned a coffee table book.

I owned both books, which made me dream of seeing the Land of Lo. For almost ten years, I had been researching the life of a man who traveled to Tibet in 1937. I went to Tibet twice to see what he saw. I couldn't. The majestic monasteries had been largely destroyed and emptied of their vast treasures. Tibetan culture was disappearing under the relentless influx of the Chinese. I wanted to know what Tibetan countryside was like; I wanted to walk on trails untouched by wheels. Mathiessen reported that, in Mustang, the wheel was used only in prayer drums. Nepal had annexed the small Tibetan kingdom in the 1940s, fortunately saving it from Chinese take-over in 1959. The area was opened to trekkers in 1990. Only a thousand people a year were allowed to visit Mustang. Still, it was so little known and difficult to reach that by 1998, fewer than a thousand travelers had been there. Nepal imposed a high trekking fee to discourage the hippies and sons-of-hippies who crowded the Annapurna circuit, which ended at Jomson.

Our itinerary was straightforward. We would walk five days to Lo Monthang, the subkingdom's capital. (This was before the Nepali king was deposed in the Maoist uprising.) We would stay for a day exploring the city and walk back to Jomson via a different trail. While in the city, we would meet the king. Laird took pictures of the king in his barley fields wearing ordinary clothes and with his wife in official garments at an official ceremony. Pissel had written about this king's father, and I looked forward to meeting a man who was 24th in an unbroken line.

The trail across the plateau in central Mustang.
The trail across the plateau in central Mustang.

On the first day, we walked only three miles to Kagbeni, which sits atop a bluff beside the nearly dry Kali Gandak. In November, the river was a mere trickle, making it difficult to think of this as one of the world's great rivers that, through millennia, had cut a gorge deeper than the Grand Canyon. I was with a mixed group: my tent mate, a 40-something from California, a young married couple, two prosperous 50ish lawyers, two young women, one Japanese and one a Tibetan who lives in America, and Jamyang, our guide, a hip and handsome Mustangi who had been to college in the U.S. Our party of sherpas — with a small s, meaning those who do the hard work on a trek — were local men except for the sidar who was a tribal Sherpa from the Solo Kumbu region near Everest. The sherpas were small, strong men whose income from their hard work would feed their families in the approaching winter.

Outside Kagbeni was our first steep climb. At 56, I was the eldest in the group. I huffed and puffed. Nawang, the sidar — the chief sherpa — took my backpack and told me to stop and breathe as often as needed. Part of his job was to care for the stray sheep — me. I experienced altitudes of 12- to 13,000 feet in Tibet, where available oxygen is reduced by 25%. Some people suffer from altitude sickness, but I discovered that such oxygen deprivation gives me a feeling of mild euphoria. My senses became especially acute; I saw beauty everywhere. I was a slow but happy trudger in Mustang, probably the happiest person in the group — except for Youden, the Tibetan woman who had never been to Tibet. She relished being in an ethnically Tibetan area and eagerly spoke her native language with the locals.

The Annapurnas were at our back; we walked north toward Tibet. We were now on the Tibetan plateau, a vast land of valleys between the crinkle of many mountains rugged with age-old paths leading up and overpasses. On the way to Lo Monthang, the capital, we walked up and over several passes daily. As we looked down at tiny towns from the vantage of a pass, Jamyang pointed out fields lying fallow. Water for irrigation came from streams fed by glaciers in the higher mountains. The streams were mere trickles in November, but even in summer, when winter snows were melting, much less water flowed than in the early '60s when Pissel visited the country. The people could not irrigate all the fields in the valley as they once had. Young people, like Jamyang himself, were leaving the area for Kathmandu and other places where they expected to find better education and work.

Mustangis in Nepal flailing barley in barnyard.
Mustangis flailing barley in a barnyard.

As I walked the narrow trails fit only for people on foot or the tough local ponies, I experienced what my research subject had experienced over sixty years earlier. I saw village people dressed in ancestral clothing. They were harvesting barley and buckwheat with scythes and flailing it with leather straps affixed to short poles. The grain was winnowed as in Biblical times, slowly poured from baskets to let the wind carry the chaff away. Here, people lived much as they had in 1937, 1737, and 1337.

