Friday, 3 June 2011


The high, bleak landscape of Tibet.
From Nepal, there aren’t many places one can get to overland. I’d come from India, so Tibet it had to be – that land of snow I’d heard and read so much about but didn’t understand, at an average of some 4500m above sea level. After all the talk with polite refugees in Dharamsala and Nepal, the hype surrounding the Dalai Lama and the ferocity of Chinese official opinion, I had to see it for myself.

Unfortunately for the independent traveller, it’s impossible to enter the ‘Tibetan Autonomous Region’ without being on a group tour. A Tibetan permit is needed from the Chinese consulate and this won’t be issued without appropriate proof. There are a handful of agencies in Kathmandu who can put together such a tour and sort out the visa for you, and after a day of shopping around I found a reasonably priced one. The timing was perfect: the pass doesn’t open until mid May due to the weather at that altitude and the Chinese were about to stop issuing permits due to the imminent 60th anniversary celebrations of the ‘liberation’ or ‘invasion’ of Tibet, depending on your perspective. We were one of the first and last groups in of the season.

Our curious group of various nationalities left early in the morning and drove the five or so hours to the border. Chinese guards and huge Chinese gate were there to greet us. We were searched thoroughly – any books mentioning the Dalai Lama, the history of Tibet or showing any maps with a political border were confiscated. It’s not a good way to instil confidence in tourists!

The impressive road through Tibet.
We swapped to a Chinese bus, driven by a singing Tibetan man wearing the traditional wide-brimmed hat. It’s amusing to see so many of those head pieces introduced by explorers years ago and now forever part of the local fashion. As soon as we drove away from the border it was obvious how much money the Chinese government has invested into Tibetan infrastructure: the road was amazing! It was by far the best road I’ve seen since Iran, and this was on incredibly mountainous terrain. We drove up high into the Himalayas towards our first night’s stop in Nyalam. It’s a tiny nondescript place, with some boring grey buildings lining the main street. Off the road, however, were a few houses in more traditional style: clay walls and intricate wooden window frames. We ate in a local Tibetan restaurant where the locals laughed at our complete ignorance of food – there are no menus. Fortunately, I had learnt in Dharamsala of thenthuk, a soup with thick, flat noodles, and this was always a reliable backup when our attempts at ordering other dishes failed. The Tibetans have an insatiable sense of fun, always poking fun and giggling (quite probably at our expense). We often would find ourselves embroiled in some infectious riot of laughter, totally unawares as to how or why it happened.

Smiling faces of Tibet.
Our modern tour bus had CCTV installed, but it was not for our protection: our guide explained that we could be monitored by the Chinese government. At first I was cautious about asking the guide questions relating to Tibetan independence or the Dalai Lama; indeed, he made it very clear that we shouldn’t ask him anything on the bus or when other people were around. But when we were outside, away from the crowds, he would quietly answer our questions. He made a good effort to remain impartial, always saying things like, “Some people say…”, but it was clear that he wasn’t too happy about some of the things that had happened or were taking place in Tibet.

A few of us persuaded him to stop at a village just off the main road, something he was reluctant to do as it wasn’t on the schedule. Rather than choose a village for us, he asked us outside to tell him when to stop, possibly so it would like it was our idea on the CCTV. The village was tiny, populated by just a few people. Most have moved away to the cities or escaped to India and Nepal. Those that remain live a simple lifestyle of growing their own food, rearing cattle and selling wheat and barley. We were shown inside a large house by a typically welcoming family. The rooms were all communal and the family slept in the kitchen around the big wood-burner for warmth (even in the summer it’s still pretty cold at this altitude of over 4000m). There were posters on many of the walls depicting strange, fictitious scenes of famous landmarks (Eiffel Tower with mountains behind it?) but they don’t betray a desire to travel, merely a love of colour. The inside walls were painted in panels of red and blue and there were lines of yellow, green and white but somehow it came together in harmony. There was no lack of comfort – cushions and blankets were piled in the corner of every room. The outside of Tibetan buildings are distinctive: clay bricks coated in mud and painted white, with the timber of the roof, windows and doors painted black with thick, maroon lines of paint around the edges. A man showed us excitedly inside another room, filled with the smell of incense. There in the dim, smoky, candle light was a picture of the Dalai Lama, his face smiling defiantly back at us. The man wasn’t worried or scared, just desperate to show his true alliances. Outside, the Chinese flag fluttered obligingly in the wind, a patronising nod to the military to keep them happy.

