Friday, July 24, 2009

Tibet as a tourist destination

A group of us has just returned from an 11-day trip to China's Qinghai and Tibet. This is the fifth and last in the series for my blog from this trip.

Now that Lhasa can be reached by plane or by train and highways run across Tibet to the borders with Nepal and India, Tibet is significantly more accessible than ever before. There is real prospect of Tibet becoming a popular destination for the mainstream tourists around the world.

And why not?
Tibet offers spectacular natural scenery with breath taking views of mountains, glaciers, lakes and canyons. Tibet also has its share of world heritage sites, a long history and culture that intrigues most people in the West and attractive indigenous arts and crafts almost unique to Tibet.

However, as Tibet becomes a more common tourist destination, surely those that fantasize about finding Shangri-la in Tibet will object. Similarly those that come to the Tibetan plateaus in search of their personal spiritual high may get upset at finding more concrete than straw and mud, more electrical lights than yak butter lamps, more cars than donkey carts, and more tourists than believers.

In reality, Tibet is sparsely populated. There are plenty of hidden valleys waiting to be “discovered” as someone’s personal Shangri-la and lonely mountain tops for those desiring a spiritual encounter of a special kind. Driving along the highways, I noticed signs to other monasteries that we and, I suspect, most run of the mill touring groups did not visit. Perhaps those more remote holy places would offer the spiritual experience of more substance to those seeking such solace.

Furthermore, Tibet has a long ways to go before it is overrun with international travelers. Let’s start with the train system that runs on the roof of the world. Other than the ability to provide oxygen on demand, the equipment is disappointingly ordinary, not commensurate with the technological breakthrough of the railroad. Lacking are glass-domed observation cars where first class passengers can lounge, have a drink or meal and enjoy the vistas. There is nothing to suggest that this is a special ride.

The service on the train is somewhat more slovenly than regular trains that run at lower altitudes. The dining car is under capacity relative to demand and not particularly high on hygiene standards. Worst of all, the demand for soft sleeping berths exceeds supply. The shortage of soft berths can be easily rectified by adding more cars with sleeping compartments along with a computer system that would assure selling every berth along the route.

The Ministry of Railway has yet to introduce such a reservation system but has continued to rely on the archaic allocation of sleeping berths at the station of origination. For example, in order to ensure that our group of 20 would be able to board the same train departing from Xining, our travel service had to buy the tickets from Beijing, where the train originated. This meant that 5 sleeping compartments were unoccupied for the 24 hours from Beijing to Xining, accompanied only by the travel service representative who went to Beijing to buy the tickets and bring them back to Xining for us.

The other alternative was for the travel service to buy the tickets in the black market, but there would be no assurance of buying the full block to ensure that our group stays together. Since none of the 5 trains that go to Lhasa via Xining originate from Xining, it meant the necessity of buying tickets for phantom legs or dealing with huang niu, scalpers who are thriving as illegal intermediaries.

While Beijing made great strides to raise the standard of public toilets just prior to the 2008 Olympics, the improvements have not found Tibet. Except for certain hotel facilities, most public toilets are primitive and smelly. The toilets at the monasteries are particularly bad; they smell, well, to high heaven. Smelly toilets will deter many from coming to Tibet.

Lastly, Tibet is not fully prepared for tourists. In cities such as Lhasa and Xigaze, there should be tourist information centers to provide maps and suggestions of tourist related activity. We did not see any such offices. We saw plenty of soldiers and policemen guarding key intersections and major edifices. Clearly, at this point in Tibet’s development, security considerations trump tourism.

Tibet is also not everybody’s cup of tea from a physical point of view. A visit to Tibet means spending most of the time at altitudes from 12,000 to 16,000 ft. There is no way to predict who will feel severe discomfort at such heights but those who have experienced elevation sickness at lower altitudes definitely should not go to Tibet.
Colorful apartments above the nunnery shop in old Lhasa.

Debating monk at the Sera Monastery in Lhasa

White yaks grazing when not working as photo stops

The receding Kharola Glacier due to global warming

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The People of Tibet

A group of us has just returned from an 11-day trip to China's Qinghai and Tibet. This is the fourth in the series for my blog on what I learned from this trip.

