A Travellerspoint blog

Bollywood!!

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

I initially thought the idea of writing a blog entry about Bollywood was not necessary. Then I met an American woman travelling in Mexico who frowned when I brought it up. "What's Bollywood?" she asked.

How do I explain...

Bollywood is India's movie industry. But it's more than that. Bollywood sets the tone for society in India. Bollywood entertains, educates, distracts, suggests, leads, and follows. Bollywood stars are the key figures in society in India. The really big - top 10 - stars are virtually everywhere. They land ad campaigns and reality shows, star in music videos, dominate conversation topics, weigh in on social issues, and represent the hopes and dreams of everyday Indians. You really can't travel to India without getting to know them personally.

Bollywood churns out many movies every year. The turnover in the theatres is pretty frequent, and the songs that are written for each movie move up the top ten charts. It's strange to see a music video for a song that isn't featured in a recent movie. Songwriters and singers are behind the scenes, as these videos feature clips from the movie and the stars lip-syncing and dancing to the tune.

The key thing I learned about Bollywood is that Indians do not need Hollywood movies. In my North American bubble, I thought Hollywood was the be-all and end-all of movie making. Not so. While the biggest Hollywood movies will play in Indian theatres, they are inevitably second-fiddle to the home-grown flicks. Their posters are dwarfed in comparison to Shah Rukh Khan or Kareena Kapoor's latest.

The three Bollywood movies we watched while in India are Delhi Belly, Ghost, and Jodi Breakers. All pushed the envelope regarding social norms, enacted things the typical Indian wouldn't dare engage in, and gave frequent musical interludes with choreographed dance routines. The audience whooped and laughed and gasped at all the right times. And even though they lacked English subtitles, we understood the love, the hate, the fear and the joy in each scene. English words and phrases peppered the dialogue, so we were certain to follow all the action.

Traditionally, actors in a Bollywood film would express their mutual love through song, and it was well publicized that there was no kissing on screen. But times are changing. Kissing, and occasionally even more, is making its way to the masses, and even though a recent bikini scene in the movie Players made national headlines, India is pushing the envelope when it comes to what it shows on-screen.

Feast your eyes on the Best Of Bollywood!

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The Regal Theatre in Mumbai

Posted by Lis.L 10:04 Archived in India Tagged india theatre music mumbai movies bollywood Comments (1)

India's Trash

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

India’s trash goes on the street. Garbage, collected from homes, is tossed on the nearest street. Animals (cows, buffalo, goats, dogs and monkeys) who wander the streets defecate and urinate as needed. Men spit paan on the street, and perform “farmer’s blows” to alleviate nasal congestion. Pant-less babies are free to relieve themselves as needed. After consuming chai or a snack, the garbage is tossed to the road without a second thought. Bus, car and train windows are used to purge trash from the vehicles. Makeshift urinals are created whenever there is a running sewer or just a darkish corner. The smells of urine, feces, rotting food (which is only avoided by street animals after it is particularly rancid), mud and dust fill the air around the worst of India’s streets. So it follows that the street dwellers are the lowest of the low in India.

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Street children and stray dogs are two of the street’s inhabitants. Left to wander, they are surprisingly territorial and stick to a particular thoroughfare or intersection. Left to fend for themselves, the instinct to survive is dependent on one thing; the need for food.

While sitting on a bus, waiting as passengers filed on, I watched one particular boy and a particular dog. What surprised me the most were the similarities between the two. They stood out of the way of traffic, virtually invisible to the passersby. They followed dropped items to see if any of it was edible. They lingered near food vendors. They nudged people with items in their hands. Their eyes darted to take in the bustling scene, focused on filling their needs. They cowered when men came too close, or raised a hand or leg to them. They were dirty, likely covered with a skin infection, and most of all, they were alone.