Traditional Tibetan houses.
As we continued through the mountains we caught our first glimpse of Everest on the horizon. It’s not the most pretty of the Himalayan peaks but it is certainly very, very big. As we drew closer it became more and more imposing, a kind of fat hypnotist. We spent a good deal of time outside, just 50km from its base, staring at it and thinking of all the people over so many years that had become entranced by the same sigh, forced to climb the world’s highest mountain just because it’s there.

Mount Everest
We spent a day traversing several passes – adorned with a million prayer flags – including one at a headache-inducing 5200m, and across plains populated mostly by that most famous of Tibetan resident, the yak. These hairy beasts seem able to live anywhere, though they spend most of their days searching for the rare grass. We eventually arrived in the small town of Lhatse, where we were offered something that yaks have a lot to answer for: yak butter tea. As I’ve said before, stay well away from it. It’s evil. The warnings about this being a budget tour were apt: the dorm rooms were rather basic and there was a shared tap in the courtyard. But we were here to experience Tibet so off we went to explore the town. I’m reluctant to use the term ‘Chinese-ified’, but that’s how it felt. The centre of the town consisted of a straight road lined with ugly grey box after box, all selling the same Chinese products. It may be called ‘development’, with improved roads, sanitation and utilities, but whoever is responsible for the design should be fired. Twice. Fortunately there remain a few older, Tibetan houses and we found a lovely old lady to cook us a thousand momos (steamed, filled dumplings) for next to nothing.

Installing more prayer flags on a high pass.
The next day’s drive to Shigatse was just what I had imagined of Tibet: vast, bleak plains and snow-capped mountains, men working in the fields, women sitting smiling in doorways. In Shigatse we headed straight for the Tashilumpo monastery, seat of the Panchan Lama.

The story of the Panchan Lama is a strange and confusing one. He is said to be a reincarnation of the Amitābha Buddha, a kind of celestial deity, and they are currently on the 11th version. He has always been of importance to Tibetans and Chinese alike, and many people in the area around Shigatse (and the Chinese) believe the Panchan Lama to be the rightful leader of Tibet. The truth is, the Panchan Lamas and Dalai Lamas play a big part in finding the next incarnation of each other. It’s all very complicated. However, the fact remains that in 1995 the Chinese took away a six year old boy who was considered to be the next Panchan Lama (named by the current Dalai Lama) and marched their own candidate into the capital. The government have never admitted the whereabouts of this young boy. Images of his face are – naturally – banned, along with those of the Dalai Lama’s.

A monk of Tashilumpo.
The Tashilumpo monastery is a wonderful maze of chapels and courtyards where in the past thousands of monks would study, pray and rise to powerful positions. Now, only a few hundred remain. We watched as they wandered into their assembly hall, sat on comfortable yellow cushions and began chanting the now-familiar Buddhist mantras. I suddenly felt like an intruder and left promptly.

It was just a short drive to Gyantse and Pelkor Chöde, another large, beautiful monastery of importance to Buddhists. Outside there is a huge, climbable, seven-tiered chorten, its large eyes looking out from the top to give the Buddha a good view of the surrounding mountains, which encircled us for 360 degrees. Inside the monastery are rooms filled with row upon row of ancient books containing the Buddhist texts, bound in yellow and red fabric. The air is filled with the not-unpleasant aroma of hundreds of butter candles burning ceaselessly, topped up by the devout. Massive gilded statues of Buddha and various deities stare down menacingly, their hands filled with money from pilgrims. In front of the many shrines are piles of cakes, sweets, cans of soup, cartons of yogurt and bottles of cola. Quite what the Buddha is going to do with all this I don’t know, but he apparently has a taste for modern convenience food.

