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Travels in Little China

All photos by Kathryn Hummel

The Chinese brand of red tape now wraps around Tibet as fiercely as the Red Guards that once invaded it. Travelers who gain access now see a Disney-fied Tibet.

During the flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa, I saw the white and ice-blue peaks of the Himalayas sitting like île flottants in a meringue of cloud. If this is too grandiose and gastronomical a metaphor to begin a column with, just think of it as a combined effect of holiday freedom and the time I spent feasting in Nepalese restaurants. As an expression, it duly captures the excitement of my fellow passengers as they chirruped with delight and crowded the aeroplane aisle for a better view.

The sightseeing continued after landing, with my travel group pausing on the way from the airport to take snaps of an ancient rock-face carving of Buddha. Etched by an Indian pilgrim in the 11th century, the image we saw had been smoothed over with render and painted in bright sections, like a Plaster Fun House sculpture. The next stop was the chief Lhasa branch of the Bank of China. From a mounted position, in the manner of the Potala Palace, the building overlooked a clean wide sweep of road and orderly rows of shops. It looked like a postcard of a Beijing street. A thought descended upon me and made me uneasy: I was now at the entrance of a theme park, and a Chinese-sponsored theme park, at that.

Doubtless this is not a new discovery to make about modern Tibet. The country’s cultural decimation since 1959 can be illustrated through just a few symbols: the exiled Dalai Lama, a monument celebrating the Liberation of Tibet erected opposite the Potala Palace and the Qinghai Railway that speeds a whole new wave of foreign visitors into Lhasa. Rather than an earnest, Lonely Planet-toting ‘traveler’, I also entered Tibet as a tourist, though I doubt if I could have experienced the country any other way.

The Chinese brand of red tape now wraps around the country as fiercely as the Red Guards that once invaded it. Foreigners are only permitted entry if they are accompanied by a recognised guide and have pre-approved itineraries, even to places in the TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region), which seems to exist in name only. Words and pictures relating to the Dalai Lama are banned from entry and binned if found, and anyone who writes ‘journalist’, ‘photographer,’ et cetera, on their debarkation slip meets a similar fate.

The more I explored Lhasa, the more I found it ‘authentically themed’. A short distance from my hotel was Kirey Lane, a slender walkway crowded with dumpling pit-stops for peckish pilgrims and bakeries selling round, flat rolls. Kirey Lane leads onto Barkhor Square and at twilight, during an evening when I had lost hope of finding ‘genuine’ Tibet (with a newly adopted tourists’ demand for instant gratification -- I’d been in the country for less than 24 hours), it was lovely.

Along the road to Jokhang Plaza and above the roofs of shops were eye-filling views of distant grey-green mountains. Vendors packed up their market stall for the night, prayer flags whipped in the wind, streetlights with big glass bulbs blinked into life. All around me there were monks in scarlet and saffron robes, local women wearing wrappers and striped aprons in dusky shades, Buddhist cowboys with Mongolian features beneath wide-brimmed hats.

Choosing another alley that twisted in the way only an old lane in an old city can, I walked past lit shops and was gifted with moving pictures of men cutting slices of yak cheese from barrel-shaped chunks, women pounding table-tops full of pillowy bread dough, and barbers watching TV with their families over their evening meal. Windows set in dirty white walls had star-shaped iron grates and papery trimmings that trilled in the breeze, and every now and then a door would appear, framed by solid black lines but wreathed with red, blue and gold painted flowers.

When I went back to Barkhor Square days later, the morning light illuminated some details I hadn’t noticed during my first night there. Tourist-centric goods swamped the market stalls, like Nepalese-made prayer beads and synthetic copies of the Gelug's yellow hats, and were presided over by bargainers as hard as any you’d find in Dhaka, although strikingly different, with brightly coloured cotton braided into their long hair, and earrings of turquoise and coral.

Monks flashed the 'peace' sign as they posed for photographs, a sure sign they’d had too much contact with Japanese tourists, and the streetlights I’d admired in the evening looked far too new and European-styled. I felt the old blast of guilt when visiting the Jokhang Temple and saw the tourists and Buddhist pilgrims push up against each other in sweaty lines to gaze at the same idols -- for very different reasons. On the rooftop of the Jokhang was a gift shop and café, where older monks sat together and giggled like schoolboys at the antics of the female shoppers and the sizes of their bottoms.

Even the magnificence of the Potala Palace was diminished by having to enter through a special appointment, presentation of my passport and a metal detector (and for those who fail this process, there's always the brand-new miniature version of the palace in Shigatse). Saved during the Cultural Revolution by Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, what was once the seat of the Tibetan government now remains standing for the edification of gawkers and those who want it as a background to goofy photo portraits. Even enlivened with tales of the Dalai Lamas that had once lived out long winters within its rooms, and the glow of golden and bejewelled treasures, the Potala now has the emptiness of a tourist attraction that should have been -- and had been in a former life, like the forlorn Palace of Versailles -- swarming with people intent on the business of government and religion.