My usual stance on avoiding giving to children who are begging, selling or performing was challenged in India. My original reasoning was that I shouldn’t help the children to be successful in these activities, as they will avoid going to school in order to continue their practice. But in India, free public education is not available, and school is often not an option. So what happens to all the street children? Are they viewed as being on par with dogs? How does a child, who is stimulated only by their daily struggle for food, develop into a well-rounded adult? Does a street child have any future other than drugs, disease, or crime?

Stray dogs are particularly rampant in India. They, unlike children, breed at astonishing rates, and the next generation of street dogs can be seen huddling in cracks of pavement. We have seen litters of puppies in every town in India, often at a rate of one litter per street. The puppies are precious in their precocious innocence, but are often already leery of human contact. They, like their parents, develop skin conditions, have ticks and fleas, injure limbs, and will eventually have the glazed-over look of a dog raised on the street. Garbage is their only source of food, and sewage is often the only source of water.

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India’s gems have revealed themselves to us in the form of historical relics, religious pilgrimage sites and genuine people. However, the biggest issues India faces, which are, in my opinion, the lack of sanitation and the treatment of its neediest inhabitants, are also all around us, just like the trash on the street.

Posted by Lis.L 18:08 Archived in India Tagged india dogs dirty trash poverty garbage litter street_children Comments (3)

Life and Death in Varanasi

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

We arrived in Varanasi late at night. The sun had set and we sat in the back of the rickshaw, anxiously awaiting the walk to our hotel. The oldest part of Varanasi has narrow lanes, too narrow for cars or rickshaws, so we had to walk. The rickshaw stopped. Disoriented, we searched for a landmark. We spotted a Post Office and quickly checked our Lonely Planet for the icon on their map. It was far away from our ghat. We grew impatient, telling the driver that we wouldn't pay until he took us closer to Schindia Ghat. He patiently brought over a random man who spoke English. "You are close," the second man explained calmly. "There are two Post Offices in Varanasi." Embarrassed by our lack of composure and our quick-to-blame mentality, we paid the driver and started to walk.

Lost in the alleyways, we followed rule number one of safe travel: always look like you know where you're going. We took turns with confidence, avoided unlit alleys and chose routes with busy shops. Eventually we admitted that it was futile. A young man approached us and asked if we were lost. He pointed us in the right direction and walked the opposite way. Later, another man approached us and told us we could follow him to the ghat. Our instinct to distrust was triggered and we looked at each other warily. Follow a stranger down a dark alley? What choice did we have?

We reached the sacred Ganges River and the man stopped. He explained that he lived in the opposite direction than we were headed, but wished us luck and welcomed us to Varanasi. He asked if he could be friends with Toby on Facebook, but to this day hasn't added him. He helped us purely out of the kindness of his heart. We found our hotel and began search number two of the night.

Looking for a restaurant in the maze was another challenge. Far from the main, and more touristy ghat, we didn't have a lot of choice. Again we passed a group of guys who asked us where we were heading. After walking us to the restaurant, we were starting to have a new respect for Indian men. Then the famous line was quickly uttered; "If you have some time tomorrow, you could come to see my shop. You don't have to buy anything, but just to look..."

And there is was. Life in Varanasi means survival, and for shop-keepers in this touristy town it means offering one service in exchange for another. I'll show you the way, if you help me fill my pockets.

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Boat trips to admire the crumbling, magnificent buildings lining the Ganges is a must-do activity for Indian and foreign tourists. Boat rowers, eager to cash-in on the naivete of foreigners and thus the opportunity to overcharge, exclaimed with gusto, "Hello, Boat!" when a gora walked by. We joked to ourselves that in this town, all foreigners were called Boat.

Life not centered on tourism was not so different than in other parts of India. When the sun began to set, groups of children flocked to the ghats, the only truly open space in town. They brought with them kites, which inevitably tangled with power lines, washing lines and each other. They brought curved stones and sticks for a bounce-and-hit game I have yet to see elsewhere. They brought balls and bats for often interrupted games of cricket, where the last man in line was in charge of retrieving the ball from the murky water at regular intervals. They brought badminton racquets and birdies, and one evening I sat with some guys who wanted to hear about Canada while Toby played keep-up with another. Life for these young men and boys centered on fun.