The scene around Gyantse.
I have to admit I’m rather confused by the whole idea of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s often said that Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion (and this could still be said of Theravada Buddhism, practised in Southeast Asia), but in Tibet it has become an inflated, complicated mass of incarnations, spirits, deities and superstition. The simple tenets of understanding oneself and being nice to each other are clouded by the ritual that goes along with it all. It may be due to the fact it took over from Bon the pagan-like religion of olden Tibet, but it’s very hard to understand. Monks repeat mantras over and over, villagers spin prayer wheels every time they pass, people tie prayer flags to the top of anything remotely high, old men and women walk along spinning hand-held wheels. It sometimes seems to me to be more of a time-filler than a true system of belief. To get anything done, one must consult star charts, walk around a chorten 30 times and pray to the correct deity. This does not mean I don’t respect the Tibetans; on the contrary, I think the Tibetans are naturally wonderful, friendly, loving people, smiling in spite of difficulties, but I think their religion plays no part in this. Except from perhaps a community point of view: it’s a good thing for them all to do together.

Above Gyantse are the remains of an older monastery. All over Tibet one sees many such remains, destroyed by the communists.; by some estimates over 6000 monasteries were demolished during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ of 1966-1976. In fairness, the Chinese government is now ploughing a lot of money into the reconstruction of some of these, but the effect on a generation is irredeemable. In its heyday this high monastery must have been incredible, with views that make you want to sit for hours. The braver (read: stupider) ones amongst us scrambled up the crumbling walls to stand surrounded only by the flat, dusty plain and the gleaming peaks of the Himalayas. The air was thin and dry, and despite the cold the sun could burn us in an instant.

We took a walk through the old part of Gyantse; at last a large, authentically Tibetan area. Kids followed us laughing through the lanes, cows blocked our way and people smiled unreservedly. It was by no means dirty or backwards – everyone takes great pride in making sure their houses are a pristine white. The colour coordination creates a comfortable ambience, a happy place to stroll through.

A typical scene en route to Lhasa.
On the last day of driving we passed perfectly blue lakes high up on the plateau, glimmering in the strong sunlight. Upon entering the capital Lhasa, I was not expecting the mysterious, legendary city like the one discovered by explorers such as Harrer of Seven Years in Tibet fame, but I was still disappointed by what I found. As we approached Lhasa and drove through its suburbs, we were welcomed by the same grey boxes, standing neatly along perfect roads. There was no character, no soul. At least the Potala, the old winter home of the Dalai Lama, stands magnificently above the urban sprawl as it has for centuries; only now, that sprawl is unmistakably Chinese.

I was not hopeful about the inside of the Potala, but in fact it was astounding. Of course, not all the rooms were accessible and the pictures of the current Dalai Lama and Panchan Lama were conspicuous in their absence, but many of the rooms, lit only by dim sunlight filtering through the dusty air from tiny windows high above, were breathtaking. The main assembly hall was filled by huge, colourful, soft ‘umbrellas’ hanging down from the ceiling, which actually looked more like giant cylindrical tie racks. Monks worked quietly, sticking back together scriptures from ages gone by. Pilgrims bustled past silently, prostrating themselves in front of the multitude of iconography. The old reception chamber evoked a sense of peace, where the Dalai Lamas would smilingly greet those who had come to meet him. I imagined what it must have been like for people to come here in the past, how amazing it must have been to be allowed inside the dark passages, led through huge halls and tiny rooms, to come face to face with the God-king.

