In an earlier blog entry, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay about dual head crashes while in Tibet. I experienced altitude sickness and migraines. I also suffered a disk failure because the heads lacked enough air to fly above the platters. Both were minor annoyances during a wonderful visit to a region rich with history and natural beauty. Hence, I have been following the recent news about Tibet with great sadness and thought it appropriate to comment on my experiences.
One needs a special alien travel permit to visit Tibet, even after entering China on a visa. For most, this means one can visit Tibet only by joining a tour organized by a travel agency that is recognized by the Chinese government. Although internal Chinese tourism is increasing as more Chinese citizens now have disposable income, Tibet remains an exotic place even for most of them. I realized this when my Chinese academic colleagues from Beijing expressed surprise and wonder than I had just returned from Tibet.
My wife and I flew into Lhassa rather than take the new, pressurized train. The train would have given us more time to see the countryside, but we had time constraints. Technically, one cannot fly into Lhassa, even though the airport bears that name. It is about an hour away by car. The roads are not that bad, but your kidneys will definitely take a beating.
We arrived at our hotel to find an oxygen tank in the room and a stern letter informing us that portable oxygen bottles were available at the front desk if desired. We laughed, but then I paid the biological and technological price. Having said that, Lhassa was everything I could have imagined – and more – breathtakingly beautiful and intellectually fascinating.
The Potala: An Empty Palace
The Potala is one of the great attractions for any visitor to Tibet. Its construction began in the 1600s, under the then Dalai Lama, and it remained home to his successors until the current Dalai Lama fled in the 1950s. At 3,700 meters (12,100 feet), the Potala is built into the side of Marpo Ri ("Red Mountain"). One can only marvel at the work that was required to construct the palace with hand tools. The palace is magnificent, not only because of its placement, but also because of its size and majesty. It is both regal and natural – it makes the mountain complete.
One of the sad ironies of burgeoning tourism is that the Potala is now empty. It and many other cultural artifacts were ravaged during the Cultural Revolution. (Editorial comment: What an unmitigated disaster the Cultural Revolution was for all of China.) If you look carefully, you can still see residual indications. One of our tour guides shyly pointed out a painted sign on the interior wall of a temple that dated from the Cultural Revolution.
Directly across from the Potala sits a great plaza of stone, with monument and a Chinese flag on a very tall pole. One suspects that neither the placement of the plaza nor its contents were an accident. It can only be seen as a political statement of power.
One of the other notable aspects of Lhassa was the large number of small businesses, many operated by ethnic Chinese rather than Tibetans. When I asked about this, my tour guide tried to change the subject. When I pressed the question, he reluctantly said that this was a source of Tibetan frustration – that the government was offering low interest business loans for relocation to Tibet. However, I have no independent verification of this fact. It may or may not be true.
While in Lhassa, my wife and I visited many of the places, including the monasteries where there have been protests. The afternoon debating sessions were especially notable, where one monk would pose a series of questions to another, debating the responses.
Religion is a deep part of the Tibetan culture, something immediately obvious to even the most casual observer. Temples dot the cities and countryside, people visit in a steady stream, and prayer wheels are found in the hands of many Tibetan women. The Dalai Lama is revered, both as a religious figure and as a symbol of Tibetan culture.
Whatever your political or cultural opinion on the complex issue of culture and Tibetan sovereignty, there can be no doubt that this is a sad and nuanced story for both China and Tibet. I hope for a better day.