On the fifth day, we explored Tsarong, a small "royal city" — so-called because it was a dukedom and had a fort within its stone walls. In the monastery complex, a pile of mud bricks was disintegrating in the weather; it had once been a gompa (shrine cum monastery). Two gompas remained. The first we entered lacked a quarter of its roof. The blue sky lighted the interior where mosaics on all four walls still glowed with the bright colors of their mineral-based paints, but these were flaking off like diseased skin. A cot and a small stove in one corner were the home of a single lama. Then, we were shown the only remaining usable shrine in the complex. In the entryway hung a straw-stuffed yak, a practice I had seen in Tibet, where beasts that had labored in the construction of a monastery were given a kind of immortality after they died. An ancient snow lion pelt was in a wooden chest. Here, too, were beautiful crumbling frescos. Yak butter lamps burned before the one gilded statue of Buddha in the shrine.

The local duke took us inside the empty fort with stone-filled lower windows. It commanded a view of the countryside and was empty except for the skeleton of a hand nailed to a wall. The right hand of the architect who had built the fort had been cut off, so he could not build a similar fort for a rival tribal chieftain.

We walked about four miles from the town of Tsarong to the high pass from where the city of Lo Monthang seemed a mirage of white in a broad valley down a steep, twisting mountain path. Its adobe buildings were white-washed, except for the three gompas, which, as always in this area, were painted the red of dried blood. The city was walled, although some tourism-financed construction had occurred outside the walls. The new buildings were not in the Laird photos.

The sherpas pitched our camp among stacks of cut barley in a walled farmyard just outside the city wall. That afternoon, the sherpas erected a plastic enclosure open to the sky. As the water heated, they rigged up a simple shower — our only shower of the trek. Ninety seconds of bliss! That night, we walked to a local inn for a celebratory drink of raki, the local brandy. All houses were behind high walls, and the unlit streets meandered left and right. In this small walled city in moonless darkness, I felt like I had slipped through a crack in the wall of time to a far earlier era.

As we drank, two men drifted in, one with a stringed instrument, which he played as the other sang. We would see both the following day with a few others, squatting on their heels near blankets they had spread in the farmyard, offering trinkets and jewelry. All spoke a few words of English.

Walking around the city that morning, we saw that one of the gompas had an enormous crack running from the top of an outer wall to the bottom. We went inside with an English architect, John Sanday, who works for an international aid foundation. He had shored up the inside with scaffolding. The ceiling had been on the point of collapse and was being rebuilt. He had also brought in Italian fresco experts to teach the local people how to restore the frescos in all the gompas. He told us the priceless, world-class artwork was done by the same Newari artisans from central Nepal who had painted the gompas in Tsarong in the 14th century. He thought only the gompas in Lo Monthang were likely to be restored; his organization had limited funds. Similar fresco work in Tibetan monasteries was mostly destroyed.

Before lunch, I went into a souvenir shop with one of the lawyers. I wanted to buy a few katas, the silk presentation scarves used when meeting holy men and dignitaries. The ones available were actually cheap Chinese rayon. The lawyer found many items he wanted, but, a true American, he had only a little money and a wallet full of plastic. "I'd buy more if I could use a charge card," he said.

"I take Visa," said the shop owner. We gasped. This city has no telephones, no computers. However, the owner was willing to trust that the Visa charge would be accepted when he could go to Kagbeni and submit the bill sometime in the future. While the lawyer chose souvenirs, the shop owner showed me a copy of Pissel's book, in French, with a dedication to his father, who had been Pissel's guide and friend.

Although Jamyang had promised we would meet the king, we learned the king had left for Kathmandu by helicopter several days earlier. Never mind, we would meet the Queen. The King and Queen live on an estate five miles out of town, but the palace is in the heart of Lo. It shares a wall with the damaged gompa. The four-story white-washed structure faces a small plaza where two donkeys are tethered. White plumes waved above their heads, and long red tassels hung from their harnesses. I recognized the royal insignia; this was the queen's transport to the palace. A big black mastiff patrolled the open windows on the palace's second floor. The building was dark, apparently not one of the few in the town with an electricity generator.

