Wed 12 Oct 2011 - Sun 23 Oct 2011
On day ten of our 12 days in Tibet, we saw him. His image hung where the ceiling beam met the wooden pillar. We were sitting in a small house, in a small village outside of Lhasa, where the homeowner sold noodle soup and tea. His smile, radiating peace and inner happiness, and his glasses, were instantly recognizable. We looked at each other. Could it be? Our guide saw the object of our focus and in a small, indescribable gesture, indicated that we were right. Despite the risks involved, there on the wall, was a tiny picture of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.
On day one of our 12 days in Tibet, we handed over our backpacks to the Chinese border guards dressed in Army attire. They were opened and examined, and we were asked, “Any books?”
“No, I mean yes,” I replied, removing my dog-eared copy of The Kite Runner.
“Where does it take place?” he asked.
“Afghanistan,” I replied, not sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing in the soldier’s mind. I was given my book back, and after a thorough examination of my passport and visa, I was ushered into Tibet, with exactly as many stamps as I had the day before, but with many more questions.
On day four of our 12 days in Tibet, we visited Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse. This would turn out to be my favourite spot in Tibet, purely because of the devotees we witnessed here, and because the magic in the air was palpable. Following the pilgrims, who were circumbating the entire property, often with prayer wheels and beads in hand, we visited the ancient residence of the Panchen Lama. Photographs hung over empty thrones. “Where is the current Panchen Lama?” I asked, ignorant of the massive, unspoken Elephant in the Room. Toby shot me a Look. The look reminded me that in modern Tibet there are unanswered questions, unspeakable truths, and consequences for those who don’t follow the Rules.
On day six of our 12 days in Tibet, we stood behind armed police officers. “How can I take this picture if I am not allowed to photograph them?” Toby asked. His foot tapped impatiently, his camera idle in his hands. Once the police officers moved, he raised the camera to photograph Jokhung Temple in Lhasa. “There’s a sniper on the roof, does that matter?” He was thinking not only of our own well-being, but the well-being of our Tibetan guide, the one who would be punished for any of his group’s transgressions. The soldier was poised, surveying the scene below. Hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims, identifiable by the different styles of dress from different parts of Tibet, walked or prostrated themselves around Jokhung. Prayers, songs and chanting mixed with the noise of a busy street. In front of Jokhung, pilgrims set up benches or mats in order to perform their prostrations while facing the temple. Their hands slid expertly over the slippery surfaces, faces touched the ground, and then they rose again to a standing position. Hands together, to the forehead to signify a pure body, to the throat for pure speech, and to the heart for a pure mind. Hardly the scene requiring heavy police and army surveillance.
Groups of young Tibetans were approached by Chinese police officers, asked for their identification and often asked to wait. What were they waiting for? Police officers, armed with body catchers and fire extinguishers, walked around the Barkhor circuit in the opposite direction of the pilgrims. Temporary structures, similar to party tents, were set up where groups of police or soldiers sat in the shade, surveying the scene. Tanks and paddy wagons were parked at the opposite end of Barkhor Square, ready to deal with anything. I would find out later, much later in India, what happens to Tibetans once they are arrested. They are tortured, imprisoned based on loose suspicions, and often go missing, never to return to their families. All for a slogan of "Freedom", a poem, or a picture.
On day three of our 12 days in Tibet, we stood at the Base Camp of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. We were blown away, awestruck, and as the five of us, our guide, Nathan, Nalani, Toby and I climbed the short incline to a view point, we were left breathless, both figuratively and literally. At this altitude, oxygen was low and our minds and lungs were feeling the effects. We had ascended over 4500 m in only a few days of driving. We took photographs, waxed lyrical over the myths and dreams that have surrounded the massive peak, and pinched ourselves several times. Later, at our hotel in Sheghar, I was doubled over in pain. The throbbing in my head was worse than any migraine I have ever had, and while Toby went to get me water, I entertained thoughts of a statistical nature – what were the odds that this was a blood clot and that I would die? Would I be given a traditional sky burial, my body fed to the vultures, returning to nature, my spirit now free? With sugar and water in my system I succumbed to a short sleep, one that eradicated my fears and my pain.
