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Tibetan Magic

August 17, 2007

Lhasa, Tibet —  “Nima,” calls a male voice from the outside, “Nima…”
Nima comes and goes from the tent where I sit sipping yak milk tea; she ensures that all of the guests always have their cups full, and hurries towards the many voices that keep calling her name. She is just eighteen, and she has been working here only since March, but it seems like she has already become a pillar for this small community of workers of the local tourism industry.

tibet7My journey across Tibet has taken me all the way to this campsite on the north face of Everest. The highest peak in the world shines right above us as the snow that covers its summit reflects the sunrays. I warm up next to a fire stove while smoke and the smell of coal fill the air inside the tent. The sign that stands outside the entrance calls this Hotel de California. We are lodging in one of several similar tents, dark green on the outside, which are lined up on both sides of the road for the length of a few hundreds feet. Each one of them is a different establishment, and each one of them carries an alluring name; Everest Holiday Inn, Gourmet Hotel, Rainbow Hotel. On the inside the furnishing is not as glamorous as these names try to suggest. There are simply a few couches around the perimeter, coffee tables decorated in traditional Tibetan style, woolen rugs and blankets to help keep the guests comfortable, and the stove in the middle. The restrooms, serving the whole campsite, are just another tent that hides a hole in the ground within.

Nima rests for a moment, chats with a coworker, and swallows a spoonful of tsampa, roasted barley flour that is Tibet’s staple food. It is her first season working at Hotel de California and she will return home in October, to a small village about 30 miles away. Her round face is dark red and the skin on her cheeks appears burned, thickened to look like leather; “it’s the cold, the wind, the sun that do this,” she says gloomily. Nima confesses that she does not particularly like this job; “I like to go to school, I really like it.” Unfortunately she has completed compulsory education last year and after returning home to spend the winter months unemployed she will come back to Everest once again, to cook and pour yak milk tea into the cups of tourists.

A short yet breathtaking hike to a 17,000 feet altitude connects this campsite to the actual Everest Base Camp. From there tibet4climbing expeditions launch their ascent to the summit during the spring months. Base Camp is just a rocky field in the midst of snow-covered peaks and earthy hills, and it is sided by a river the waters of which flow down directly from the glaciers higher up on Everest. As a reminder that this is still Chinese territory, there is a military post of the PLA – the army – and a pole with the red flag of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). China Mobile provides cell phone coverage and the logo of the 2008 Beijing Olympics printed on every sign.

“The flag and the PLA station were not there until recently,” Rinzen explains as we relax in our tent. “They were put up after the protest by the American students.” Rinzen is the guide that has accompanied us on the road from Lhasa. He is a short, bony, opinionated Tibetan of 21 years of age, who suffers with motion sickness and has spent most of the driving time to here asleep on the front seat of the land cruiser. He is making reference to an incident of this past April. Three Americans and a Tibetan-American who belonged to the activist movement Students for Free Tibet arrived here at the campsite, hiked the three miles to Everest Base Camp, and in protest against the Chinese rule over Tibet, they held up a banner that said “One World, One Dream, Free Tibet 2008,” mimicking the motto of the upcoming Olympic Games that will be held in Beijing next summer. Ever since, the government has been cracking down on foreign tourism to the region, it has toughened the regulations to enter the region, and it has made it more dangerous for the Tibetans themselves to move around. “I have not been up to Base Camp since,” Rinzen admits.

Because of the newly imposed restrictions and because of the general difficulties upon which foreigners will undoubtedly stumble when trying to travel to Tibet, a trip to this region begins a long time before the moment one finally steps on a train, especially for those waiguoren (in Chinese literally “people from outside countries”) who reside in China. It is a process that can be extremely nerve wrecking, but it is also illuminating on how China works nowadays.

tibet3My personal journey to this fairy-tale land to the west of the PRC started on a mid-spring morning, as I was sitting in my Chinese Diplomacy class at Fudan University. At the time I was an international student in Shanghai taking courses in English on the country’s politics.

That Tuesday morning the professor lowered her voice as she started giving an overview of the situation in Tibet. She turned her eyes down to the sheets of paper where her assistant had typed up the notes for the lecture, and began to read from what sounded like a script. “The Peaceful Liberation of Tibet in 1951 by the People’s Republic of China freed the Tibetan people from the barbarous feudal system based on servitude that had subjugated them until then,” she recited. Then she listed a few examples of the good that the Chinese government is doing for Tibet: “Beijing is successfully developing the region economically, bringing infrastructures, such as roads, schools, and hospitals, and promoting increased trade.”

