Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Postcard from Tibet

By James West and Sophie Wiesner as reported in the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald; September 12, 2006

There are three Tibets.

The Tibet you expect, the Tibet you get and the Tibet you're left with long after you leave: dizzyingly beautiful and aggressively occupied.

Officially, there's one foreigner route in from the north.

The authorities favour large, high-paying groups led by Chinese tour guides well-versed in Communist propaganda. But we decide to open Tibet's southern back door through Yunnan.

After days of paper shuffling to get our travel permit rubbed-stamped by five government departments, we have a Tibetan guide, a Pajero to tackle the mountain passes, and seven days to drive overland to Lhasa.

Coughing up that much cash, you want Tibet to choke you with majesty.

The Tibet you get, however, is an overload of officialdom and control. We roll through ugly towns dominated by government complexes and on day three, in the town of Paksho, we must register with police.

The militaristic deskman looks at our guide: "But they are foreigners!" he barks, demanding our passports and permits.

The Tibet you get is also thoroughly Chinese, down to its internet gaming parlours and thumping clubs.

Tuppy, our guide, is a fan of Chinese modernisation. He wears a Nirvana T-shirt, hightops and a bad boy attitude.

By day three, we haven't seen many Tibetans apart from Tuppy and our driver. Tuppy takes us to a Tibetan restaurant and gets upset when we ask why we haven't stayed with Tibetans. He tells us to take it up with the company.

Later, in Lhasa, the Tibet you get is more sombre.

A monk approaches us with snuff tobacco from a small tin. He's not allowed to wear his robes. "Have you seen him?" he asks referring to the Dalai Lama.

"Of course," we say, "on TV."

The monk's eyes moisten as he shakes his prayer beads. He saw the Dalai Lama once, as a boy, but can't remember clearly. It was too long ago.

There's a monument to liberation, sticking like a big middle finger, out of the People's Square.

It's a reminder of occupation, not that there are many Tibetans left to remind -- they make up just one-third of the population.

On the roof of the Jokhang Temple, Sambo, a 22-year-old monk studying English, whispers, "I feel Tibetan culture become weaker and weaker."

He says there's only Mandarin taught in schools and that development is threatening the environment. He tells us none of the money flowing from tourism goes to Tibetans.

In another temple, we ask why there are no pictures of the Dalai Lama where there would normally be a shrine. "The Chinese Government will attack," Sambo says.

The third Tibet is the one you're left with, a bewildering mix.

It's beautiful: in the setting sun, against mountain scenery, the yak look like galumphing couches.

It's magical: the prayer flags, the whirling drums and prostrated pilgrims; drinking yak butter tea in our yak-skin tents.

And it's in conflict.My strongest memory is of that monk's eyes wet with affection, and then the words of Tuppy: "Chinese and Tibetan are the same; there used to be 55 minorities in China. We are the 56th."