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Other children weren't so lucky. Life in Varanasi means eking out a living by selling. When the nightly puja ceremony drew near, they circulated through the crowds, hawking their floating bowls of flowers and candles. Postcards, bracelets, and other small trinkets for sale were toted through the crowds in the main ghat.

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For the first time in our trip, we didn't have to worry about offending people by taking their pictures. Kids, ladies, and even men wearing only towels approached us to ask us to take their pictures. They posed, sometimes with sombre faces, sometimes in jest, and beamed when their images was displayed on our camera screen.

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Life in Varanasi isn't confined to human life. Dogs, cows, buffaloes, goats, birds and cats survive, reproduce and die on this famous river. Cows navigate narrow passageways and feast on vegetable waste, left on the streets by women. Buffaloes bathe in the sacred waters alongside men washing laundry and Brahmins, with the white string diagonally draped across their bare chest subtly declaring that they are Brahmin, taking a holy bath to wash away their sins. One night we watched two young goats, dressed awkwardly in sweaters, climb and play through a pile of concrete rubble. This was their Alps. They butted each other playfully, oblivious to their unnatural habitat.

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But there is another side to Varanasi, and that is death. The sacred Ganges River is considered a most auspicious place, and to die here means that the person has escaped the cycle of rebirth and reincarnation. The elderly contemplate life at its riverbanks. Families relocate here near the time of imminent death of a loved one. And once death has come, they prepare for cremation.

Cremation is big business in Varanasi. At the burning ghats, piles of wood are ready for a family to purchase. It is a science to determine how much wood is needed to burn an entire corpse. Male family members stand around and participate in the activity, while women are not seen, but may be watching from afar. Bodies, draped in orange fabric, are carried through the streets in procession to the ghat. Feet and sometimes faces exposed, the flames reach into the sky, smoke wafting into the eyes of onlookers. Once the body has turned to ash, men wade with sieves full of it, shaking the remains into the Ganges River, removing any trinkets left behind.

Needless to say, cremations are sombre events and it would be highly inappropriate for tourists to photograph these personal occasions. This fact is well communicated, in hotel lobbies, guide books and on signs at the ghat. However, walking by the ghats every day of our stay, we were guaranteed to hear a local man "helpfully" say, "Please don't photograph the burning ghat. And don't pay any money if someone asks you to help to pay for the cremation. Those are scam artists." What was the intention of these men?

We didn't photograph the burning ghat. We respected the rule. We avoided it, even, feeling intrusive. We scoffed at other tourists, who gawked, often dressed inappropriately, and seemed to interfere. One day, standing quite far from the burning ghat, Toby snapped a shot of the temples above the burning ghat, which seemed to surround our hotel from this vantage point. He told me later that he debated whether this picture would be appropriate, but reasoned that it was as long as the burning ghat was not included. Then he photographed a cow and showed it to me, laughing. Suddenly four men appeared. The next five minutes of my life went by very quickly. They asked to see Toby's picture. (The Cow? Are they being friendly? I thought.) They insisted that he had photographed the burning ghat. They accused him of stealing the dead person's soul. They told him he had bad Karma, and had affected the dead person's Karma. They insisted that he needed to go the police station. They threatened that the family of the dead person would break his camera - or his arm. They told us we needed to pay. Either we pay the family, or we would be arrested and have to spend six months in jail.

