Are we psychotic? Are we carrying ‘biologicals’...?
Arrival in the ‘forbidden city’ of Lhasa.
Is TINTIN OK? Packing for Tibet is no simple matter. Can’t have anything with a picture of the Dalai Lama in it for a start. I’m halfway through Catriona Bass’s excellent Inside the Treasure House but that’s too risky to take. While the mammoth Tibetan Handbook by Victor Chan might seem a bit too keen for the casual tourist I’m supposed to be. China allows into Tibet only two or three Western journalists it can trust a year and likes to keep them on a tight rein. I wrote ‘English teacher’ on my visa application.
All foreigners are suspect. ‘Expect to be searched and have your hotel room bugged,’ I have been warned. So I’m being extra careful. No tape-recorder. Notebook restricted to one. Just a few rolls of film. A couple of popular guidebooks. And of course Tintin in Tibet.
In the mid-1980s China was trying to boost tourism in Tibet and published a target of half-a-million tourists a year. Now tourism is down to a trickle and the country is officially open only to travel groups organized by an approved tour operator. I am part of a tourist group. The fact that the group consists of two of us, my partner Chris and me, is proof of the ingenuity of some Nepalese travel agents.
We try to blend in to one of the large groups of tourists. These are the visitors the Chinese authorities like. They pay a lot for their holidays, they move in a very visible and controllable form, and they are everywhere accompanied by an approved guide who is often their sole source of information on (and thus their insulation from) the realities of Tibet.
The Chinese South Western Airlines plane is filled by three groups – one French, one Spanish and one Italian. The French are well-heeled, middle-aged, trekking types. They have paid $3,000 for their holiday (excluding airfares). We take off, climbing quickly out of the treacherous Kathmandu Valley. As we pass Everest, its peak soaring way above the clouds, I think of the refugees I interviewed in Kathmandu, clambering across these incredible mountains with only roasted barley flour (tsampa) to nourish them.
The green of the Nepalese countryside has given way to the arid brown of Tibet. But it’s not just brown. It’s a subtle rainbow of gold, mauve, orange, blue and the odd little strip of green in the valleys. It’s an awesome, uncompromising landscape, whose character has helped Tibetans keep out unwanted visitors. That was up to the time of the Chinese invasion – or ‘liberation’ as the Chinese say – in 1950.
Suspicion of foreigners has taken a new turn in Tibet, I think, as we fill in our embarkation forms for the Chinese authorities. It kicks off by asking us whether we suffer from: ‘Psychosis, leprosy, aids, active pulmonary disease, TB, fever, cough.’ It gets more puzzling when the line of inquiry shifts to whether the visitor is carrying ‘blood products’, ‘biologicals’ or ‘second-hand clothes’. Should I declare the jeans I’m wearing – bought second-hand from an Oxfam shop?
About 50 uniformed officials watch us disembark at Gongkar airport. Interspersed are equally official-looking men, wearing what I take to be a standard spy’s uniform of plain clothes, regulation sunglasses and nylon made-in-China imitation straw hats. A Tibetan driver is there to meet us and we start the 90-kilometre, three-hour journey to Lhasa.
The high mountain air is clear and sharp as a knife, the light white and almost painfully bright. We cross the Yarlung Tsangpo River which flows across the high Tibetan plateau before looping south to enter Bangladesh. In the middle of the bridge stands a lone Chinese soldier, looking bored out of his skull. He cuts a rather sad figure, and looks quite literally out of place. For Chinese soldiers and officials being posted in Tibet is a bit like being sent to Siberia. In their eyes it’s a backward, unhealthy place with little oxygen.
Occasionally a two-storey turreted Tibetan farm compound appears in the landscape, looking like a miniature walled city. Strung across the turrets are brightly coloured Buddhist prayer flags which will remain until all their colour has faded – an indication that the prayers have all been picked up and carried off by the wind ‘horses’.