The Potala, Lhasa
The Sera monastery, also very important in Tibetan culture, is not as good. At 3pm the monks gather in a courtyard to ‘debate’, though what ensues is more a test of quick-fire knowledge than of philosophical prowess. The monks sit in small groups with an older monk standing in front of them shouting questions at them. He will pose the question, then clap his hands loudly, stamp a foot and point at one of the monks to answer immediately. The questions are of the form, “When was such-and-such born?” or “What colour was so-and-so’s hat?”, requiring the younger monks to know their history inside and out. The groups of older monks, however, sit quietly at the other end of the courtyard, discussing the more intangible questions of Buddhism. They seemed rather displeased at the way the younger monks messed about, and I must admit I too found it a tad incongruous to see monks secretly talking on their phones when they were supposed to be praying. At 6pm they all got up and left promptly, ushered on their way by policemen standing at the gate. And here is a glimpse into the truth of life in the monasteries today: only a few hundred of the former thousands of monks remain, tightly controlled by the state.

Monks debating in the courtyard of the Sera monastery.
Our final stop was a compulsory visit to the State Museum, a patronising blend of traditional costumes and propaganda relating to China’s ownership of Tibet. But what I will remember of Tibet are the laughing, smiling, playful faces, the brightly coloured clothes and houses, the mesmerising mountains, astoundingly beautiful lakes and the wonderful hospitality.

Thoughts on the ‘Tibetan Question’
I’ve visited the Dalai Lama’s exile home of McLeod Ganj in India, refugee areas in Nepal, mainland China, and now Tibet. After eight days in Tibet I still can’t decide on where I stand on the question of Tibetan independence, but there are certainly things I don’t like. I detest the way China tries desperately to control all information relating to Tibet (internet blocks, the banning of anything relating to history or the Dalai Lama, and the prosecution of anyone who dares flout these rules). I’m not impressed at their punishing of tourists visiting Tibet (we have to go on a group tour, monitored all the way and then given only a very short visa for the rest of China). I’m confused by the way China insists that Tibet obviously belongs to them, but then refuses to talk about it. If they are so obviously right, why do they have to cover everything up and misinform?

That said, the improvements to Tibetan infrastructure are astounding. Not long ago, Tibet was so closed to outside influence that they even refused to implement the wheel for fear that it was too modern. Such blind adherence to tradition is not good for a population in the long run. New roads, electricity, water, sanitation and countless other improvements have doubtless improved the lives of many Tibetans, but at what cost? At the same time, a conscious effort was made to erode the traditional lifestyles of Tibetans, and this modernity was forced upon them without their consent. It’s not enough to say that you have improved people’s lives: you have to listen to them too. People had a leader they believed in but he was taken away from them. China decided what was best for Tibet, not the people.

The speed and aggression with which China entered Tibet and took over – rightly or wrongly – put fear into people’s hearts and forced countless inhabitants to flee. When one hears stories of people walking for months over the Himalayas, leaving their families behind, it's clear that something isn’t right. There is no excuse for China allowing that to happen. The Chinese government says that Tibet was always a part of China and they may be right – the answer is very difficult to find because of hyperbola on both sides. Hanging around some Tibetans in exile you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Chinese are vicious lying aliens. But whatever the truth, a far better policy would be for China to listen to their population, enter into dialogue and put their argument forward. Whether China has acted badly or not does should not distract from the question of Tibetan independence. Personally, I would be worried about the idea of the Dalai Lama returning as unelected leader and running a dictatorial theocracy based on bizarre beliefs. He may be a nice man, but future leaders may not be.

So should Tibet be independent? Autonomy with a separate system of government may be a solution, as proposed by the Dalai Lama. The average Tibetan wants to live their life and maintain their traditions without being poked from outside. Whether Tibet is ‘really’ part of China is irrelevant to them. But to allow autonomy would seem like the Chinese government is making concessions. If they grant self-determination to one part of the country, they might have to listen to their public all over China – and that’s a much bigger question.

1 comment:

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