Aug/24. Monday. Amigo no Tibet.

Galen Murton, amigo querido, participação especial.

What I did on my Summer Vacation: Two weeks in Tibet

Fourteen days is not a lot of time, but it is sufficient to see a difference in Tibet. In less than one afternoon, actually, it quickly becomes apparent that things in Lhasa have changed more in the past two years than they had over the previous decade. The last time that I visited Tibet was in 2007 and despite earnest efforts one year ago, no alien travel permits were to be granted during the Olympic summer-Tibet was closed to foreigners. And so, on the first of August this year, it was with great expectation that I walked across the Friendship Bridge between Kodari and Zhangmu, between Nepal and Chinese Tibet. It would be my seventh trip to the Plateau.

This time I was most curious to see what had changed along the road, in conditions and provisions, from the border on up to the capital. I also wanted to witness for myself the general situation in Lhasa, something I had heard and read a fair bit about. Could I gain a better sense of what precipitated the protests and riots that erupted across Tibetan counties in five Chinese provinces in 2008 and again, to a lesser degree, in 2009? How to explore and address these issues despite the sensitivity, and risk, in talking about such things while in Tibet itself?

Prior to leaving for Lhasa, I spent just over one month trying to repair my Tibetan language skills in Kathmandu, Nepal. And right before that, I had the better part of a week in Dharamsala, India to interview resident Tibetan intellectuals, NGO leaders, refugees young and old alike, and a number of government officials. Over the course of that six weeks, I researched both Beijing and Dharamsala’s respective (and conflicting) positions on current, and historical, political realities in Tibet. With members of both local and expatriate communities, I gained insight into the recent decline in refugee arrivals as well as heard reports on conditions north of the border. Mr. Thubten Samphel, the Central Tibetan Administration’s Secretary of the Department of Information and International Relations, told me that the number one cause of recent Tibetan unrest was the unyielding development of Tibet, and the consequential and inverse threat to traditional culture that it posed. Was this really the case? And was any reversal to that trend in sight? So I set out for Lhasa to see for myself.
The Friendship Highway from the border town of Kasa (also known as Dram or Zhangmu) to Lhasa is a feat of engineering and an example of the change prevalent throughout Tibet. Sealed blacktop for hundreds and hundreds of kilometers makes for a smooth and pleasant drive, despite traversing some of the most inhospitable terrain around. This well-maintained road is especially conducive to the swift transfer of goods and the rapid mobilization of military units, which is just the way Beijing wants to keep it. I last traveled the highway in 1999, reaching Lhasa after three days on bone-jarring and gut-breaking dirt tracks, divided by frozen streams, in the way-back of an outdated Landcruiser. Of course, ten years is a lot of time, especially to the watch of Chinese development, so perhaps it should come as no surprise just how much the road has improved. But before even entering Tibet and crossing to the north slope of the Himalaya, the expanding Chinese presence and influence in Nepal was evident. Roadside shops along the Arniko Highway from Kathmandu featured more Chinese goods than I had ever seen before. Granted, the road on this side was still maintained according to Nepalese standards-as in, not so well. But once over the border, and beyond the massive, new Chinese wholesale-trade warehouse just up the hill from the Friendship Bridge, the road was spectacular-astonishingly so.

Most towns along the Highway had a new and different feel as well. Kasa is bigger than ever before, Shigatse is barely recognizable save for the old market around the Tashi Lumpo Monastery, and Gyantse has resumed its early 20th century position as a trade waypoint along the commercial corridor between China and India (via Lhasa and Sikkim). One place that still felt ‘Tibetan,’ however, was Tingri, with men driving horse-drawn carts ferrying villagers between market and home, women in faded, homespun aprons bargaining over butter prices, and snot-nosed kids kicking empty soda bottles along the edge of the streets. It was dusty and unswept, entirely devoid of white-tiled facades and blue-glass windows, like China had forgotten all about it. Why hadn’t this little, old crossroads tradepost experienced the Chinese change? I’m not quite sure, and it was refreshing (although it’s probably just because Shekar, or New Tingri just down the road, is more or less now yet another unrecognizable town). Lhasa, on the other-hand, was a very different story.

