Mustang: A Lost Tibetan Kingdom, by Michel Peissel

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This was the perfect book to accompany me on the Poon Hill trek in the Annapurna region that I did a couple of weeks ago. Not only because Frenchman Michel Peissel’s account of his travels to and stay in the northern Nepali region of Mustang in the 1960s passed through some of the same spots that we did on this trek, but because I realised how comparatively easy the trek I was doing in 2013 was in comparison to how he had travelled in the 1960s.

Mustang is an ethnically and culturally Tibetan region of Nepal, and access to it is still restricted to outsiders. Trekking permits to Upper Mustang cost $500 for a ten day period, and you can only go on an organised trek, meaning that it is inaccessible to all but wealthy foreigners. The place has interested me since I read Manjushree Thapa’s Mustang Bhot in Fragments, largely because it does seem very romantic and mysterious. I know this is an inadequate perspective to have about a twenty-first century society, but lack of information feeds such impulses, as do books like Peissel’s Mustang: A Lost Tibetan Kingdom.

Michel Peissel had been learning Tibetan with the aide of a grammar book for some time, and while living in Kathmandu fortuitously gained permission from the king of Nepal to not only travel to Mustang, but to stay there for a few months to research its history. He claims to be the first foreigner to be granted permission to reside there, and much of the rich description of the book revolves around the meeting of two different civilisations, for Peissel is as curious to the residents of Mustang as they are to him. With the help of a Tibetan-speaking friend and guide he stays in Lo Mantang, the kingdom’s capital, for several weeks, meeting the king and important religious figures, and later travels around the kingdom searching for written records of Mustang’s history housed in monasteries.

First published in 1968, this book is reminiscent of other male travel writing of the middle decades of the twentieth century, particularly the slightly earlier Eric Newby, and the slightly later Peter Mathiessen. Peissel is much more earnest than Newby, and more detailed than Mathiessen. The nuances of the three writers are very different, but the general gist is that white man is explorer, his duty is to inform other white men about quaint other cultures elsewhere. Added to this is Peissel’s case is the fact that he’s an anthropologist of the traditional type, and this comes through in much of his categorical language. He is a reflection and a product of his times, and this leads to a large number of cringe-worthy moments in Mustang, such as the following (although I rather liked the naive enthusiasm of this one, despite its seriously problematic conflation of the medieval and the non-western):

“One thing that pleased me very much during my stay in Mustang was that I was not obliged to imagine what this lost kingdom had been like in the past. I have spent most of my life imagining what things must have been like… how the Tower of London had looked in the Middle Ages… what Versailles was like in the time of Louis XIV… the appearance of New York when it was a Dutch colony… All the buildings I have admired in Athens, Mexico City or Rome, have needed to be seen more with the imagination than with the eyes. […] In Mustang, nothing disturbs the general harmony of buildings and objects and also of people. There were no intrusions of foreign objects to mar the beauty and charm of the land.” (p. 231)

Peissel desires purity from his exotic land, considering foreign influence corrupting, yet at the same time seems to delight in comparing the ‘civilised’ west with the ‘uncivilised’ east. It’s that old colonial-era paradox. Yet it is clear that Peissel really loves Mustang and Tibetan culture on more than just the level of curiosity:

“As we gradually left the Hindu world behind, I felt more and more in my element, and could not help making a comparison between the sturdy, open-faced Tibetans and the timid, ragged Hindus.” (p. 48)

As old-fashioned as this turn of phrase sounds, I hear a contemporary equivalent of it a lot in Kathmandu, from western ex-pats and travellers who proclaim how much they prefer Nepal to India “because the people are so much easier going”. This judgment arises, I have found, from a fear of India and Indians, from an inability or unwillingness to learn the codes of behaviour that one needs to have a comfortable time travelling in that country. As an Indiaphile I cannot agree with the assumptions that make it so easy and acceptable to praise the Nepali character by shunning the Indian. But I digress.

All this aside, Peissel’s Mustang is an impressive and engrossing book, and very informative. Though almost half a century old now, it still contains a wealth of historical detail, even if it couldn’t be used as a guide book any longer. And it cleared up questions I had about horses:

“At one time I had wondered whether the name ‘mustang’, for the wild horse of North America, might not have been derived from the fame of the horses of Lo Mantang [the local name for the kingdom]. But this idea, I soon found out, could not be correct, as the name ‘mustang’ was used for the wild horse before the name ‘Mantang’ was deformed into ‘Mustang’ in 1850. ‘Mustang’ comes from the Spanish word ‘mostrenco‘–wild one. As for the quality of the local horses in Mustang, I learned from the King’s son that the best of them came from the Amdo region of Sining in northeastern Tibet.” (p. 144)

After my brief encounter with trekking in Nepal, I have sworn off ever travelling by public transport on Nepal’s mountain roads again. Taking three hours to travel the twenty kilometres between Tatopani and Beni was far too traumatic an experience to repeat. I would be very reluctant to take certain flights, too (particularly those to Jomsom and Everest Base Camp, which have appalling safety records). So, if I am ever to travel to Mustang, which I’d love to, it looks like it’ll be on foot, just like Michel Peissel.

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