As I sat there and listened to the professor praising Chinese intervention in Tibet, I started conceiving the plan to go see the region with my eyes. I wanted to try grasping where the balance lies, between the Chinese effort to develop the region and to improve the locals’ standards of living, and the cultural violence imposed on a peaceful people of mountain shepherds and devotes of Lama Buddhism.

To my misfortune, and due to the sensitivity of the Tibet issue, the Chinese government tries to discourage the journeys of tibet2foreigners to the province to the best of its abilities. I therefore had to embark upon a winding path of confused and often contradicting regulations, the only road that could have taken me to Lhasa.

First they told me I needed a specific government-sponsored travel permit in order to buy train tickets to Lhasa. Then they told me I needed to have the train tickets in hand in order to apply for the permit. At one point they said that the train tickets had apparently all been bought off, disappearing in the pockets of the many tourists and businessmen who travel to Tibet over the summer. Then they said that, maybe, some of these train tickets would have reappeared if only I was willing to purchase an all-inclusive week-long tour of Tibet that I did not have the money to afford.

Despite all the apparent complications, as with everything in China, patience and some stubbornness will usually get you where you want. My story is one of chasing permits and train tickets halfway across the country. Overall it took me close to a month and several trips to different cities in order to organize my journey. Over that rainy June I sent countless emails to tour operators and talked to everyone I knew who had traveled to Tibet in the previous months. Everyone had a different story and never a useful advice. Then I coincidentally met up with a travel agent that went by the English name of Sonia in Chengdu, home of the Pandas and capital of Sichuan Province, and with another one called Dawn in Beijing. And all of a sudden I found myself holding the permits and the tickets in hand.

I finally set off from Beijing West train station on the evening of July 1st, accompanied by a friend. It was the one-year anniversary of the inauguration of the railway line connecting the capital to Lhasa.

The Beijing-Lhasa train and the tracks upon which it rides are considered a marvel of technology. They take passengers to the Himalayas, the highest mountain chain in the world, they run on permafrost, an unstable surface that melts with rising temperature, and the last stretch of their route lies between 15,000 and 17,000 feet above sea level.

The many years and the many engineers that took to bring the project to completion gave the Chinese and the Tibetans an easier means to travel to and from Tibet. Prior to the railway line people had to choose between an eight-day journey on buses or expensive plane rides. Now one can do the trip in just two days and at a reasonable price.

Supporters of this technological wonder claim that this will mitigate the geographical remoteness of Tibet and that the train will bring wealth and development to the province, will make it easier for Tibetans to move to other parts of China, and will facilitate communication, understanding, and integration. Critics of the railway believe that the government-funded the project has a less noble goal in mind. By making transportation more easily accessible, Beijing aims to speed up the colonization of Tibet. Now that even lower class workers can afford the train tickets more people will likely take advantage of the government incentives offered to those ethnically Han who choose to go re-settle in Tibet.

Despite the ultramodern engineering behind its construction the interior of the train is not particularly fancy, although it is definitely newer and significantly more comfortable than most other trains in China. The cars are of three kinds. There are the “soft-sleepers,” the most expensive ones. Each cabin in these compartments accommodates four beds, has doors that close, a TV screen and some other amenities, and normally houses foreign tourists. The “hard-sleepers,” in which we are traveling, have six beds per room, no doors, and are populated with Chinese on vacation and others on business. Finally there are the compartments that lodge the “hard-seats,” regular seating Chinese style, meaning that they are literally hard, seats in a 90 degrees position that do not lean back, not even an inch. Here the darker faces of the Tibetans appear, mostly young students, a few families, and monks wrapped into their dark red drapes.

tibet1The train ride is forty-seven-hour long, many people crammed in a relatively small space together. By mid-day of the second day boredom takes over the train and would overtake the spirit of even the most enthusiastic traveler. The toilets have become filthy, toilet paper disappeared a while ago, every book has now been read, food eaten, and every conversation had. In the meantime, Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS) has begun to affect many passengers while the train runs at increasingly higher altitudes. People lay down in silence on their narrow beds and show sign of distress, their skin having turned to a yellowish tone, and bags under their eyes having grown bigger and darker.

Rose, an older woman in our room, in her sixties, has been feeling sick since the morning. She and her husband come from Tianjin, the third largest city in China located in the northeast of the country. They recently retired and they have joined a group of fellow retirees for a vacation in Tibet. They have been married for thirty-three years and they have one daughter – and one only – because of the One-Child Policy. They are also the grandparents of one only granddaughter because of the same reason. They worked in international trade before retirement, managing transportation for import-export to Japan, Korea, and the US. However they do not speak a word of English.

