Tibet – First Impressions (Lhasa, Tibet)

The most memorable aspect of Tibet is the sky.  The sky in Tibet is as blue and capacious as an ocean.  When I arrived in Tibet I felt as if I had landed on another planet, a magical land of brown hills hanging upside-down over the calmest of seas.

I say the sky is simply ‘blue’ because the sky embodies every hue within the color blue.  It spans from the darkest blue of the deepest ocean to a blue so light it looks as if the winds have blown all the color clear over the Himalayas into and into Nepal, leaving the mountains alone and naked in the empty sky.

It is, of course, the same sky that smiles down upon Paris, New York or Tokyo, but in Tibet it’s different.  You are so close to the sky, the sun and the nothingness of outer space that you develop a special relationship with the sky.  You see it free of the pollution which blankets it elsewhere in the world; you see it unblemished in its purest form.  After a week in Tibet, you feel as if you somehow know the sky better.

And no city in the world knows this sky better than Lhasa.  Lhasa is the capital of Tibet, and if it were still a free country it would be the highest capital in the world.   Lhasa was the starting point of my eight-day journey across Tibet to the foot of Mount Everest and back, and I spent three days there exploring the city and adjusting to the altitude.

I first saw Tibet as my plane glided over the brown, dry Tibetan Plateau, over green pastures of grazing sheep, as the ground rose closer and closer to the plane until our wheels hit the tarmac.  A wave of smiles swept across the plane – Hello, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Tibet. 

Tibet surprised me in many ways, initially by its terrain.  I thought Lhasa would be a snowy, inaccessible village perched atop a cliff, reachable only by parachute, but it actually lies within fertile valley bordered by barren hills.

But I was more surprised by the overwhelming presence of the Chinese military.  I knew that China occupied Tibet, but I did not understand precisely what that entailed.  The airport was camouflaged, the runway was packed with fighter jets and helicopters, and the perimeter was enclosed by barbed wire fences and guarded by soldiers and jeeps.  I departed the plane, collected by bag, and waited for my fellow tour-mates.

First came Kevin, a farmer from New Zealand who had recently sold his farm and took off traveling through Central, South and East Asia.  He was followed by Tripp from Cologne, who had just finished teaching German in Hanoi for three years.  And lastly, Mitori, a quiet smiling 26-year old Japanese girl who sold “magic crystals” at a mall in Tokyo.  For better or for worse, the four of us planned to travel to Everest and back.

Once we were all assembled we walked out to meet our driver and guide, who, according to new Chinese regulations, was required to accompany us for every moment of our journey to prevent us from getting too familiar with the Tibetans.

The Chinese wanted us to have an insulated, picture-snapping experience and nothing more.  A politically-minded 23 year old backpacker with a head full of questions and a pen full of words was the last thing they wanted.  Too bad.  I was coming, and I was curious.

I expected our guide to be a nosy party hack who would lecture us on the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet and follow us to the bathroom to ensure we weren’t discussing “freedom” and “democracy” at the urinals.

Instead I was pleasantly surprised to find a smiling Tibetan wearing sunglasses and exuding a mellow, hippy vibe.  Our guide turned out to be an indispensable source of information and our only legal contact with the Tibetan people.  Over the next week he showed me many aspects of the Chinese occupation and shared with me the perspective of a Tibetan living under Chinese military rule.  He risked imprisonment by talking politics with us, so I will change his name.  Let’s call him Ferguson.

Ferguson took us to the 4×4 Land Cruiser that would take us to Everest and we headed off for Lhasa.  Lhasa was 45 minutes down a heavily guarded two-lane highway.  Every 200 meters we passed small groups of soldiers standing back to back with automatic rifles their hands.  A convoy of military trucks passed the other direction, escorted by a half dozen police cars who’s flashing sirens cried wolf across the peaceful valley on the roof of the world.

I remarked that the military buildup seemed excessive, that I saw no threat warranting such a large deployment of soldiers.  Ferguson told me that the Chinese were particularly nervous at the moment because of the race riots in neighboring Xinjiang that had so far left 150 Uighurs and a number of Han Chinese dead.  I had been in a Muslim restaurant only a few days before and I had seen the police check the papers of all the workers, question them for 30 minutes, then take their pictures and go off into the night, leaving humiliation and resentment in their wake.  Beijing had blocked the Facebook after noting how it helped organize anti-government protests against Iran’s recent disputed election.

YouTube was blocked last year after the Dalai Lama began broadcasting messages to Tibetans from his exile in India.  In March 2008, as all the world’s eyes were on China in the lead-up to the Olympics, the Tibetans took to the streets to protest their occupation.  The Chinese responded swiftly and, some say,  brutally.

Ferguson said that they were forced to stay inside, that soldiers at anyone who put their head out their window, that they beat innocent people mercilessly and killed 3,000 Tibetans.  The Dalai Lama says 400 people died.  The Chinese contend that 22 Chinese and one Tibetan died, and they were innocent Chinese shopkeepers killed by an angry mob.

Finding The Truth was going to be difficult.  The Chinese were only going to tell me the Party Line and Ferguson seemed inclined to exaggerate his stories a bit.  I decided to take all opinions with a grain of salt, both Chinese and Tibetan.

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