In my scrambled mind, I was confused. I knew Toby hadn't photographed the burning ghat, that police officers in India are often corrupt, and that they were speaking on top of each other on purpose to make us anxious. I calmly suggested that Toby should delete the photo and all would be well. They shouted that he should not. They grabbed Toby's arm. Toby angrily pulled away, losing his calm. Finally, they told us to pay or go to the police. We decided to "go to the police station" and started to walk very quickly. Our minds racing, we whispered to each other to decide what to do. The word "pay" had triggered the thought that this was a huge scam. We recalled the numerous Indian tourists we had seen photographing the burning ghat, even boldly with flash. We recalled that postcards were sold featuring burning bodies on them. We rationalized that these men had been waiting for a camera to be pointed in the direction of the ghat in order to exploit us. The fear slowly turned to anger.

One man escorted us, shouting at us that we were in big trouble. Toby, in a flash of anger that I have never seen before or since, turned to the man and in colourful language told him to leave. I hushed at Toby to calm down. I didn't know what these men were capable of. They outnumbered us, they knew the city, and they may have known the police. For some reason, the man stopped following us.

The rest of the day, while waiting for an overnight train, we watched over our shoulders and stayed alert. We debated whether our reactions helped or hurt us. In hindsight, we could have calmly rejected their claims, stating that it was bad Karma to threaten and intimidate tourists out of their money. In the end, our balance, Toby's anger and my calm, did the trick. I have wondered since whether this is the source of income for these men, and how terrible it is that tourists are likely to pay to avoid trouble.

On a separate occasion, I was harassed by someone else. A common tactic in Varanasi was for a local man to offer a hand to a tourist in welcome, then take the tourist's hand, massage it, and offer massage services. We caught on quickly and responded to outstretched hands with a Namaste prayer gesture. One man, acting strangely, perhaps from a neurological disease, was trying to sell me a massage while Toby was chatting with local men a few meters away. When the man didn't leave me, I heard a voice from the river. A man, in the middle of his bath, was yelling at the man to leave me alone. Meanwhile, three men walked by us and turned with concerned eyes to make sure the man left. I smiled at these men once I was alone, grateful that they were ready to come to my aid should I need it.

Kindness, scam artists, garbage-eating animals, child labor, cremation and offerings to the gods. Such is life and death, in Varanasi.

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Posted by Lis.L 20:38 Archived in India Tagged india ganges varanasi old_town pictures ghat cremation scam Comments (2)

Four Reasons to Visit Nepal

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

Number 1 – The Trekking

I imagine that trekking is the first connection people make when thinking about Nepal. It’s true, the treks here can take you to the highest peaks or the highest passes, through villages, through changing landscapes and through changing temperatures. The treks range from the best organized (Annapurna Circuit) to off the beaten track. You can choose to stay in tea houses, ranging from a few simple rooms attached to a family’s home to full-scale, albeit basic, hotels, or you can camp with a guide and porters. You can trek for a few days or a few weeks. The beauty about trekking in Nepal is that it is all possible and affordable.

We chose to do the Annapurna Circuit, primarily because it has a variety of scenery, one of the highest passes and is popular enough that you can follow the path and stay at tea houses without needing a guide. We were wary of being stuck with a guide that we didn’t get along with, or being tied to an itinerary without room to recuperate or relax as needed. We started our walk from Besishahar, took an acclimatization day at Manang, crossed the Throng-la pass on day 10 (5416 masl), then flew back to Pokhara from Jomsom on day 13. The reason we flew back instead of finishing the circuit was that the construction of a new road on the West side of the circuit meant moving to the side while trucks, motorbikes and jeeps passed us. This made us feel more like we were walking along a highway than hiking on a rural trail. I think we picked the right month to do this trek. We missed the rush of the crowds in October, and in November the temperature was cold but bearable at nights at the top, and warm in the sun at the bottom. We still reminisce about how cold it was on some of those nights. Thank heavens we carried our sleeping bags, and could get blankets from the tea houses. We would sleep in our clothes, forego a shower as it was cold water only at the top, and wear our wool toques to try to keep the warm in. On most nights we went to bed soon after the sun set – 7 pm – and woke when the sun rose at 6 in the morning. Trekking in the Himalayas is a great way to reset your daily routine, get back to nature and challenge yourself. It was an incredibly rewarding experience.