The doctors who work on the train came to see Rose a few hours ago, they measured her temperature and her pressure, and they pulled out a thin plastic tube, attached it to the plug for oxygen and inserted it in her nose. She is just now lying on her bed half-asleep, her husband looking over her with a concerned look in his eyes.

AMS has also hit Jasmine, who is sharing our compartment and sleeps on the top bed. Jasmine is 12 year-old and travels with her mother Katherine. The two now live in Beijing, where they relocated a few years ago. Despite being born in Tibet, Nina never acclimatized to altitude and never was able to adjust to it. Hence, leaving their husband/father in Lhasa, where he works as a performance artist, the two of them moved to the capital and only come to Tibet for visits three times a year.

While her daughter rests Katherine tells us her story. “My family originally comes from Jangsu province, I was born there,” she begins. Jangsu province is located along the east coast of the country. “When I turned thirteen, my parents decided to move to Tibet.” These were the years followed 1979, when the central government was in the midst of the launch of the reforms that since then have opened China to the outside world. At that time Beijing started offering economic incentives to those people who were willing to relocate to Tibet and help “develop” this “backward” province. “My parents decided to take advantage of these opportunities and so we moved,” Katherine recalls.

In an effort to kill some time I take a stroll through the train. The passengers in the “hard-seats” compartment seem now even more crowded than they were yesterday, when I took my first walk across the cars. The impression is probably created by the positions that the people have taken on to try surviving the journey. Very few are still seating upright. Some have ended lying down on the floor to give relief to their backs. Others have reclined backward and forward on the laps of their neighbors and have dropped their heads onto the arms and legs of strangers. The smell of instant noodles, sweat, and feet has grown pungent.

The state-of-the-art PA system, which has been alternating radio shows and music for the duration of the trip, is now playing an enthusiastic explanation of the marvelous engineering that gave birth to this train and to the tracks. A deep, charming voice, gives an overview of the history of the project in proper English. “This railway line has brought luck and happiness to the Tibetan people,” the voice claims. It also tries to present a defense – although frankly unconvincingly – against the accusations that the railway has had a negative environmental impact on this land. “The ecosystem,” the P.A. recites, “has shown to have changed not too much.”

I return to my car and the last few hours of the journey I get lost looking at the scenery that runs outside the windows of the train. The smooth profile of the surrounding hills, in earthy colors and covered by barely any vegetation, is punctuated by herds of Yaks grazing peacefully. In the distance snow-capped mountains create the background of such inspiring views, as the train rides by scattered lakes of crystal-clear waters.

We step off of the train in the evening, around 9 o’clock Beijing time. But Lhasa is still traversed by sunlight. China is on one time-zone but the size of the country makes it so that in provinces such as Tibet, all the way to the West, the sun rises and sets with a few hours delay. We are immediately hit by the brisk air and the transparent light of the high mountains, our heads slightly dizzy due to the altitude.

The unique magic of this land unfolds at once before our eyes. We drive by the Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama and today a museum. The palace emerges in its thirteen stories from the top of a rocky hill at the heart of the city. Its outside walls painted in white and burgundy-red, and steep steps climbing up to its top, the Potala looks like a beautiful creature from the under world. When, at dusk, it is lit up to remain the only visible sight in the pitch-black darkness of the Himalayan night, the palace becomes the core of a poetic world that slowly comes to life.

The first twenty-four hours of my stay in Tibet I am uncritically carried away by this ethereal atmosphere. I arrived in Lhasa prepared to witness the worst kind of colonization on the part of the Chinese because of what I had heard from people who had traveled there in the months prior to my trip. I was expecting to be overwhelmed, and severely troubled, by the growing presence of modern, yet characterless, concrete buildings, tacky neon lights in blue, green and red, and PLA uniforms on the corners of every street. My pessimistic expectations made it so that the first impact works for me as somewhat of a relief. In the end, I think to myself as I walk around the city, there still exists a whole Tibetan quarter in the old part of town, there are Buddhist temples in all directions, and the Potala still stands in all its magnificence.

However the more my outsider’s eyes become accustomed to the translucent light of the Himalayas, to the vivid colors of the sky, the mountains, the temples, and the mandalas, once I begin to awaken from that state of dreamy blindness that caught me at the arrival in Lhasa, I start to notice the mounting encroachment of which this land of shepherds and pilgrims has been made the target.

