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The Road to Tibet - Tonight on Foreign Correspondent

ProgrammingKevin Perry
 Image - ABCTV

Image - ABCTV

Tuesday, 9 September on Foreign Correspondent at 8pm on ABC

It’s a place out of bounds for many of those who know it as home. Tibet.

Seized by the Chinese and now tightly controlled, Tibet is out of reach for Tibetan refugees scattered around the world who are left with distant memories of their homeland. They can only dream of its return to them and their return to it. Australian musician Tenzin Choegyal has the very vaguest recollections of Tibet. He was spirited out by his mother and father as China took control. But he feels it’s defined his spirit and now, he’s determined to see it once again. To do that he has to travel though the hitherto hidden kingdom of Mustang, and along a time-honoured trail that’s now in competition with what passes for the 21st century up here. A major, transformative road rolling up to the Tibetan border.

Will Tenzin fulfil his dream? 

There aren’t many cities on Earth that can only be reached by foot or on horseback. But until recently, a trickle of curious, in-the-know visitors had to ride or walk for days to get to a legendary Nepalese city called Lo Manthang.

Now a road is being built to the city and many are worried it’s going to ruin the majestic capital and the surrounding, cloistered kingdom of Mustang, forever. 

‘That will probably change the whole region. How will the living traditions be kept alive?’ - Tenzin Choegyal, Tibetan-Australian.

Tenzin Choegyal has come to Mustang to fulfil some dreams. The globally renowned musician has been invited to take part in a kind of Nepalese Royal Command Performance, the first time he’s ever performed with his traditional Tibetan lute before an audience of authentic traditionalists. 

Then there’s his dream to see his homeland Tibet. His family fled Tibet as China seized control. He admits his memories are vague and unreliable but something in his soul is insisting on this adventure.

Despite the laying of a new road to the capital and a little way beyond, it’s no sure thing that Tenzin will fulfil that latter ambition. It’s a winding, precipitous track plagued by shifting, uneven ground and surging river crossings. He commences his journey on horseback and aims to complete it, along with a team from Foreign Correspondent, by four-wheel drive. But the border is heavily patrolled by China and not easy to reach.

Reporter Eric Campbell aims to road test Mustang’s new Highway 1 to test fears that it will only serve to erase a colourful and enduring culture and its practices. Cut off from the outside world and snap frozen in time, much of Mustang is like a time capsule of how Tibet was before China invaded.

People speak Tibetan, practice Buddhism freely and live not unlike their ancestors did in the Middle Ages.

But there’s also desperate poverty and so many – including the now ceremonial Crown Prince – hope the road will bring much-needed trade and prosperity that evaporated with the closure of the trade route from China.

This is an eye-watering edition of Foreign Correspondent, featuring spectacular and largely unseen people, places and practices. And it’s a moving document of one man’s mission to rediscover his roots.