Exclusive: Eric Campbell Discusses Tonight's Episode of ABC Australia's Foreign Correspondent

Exclusive: Eric Campbell Discusses Tonight's Episode of ABC Australia's Foreign Correspondent

In the episode of 'Foreign Correspondent' airing tonight on ABC, Eric Campbell heads to an area outside of Tibet, following the journey of musician Tenzin Choegyal, a native Tibetan who has been invited to perform at a royal event in the area. The show follows Eric and Tenzin as they head to the remote kingdom of Mustang, an area that remains very undeveloped, as the locals react to a plan to connect them to the wider reaching cities in the area, through the construction of a new road. I had chance to catch up with the reporter, recently to discuss the new episode of the long-running current affairs show.

What can you tell us about the film tonight?

We go to the last real 'Shangri-La' , a remote Tibetan kingdom called Mustang that borders Chinese Tibet but is independent of China. It's undeveloped, extremely remote and terribly poor. But it's one of the most amazing places I've ever seen.

How does it compare to other jobs you have filmed for the show?

The kingdom of Mustang has been on my bucket list for a long time, ever since I heard the only way into it was on horseback. But for a current affairs program you need a hard angle, not just pretty pictures. Last year I heard a road was being built across Mustang into China and that many were worried about a 'soft invasion' by Chinese traders. So we decided we had to do the story.

Had you ever visited Tibet or the surrounding areas before filming the show?

I've spent a lot of time in places bordering Tibet, like Qinghai, Ladakh and Sikkim and I love the whole culture. But I've never been allowed to step foot in Tibet, even when I was based in Beijing as the ABC's China correspondent.

How quickly are you aware of the tight control China has over the country?

The fact that even China-based journalists aren't allowed to go there except on tightly controlled visits says it all. The Chinese Communist Party is deeply worried about separatism and any challenge to its political monopoly.

Was it as bad as you were expecting?

Mustang is part of Nepal, so China has no direct control over it but you can still sense the pressure. For example, the Mustang capital Lo Manthang desperately needs an airport but China simply won't allow planes coming in so close to the Tibetan borders.

Did it have any effect on what you could/couldn't do in the country?

The first time we tried to reach the border we ran into a Chinese border patrol inside Nepal. It turned out the Nepalese border unit had invited them over for a meeting, but it was unnerving seeing Chinese police. They ordered us not to film, even though they have no authority in another country.

How were you introduced to Tenzin?

A friend I'd met on previous Himalayan shoots, Margie Thomas, mentioned she was leading a trek with a Tibetan Australian musician who'd once lived in Mustang. We thought he could be part of the shoot but he ended up becoming the main focus of our story.

Were you aware of his music before filming with him?

Tenzin Choegyal is quite well known in Tibetan circles and among pro-Tibet activists in the US. He's even played Carnegie Hall with Patti Smith. But in Australia he struggles to make a living as a musician and I'd never heard of him. Once I head him sing though, I realised he's an extraordinary talent.

Are many of Tenzin's family in Tibet still?

His family fled Tibet en masse, many dying of illness and starvation. It was a terrible period the world still doesn't know much about. Tenzin lost contact with his distant relatives and doesn't know if any are still alive inside Tibet.

Did you have to ride horse-back like Tenzin at all to get to any locations?

Thankfully no. I'm allergic to horses. But part of the story was looking at how the new road is going to affect what's been an extremely isolated place. The road turned out be awful. After a week of bouncing around in the back of jeeps, we all felt like walking back.

How much do you think the development of the road will have an effect on people at either side?

At the moment it's in such rough shape that the effect is small. But the locals are glad to be getting it. Once trucks can travel the road easily it will give people access to much cheaper goods and enable them to travel to hospital or school in hours rather than days. Western tourists love to visit undiscovered places untouched by modernity. But the locals might well say, 'try living here'.

Did you get to witness the Royal ceremony Tenzin is invited to perform at, if so can you describe it please?

It was an amazing night. Hundreds of locals in full traditional clothing filled the town square in front of the palace for a rare night's entertainment. Tenzin told me he was more nervous playing to this crowd than he had been at Carnegie Hall but once he started playing they loved it.

What is the one thing you learnt the most from filming this show?

It's the lesson that you have to keep remembering as a journalist ... one person's story can tell you far more about a part of the world than a panel of experts.

Have you remained in contact with Tenzin or anyone else featured on the show since filming ended?

Tenzin's back in Brisbane and we're keeping in touch. I want to be able to say I knew him before he was famous.

What projects are you currently working on?

Planning a holiday. Even foreign correspondents need them.

Thank You for talking to TVBuzer!

The episode of 'Foreign Correspondent' discussed airs on the 9th of September at 8pm.


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