Before I went to Tibet, my stereotypical image of Tibetans was that they were sun-baked brown with leathery and wrinkled skin that made them look much older than their actual age. Now, having been to Tibet, I come to realize that Tibetans can have a complexion as fine and fair as any other ethnic Asians. This was particularly true of young Tibetans living in the cities and made a practice of avoiding the sun.
A charming roadside vendor with gold teeth

While it is not possible to develop a deep understanding of the Tibetan psyche in a short visit, I can offer some of the vignettes of our encounters with the people in Tibet that suggest a kind of innocence that is second nature to the Tibetans.

While leading a bus load of American tourists to the next attraction, our Tibetan tour guide was asked the question, “Where would you like to go as your first trip abroad?” His quick reply was Nepal and India because being a devout Buddhist, he would like to visit places where the religion originated--just quick candor and no hesitation not even some tactful passing reference about America.

At the lookout for the Yamdrok Lake, a Tibetan woman selling trinkets and souvenirs walked up to my daughter saying to her, “You are beautiful. I want to give you a necklace because I want to be your friend.” The Tibetan woman did not want anything in return and did not ask my daughter to buy anything from her. She settled for seeing a digital photo taken of the two of them. Everybody in our group agreed that it was a real positive experience.

At a roadside stop, my sister and a seller of souvenirs started negotiations for a bunch of Tibetan necklaces. The negotiations were interrupted by lunch being served and my sister paid the agreed price for nine of them, but she really wanted ten. Later as lunch was winding down, the Tibetan woman vendor came back and gave my sister one more necklace as a gesture of goodwill.

We stopped at a village by the highway to take pictures of typical Tibetan homes. These homes consisted of a courtyard, full of their domesticated animals, next to the first floor, used as the barn for those animals and the second floor, brightly trimmed in green and orange, as their own living quarters. The dogs in the village did not like us and barked unceasingly but the villagers smiled, beckoned to us and invited us to step in for a closer look.

Of course, I am not suggesting that the Tibetan people are naïve and being taken advantage of by the rapacious tourists. Far from it. The Tibetan vendors at Barkhor district and roadside stands were skilled negotiators and quite capable of getting their price while at the same time letting the tourist feel that she has gotten the best possible deal.

At the lookout for Yamdrok Lake, young Tibetan men were aggressively pushing tourists away from the stone tablet marker with the name of the lake and the elevation. This was the kind of location where tourists love to take a souvenir photo. Here they weren’t allowed to unless they agreed to pay the young men 5 RMB for a photo fee. Since the stone tablet look official and not apparently privately owned, the young men’s bullying tactics dampened the appeal of that scenic stop.

Will increasing contact with outside visitors from all over the world alter the gentle nature of the Tibetan personality? I suspect most likely not. I believe the Tibetan personality is deeply rooted in their devotion to Buddhism and that is unlikely to change much in the foreseeable future.

Worshippers visiting Tashilunpo in Xigaze

Monday, July 20, 2009

Tibet's Changing Values

A group of us has just returned from an 11-day trip to China's Qinghai and Tibet. This is the third in the series for my blog on what I learned from this trip.

It’s not possible to walk by the imposing Potala Palace in Lhasa and not be awestruck by the structure, rising to majestic heights in a background of blue sky and billowing white clouds. From the visit by Francis Younghusband over a century ago to now, the palace has not changed but the foreground has.

Potala used to sit amidst mud hovel and surrounded by smelly squalor. Now it towers over a broad boulevard and a huge square in the tradition of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, except in Lhasa the square is ringed with potted flowers. Most visitors will inevitably stop at the square for their souvenir photo with the palace as background.

Some observers might say this is Tibet modernizing and making progress to join the rest of the world. Others think this is cultural genocide.

The Central Government in Beijing has lavished billions to build up the infrastructure inside Tibet. In addition to the railroad on the roof of the world, at an altitude impossible to be built according to experts in the West, highways now criss-cross Tibet linking this region to rest of China.