We were told we needed katas to present to the queen. Ah-ha, I was ahead of the game! The others purchased katas precisely like mine. A local man in Shane who looked like Jack Palance arrived. He had been bustling about earlier and had announced, "I am the mayor." He wore a Texas cowboy hat, Western boots, and an air of importance. He opened the door to the palace. The first floor was empty and dark. His flashlight beam revealed a ladder. Stairs are almost nonexistent in this Himalayan area. Jamyang went up. Our little group, even the $500-an-hour lawyer, suddenly became a gaggle of first graders having a fit of shyness.

Because I was the oldest, I became the point person. I went up the ladder, hoping the mastiff on the second floor was not an attack dog or, if so, was chained. He was chained. Tibetan mastiffs are large, fierce, and possibly deadly. So far as we could see into the shadowed recesses beyond the ladder, the second floor was empty except for the dog. The third floor was even darker and empty. As I began climbing the fourth-floor ladder, an animated brown and white dust mop started yapping at me. It was the queen's Lhasa apso. "Don't worry," Jamyang said.

Our group gathered on the landing atop the ladder facing a doorway draped with a yak skin. 

The Mayor arrived last and went in. “What do we do?” we asked. 

“Place the kata on the table beside her, tell her your name and sit down.”

Not difficult. Why were these intrepid travelers hanging back? Because they expected me to be first. "Age before beauty," as teens used to say. I stepped forward, Jamyang held the yak skin aside, and I went in to meet the queen. The room was about 20 by 30 feet. The queen sat on a simple, straight-backed chair beside a plain, dark wooden table. She was an attractive Tibetan woman of about forty with the usual dark blouse and long dark skirt covered by a brightly striped apron as all married Tibetan women wear. She had only little gold earrings, none of the bright turquoise, amber jewelry, and amulet boxes I saw even on vendor women in Tibet. In Laird's photographs, some women wore elaborate turquoise in their hair. Pissel had described his late-1950s visits with the king at the country estate where the men dressed in traditional chubas. He did not tell the women but wrote that the king always married a woman from the Lhasa nobility. I had expected at least a silk blouse and some jewelry. Nevertheless, she smiled and was quietly poised and dignified.

I laid the kata on the table and told her my name. The others now formed a queue behind me. I sat on one of the built-in benches along one side of the room. At the end of the room opposite the queen was a large wooden armoire brightly painted in Chinese-style flower patterns. The floor was covered with old linoleum that looked very much like the linoleum I had last seen in my grandmother's kitchen about forty years ago. This linoleum was cracked and broken in several places. My grandmother would never have had linoleum in that condition.

A ten-year-old girl carried a tray of teacups and passed them to us. They were cheap Chinese pottery I had seen in markets in Lhasa. I wondered if the girl was the queen's daughter. She was plainly dressed; her face and hands had not been washed recently. After passing around the teacups, she went out and soon returned with a giant teapot from which she filled our cups. Happily, it was Indian tea, not salty Tibetan buttered tea.

When we were all seated, Jamyang said, "Would anyone like to ask the queen a question?" We looked at one another and at our laps. I wanted to ask about the girl but felt that would be impolite. After a while, my tent mate asked, "What is your dog's name?" Jamyang translated. After being told "Dolma," the woman asked, "What does she eat?"

"What we eat, of course," the Queen said with a smile as if talking to a small child. The girl returned with a large tin half full of cellophane-wrapped hard candies. We each took one.

Youden talked to the queen for a few minutes in Tibetan. For those few minutes, the meeting seemed worthwhile. Whatever they said, they spoke enthusiastically. Youdon was happy, and the queen's time was not entirely wasted. I finally had to say something, so I asked, "Is there anything you would like to know from us?"

The Queen asked, “Do you like Mustang?”

"Yes, very much," I said. Others chimed in positively. After an awkward silence, Jamyang said, "The Mayor says we can go up on the roof so you can see the whole city."

We said thank you to the Queen in unison and trooped out. The "ladder" to the roof was a log with notches. I had read of such ladders but had yet to come face-to-face with one before. And, yes, I was still the point person. Others contemplated the log skeptically, so I went up, doing my best monkey imitation. As we gathered on the roof, the Mayor said we should stay in a particular section because the other section of the roof might collapse under our weight.

We could see most of the little walled city from this fifth-floor height. The roofs were all flat. Many had piles of twigs along the outer edges and small piles of barley or buckwheat to be threshed. One house built just outside the wall was new and had solar panels on the roof. This was the Mayor's house. It was also an inn where the Italian fresco experts and Sanday stayed. We would go there that evening for raki, hear folk music, and enrich the only man in town who seemed to prosper.

