That was the first word that entered my head when we reached Lhasa and crossed the concrete concourse ‘bambi-legged’ towards our tour guide.
An austere grey building loomed outside, absent of any ornamentation. Only the oversized red flag that sat at its central pinnacle added a blast of colour to its totalitarianism. I suspected its sole purpose was not one of enhancement though, but rather a reminder that – ‘You are in China and Big Brother is watching you!’ – an objectification of intense repression.
The result of Chinese occupation didn’t end there… As we journeyed through the city of Lhasa, there was clear evidence that the once spiritual city had fallen hostage to China’s grip on capitalism. Boxy lines of concrete buildings splashed with angry red Chinese characters dominated the skyline. Billboards the size of houses advertised electronics, mobile networks, banking and new developments… The peaceful rule under the 14th Dalai Lama had long lost its shield against the modern world.
Even with the khata (white scarf) draped around my neck, (a customary Tibetan gift to offer greetings and well wishes), it felt like we had never departed mainland China. For one thing, mandarin was now the common tongue and secondly, Tibetans were a minority; sadly the result of China’s encouragement of ethnic Chinese migration following the failed uprising in 1959.
This was very different to the ‘romanticised’ portrayal I had in my head after watching the movie ‘Seven Years in Tibet’, but neither was it a huge surprise. I had visited McLeod Ganj (the official residence of the Dalai Lama) a few years ago, so I had read a few hard facts about China’s stranglehold on Tibet. For instance, since 1949, the Chinese have destroyed over 6,000 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and by 1978 only 8 active monasteries and 970 monks remain in what the Chinese renamed TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region).
Still, it was an entirely different matter to experience its oppression at first hand with Chinese government officials, security checks and road blocks placed in every corner of Tibet. The combination of oxygen starved lungs (we were at 3650 metres above sea level), and the notion of lining the pockets of the Han Chinese, made me want to retreat back to good old Liberation.
I had a duty to fulfil though… I wanted to alert the world what I had learnt about Tibet’s repression of political and civil rights, and how the Chinese are ousting out the ethnic Tibetans. His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself urges people to travel to Tibet, “To inform others of their experiences on their return.” I have the freedom of speech that the Tibetans do not have and perhaps in some small way, this will help the Tibetans gain their independence back from China.
Our guide, who I shall not name for obvious reasons, was a little tentative at first to speak about his country’s woes. I mistook his behaviour for standoffishness until he spoke to me in a quiet murmur under a tree draped with hundreds of khata. There was trepidation in his voice as he warned me that cars, hotels, palaces and all religious monuments are bugged; and that if I had any questions, he would be happy to answer them in the ‘right’ place.
So over my two weeks in Tibet, I learnt about the restrictions that had been forced upon these peaceful people. Prisoners in their own country, most Tibetans are not permitted to travel outside of Tibet; passports and papers are confiscated to ‘hide’ them from the outside world. We as tourists are their only window. To add insult to injury, the regime curtails the practice and traditions of Buddhism, and political activists (mainly monks and nuns) are allegedly imprisoned, tortured and even murdered. Despite the UN’s decree for Human Rights, China has repeatedly violated them.
Even agricultural land has been robbed from the Tibetans, and powerless to protect their own land, can merely stand and watch their resources drain out of their country. Rich in copper, gold, silver and even fresh clean water, the Chinese are reaping the benefits. Sources estimate that 70% of China’s own water is polluted from uncontrolled dumping of chemicals, but instead of resolving this issue, the Chinese government is diverting water from Tibet to north and west China to supply over 300 million Chinese people.
The Chinese may justify this on the billions it has poured in to infrastructure, however what seems to be the biggest ‘slap-in-the-face’, is the portrayal of Tibet’s history at the Tibet Museum. It was suddenly clear why the Tibetan guides may have chosen to wait outside the museum – The words “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” on a poster was just a preview of the extreme propaganda displayed at the museum.
There was more – “The peaceful liberation of Tibet proved that the policies of the Communist Party of China on ethnic minorities were correct and reflected the common aspiration and fundamental interests of the whole Chinese people including Tibetan people.”
My party of three (a Malaysian Chinese, a German and an Austrian) scoffed at the words. Were we the only tourists to spot this indoctrination? I scanned the room to vet the expressions of the other eye witnesses. Could they spot it too? But I was met with the blank stare of the Chinese, blissfully unaware of Tibet’s infringement… The result of a lifetime of brainwashing I’m guessing?
I realise this post has been a negative account of Tibet… I may have you questioning whether it is morally responsible to visit Tibet, but I haven’t written this with the purpose of enticement; more awareness of what is happening to this beautiful country. And Tibet is undoubtedly a beautiful, spellbinding place… The Tibetans are warm, gentle, hospitable people and despite the oppression, all is not lost to them… They have a resilience that shows in their weather beaten faces and in their heart-warming smiles, a sense of calm that not one government can ever take away from them.
As I listened to the consoling chanting of the Buddhist monks, I’m somehow reassured or at least hopeful that this faith and the spirituality of these lands will prevail. It only seems appropriate then to end this blog with an excerpt from the His Holiness the Dalai Lama –
‘There is a saying in Tibetan – ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength – No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.”
Entering Tibet –
If you’re planning to visit Tibet, the first thing people will tell you is it is not a straightforward procedure. Below is a checklist of what is required –
- Do not under any circumstances mention Tibet when applying for your Chinese visa. You will be denied access.
- Advance hotel bookings, details of flights (both inbound and outbound) and an itinerary MUST be provided as part of the visa application form.
- A permit is required to enter Tibet. In order to obtain a permit you will need a registered guide and driver as tourists are not permitted to enter Tibet unaccompanied. Absolutely no independent travel is allowed in Tibet.
- You should contact a travel agency at least 4 to 6 weeks before you plan to arrive inTibet to allow sufficient time for your permit to be processed.
- Avoid going to Tibet during Chinese holidays or peak season. Chances are your permit will be denied.
- Your travel agency / guide will apply for a permit on your behalf but you will need to scan and email both your passport and Chinese visa.
- If you’re travelling from mainland China, there are two ways to get to Lhasa. By air or by Overground (read my blog ‘Journey in to Tibet’). There are daily trains to Lhasa originating from Xining, Lanzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. For acclimatization purposes, train travel is probably the best option. Once you arrive by air or by train, you will be met by a Chinese official to check your papers.
- In order to purchase train or air tickets to Lhasa, a Tibet Travel Permit must be presented. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation so my advice is to pay the extra and ask your travel agency to organise this for you.
- Print out your permit and carry it with you at all times. Permits are almost always checked before taking the train to Lhasa and are always checked before boarding flights to Lhasa. Without a permit, you will not be allowed to board a flight or train or stay at a hotel.