Just a mere three years ago, a trip over the pass to see Yamdrok Lake and transit through Gyantze to get to Xigaze would have required riding an all-terrain vehicle over bone jarring mud tracks and an overnight stay at Gyantze. Now with a newly paved highway 307, the drive took less than a day.

Before the liberation of Tibet from theocratic rule, the nearest trading partner was India. From Gyantze, the nearest town to the border of India, the Tibetan trader would mount up and take 15 days to get to India and 15 days to get back. Today, Tibetans no longer get their tea from Darjeeling but from Yunnan and elsewhere within China and it doesn’t take a month to bring the shipment in.

In every village we drove by, the best looking building in the village was invariably the government funded primary school. Of course in the old days, the lords of the land never felt the need to educate the peasants and such a building was not necessary and did not exist.

On the western side of the pass on 307, we passed a man-made reservoir, built about a decade ago to capture the glacier run-off which feed an irrigation system for the farm lands below. Many farmers in addition to raising crops had built plastic film covered green houses to grow vegetables which they sold to nearby cities.

A fortress on top of a steep hill dominated the valley around Gyantse. An aristocratic family used to live in that fortress until 1959, now a museum and landmark of the city. If the valley was still controlled by the lord in the fortress, there would be no irrigation ditches, no green houses and the farmers would have remained peasants with no incentives.

The monument in front of the fortress commemorates the heroic (and tragic) resistance of Tibetans against the British incursion of 1904.

Within the commanding view of the fortress is the Palkor Temple built by the first Panchen Lama in 1418. One of the side chapel connected to the main temple contains a breathtakingly beautiful collection of clay statues of abbots, revered monks and famed scholars of Buddhism from far and wide including some from Bangladesh and India.

Except for the main temple and the great white pagoda containing 108 shrines, much of the Palkor complex was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. As our guide explained, the extent of destruction during the Cultural Revolution was quite uneven in Tibet and dependent on the cooperation and participation of local Red Guards.

The ringleaders came from the mainland but they needed local complicity to know where the targets were located and local volunteers to help with the destruction. In places where they were rebuffed by the local denizens, they left and went elsewhere for easier objectives.

At Palkor, much of the complex still lay in ruins. Elsewhere such as the Potala Palace, Jokhang, Drepung and Sera Monasteries and Norbulinka in Lhasa and the Tashilunpo Monastery in Xigaze, the tourist can see the restoration and maintenance work going on but would be hard pressed to distinguish recovery efforts from the revolution to routine maintenance from age.

In the past, the monasteries owned the land surrounding them and the peasants were at best tenant farmers. Today, the monasteries are profitable selling traditional medicine, Buddhist souvenirs, rights to photography inside the temples and unending stream of donations from the believers.

Devout worshippers visit these monasteries clutching stacks of one jiao bills (worth one tenth of a yuan and about 1.5 cents U.S.) which they stuff in front of Thankas, Buddhas, and anything else they consider holy that can help them in this and next life. These pennies can add up.

What we didn’t see in our tour was a Buddhist equivalent of the Catholic Charities, organized to help the indigent. Apparently, the mission of the monasteries is to help the people attain enlightenment but nothing to help them ease the temporal pains and physical needs.

So the lives of Tibetans are changing. They are getting educated and have more control of their livelihood. More of them may settle for promenading around the Potala holding prayer wheels rather than the three-step then full prostration march. But the Tibetans remain deeply devoted Buddhists and the feudal mindset that put themselves in the hapless class will take a long time to wear off.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Tibet Today

A group of us has just returned from an 11-day trip to China's Qinghai and Tibet. This is the second in the series for my blog on what I learned from this trip.

Arriving in Lhasa by train, a quick first impression would be that Lhasa seemed like another modern city in China. Look at Lhasa a little more closely and one then sees that it is not exactly another Chinese city. Being a recently built city, the streets were wide and cleaner than most cities on the mainland. All the billboards and storefront signs were bilingual, in hanzi and in Tibetan script in place of pinyin.

