There are travellers and arm-chair travellers and those that combine both pursuits. I would imagine that the majority of travellers these days are in the last category. Holidays for most are very short escapes from normal life, and arm-chair engagement is a great way to prolong, and, I would argue, deepen and enrich, the times ‘in the field’. Given that entering the unknown, totally unprepared, without any media induced preconceptions, is hardly possible any more for places that are so widely covered as Nepal (and Mustang), that is. And for ventures that go a bit or way beyond the packaged tourist experience, it is plain common sense to prepare.
I’ve been in the support of expeditions’ business (mountains, films, medical camps, etc.) for a while and the ratio of planning and evaluation time versus expedition time for the main organizer (10-20:1 I would say) seems hugely out of whack, but makes perfect sense and is a, if not the main reason why they’re in it. It turns a short outing into an all-consuming caterer of meaning. I, and as you’re reading this, you too, suffer from a watered-down version of this affliction.No easier way to satisfy that need for immersion-before-the-fact than browsing cyberspace. Turns out there is only one professional documentary about Mustang to be found on youtube (let me know if I am wrong!). So that’s what’s on offer in this post, plus my usual comments to tickle your interest.
This young man has an axe to grind, which means that his Mustang is a particular place. But he’s very explicit about his intentions, as a good journalist should. And the list of topics/issues/perspectives he brings to the viewer’s attention is extensive and interesting. A selection:
- First and foremost China’s strategic interest in Mustang and its use of money to secure control; an interest that is presented as primarily based on closing down on Tibetan activism at both sides of the border, which in turn is presented as a clear threat to Tibetan culture.
- China’s capture of Nepali government interest, the government’s disinterest in developing Mustang, and its unwillingness to return a fair share of the permit fees for Mustang back into the district.
- The value of traditional culture and religion.
- Road building and its consequences.
- The effects of climate change.
- Art theft.
I intend to return to some of these themes in posts to come. Here I’ll limit myself to just two interrelated pointers for thought.
The first is the way borders are being turned into barriers. I have no intention to down talk what China is doing here, but as is often the case, it fits a global phenomenon: in this case of frantic wall building to keep the unwanted out or in whatever the particular case may be. The worries and fears expressed in the documentary are genuine, but it’s important to remember that the Chinese are in no way doing something extra-ordinary here.
The second and related perspective I want to add is a counterfactual. What would be the state of Tibetan culture if the Chinese hadn’t invaded? I have no answer, but cannot imagine that all would be as it was before. Tibetan history didn’t start with the 1950/51 sovereignty agreement with China and/or the 1959 uprising and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India. Tibet was a deeply feudal society, closed to the outside world, and it is difficult to imagine that reality not having come under increasing strain by now. In what way, with what effect, or what kind of outcome is impossible to say, but I find it important to remember when listening to laments about the threats to traditional culture. Think back to what your own country and its mores looked like in 1950!
Without in any way suggesting that current changes are to be welcomed I want to emphasize that all of us – with the exception maybe of those who’ve had a really rotten childhood – somewhere down pine for something lost. For me, for very personal reasons, this song is a strong expression of that reality. Even if, in the canyons of your mind, this doesn’t connect at all to Mustang, who cares, it’s still a great song.