On day two of our 12 days in Tibet our small group wandered the streets of Tingri. We spotted a China Post outlet, a Bank of China, and a Chinese police station. Chinese text mingled with Tibetan on store signs, though the Chinese was almost always larger and more prominent. Packages of instant noodles shared shelf space with prayer flags. Packs of dogs roamed the asphalt-covered road that wound its way through the main street of this town, which was obviously created for the travellers passing through en route to Lhasa. Mileage markers indicated our distance from Shanghai, as a reminder that we were in China. Maybe, I thought, this isn’t so bad. Maybe the Chinese influence has been a good thing for Tibet. Maybe the Chinese have helped the Tibetans enter the 21st century. That was certainly the message we heard on TV while visiting China. That was certainly the message being repeated to Chinese citizens, Tibetan minorities and the outside world. Was I being convinced?
On day seven of our 12 days in Tibet we climbed the steps of the Potala Palace, which should be the residence of the Dalai Lama. The massive building towers over Lhasa, and despite the construction that has evolved over the last 60 years at the base of the hill, it remains a place of beauty, an iconic emblem of Tibet and a source of pride and strength for the Tibetan people. It brought me near tears to see Tibetans place their heads on the lower wall of the Palace in silent prayer. The Palace is empty, a shell of its former self, a museum commemorating a former life. The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and an outspoken proponent of peace and love, is not welcome here. His image is not welcome anywhere. His people dare not speak his name. He has been brandished a separatist, and as one who speaks against the Chinese government, an enemy of the Chinese government. From his safe haven in India he continues to speak for the Tibetan people, to fight for their rights, but as media and internet access is censored in Tibet, they cannot hear his voice nor read his words.
On day 12 of our 12 days in Tibet, Toby and I were on our own in Lhasa. Free to wander, free to observe, but not free at all. Freedom in Tibet is a luxury afforded to no one. Tourists are free to see what the government has pre-approved with a pre-approved guide who has been taught what to say and what to avoid. Tibetans are free to practice their religion, seen as a weakness in the eyes of the Communist Chinese government, but not free to speak of their religious leader. Chinese nationals are free to re-locate to Lhasa – rewarded handsomely, even – but are not free to know the truth about the “peaceful liberation of Tibet” that occurred 60 years ago. Landmarks, flags and monuments celebrate this anniversary with enthusiasm. Soldiers guard these monuments, backed up by security cameras. No one is free to protest. No one is free to speak out within the country. No one is free to question the changes.
On day 15 after leaving Tibet, we dined at a Tibetan restaurant in Pokara, Nepal. We chatted with the friendly owner and mentioned that we had visited Tibet. He explained that with the new guidelines that all tourists who visit Tibet must have a guide, private driver and pre-approved itinerary, the government is able to monitor and regulate exactly what visitors see. It’s what happens outside of the tourist circuit that doesn’t make the news. Rumours of self-immolation in Sechuan province, China, had been spreading, as was the disappearance of 300 monks for “re-education”. Outside journalists were not able to confirm these reports. During the 60th anniversary of “Liberation”, tourist visas for Tibet were not issued, closing off the area to all but Chinese visitors. What was happening in Tibet? One of the things he had heard of was that the education system was slowly removing Tibetan texts from schools and replacing them with Chinese texts. They had also recently banned any religious activities and icons in public schools. The new railway line was slowly drawing precious minerals out of the Tibetan mountains and timber from Tibetan forests and bringing them to mainland China. When I asked if things were better in Nepal, he answered that while the Tibetans had freedom of information and media, they did not have rights as citizens of Nepal. They were not allowed to enter Tibet, and without a passport, not allowed to leave Nepal.
Free Tibet. The singers have stopped singing, the celebrity spokespeople have quieted down, but things continue to spiral for the Tibetans, away from the culture, traditions and choices they have made over the centuries of life in the harsh Himalayan climate, toward the white-washing of Communist Chinese culture where everyone is “equal” but no one is valued. Driving through the Himalayan Mountains, the snow-capped mountains looking close enough to touch, the actual Rooftop of the World, feeling high as a kite one moment and lower than low the next, is an experience I’ll always relate to Tibet.