Al Jazeera's Steve Chao follows the struggle of the Tibetan people to preserve an ancient culture. While Tibetan Buddhism is squeezed inside of China's borders, there is a place where it still survives intact: Upper Mustang - a once forbidden kingdom high in the Nepalese Himalayas. Al Jazeera's Steve Chao travels there to document the fight to preserve an ancient culture, as China expands its influence into Nepal, and the modern world slowly creeps in.
Upper Mustang, also known as the ancient kingdom of Lo, is one of the last places to have evaded globalization. It is so secluded that it is only accessible by horse or by foot, as it has been for centuries. High in the Himalayas, this remote region of Nepal is one of the last remaining regions in the world with a true Tibetan Buddhist culture. Until recently this was a forbidden kingdom; almost no foreigner could travel here. Yet Al Jazeera English correspondent Steve Chao discovers that Upper Mustang has not entirely escaped the pressures of the outside world and its discontents. He hears from the people of Lo as the world that they’ve known shifts under their feet.
Everything is changing in Upper Mustang. The Nepalese government abolished Upper Mustang’s monarchy three years ago, ending a line of kings that goes back to the 12th century. This religious haven is becoming secularised. Monks tell of diminishing numbers and worry about vandals and thieves. Steve interviews a 10-year-old reincarnated lama, who wanted to cry when he was chosen and who plays PSP when he’s allowed to visit his family. His favourite Playstation game? The notorious Grand Theft Auto.
China is just over the border and wielding increasing influence over Nepal. Chinese rice, wheat and alcohol are flowing in, undercutting local products. China’s helping to fund Nepal’s 40 000-strong security force, which raises questions about the country’s sovereignty. The 20 000 Tibetans living in Nepal are particularly nervous about Chinese interference. Any gathering of Tibetans without government approval is now illegal. “It has never been so dangerous to be a Tibetan in Nepal,” says Steve.
As part of our interconnected world, Upper Mustang has been ravaged by climate change. Temperatures there are rising five times faster than the world average as its ice packs and glaciers recede. Due to drought, only one family a day is allowed to irrigate their crops. As Steve says in the film, “I’ve covered the effects of global warming before but I’ve never seen anything like this. Here global warming is not an abstract concept; this village, which has been here for 1,500 years, is basically dead. The villagers will have to move but at the moment they can’t afford to.”
The Nepalese government itself, after years of civil war, has been accused of neglecting the country’s Himalayan regions. In Upper Mustang, there is no certified physician, let alone a hospital. Disgruntled youth are threatening to block tourists if they don’t share in the profit from the tourist visas. Other youth are leaving for Kathmandu.
Now a road is being built, which will make Mustang a major trade route from Tibet through Nepal to India. Steve says, “If there is one thing that will change things here forever, it is the road… When you first arrive here you are overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of this place and its people. But spend some time here and you get the sense that within this peaceful landscape there are major forces at play, whether it be economic or political, and these forces unfortunately may be bringing an end to what is one of the world’s most pure and ancient cultures. The hope is that an essence of this culture may somehow be preserved.“