Tibet is a land that sounds so remote, extreme, and exotic. Although it is part of China, one would never know it. Unquestionably, it is…
- Huge, with more than 463 square miles, tucked between China, India, and Nepal;
- Has amazingly high altitudes, lying at the crest of the giant Himalayas with dozens of peaks of more than 23,000 feet–including the 29,000-foot Mount Everest, which it shares with Nepal, and has an AVERAGE altitude of over 13,000 feet;
- Dramatically beautiful, with some of the world’s most dramatic peaks, deepest gorges, and pristine mountain plateaus;
- Highly religious–home to the world’s most devout, distinctive, and ritualistic form of Buddhism and the traditional homes of the now self-excited Dali Lama; and
- Culturally traditional, with ancient temples, monasteries and bazaars, millennia-old social and religious customs, and even tribes of nomads that roam the harsh, barren northern plain
A Conflicted Country
On the other hand, it is also one of the most conflicted. The conflicts are:
- Political. It is the site of one of the world’s most long-standing and visible territorial, or more accurately, “autonomy” disputes. Hundreds of monks and natives have self-immolated in protest of China’s invasion and reestablishment of increasingly tight political control of the region in 1950.
- Cultural. It has devout and increasingly restive urban Buddhists on one hand, apolitical nomads on another, and a growing influx of ethnic-Han Chinese who are rapidly entering and transforming the country.
- Developmental. Ancient buildings and customs are challenged by the Chinese government’s rapid development of state-of-the-art expressways, railways, airports, and housing.
- Environmental. Its majestic natural setting is increasingly jeopardized by the rapid growth in Chinese-driven and funded construction and mining.
These conflicts, and the inevitable dilution and subjugation of Tibetan identity, are evidenced in everything from the:
- Language, with shops and restaurants taking on an increasingly Han flavor;
- Schools are teaching more Chinese history and curricula;
- Chinese denunciations of the revered Dali Lama, who has been in self-imposed exile in India since 1959;
- Chinese efforts to silence protestors and punish dissenters, by using discrete monitoring equipment, somewhat evident “plainclothes” police as well as uniformed police, and neutral-looking military vehicles; and in
- The difficulty that foreign visitors, and especially foreign journalists, have in getting into and moving about the country–especially Lhasa, which is the center of resistance and protests.
People were amazingly open in discussing their perceptions of the advantages and disadvantages of the Chinese “occupation”.
- Advantages were generally limited to infrastructure and educational improvements and enhanced incomes.
- Disadvantages include systematic attempts to dilute and change the culture, de-legitimize the Dali Lama, and systematic monitoring of people.
- Another disadvantage is the inability of Tibet people to travel outside of the country as the Chinese are afraid they will go to visit the Dali Lama in India and not come back.
We learned a lot about the country:
- Only about 30% of Tibet’s 3 million people live in 4 primary cities, with Lhasa (with 300,000 people) being by far the largest;
- How the country’s overwhelmingly agrarian economy, especially everything that comes from a yak (milk, butter, wool, meat, skin. etc.) barley, lamb, and to a much lesser extent rice and vegetables, is diversifying due to the rapid growth of tourism and mining;
- While most Tibetans are primarily vegetarian, many do eat farm-raised animals, although never birds or fish (both of which are cherished for their freedom (and they often have the Muslins kill the animals for them);
- The recurring theme of the country’s five colors and what they represent: blue for sky, white for clouds, green for water, red for fire, and yellow for earth;
- The five forms of Tibetan burial: Tomb stupas (for Dali Lamas only); cremation (primarily for Lamas, which are high-level monks), sky (where corpses are cut up and spread on mountains for eagle to eat. OK, sounds ugly, but it is part of reincarnation); water (for babies who are placed in baskets in the water to be eaten by fish…again, part of reincarnation), and finally ground burial (which is used only for those who die from a communicable disease or from a weapon); and
- Why houses are built of stone (as it is plentiful and inexpensive) with wood (which is more expensive brought in from eastern Tibet) reserved only for use around windows, doors, and for ornamentation, and why houses are painted white as red and yellow are reserved for religious and royal buildings.
We also learned that China has special rules on the Tibet people. It is very difficult for them to get visas to leave the country. We were told that China was afraid that people would go to India to see the Dali Lama, who was in exile there. They are also trying to make it harder for people to become Monks. Also, to build up Tibet’s population, people are allowed to have several children.
It is a very interesting place to visit.