Sunday, December 23, 2012

Some thoughts on Tibet

We have been wanting to write a wrap up Tibet post. We are struggling with what we can write with getting ourselves banned from Tibet or china, or, more importantly, getting our tour operator in trouble (loss of business license or worse). I guess that says a lot right there.

As it was apparently I'm on some kind of watch list. Our tour operator was warned to keep an eye on me while I was in the country. I was warned not to run my mouth off in public because who knows who might be listening. The funny thing is, I've never actually been a member of Free Tibet, and I don't have a very political online presence. Matt figures I must have signed some Amnesty Int'l thing, and my mom pointed out we occupied the university Jiang Zemin and his APEC guys were meeting at in the '90's. Maybe that's enough? I've never invested the time to understand the situation in Tibet well enough to have a solid informed opinion. In fact, I've known socialists who actually supported the occupation. It's funny, that that's all changed now.

Nothing herein is suggested to reflect the opinions of our guide or tour operator. It's all what we saw or discovered ourselves.

The Tibetans are pretty strictly controlled. I was surprised at the extent of the police state feel. There are checkpoints around all the major religious sites, and throughout the Tibetan section of town (not the Chinese section). They are checking everyone, but especially monks and young people for anything flammable (to protect against self immolations, which are a problem but not reported there). They also check young Tibetans' cell phones for Tibetan music or books. Frequently travel within the country by Tibetans (pilgrimages to Lhasa) is restricted. It's also near impossible for young Tibetans to get a passport, and even if they do they'll face trouble if they visit India. Our own travel permit had accumulated over a dozen official checkpoint stamps by the end. We were warned of other travelers having their India or China guidebooks confiscated because it mentions the current Dalai Lama. Ours made it through, but I had deleted the Tibet chapter from the kindle just in case. (Now I know why you can't buy any foreign published china guides in china)

There are not many jobs for young Tibetans. Tourism is a big one. While we were in Shigatse all the kids were lining up to find out how they did on the police entrance exam (to be one of the check point police, kind of glorified security guards). It's interesting to think of the young Tibetans at the check points, searching their peers.

Even though there is a significant amount of Chinese immigration to Tibet, we didn't see the same rampant expansion that was evident in China. Lhasa is surrounded by mountains, and 11% of the area is a protected wetland, so they can't go out too much. Still, the tallest building (other than Potala) is the Police HQ at 13 stories. There were random Chinese cities we passed in the train where I counted dozens of developments, each made up of 8-10 thirty-story high rises, all under construction (I am my father's daughter, I'm always looking out at cities counting cranes and building skeletons). I'm sure Tibet will continue to develop, and maybe it will be mega cities in the hinterlands near the natural resources the Chinese are seeking.

The Chinese brought in more schools and hospitals. Those are important. Also, all little kids are supposed to be going go school. Secondary education is only in Chinese so if you want your kid to go far, you need to sent them to Chinese primary, not Tibetan. Tibet does not have the water and power issues that neighboring Nepal has (thanks to the Chinese). Also, the Chinese have made impressive strides in protecting wetland and other sensitive ecosystems. The environmental regulations they enforced when building the railway were supposedly some of the strictest in the world.

Still, culture, religion and language are a lot to barter for infrastructure. The 8% of Chinese who are not Han pack in a huge amount of diversity. I would be curious to know if the Manchu or the Miao or any of the 50+ other ethnic groups have similar pressure on their culture?

Some people who support a free Tibet discourage travel there. They say that your dollars are supporting the Chinese (why we used Tibetan guide, driver, hotels, restaurants, etc.), or that by going you are tacitly supporting the occupation.

The current Dalai Lama (whose image is seriously banned in Tibet) says to go see and learn for yourself, I'm glad we did.

(The Tibetans we met were proud of their culture, this is my favorite example. I asked if there was a tradition of Tibetans climbing to the top of the high mountains around them. Our guide said no, but the first man to climb Everest was Tibetan, but he lived in Nepal, Tenzing Norgay. I asked why he climbed, and the guide told us it was because some Europeans wanted to go. Haha! No mention of Edmund Hillary, I love it)