Our driver stops for a smoke and a pee and a group of half-a-dozen children of various shapes and sizes comes up to us, their shyness visibly competing with their curiosity. Curiosity wins out and a big lad of about 10 or 11 says softly: ‘Dalai Lama?’
We softly say back: ‘Dalai Lama,’ and they smile. It seems to be a code for many things, including: ‘Are you with us or against us?’ The Chinese made a serious miscalculation when they decided to boost tourism in the 1980s. They never anticipated the degree of sympathy Western tourists would have for Tibetans, their culture and their struggle for independence. Foreigners not only sympathized; many helped by smuggling into Tibet tapes of talks by the Dalai Lama and taking out information about human-rights abuses.
We approach Lhasa on a wide, open road, dynamited right through the natural wall of mountain and built for military trucks. It feels like a strange way to enter this particular city which for hundreds of years has been the archetypal romantic, forbidden city, perched 3,600 metres high on the roof of the world, the tantalizing dream of travellers, missionaries and explorers.
The Potala Palace comes into view, perched on its hilltop high above all other buildings. I try to relate what I see now with old photos of Lhasa I have seen. It’s not easy. The demolition of Tibetan buildings has accelerated so dramatically in the past three years that today only about two per cent of the city is still Tibetan in style. What has taken its place is low, uninspiring concrete-and-glass blocks, ill-suited both aesthetically and to Tibet’s climate.
We pass quickly though the city centre and get to the Chinese state-owned Sunlight Hotel. As part of our ‘tour’ we are obliged to spend two nights in this ‘luxury’ hotel. Whatever the intention behind the big ‘Welcome’ sign in English as you go into the foyer, the spirit is absent. Our questions to the staff in reception are met with a turning of the head – in the opposite direction – or a blank stare. Am I being paranoid? Are the staff under orders not to co-operate with individual travellers who have slipped the ‘guided tour’ net? Or are they always like this?
Suddenly I remember Tashi, our Tibetan interpreter in Kathmandu, giving a valedictory piece of advice. ‘When you go to Tibet don’t go with negative feelings towards the Chinese. Go with an open mind and a pure heart.’ He’s right of course. But what if state control and surveillance makes it impossible to talk to anyone, whether Chinese or Tibetan?
I recall Catriona Bass’s book set in Tibet in the mid-1980s where she describes friendships and conversations with both Chinese and Tibetans. And I recall her grim epilogue in which she describes what has happened to some of the Tibetan friends she so vividly evoked in her narrative – killed, tortured or imprisoned now.
Of course none of this is obvious to the sightseer at the Potala Palace, former residence of the Dalai Lama. Here scores of camera-clicking Chinese can be seen apparently enjoying Tibet’s cultural heritage. The authorities have spent hundreds of thousands of yuan restoring the amazing 1,000-room, 13-storey building. There are large signs to that effect. The fact that the restoration makes Tibetophiles turn roughly the same hue as the bilious green paint the Chinese are using is another matter. The message we are supposed to receive is that the Chinese have changed, they do care and are trying.
At the foot of the Potala a vast Tiananmen-style square, complete with grandiose chandelier lamps, is in the final stages of being built. Tibetan houses have been demolished for the project. In the middle is a Chinese military aircraft. With its back to the Potala a large stand for the Tibet Autonomous Region Anniversary celebrations which are due soon is being built by Tibetan workers.
A Tibetan woman stops in front of the scaffolding and prays through it to the Potala crowning the hill high above. As the residence of the god-king Dalai Lama the Potala was one the great sacred places of Lhasa. Today its raison d’être is absent and in exile. Only in the hopes and dreams of people like this woman does the Potala retain its meaning.
Meanwhile a group of Germans are negotiating with cycle-rickshaw drivers to take them to the Barkhor – the old heart of Lhasa. The rickshaw drivers will wait for them while they have a quick look around and then drive them back to the Holiday Inn.
Do these tourists, I wonder, have any inkling of what has been happening in the Barkhor in recent times?
Do they know that this is the bloody centre-stage for Tibet’s independence struggle and the place where China makes palpable its iron fist?
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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