Leaving Lhasa (Tibet)


After three days in Lhasa we were ready to explore the rest of Tibet.  Ferguson, Kiwi Kevin, Tripp the German, little Mitori and I jumped in the Land Cruiser and set off on the two-day journey to Mt. Everest.

We departed early in the morning with the intention of visiting a holy lake, a holy glacier, and a holy monastery.  The Land Cruiser rolled to the city’s outskirts, where the wide boulevards stretch through the empty desert like a promise of the development that will come, under banners which read, “The Developing Zone is Good” and “Lhasa: Choice of Enterprisers and Home of Investors.”  We passed factories and hills where the Chinese had begun mining for minerals.

Once we left the city, Tibetan hitchhikers replaced armed soldiers.  I felt trapped in the Land Cruiser; I longed for the freedom of my motorbike, for the ability to pull over on the highway and pick up one of these True Nomads.  But those days were gone, at least for now.

Civilization disappeared as the road plowed through green fields of barley and a yellow ocean of canola.  Tibet’s valleys appeared impossibly fertile against the brown dry hills that enclosed them.

The fields suddenly stopped and we came to a bridge spanning over a wide river, one of the many that spill from the Tibetan Plateau and nourish the lands of India, China, Nepal, and South East Asia.

We stopped on the banks of the river at the site of the Tibetan “water bury”, where the dead are pushed into the river so as to feed the fish.  The “water bury” is not to be confused with the “sky bury”, where the deceased are hacked to pieces by their friends and families, taken to a hilltop and fed to vultures.  After the ceremony, the attendees clean their hands by urinating on them and then splashing them with water, just for good measure.  Thankfully we only visited the water bury site.  I could never stomach a sky burial.

We hopped into the truck and left the river for the hills to the west.  From a distance the hills looked like sand dunes, but once we got closer I discovered they were covered in lichen.  The road cut across the bare hills like an ugly brown scar.  Sheep grazed near the road’s edge as we wound our way up the mountains.

Yaks blocked the highway and many times shepherd had to chase them out of our way.  I looked closely at the yaks and observed the strange creatures.  The first yak must have been the ungodly lovechild of a cow, a yeti and a roadie for the Grateful Dead.  I rubbed my beard and noticed my chin was starting to look a bit like a yak’s underbelly.

As strange as they look, they are absolutely essential to Tibetans.  The yak is to the Tibetan as the North American Buffalo is to the Plains Indians: they use every part of their carcasses.  They eat yak meat, they use yak bones to make knives, handicrafts and decorations, and they use their hides for clothes and tents.  A few Tibetans even look to the yaks for style points – the more haggard, the better.

We crested the hill, passed under a dozen prayer flags and came upon a splendid vista of Namdrok Tso Lake, one of the three holy lakes of Lhasa.  We parked the car and joined the hundreds of Chinese tourists taking photos of the lake.  Barely visible on a distant hillside, I spied the first soldiers I had seen since Lhasa.

Namdrok Tso Lake is a lake worthy of a thousand pictures, but I only took about 125. It is so flat, so large and so intensely blue that when it reflects the clouds on its surface it looks like a slice of the sky as been cut from above and place at the feet of the mountains.

A Chinese tour bus swung around a curve and rammed through a string of prayer flags draped across the road, breaking it in two and continuing without stopping.  Ferguson suddenly snapped and launched into a diatribe about the Chinese disrespect for Tibet’s culture and holy places, about how the Chinese have opened a commercial fishery on the lake despite the Tibetan desire leave the holy lake untouched, about the enormous gulf that separates the Tibetans from the modern Chinese, about how their perspectives, their values, and their visions for the future of Tibet are all very different.

Tibet is an isolated land of mud-brick temples and nomads, where time stands still, where austerity is the way of life and yak-skin clothing is the new black, where the Dalai Lama is revered above everything else.  China is the epitome of modernity, of globalization, of railroads and brand-new buildings, of prosperity and ambition, of nationalism and respect for The State.  These two worlds are almost incompatible.

Many Tibetans devote their lives to religion.  Mao told the Chinese it was the opium of the people, an antiquated relic to be destroyed.  China has never fully recovered from those days.  Tibetans spin prayer wheels and bow their heads to Buddha.  Chinese buy prayer wheels for souvenirs and wear Buddha t-shirts for fashion.  But in all fairness, most Western tourists do the same thing.  I guess Western visitors are not that much closer to Nirvana than Chinese tourists, we just think we are.