To their misfortune, Tibetans sit on sizable reserves of precious resources and at the crossroads of important trade routes and international borders. It is no coincidence that the name given by the Chinese to the province is Xizang, literally meaning “western treasure house”. Because of its key location, the men of neighboring countries have for centuries dreamt of possessing this territory, militaries have studied strategies on how to invade, governments have laid out plans to promote colonization, engineers have sat in their laboratories to try to come up with ways to make more easily accessible this vast, remote territory hidden between the highest peaks in the world.

The Mongols tried in the thirteen and fourteen hundreds, the Nepalese attempted in 1855, the British gave it a shot at the beginning of the twentieth century. Finally, after several other efforts throughout history, the Chinese succeeded when they “peacefully” liberated Tibet in 1951. Today the occupation of this land is embodied in the unusually high concentration of government buildings, in the presence of military establishments everywhere, in the many red flags of the PRC blowing in the wind. And so the Tibetan essence of Lhasa is increasingly suffocated by the unstoppable growth of the yet another, average, mid-size, Chinese town, while the heart and arteries of the Tibetan soul of the city remain anchored to the last standing incarnations of its cultural heritage, the Potala and the Bakhor.

The Bakhor is a corridor of narrow pedestrian streets surrounding Jokhang Temple, among the most sacred destinations for Tibetan pilgrims. A maze of pebbled lanes, the Bakhor marks the area where the locals live. The houses here are built on two, maximum three stories, in grey bricks, and the frames of the windows and doors are decorated by wooden carvings and painted in bright colors. White cotton curtains embroidered with geometric shapes in blue hang from the doorways. Shops selling yak butter and yak meat are lined up along the streets, together with vendors of Buddhist artifacts and local crafts. Thousands of pilgrims wearing traditional clothes stroll by at any time of the day as they complete the Kora, the clockwise tour around the Jokhang Temple. Although most of them walk it is not unusual to see some kneeling down in the way prescribed by traditions. At every step these people bend on their knees and then, in a smooth progression, they slide down on their torso until they touch the ground with their faces. They slowly get back up just to start the whole procedure again with the following step.

Coincidentally I visit the Potala Palace on the birthday of the Dalai Lama, today exiled in Dharamshala, India. Contrary to my expectations nothing and nobody around me bear signs of excitement or anxiety for such celebration, not the pilgrims, not the guards. It almost seems like people have forgotten and the place is open for business as usual. The Potala is a museum, and an expensive one to say the least. The entrance ticket is 100 Yuan (about $13). In any case far more expensive than a Tibetan from the countryside can afford. This place also remains the destination of a religious pilgrimage among the most significant for the people of Tibet. The interior is filled with a sour mix of tourists and the endless stream of monks and devotes who say their chants, light up candles, and make offers. They prey to a hollow altar of devotion, to the remaining semblances of a world that does not exist anymore. They hope to earn their graces, and maybe even access their nirvana, by visiting the sterile rooms of a museum.

Lhasa being the capital of the province it is also the place where the Chinese presence is more visible and oppressing. Traveling away from it towards smaller towns by names such as Shigatse, Gyantse, and Shigar, we finally experience more of that sense of remoteness and isolation that one would expect being typical of this region. Nevertheless the Chinese already control the largest share of the tourism industry, owning most of the guest houses and small restaurants on the way. Instead, a fairly equal share of Chinese and Tibetans work as driver and guides taking tourists to those spots where they are not allowed to go unaccompanied.

The Everest region is among these restricted areas. The drive from Old Town Tingry, the last village before the wilderness, to tibet6Everest Base Camp is a long, difficult, off-road journey that takes us straight into the arms of the mountain. The fifty miles land-cruiser trip on rugged terrains and through river crossings brings us through breathtaking views to the Hotel de California where Nima is pouring yak milk tea into our cups.

As we sit around to rest and warm up our guide Rinzen shares some of his feelings about the Chinese. “I don’t like them,” he states, leaving little doubts as to his opinion on the matter. Rinzen explains the rivalry and the animosity that exits between Tibetan drivers and guides and their Chinese counterparts. “For a Chinese driver,” Rinzen says, “it’s far more complicated to take tourists here. If his vehicle breaks down at one of those river crossings nobody will stop to help him.” He recalls an episode to illustrate his point; “One time a Chinese driver whose vehicle got stuck offered to pay 30,000 Yuan (about  $450) to a Tibetan that was passing by, but the guy turned down the money and left the Chinese there,” Rinzen continues. “For us Tibetans,” he says, “It’s easier, we have each others.” It might not be much but it is what they have left.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism – Persian Edition

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