We were in a bowl in the mountains. The meadows around were green, but I saw no yaks, sheep, or goats. Tibet was on the northern horizon, only twelve miles away. Lo Monthang and Tibet were two tall hills with ruins of forts on each. According to Pissel, these had belonged to rival chieftains in the 1200s. Eventually, one warrior prevailed and established the line of kings of Mustang, of which the present king is the 24th. The government has been stable for seven centuries. In other words, this country, unknown to most of the world, had been at peace for 700 years while continents were discovered, countries were established, wars were fought, and civilizations flourished and fell.

A small stream came from the northern mountains, and a few slender aspens grew beside it, the only trees to be seen. Pissel had written that the stream became swollen late afternoon from glacier meltwater. But this had not happened the day before when my tent mate went with a sherpa to the stream to wash some clothes. The glaciers had receded. The physical world was changing.

We left the next morning, a gray and chilly day. I wondered where the yaks were. We had seen a few small flocks of sheep and goats on the trail to Lo but none in the fields here. We had not seen a single yak. Perhaps they were in higher mountain pastures until later in the season. Nepal is on the same latitude as northern Florida and El Paso, Texas. The winter season is short, December through February.

Our trail led to the highest pass of the trek — 13,275 feet. We had to thread an indistinct path through a moraine on the way. Large boulders were strewn there by a glacier that had melted within the memory of the oldest local people. Beyond the rocks, we had a bleak path ahead. I couldn't stop thinking of how little water there was for the small towns we had seen, the fallow fields, and the lack of livestock. In the mostly barren Himalayas, people burn yak dung for heat and cooking fuel. In the Tibetan countryside, I had seen yak dung formed into disks drying on stones or piled near homes like we would pile firewood. Where was the yak dung in Mustang? The few twigs on the roofs would hardly heat tea. Winter was almost here. These people were facing a winter with little food, little to cook it with, and almost nothing to keep them warm. I grew melancholy thinking about the empty rooms of the palace, the ancient cracked linoleum, the queen's tiny gold earrings, the disappearing frescos. My euphoria had flipped to a profound sadness. If Nawang had not been walking beside me, I would have sat down on a stone and had a good bawl.

We arrived at an ancient little gompa at lunchtime. We wanted to see the inside but the only lama who lived there was down in the nearest valley performing a ceremony for a recently deceased person. One lama. In 1937, several lamas would have served such a venerable shrine. We had seen only two lamas in the capital. Laird's photos had shown several. Many looked to be in their sixties. In ten years, had most of them died?

We walked across a high, desolate plateau for another couple of hours with only a few dips and hills. The sky was like a flat aluminum lid that pressed upon us as if this were indeed the roof of the world and nothing existed beyond. I thought about global warming, which many people still scoff about. I thought about this poor, almost unknown little kingdom. I was sad but also glad to experience this place — for the sake of my research and of understanding more about the world I share with people who still struggle, as people worked in the time of Buddha, to earn a meager life from a harsh land.

Many yards behind the rest of the group, Nawang and I came to a place where we could see the path going up to a pass. By the time we neared, the others were silhouetted on what looked like the edge of a precipice. In the west, the direction they were looking, the sinking sun sent rays from beneath the clouds. Low on the horizon was the first blue sky I saw that day. I joined the group. Below was a white mountainside with a very steep trail winding down toward a valley where a small stream bordered a row of golden aspens. I watched my steps carefully until we were in green fields where ponies grazed. Then, I settled to wait until the barnyard was emptied by the owners who had been flailing their barley. There, the sherpas would pitch our tents. The valley was enclosed on two sides by rosy pink cliffs. Jamyang pointed to a cave in a cliff where a hermit nun was said to have existed many years on only a handful of barley and a cup of milk a week. I had one last chocolate bar sequestered in a pocket of my duffle that the mule wallah unloaded nearby. We shared it. My day-long sadness evaporated into the familiar euphoria. My curiosity had brought me to an ancient secret place with probably the only queen I would ever meet. I felt (accurately, I now know) that the world would invade this kingdom soon. Indeed, a road has now been built, with Chinese help, to connect China with the nearest Nepali city, Pokhara.


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