In what now feels like a lifetime ago, I was having one last catch up with a mate from my PhD cohort before we both set off for the field. We’d grabbed burgers at a burger bar in Canberra and were nursing a couple of pints. As I returned to the table after a brief visit to the bathroom, my mate said to me, “Ah, Alex, I’m glad you’re back. I was just about to say to Sarah (my partner) that we have so much in common – neither of us originally studied anthropology, both of us are from a development studies background, and we’re both too fat to be anthropologists.”
You might not realise it, but you probably follow a Mormon lifestyle blogger on social media. It’s an aesthetic: the specific way knee-length dress is paired with an “effortless” messy braid, a yearly snap of pimply-teenagers in wedding dresses, a subtle nod to their children’s names in their Instagram bio, and absolutely no mention of their faith.
Our local streets became our sole stomping ground, yet walking the same route everyday had some unexpected gains. On these very streets, actually on the very ground, something intriguing started to happen.
Himalayan travelogues are full of stories. For the most part, those stories fall into a specific genre, one that I tend to refer to as “my magical adventure in an exotic land.” Mustang, especially, has this reputation. In fact, multiple coffee table books easily available from booksellers everywhere pay homage to the “Lost Kingdom of Tibet,” the “Lost World of Lo,” and the “real Shangri-La.” Unfortunately, these books and pamphlets on high altitude travel are equally full of popular orientalist tropes of “pure” cultures and “innocent” people who somehow exist “out of time” despite being just as familiar with and a part of the “modern” world as anyone else is. But the impetus to see Mustang (and the Himalayas generally) as “magical” place filled with “spiritual” people is a hard one to resist. Most especially because the illusion is not just conjured up by Euro-American travel agencies or National Geographic specials but by Nepalis and Tibetans themselves, many of whom rely on the trekking and tourism industry for their livelihoods in a land politically marginalized between China, Kathmandu, and India.