Approaching the city in the late afternoon, I was initially shocked by the urban sprawl to the west side of Lhasa. Then the billboards advertising Japanese and American luxury vehicles caught my attention (note-China may be the only place that Buicks still sell). Six-lane highways and flyovers near the new railway station, and a bridge that looks like it’s out of the future, came next. There is a new Special Economic Zone to Lhasa, so that it can grow and grow just like Shenzhen. And amidst this ‘New Lhasa,’ old women struggle to cross roads which run through what used to be their barley fields. But finally, upon arrival at the true heart of Lhasa, between the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple, within the Lingkor Road and to the Barkor Market, the latest developments are to be found.

Here, the latest conditions include armed military details stationed at every street corner 24/7, six-troop patrols marching up and down the lanes of the old town in synchronized step, and watchmen standing sentry on rooftops adjacent to all ‘sensitive’ zones like the Ramoche and Jokhang Temples (which happen to be two of the most sacred sites in Lhasa as well as the focal points for past protests). But saddest of all are the beggars, men, women, and children alike, who populate the streets in unprecedented numbers. Word is that the authorities banned all begging in Lhasa last summer, concerned that hordes of travelers straight from the Olympic Games would be put-off by such supplicants. Of course, the travelers never came, the gates were finally opened, and the beggars returned en masse. One might say that in Tibet, begging isn’t stigmatized like it is in the west, as the Buddha himself was a beggar. And if you can make a better living by pan-handling than farming, well, why not do it? Nevertheless, and despite this rationale, it is still disturbing to encounter such untold numbers resorting to a livelihood of desperation.

Over the course of the few days that I was able to spend in Lhasa, visiting the holy sites, meeting old and new friends, and walking about the town, I realized that Tibet really had changed more between 2007 and 2009 than it had between 2007 and 1999. Granted, experiences over the course of only one decade are certainly limited, but some of the most significant events in recent memory have indeed occurred in just the past few years. Specifically, there are three interdependent components to the change in Tibet that I see as having created the volatile dynamic which now radiates from Lhasa: the train and the transference of people and material goods; the expansion of commercial roadways between Tibet and the Subcontinent; and the commodification of a ‘mystical Tibet’ to both the Chinese and Western consumer.

Just as Beijing intended, the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet railway in July 2006 heralded a huge step towards modernity for the Tibetan Plateau. But at what cost? Each day, the train runs from six major Chinese cities with thousands of passengers, including Mainland laborers, Han tourists, and to a small extent, foreign travelers. When I rode the train to Lhasa in 2007 there were never more than a handful of westerners in each hundred-person carriage, and it was nearly impossible to get a ticket. The train is the adventurous way to reach China’s wild west, and it has grown in the traveler’s imagination (or bucket list) from Shanghai to Seattle. And for good reason, as it is an absolutely spectacular ride. However, what has gained far less attention are the many trains that run north from Lhasa back to the Mainland, loaded with raw materials such as iron ore and old growth lumber to fuel China’s prodigious growth. And this is to say nothing of the reports of uranium deposits up on Tibet’s Chang Tang wilderness.

The Tibetan rail-line is currently being extended westward to Shigatse (Tibet’s second city), and reports in the Nepali press have mentioned Chinese offers to hasten the construction of a complementary line to Kathmandu. The rails in China’s far western (and equally restive) Xinjiang Province already reach beyond Kashgar, close to the intersection of the Indian, Pakistan, and Afghan borders. What a strategic system it will be when (quite likely within a couple years) China’s railroad circumnavigates the Tibetan Plateau and connects with the great Xinjiang track, running nearly parallel to the border with its two nuclear neighbors as well as the Russian-linked Central Asian states. Such a line will ultimately provide an ideal network to support military maneuvers as well as the transport of products and people between the Mainland and China’s western provinces. It is the new Silk Road, run by trains rather than camel caravans, and the goods are no longer porcelain, silver, and gunpowder but rather plastics, copper, and oil.

