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March 23, 2009 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Tibet’Cha Arse

Travelling to the ‘roof of the world’ has long fascinated Western explorers. No doubt because Tibet was such a forbidden region for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, travellers would go to incomparable lengths to reach the capital Lhasa, disguising themselves as Buddhist pilgrims or Tibetan nomads and trekking for months across the frozen plateau as Brad Pitt’s character in Seven Years in Tibet did.

Our expedition to Lhasa was somewhat easier, given we are 21st century explorers. The 48-hour train trip, the highest in the world reaching heights of over 5000 metres, was in oxygen-filled carriages where you could lay all day playing cards and reading Penguin classics. The trip was made somewhat less bearable however when we discovered that our supply of beer was not brewed to be drinkable at 5000 metres of pressure.

Arriving in Lhasa was worth the two ‘dry’ days though. And like any traveller making it to the Tibetan capital, we were instantly captivated by the iconic 1000-room Potala Palace, built in 1645 by the fifth Dalai Lama, which towers high above the city like a medieval castle.

The Potala had been the winter home to subsequent Dalai Lamas for centuries, until the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1951 and the eventual forced flight into exile in India of the current Dalai Lama in 1949. He remains there to this day. Without its traditional resident at home, the Potala has been turned into a museum, and like many of the surrounding Buddhist temples, is a steady revenue stream for the CCP-controlled local government.

Standing at the door to the bedroom used by the current Dalai Lama until he was 24, you feel a huge twinge of guilt that you have paid to see this place, while its rightful resident has been forced to live abroad for the last 50 years. The mass of Tibetans that shuffle dutifully around you, praying with such devotion, remain without their natural leader after all this time, and it is unlikely to change.

In a contrast witnessed all over Lhasa, Chinese tourists hustle and bustle their way around the Palace seemingly unaware of the cultural and religious genocide going on around them that has been orchestrated by their government in Beijing. What the disastrous Cultural Revolution didn’t finish off, subsequent government policy slowly is. Over 90 percent of Tibet’s monasteries were destroyed during Mao’s fateful reign, and those that are left today have restrictions on the number of monks that can be in residence. Any Tibetans who hold government jobs are forbidden from openly practising Buddhism, and if they want these jobs they must speak Chinese, as Tibetan is not an official language.

Walking around central Lhasa, keeping clear of the patrolling Chinese troops and snipers on roof tops, it becomes obvious that Tibetans are slowly being squeezed out of their own country. The city resembles any other Chinese city, with wi-ficafés, nightclubs, karaoke bars and fast food restaurants. In 50 years Lhasa went from a locked-down, spiritual Mecca to a capitalist-orientated Chinese city, all against the will of its original inhabitants.

Officially, Tibetans still comprise more than 80 percent of the capital’s population, but even we could tell that these figures had been conveniently left out of date. It is common knowledge that Tibetans now make up only half the capital’s population and this proportion continues to shrink.

They’re being squeezed out not only numerically, but economically, by the more business minded Chinese who migrate westward. An amazing sight we witnessed, and a testament to Tibets’ religious devotion, was the huge number of people circuiting the city’s holy sites, many repeating the route four or five times a day up to 50 kilometres, prostrating themselves with undiminishing fervour in front of the Potala or the Jokhang Temple, Tibetan Buddhism’s most sacred place. The fact so many Tibetans have time in the day to do this however is because large numbers of them don’t have jobs.

Flying back to mainland China with Everest and the Himalayas stretching as far as the eye can see, you have a sick feeling in your stomach over what you have just experienced. You know that if you do make it back to Tibet again there will be little, if any, Tibetan culture alive.

All the while Western governments, including our own, sit complacently allowing China to get away with the strangulation of a unique culture. Not a single country officially recognises Tibetans’ rights to an independent nation despite the fact that there are strong historical claims that Tibet was free from China for much of its history, something the fabricated Chinese version of Tibetan history denies.

If Tibet is one of those places on your ‘must visit’ list, then do it soon. China won’t let go of Tibet anytime soon and the tighter it squeezes, the more the ‘real Tibet’ disappears.


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  1. Blair Watkins says:

    Urrrggh, my name is Liam, i am very shmart, urggghhh

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