Away from Lhasa the views were incorruptible. Driving across vast plateaux gave me plenty of hours to watch the changing colours of the landscape. Going up to Yamdrok Tso Lake, about 5000m above sea level, the dirt was grey and stone blue and sprouted lilac shrubs and tufts of dusty green grass, which the sun on the hills bleached to the colour of sand. The clouds pressing in on us were sometimes grey, sometimes white with sun, and revealed an intensely blue sky, which the lake reflected back in silver. Heading to Gyantse, we were flanked by vivid green barley fields and brown mountains heavy with cloud.

On the road a few days later, leaving Shigatse for Shegar, the view changed from reddish sand and crumbling ochre hills with stone houses growing from them to planes of dry grass and shrunken trees. At Jai Tsuo, a point looking south over the Himalayas, the air grew thin and clean without being biting -- it made each breath I took more meaningful and dosed my soul with its clarity. Shegar itself was a true frontier town, with pony-drawn carts and men wearing cowboy hats over long black pigtails, and a single row of shops in a nook between fleshy hills. As we drew closer to Nepal, the mountains changed to dirt and ash and the rocks became brittle. The grass grew greener and a stream followed the road. Deeper in the scenery exploded with dense green growth, the stream became a foaming rushing river that slicked the rocks a shining deep brown, and pulled time and the seasons with it.

Being of a volatile nature, imbibing beauty only entertains me for about five hours at a time. Since our drives were often longer than that, I asked my Tibetan guide Jigme to teach me some of his language and collected the sounds like relics. I practised my new words with children on the streets of Shigatse but they didn’t understand me, either because of my pronunciation or because they didn’t know the language themselves. Instead we communicated through playing soccer and pool, modelling clothes, mime, and their own smattering of English.

If native Tibetans have been marginalised, then it follows that their language has been, too. My guide alluded to the Han Chinese population who have been making Tibet their home since the '80s, saying that jobs for Tibetan university graduates are often bagged by better-educated Chinese immigrants. The business-minded of these buy up blocks of land and rent it out to Tibetan farmers, mimicking the sharecropping system that history has shown to have worked so well for countries like Ireland. Despite China’s claim that indigenous Tibetans make up 93 percent of the population, the government is yet to undertake a study of Tibet’s ethnic composition ("Tourist Tibet", David Kootnikoff, AdBusters, 15 January 2007), and waiting for an independent analysis of the same will surely take the time of several reincarnations.

When it came to discussing politics, Jigme lowered his voice if wary of hidden microphones. From his perspective, the discontent the Tibetans feel about their country’s politics is real, but buried. The fear of reprisal for anyone -- politically-minded or not -- espousing anti-Chinese sentiment is constant. Individual activists scattered around the region are careful to keep their opinions underground and are just as careful not to gather in noticeable numbers. Students, who are traditionally relied on as harbingers of revolution, are as passive as any middle-class bunch of law students from my uni back home. Free media coverage of the Dalai Lama is forbidden and internet sites references him are blocked.

Propaganda – like an article in China's Tibet describing the ‘Dalai Lama’s Secret Deals with the CIA’ -- is rife and encourages the belief that the Dalai Lama’s religious pacifism is indifference. Jigme seemed mildly surprised and not really impressed that over the border in Nepal people were running around wearing ‘Free Tibet’ emblazoned on T-shirts. When I asked if he was comfortable talking about politics, he admitted he wasn’t, and so I changed the subject.

Unhappily for some in my tour group, my next area of discussion was the cultural imperialism of the United States and the weakness of the Australian way of life in its thrall, one of my all-time favourite topics when I’m in the company of Americans. When one of the San Franciscan gentlemen started up with, “Oh for God’s sake…” I got the impression he didn’t really want to be stirred, even though it was an issue I thought very apt given the country we were travelling through.

Therein lay the sadness of my journey into Tibet: knowing that what I saw was only an interpretation of a culture ravaged and then reassembled, an illusion of what once was now allowed to remain only on the surface, and not out of respect or regret, but because of its appeal for holiday-makers. My volatility is good for something, though, as it allows me to constantly revise my conclusions. Back in Kathmandu I bought a copy of Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet on the recommendation of a friend. In the archaic Introduction, Peter Fleming describes the fascination of Tibet in terms of its remote mystery, its way of stimulating but not reciprocating curiosity, the “thick veil” of secrecy that shrouded it even as China began its invasion.

I began to think that if Tibet was so heavily impenetrable back then, perhaps this is one cultural characteristic that has only worn thin, not worn through. Like the other tourist Meccas of the world, maybe the heart of the country is kept private and because of its inherent guardedness, will never be revealed. Even if outsiders never see it, even if it is only for the clandestine enjoyment of the nomads and pilgrims who belong to it, the possibility of a ‘real Tibet’ surely remains the country’s most alluring aspect and the one that imparts the most hope.

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