A significant detail that was conspicuously absent from the fanfare of the Tibet railway’s maiden voyage in 2006 was the concurrent re-opening of the one and only commercial border-post between China and India via the Nathu La in Sikkim. This trade route was immortalized by the infamous British Younghusband expedition’s march to, and massacre on, Gyantse and passage to Lhasa for trade negotiations in 1903. From then until the 1950s, it was the primary trade route between India and Tibet. However, with the ‘opening’ of Nepal by 1951 and the Sino-Indian wars of the 1960s, Nepal’s Friendship Highway became the primary corridor for trade between Chinese Tibet and the Subcontinent, and the historical Sikkim route was closed for half a century. But then in the first week of July 2006, upon the advent of the train to Lhasa, Beijing and New Delhi quietly celebrated the long-awaited re-activation of the Sikkim crossing. And as a result, it is now possible to transfer goods overland from Shanghai to Calcutta in less than one week: 2-3 days by train to Lhasa followed by 3-4 days by road to India (indeed a far shorter time than the multi-week passage through the South China Seas and Singapore’s Malacca Straits). This post is currently the only direct, commercial link between the world’s largest nations and it will no doubt gain a prominence not unlike the Khunjerab Pass which links Pakistan and China (and also like the Khunjerab Pass, the Nathu La sits in close proximity to Chinese and Indian militarized zones). Ultimately, the modernization of these historical trade routes is a critical component of the liberalization of the East and South Asian markets, a constantly expanding bazaar that includes half of humanity (over 3 billion people).

In addition to this single commercial border at Sikkim, China has successfully built and sealed roads across the Tibetan Plateau which follow other ancient trade routes through the Himalaya to Nepal and India. As such, it will not be long before paved roads extend from Tibet down to the southern plains of Nepal and onwards into India. The route nearest to completion is at Kyirong-Rasuwa in the mountainous region north of Kathmandu, although Nepal has yet to formally open their section of the highway. In Lo-Monthang, in the Mustang Kingdom of western Nepal, reports are that Chinese vehicles can already be found in the capital of Lo (and Chinese beer and sneakers have been available there for years already); Nepal has nearly completed its respective road from Pokhara to Jomoson and northwards into Mustang. The third point at which China has reached Nepal’s border by pavement is in the extreme west at Purang-Taklakot, along the ancient pilgrimage route for the Hindu Yatra to Mt. Kailas. However, while Nepal has a road from its northwestern town of Simikot to the border with Purang, it will no doubt be some time before vehicles can make the drive south to Darchula and Nepalganj. Nevertheless, work is underway. And, finally, the road in the extreme-west of Tibet, from Ali and Rutok to Ladakh in Kashmir, India, is reportedly completed as well. Once open, this route will be the closest international crossing to the disputed and militarized zone of the Aksai Chin. As with the ongoing development of the train network, these roads have a strategic benefit both commercial and military: Chinese troops stationed at permanent, and road accessible, frontier posts across Tibet can better monitor increased trade traffic and stand ready for deployment along China’s sensitive borders.

Through the commodification of cultural traditions, the military and commercial development of the Plateau has been overshadowed by the more obvious Chinese effort to popularize (and populate) Tibet as a Himalayan exotica. Beijing’s policy on Tibet has gone far beyond resettlement of the frontier as ‘Tibetanness’ is extremely popular and readily marketable. The place is hot, and now it’s only a train ride away. Similar to the Western romanticization of Tibet, China has skillfully branded Tibet with an aura of mystical enchantment, a heritage that can be bought and sold on the Roof of the World. The wisdom of the lamas, the purity of the lakes, the grandeur of the mountains, and the innocence of the people are there not only to be experienced, but better yet, to be purchased. And the campaign has certainly worked, as Chinese tourists now outnumber Westerners in Tibet close to 50:1. But it’s not just the experiences that are so well marketed, as consumer products from the ‘Land of the Lamas’ are uniquely popular for their healthful benefits. These include walnut oil (organic!) found on the shelves of Mainland supermarkets and the famous (and lucrative) caterpillar fungus, yartse gumbu, reputed to increase virility and credited for the gold medal performances of numerous Chinese Olympians.