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Number 2 – the Tourism

Nepal’s busiest cities, Kathmandu and Pokara, are fully set up for tourists. There you can eat at restaurants that serve everything from Thai to Korean to Tibetan to Italian. You can find fresh bakeries on the corner, buy snacks at the many shops, and drink at the many bars. You can stock up for your trek at the many trekking shops, buy souvenirs at the many stalls, or watch a movie or a live band. There are a range of hotels to suit every budget, sights within walking distance or a tuk-tuk ride away, and plenty of tourists and locals to give you suggestions. Now, if this isn’t your cup of tea, you can journey to any of the close-by towns for a feel of Nepal that is more authentic. The beauty of Nepal is that you have the choice. While on our trek we were daydreaming of TV, pizza and hot showers, but after getting our fill once back in Pokara, we went to Lumbini, a Buddhist town with only a few tourists. Kathmandu is a magical blend of both worlds since you can stay in the tourist centre, called Thamel, or venture a short distance away to have a taste of real Nepal.

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Number 3 – the Festivals

While in Kathmandu we were lucky enough to witness two festivals – Tihar and Dashain. The wonderful part about these festivals was that they can be experienced on the streets, with shops, houses and entire neighbourhoods colourfully decorated. People flock to the street, and the festive atmosphere adds to the typical good nature and hospitality of the Nepali people. We were able to experience the festivities with all of our senses. We saw sand mandalas marking the entryway of each home so that the goddess Laxmi would visit them, larger mandalas on streets, kites fighting in the sky, and a special concert at the Durbar Square. We heard children going door to door singing songs in exchange for a few rupees, heard firecrackers snap, crackle and pop in the streets, and heard musical parades pass on the street. We smelled the oil in lamps lit for Deepavali, the garlands of marigolds which decorated door frames and the many special dishes cooking in Nepali kitchens.

We stayed in Kathmandu for 20 days, and got to know our hotel manager, Raj, quite well. When it was Bhai Tika, the brother/sister day of Tihar, he invited us to his home to celebrate with his family. We were so delighted and honoured to be a part of his family’s traditions, and we had a wonderful time! We watched as his beautiful sisters put tika on the foreheads of the men and boys, then Raj, the eldest brother, put tika on the girls. We ate delicious food, prepared by Raj’s sister in massive quantities! After having a snack while sitting on the floor, we sat at the table and ate again! We thoroughly enjoyed trying a little bit of everything, and their hospitality meant that our plates were never empty. It was so lovely to meet the family and get to know them a bit – and now we are friends on Facebook!

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Number 4 – the Architecture

In many places around the world, the key sights are a bus or taxi ride away from the city. In the historic cities of Nepal, such as Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan, the beautiful and unique architecture can be found on almost every street. Skilled craftsman display their work on the door frames or window coverings of each building. Courtyards and neighbourhoods share temples and stupas right in the middle of the daily action. Hidden idols, lingas, and engravings can been found with just a small search. In many cases, you don't need a guide book or to pay an entrance fee - just go for a stroll and look around! In other cases, such as the Durbar Squares, you pay a fee but the area still feels completely part of the city. There are no fences or ropes and you can climb the massive temple steps to watch local life pass by, touch idols that have recently been covered in tika, and observe the daily use of ancient buildings. The worn and aged facades, sometimes restored, sometimes not, just add to all the charm.

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Posted by Lis.L 15:16 Archived in Nepal Tagged architecture trek trekking festival nepal tourism annapurna kathmandu pokhara deepavali Comments (1)

Twelve Days in Tibet

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Posted by Lis.L 02:18 Archived in China Tagged mountains police china everest tour monastery soldier photograph tibet chinese lama lhasa potala pilgrim freedom government communism altitude liberation journalists barkhor Comments (3)

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