Saturday, June 30, 2012

Three Weeks in China - a taste of Tibet

Presently, I am on the airplane to Nepal.  I have thought long and hard about the title of this blog entry.  In my opinion Tibet barely exists any longer.

A  bit of background. The Chinese under Mao Zedong took over Tibet in 1959.  Based on different books that I have read & discussions it was a very harsh time to say the least.  The wealthy & religious Tibetans who did not successfully flee to Dharmsala, the Tibetan Free State in India were stripped of all of their possessions, imprisoned, tortured, raped & starved. The ordinary citizen just subsisted under a socialist state.  Religion was stamped out with destruction of thousands of Tibetan monasteries and nearly 100% of the religious artifacts.

If we leap forward to the 1980’s liberalization with respect to religion occurred. Monasteries began to be re-built. Today there are a lesser number of monasteries than before and often only a fraction of the monks and nuns are in residence as compared to the 50’s.   On a different front, we worked hard to seek out Tibetan culture for 3 weeks in Amdo and Kham. We found pockets in select cities and none in others.  Why was this?  Tourists like me, the internet, TV, videos were all causing dilution of the culture.  Even more invasive is the Chinese Government.  Today they have specified that Tibet equals Lhasa and nothing more.  Amdo, Kham and U Tsang are not classified as Tibet.  They are classified as China.

It is my opinion that the Tibetan culture is being systematically stamped out by the Chinese Government.  While they are offering education to the Tibetan children they are taught that they are Chinese, not Tibetan.  The Tibetan language and culture is only taught in the home.  I have written about the Nomad situation.  They are being given smaller, defined plots of land and the number of animals that they are permitted to raise is smaller than before, based on the head count in the family.  The nomads are being offered cinder block home in cluster developments with food subsidies for several years as a way of incenting them to get off the land.  These are un-educated people; what will become of them when the subsidies run out?  There children are away from the home in residential state run schools with Chinese indoctrination.  

The Chinese government has been financially inscenting Han Chinese to move into specially built mid rise apartment buildings in towns that were previously Tibet. Many of these people are setting up shops.  

These little towns are looking more and more Chinese and less and less Tibetan.

The Chinese are paid more than the Tibetans when filling government jobs. Options for the Tibetans to earn a living are less and less every day.  They are getting boxed in. While some are able to secure Chinese passports, travel beyond Nepal is cost prohibitive for most.  Visa to India are forbidden since it is assumed that they are intending to go to Dharmasala. 

Tibet is rich in natural resources and China is stripping it all out to support the rapid growth in Mainland China.  Everything; minerals, wood, oil, timber and water.

If a location looks like a possible money maker than the Chinese government is taking it over, re-fashioning it into something that they think is desirable.  In actuality it becomes more modern and fake, and they are collecting significant admission fees.  This is what I am told Lhasa looks like today- Chinese dominated and army infested to the hilt.  I personally had a taste of this on the Chang Minority Village that I visited.

Speaking with my Driver who has escorted tourists for 28 years I asked about the timing of all of these changes.  He tells me that they have been progressively happening since the 1980’s.  Every time he re-visits a town, it becomes more modern & more Chinese.

Construction is rampant.  New sidewalks, roads sewers, bridges, tunnels…Dust and filth when it is dry and mud when it rains.

Politically, China is a very closed and repressive regime.  Its citizens and tourists are not permitted to access social networks like Facebook, anything about Dharmsala, or anything that is seemingly controversial.  Police and military presence on the street is strong in all towns.  Gatherings of the Tibetan people is discouraged.  The major Horse Festivals, Yushu and Litang where the Tibetan Nomads showed off their beautiful horses, riding skills, jewelry and clothing have been cancelled by the Chinese Government. 

My guide was paranoid that my picture taking in some towns would get him arrested.

Internet access at an Internet Cafe for all citizens and tourists required entry of a citizens ID number (like our passport #)- everything is trackable.  My internet access is cut in one particular hotel on the 2nd day when the government is in residence having a business meeting.  By comparison, we in America have such a transparent political system.  Yeah sure there are secrets and information that is under the cloak of “national security” but by comparison our doors are wide open.  

I am told that Dalai Lama #15, the next Lama after HH (His Holiness) was arrested at the age of 3. Today he is 19 years old and still in prison.  The Chinese government has selected the next Lama to succeed His Holiness and he is a Chinese citizen.

When asking Tibetans if they become angry about the situation they explain that anger is not an emotion in the Buddhist teachings.  Violence is also a no-no. 

On the subject of Self-Immolation, I ask why is this happening and in increasing frequency in 2012 over prior years?  I am told that it is a plea for the Dali Lama to come home as well as the hope of those that light them self on fire to be re-incarnated into a better life.

I have always thought of myself as someone interested in culture.  In pursuit of culture, I cannot help but to observe & understand how the political landscape has and is impacting the culture of the Tibetan people. 

On a personal note travel to these remote locations was frustrating, tiresome and a bit disappointing at times despite having a Tibetan guide and driver. It is not my intention to paint a bleak picture just truthfully describe what I saw and experienced.

Beyond the challenges and considerations I have described, I still recommend visiting Tibet.  I believe that it needs to be done in a timely manner. I will share the same thought that others told me before embarking on this trip. While today is not as good as yesterday it is better than what you will experience tomorrow.  If you are interested, I propose that you travel to the Tibetan Regions of Amdo and Kham soon. Don't even bother with Lhasa- its been totally ruined.  There is still authentic Tibetan life to be experienced. 

To quote a fellow photographer, Phil Borges, Tibet is a Culture on the Edge.  Go now, you cannot afford to wait.  Hire an English speaking Tibetan guide and frequent Tibetan owned establishments.  You can still have an authentic experience while simultaneously putting money into the hands of the Tibetans.

Carpe Diem,