In addition to these commercial products is a nascent, and growing, interest in Tibetan Buddhism amongst the Han population. Tibetan lamas have found great success, and support, teaching in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and are discovering increasingly captive audiences in Shanghai and Beijing as well. The Tibetan ‘mystique’ has captured the Chinese heart and mind, and such interest, should it run deeper than empty consumerism, could be the best chance for Tibet to be ‘saved.’ Today, there is significant foreign interest in and support for Tibet; but what Tibet really needs right now is homegrown advocacy based in the Han Chinese population. However, this also leads to Beijing’s great dilemma: how to simultaneously promote the business of ‘Tibetanness’ yet reject the Tibetan claim to a separate and distinct identity-the real threat of nationalist ‘spilittism.’

Following my time in Lhasa, I flew to the town of Gyalthang in far southeast Tibet to see what things were like in a Tibetan area outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Here on the edge of Kham in Yunnan Province, where Tibetans and other minorities such as Naxi and Bai have intermixed and mingled with Han for many centuries, I found ‘Tibetanness’ to be as popular, and commodified, as ever. Gyalthang is also the town that Chinese authorities officially renamed ‘Shangri-la’ some years ago, and it is indeed a pleasant and beautiful place. But does it merit the name immortalized by James Hilton in ‘Lost Horizon,’ where enlightened monks live timelessly beneath snow clad mountains and all is fruitful and serene? Well, they gave away free beer in the central square before locals and visitors together commenced the nightly dance party, singing and stepping in a happy and collective circle (seems pretty close to Paradise to me). It’s also worth noting that as silly as it may appear to officially title a town ‘Shangri-la,’ it is by no means unprecedented in the region. In the 17th century the 5th Dalai Lama ordered the nearby town of Jol to be renamed Dechen, which means ‘supreme bliss’ in Tibetan. And it remains the name to this day. So, it seems that the Chinese officials were merely trying to update things according to tradition.

Amidst this scene, the local community’s aptitude for selling their colorful traditions was evident, as any- and everything Tibetan was marketed aggressively (and again, the tourists bought it up, with Han Chinese far outnumbering western visitors). As a sign of the capitalist times, even the local monasteries had gift shops in their lhakhang temples. And yet their altars also featured large portraits of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whose likeness is of course strictly forbidden in other Tibetan regions. So, despite my misgivings of the commercialization of these religious institutions, their authenticity was certainly legitimate, quite simply for the position, in bold prominence, of His Holiness. Considering these policies, Gyalthang/Shangri-la has been touted as the ‘success story’ of the Tibetan region, where religious practice and commercial business can share the same side of the street (if not the same room). It is also the only Tibetan region in China that did not result in protests and uprisings in the spring 2008, a balance where rich Tibetan traditions bring in the crowds but ethnic identity does not threaten unrest. And so it seems that Beijing is happy, but are the Tibetans?

Many Tibetans and Westerners alike are distraught by the commercialization of the Plateau as well as the massive influx of Chinese tourists to Lhasa and other Tibetan regions. And understandably so, as it threatens the traditions, and very existence, of Tibet. However, I am afraid to say that I see such marketization, in a way, as Tibet’s best hope for survival-that is, if the hollow commodification can be reduced while the domestic interest is expanded. For this, it is essential that the Tibetan brand be made genuine and (pardon the term of the year) sustainable. While the ‘Land of Snows’ will never again be the isolated and cloistered ‘lamadom’ it once was, the Dalai Lama has identified cultural preservation as the primary objective in his government’s pursuit of ‘genuine autonomy’ for their homeland. And this aim is not mutually exclusive to China’s interests. Despite this, however, Beijing continues to market Tibet to the mass public while ignoring Dharamsala’s requests for meaningful dialogue (even, and if only, on the basis of protecting Tibetan traditions). Ultimately, and sadly, it appears unlikely that Tibet will gain greater autonomy in the near future, especially considering the level of investment made on the part of Beijing. Nevertheless, for the mutual benefit of both Tibet and China, real measures can and must be made to mitigate the eradication of cultural traditions under future developments. Perhaps this is an overly optimistic proposal, but I also think it one viable and amenable to both sides of the conflict.
Galen Murton

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