After we left the lake the terrain became increasingly dramatic.  The round hills exploded into sharp mountains, the wide gray rivers narrowed and their waters turned cold, blue, and swift.  Yesterday’s glaciers carved these valleys and today’s glaciers feed the rivers.

We stopped at the base of one of these glaciers.  Its peak was lost in the clouds but it still boasted hundreds of feet of white snow that melted into countless rivulets and combined into a waterfall which cut through the exposed black rock and dropped into a churning black river.

I could see the effects of climate change; the ice was retreating up the mountainside, exposing more black rock each year.  Tibet’s temperature is rising at twice the global average and Tibet is one of the areas most vulnerable to climate change.  If these glaciers disappear, so will the waters in Asia’s most important rivers and millions of lives could be jeopardized by draught and starvation.  The UN recently released a report which claimed that all of Tibet’s glaciers could disappear within 100 years.  Meanwhile, on both sides of the Himalayas, China and India are resisting pressure to take action against climate change.

At the foot of the glacier lay a row of low-slung mud buildings where a half dozen families eked out a living by selling refreshments and trinkets to tourists.  The families were desperately poor.  The children wore frozen green snot and smeared dirt across their faces like a uniform of wretchedness.  The mothers piled crates of beer on their toddler’s backs and made them carry the heavy loads into their home-cum-grocery store.

Such conditions are examples of the poverty that previously existed in the Tibet, the poverty the Chinese are trying to eliminate with investment, infrastructure and commerce.

A Tibetan monk chastised the mother for her laziness, and she took the boxes from her children and carried them inside herself.  What if this monk and others like him were still the political leaders of Tibet?  How would things be different?  Does the West’s admiration of the Dalai Lama necessarily mean he would have better led his people out of poverty?  Or would he have been overthrown by Maoist rebels, like in neighboring Nepal?  We will never know.

The road dropped away from the glacier and traced the river down through a windy pass and soon the canyon opened up into an endless plain of canola.  In the late afternoon we arrived in the walled town of Gyantze.  An ancient wall curved around the hills and protected the town from enemies now long forgotten.  Almost all of the buildings were made from mud and brick, so the new, Chinese-built concrete obelisk in the center of town didn’t really add to the feng shui of the town.

We toured a pair of monasteries.  They were beautiful and, unlike so much of Lhasa, they were purely Tibetan in style.  But, as always, good ol’ Ferguson had to burst my bubble: he told me the Chinese were going to renovate the temple next year and the monks were scared to know just what “renovation” would entail.  They feared the whole temple could be repainted with a Chinese brush, so to speak.

Couldn’t the monks stop the renovation, or at least ask to do it themselves? I asked.  No.  Was there anything any Tibetan could do about it?  No, but maybe people in America can, Ferguson said.

But can we?  How much influence does he US really have over the situation in Tibet these days?  With the economic crisis looming over our heads and the Chinese playing such a vital role in our recovery, how can we negotiate from a position of strength?

Most Chinese I have talked to believe the US wants to “take Tibet away” from the Chinese in order to keep China small and powerless.  Maybe the CIA’s initial support of Tibetans was primarily motivated by destabilizing Communist China, but today’s supporters of Tibet are genuine supporters of the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination and religious freedom.

Unfortunately, the Chinese view their history with the West as one of abuse and they still feel humiliated by the Opium Wars and how they were forced by Europeans to concede Macau, Hong Kong, Tsingtao, and Shanghai.  After all these defeats, why should they give up more land just because we say so?

Considering the overwhelming power of the military forces that have repeatedly crushed the Tibetan uprisings, it looks like a lasting solution can only be found within the Politburo in Beijing.  But between the truths of history and the lies of propaganda, the Chinese people have little confidence in the West’s intentions.  The West spent most of its political capital on 18th century trading privileges, the Opium Wars, the Cold War and more recent debates.  We will probably spend the rest on securing Chinese cooperation during the economic recovery and controlling global warming.  Let’s pray we have some political capital left for Tibet…or will we need to take another IOU from China?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: