The Silk Road, China

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Impressions of Tibet

Stunning to look at...

En route to Everest and on a separate foray to Lake Namtso (north of Lhasa), we had the opportunity to explore some of Tibet in our Landcruiser. The landscape, although at times desolate (the sight of a tree is a rare thing), is extraordinarily picturesque; my burn rate of rolls of film increased dramatically.

Phunstoling monastery

We took a detour off the 'Friendship Highway' (the overland route connecting Tibet and Nepal) and visited a quiet monastery, well off the beaten track. Tucked away at the end of deserted valley and at the foot of a giant sand dune, Phunstoling monastery was quite a different experience from the busier monasteries we had seen so far.

The monks greeted us warmly and led us around the complex, opening up the chapels for us to see as we went. After this, we climbed to the ruins left by the Cultural Revolution and took in the magnificent views over the valley.

When we descended back to the monastery, we found the monks scattered across the courtyard, chanting prayers as they sat in the shade underneath the trees.

Qomokanga mountain

The following day we decided to take on a day trek and see how high we could climb. Despite the ominous clouds and some rain, we pushed on up the valley through a hamlet and stopped below the glacial wall where the snowline began. At perhaps 5400m, this was the highest we had been so far. All possible in a few hours walk from the road...

A herders' camp below Qomokanga

Lake Namtso

Lake Namsto, the world's highest salt water lake at c5000m, deserves its reputation as a Tibetan 'must see.' We spent two nights in what can only be described as extremely basic accomodation, but were able to enjoy a full day of sunbathing in perhaps the fiercest sun I have ever experienced. But despite the sun, the ambient temperature was simply perfect; the cool mountain air made it very comfortable to sit and relax. The only issue was later discovering the odd gap in my sunscreen...

The bright blue of lake Namtso is set against a backdrop of green pastures and snow capped mountains in the distance. Despite being well visited, the vast majority of the huge lake remains deserted and completely unspoilt; it was a perfect place to unwind after the trials and tribulations of trying to get to Everest Base Camp (see separate posting).

Yaks grazing near lake Namsto

... but culturally suffocated

But for all Tibet's beauty, it is hard - even as a passing visitor - not to feel uncomfortable. The scars of the Chinese 'liberation' are all too plain to see, but the really heartbreaking thing is that two generations of state controlled press and education appears to have reduced Tibetan resistance to pragmatic acceptance.

I was initially incredulous at the China's apparent desire to once again tolerate Buddhism in Tibet (after all, there is perhaps no better draw on the tourist dollar in all of China) while at the same time clamping down on the Dalai Lama, banning all images of him as recently as 1996. It struck me as rather like tolerating Christianity but persecuting Christ.

But the apparently contradictory position is because of the indivisible nature of religious and political power in Tibet. One of the strikings thing about many of the monasteries in Tibet is how huge and imposing they are - the Potala Palace being the best example; they seem designed to give an impression of military might as well as religious significance. Indeed, a (very) brief glance at Tibetan history seems to reveal exactly the same kind of political power struggles that existed in more secular states.

So the Chinese crushed the political influence that lay in the monasteries. Every monastery now has a quota of monks; numbers in the greatest ones have collapsed from one or two thousand to the same number of hundreds. Once again, the symbolic Potala has been hardest hit; it lies empty like a vast museum, save a handful of Chinese appointed monks. (I was not able to see it because it is now nearly impossible to get hold of a ticket, thanks to the hoards of Chinese tourists who pour in to see Tibet. Presumably they are in total ignorance of what their government has done to it, along with other Tibetan monasteries.)

Nevertheless, even though the monasteries bear the scars of Chinese occuption, visiting them remains a very moving experience, perhaps because Tibetan customs are so far removed from our own. Where else is it possible to imagine a pilgrim prostrating themselves on the ground, at every step they take?

But under the surface, it is hard not to detect a prevailing pragmatism which is eroding the very essence of Tibetan culture. The odds are - and always have been - so stacked against Tibet that the people have no choice but to accept the situation and get on with their lives. The number of Han Chinese now probably matches the number of Tibetans in Lhasa, while China's total population of course dwarfs the Tibetan total, at around 5 million. Despite the extraordinary numbers of Han Chinese in Lhasa, The Chinese government continues to deny there is an immigration 'programme' and is not in the habit of releasing population statistics that might contradict this position.

Strict control of education and media means that both Chinese and Tibetan youngsters have grown up with a version of events that I shudder to imagine. As early as 10 years after the invasion this was beginning to take effect; I was stunned to read that some young Tibetans also participated in the Cultural Revolution (although the vast majority of the damage was caused by Chinese Red Guards roaming the country).

Nor should the degree of intimidation be underestimated. Again, it is hard to guage this as a visitor, but everyone we spoke to was extremely muted about the situation. Of course, they cannot trust every passing tourist, but the other reason must be the severity of the punishment meted out to political 'troublemakers' - special prison camps have been used in the past, and - in the absence of a release of the vast numbers of people held in them, one has to assume they are still in use.

For me, the most striking summary of the entire situation was a young Tibetan we met. Aged 21, he was educated in Dharamsala (effectively a mini Tibet since the Dalai Llama moved there in 1959) and consequently an independent spirit. While in India he had 'Free Tibet' tatooed on his arms and made the mistake of falling into the hands of the Chinese border police because his paperwork was not in order. A policeman whom he knew previously warned him to deal with his tatoos, and so he burnt them off with a cigarette butt before anyone else saw them. The scars looked horrendous.

He told us sadly how few (at least young) people in Tibet think like he does anymore. A tiny proportion of Tibetans are able to leave the country for their education, the rest learn the Communist Party's version of events at school. Our conversations with other Tibetans, even when in a safe environment, seemed to endorse this. The situation was described to us as "difficult:" many young people went to school with Chinese people and made Chinese friends, meanwhile all future prospects lie in co-existence with the Chinese.

It is impossible to blame the Tibetan people for adopting a pragmatic approach; they have no other choice. It is also impossible to deny that Chinese rule has brought many economic benefits; the government has invested over $1.5bn in transport infrastructure in the last few years. I have even found the devastation of Tibetan culture by the Chinese more understandable (but still unforgivable and tragic) in light of what China did to itself during the Cultural Revolution.

But is hard visit Tibet today without a twinge of sadness. The country has always been at odds with the rest of the world: while Buddhism waned elsewhere, it grew stronger in Tibet; while other nations carefully separated church and state, Tibet fused them together under the Dalai Lama as late as the 17th Century. For right or for wrong, Tibet appears to have been always fiercely uncomprising, and this is no longer the case. Their culture can only now be described as increasingly commercialised and they have been obliged to accept the Chinese way; pragmatic acceptance of better living standards over and above coherent political and religious ideology. The tragedy is that while the Chinese people have chosen this way (albeit implicitly), the Tibetans have had absolutely no choice but to accept it.


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