Tibetan people in colorful garb walked, clockwise around objects of veneration, such as a temple, all the while spinning a prayer wheel held in their hands. Every once in a while, we would see some Tibetans clap three times, take three steps and prostrate themselves in full stretch on the ground and then getting up to repeat the process.

We were told by our guide, a Tibetan, that 30% of the population of 2.8 million lived in the urban area, another 30% lived in the countryside as farmers and the remaining 40% has continued to live according to their nomadic tradition. As we drove through the Tibetan countryside, we can see that lives of at least 60% of the (non-nomadic) lives of ordinary Tibetans have materially improved from the feudal days.

Those living in the cities are participating in a booming economy, our multilingual tour guide being one example. As Lhasa, Shigatse and other cities become increasingly popular tourist destinations, a boom in the hospitality industry has followed. As more tourists come, demand for restaurants and native handicraft also increased.

Jobs are also created by the infrastructure investments made by the central government. We saw early efforts underway to lay a second track connecting Lhasa and Xining in Qinghai. National Highway 109 begins from Beijing and runs over 3700 km to Lhasa. National Highway 318 runs from Shanghai through Lhasa to the border, over 5400 km in length. Road crews are constantly maintaining and repairing these and other highways in Tibet.

As we drove to Xigaze on the newly paved NH 307, a trip that took two days only 5 years ago now took less than one, we saw lush farms fed by a well coordinated system of irrigation ditches. Many newly built homes in these villages along the road side testified to evidence of new wealth.

Would the people of Tibet welcome Dalai Lama back, I asked. Yes, most of the Tibetans would welcome him back as the spiritual leader but not as the secular leader, our guide said. “Because we fully understand that if the Dalai Lama becomes the leader of our government again, our standard of living would take a big step backwards.”

For two reasons, he went to say. Tibet’s economy is weak and not self-sustaining. More than half of Tibet’s operating budget comes from the central government. If the Dalai Lama takes over, the subsidy is likely to go away. More importantly, about 70% of Tibet’s aristocrats fled to India with the Dalai Lama. These followers want nothing more than to revert to the feudal days when they owned everything. While such a reversion is unlikely after so many years, just the tension could wreak havoc on the Tibetan society.

Here is the dilemma of modern Tibet as I see it. The Dalai Lama is just one person, albeit first among them. Even if he wants moderation and willing to give up claims to secular rule, his followers are unlikely to let him do so. They have lost too much in leaving Tibet and seeing former serfs and slaves thrive and becoming financially independent.

Beijing also has a problem. When Beijing interjected itself in the selection of the next Panchen Lama, most Tibetans are skeptical of the legitimacy of this selection. The 11th Panchen Lama is only 19. It remains to be seen whether he can win the hearts of the Tibetan people with time. The popularity of the 10th was damaged by the perception that he collaborated with the Beijing government. He died in 1989.

Beijing also has to deal with a perception and education problem. Most Tibetans born after 1959 have only a vague to no idea of what life was like under a theocratic rule. Without knowledge of Tibet’s past, some now believe they could do even better by themselves without the Han Chinese presence. This is still a minority voice but is being fed by resentment over the evident success of roadside restaurants and stalls all seemingly owned and run by the Han Chinese from neighboring Sichuan province.

The aforementioned 60% of Tibetans now appreciates the value of education and sees a good education as the ticket to a better life. Beijing’s challenge is figuring out how to reach the 40% nomads roaming in Tibet and get them to join the mainstream economy. Our guide told us that the government has been building permanent dwellings for them and encouraging them to live in a permanent base. Thus the percent of nomads is expected to decline, albeit gradually.

The future of Tibet is clouded with uncertainties. Beijing is not going to negotiate with Dalai Lama unless he is willing to renounce his right to rule. He can’t renounce because his followers of aristocrats won’t let him. The impasse might not be broken until he passes on. Then the Beijing anointed Panchen Lama will help find the 15th Dalai Lama and selling that candidate to the people of Tibet—a huge undertaking of uncertain outcome.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Buddhism in Tibet

A group of us has just returned from an 11-day trip to China's Qinghai and Tibet. This is the first of my blog on what I learned from this trip.

Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in the 7th century AD (some say earlier but that would spoil this story) when the great king of the Tubo kingdom, Songtsen Gampo united what was then the territory of Tibetan influence. As gestures of goodwill (or appeasement depending on your point of view), the kings of Nepal and Tang China sent their daughters to become consorts to the great king.

This 33rd king of Tubo did more than marry two princesses in addition to his principal wife of ethnic Tibetan origin. He was a military genius, ordered the creation of the Tibetan language in written form, began the construction that was to become the Potala Palace, among many other worthy undertakings.

Princess Wencheng, daughter of Li Shimin, himself one of the great Tang emperors in China’s history, brought with her a sacred statue of Buddha said to have been made in celestial heaven and resided there for many years before being sent down to earth. I don’t have the full story of how the statue ended up in Li Shimin’s hands or why he would willingly give it up, but this statue is on display in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.

Of course from Tibetan’s point of view, they can’t simply give Wencheng and China all the credit for introducing Buddhism to Tibet but gave partial credit to the beautiful princess from Nepal in influencing the great king to accept Buddhism. After all, the religion originated from Nepal.

All religions take on local flavor in part to ensure more ready acceptance by the indigenous population. It was no different with Buddhism in Tibet where much of the beliefs of Bon was incorporated into the rituals. Bon based on animism was the dominant religion before being supplanted by Buddhism which in Tibet was more commonly referred to as Lamaism to distinguish from other forms of Buddhism elsewhere. “Lama” is the Tibetan term for monk.

Ironically, while Songtsen Gampo, the 33rd king of the Tubo kingdom introduced Buddhism to Tibet, the 42nd and last king wanted to revert to Bon and he was assassinated by a monk. The lesser wife bore the king a son but had to contend with the senior wife who adopted a son to bolster her legitimacy. A bitter squabble ended inconclusively. Thus ended the continuous lineage of Tibetan kings and the kingdom fell into disarray from the 9th to the 11th century.

In the 17th century, the 5th Dalai Lama was invited to the court of the first emperor of the Qing dynasty where he was conferred the official title of Dalai Lama and granted the right to become the titular ruler of Tibet. Up to then, the Dalai Lama was merely the head of the yellow hat sect, which was founded in the 16th century and was a new comer and a minor sect compared to the other three major sects in Tibet at the time. Since then, thanks to the appointment by the emperor in Beijing, the yellow sect has flourished and today makes up perhaps 60% of all the Tibetan followers.

The practice of identifying the reincarnate of the deceased Dalai Lama as the successor and next ruler began with the 4th Dalai Lama who was attributed as the reincarnation of the 3rd. The 1st and 2nd were not part of the cycle and were apparently retrospectively revered for their learnedness and holiness.

With increasing wealth and power, the selection of the successor to the deceased Dalai Lamas became increasing crucial and a bone of contention. In fact the death of the 9th Dalai Lama even before he reached puberty, a suspected victim of poison, may have been because of violent disagreement among members of the “selection committee.”

Typically, the new Dalai Lama was selected at a very young age and then tutored intensively in preparation for the day when he will take over. In the meantime, a regent was appointed to rule in his place until he reached the age of majority at 18. It was undoubtedly tempting for some regents to hold onto the power a little longer by sending the young Dalai Lama on to reincarnation before his time.

Another indication of the risk involved in becoming the Dalai Lama is that while we are at the 14th of Dalai Lama, we are only at the 11th Panchen Lama. Since both exalted holy lamas were accorded their exalted titles at about the same time, the life expectancy of the Panchen Lama appeared to be longer than that of the Dalai lama.

It remained for Qianlong, emperor of Qing dynasty, to settle the dispute among various factions by establishing and formalizing on a procedure for the identification and selection of the reincarnate of the late Dalai Lama. The golden jar used to draw lots to help choose from among the finalists was on display in the Tibet Museum in Lhasa, another said to be Beijing at the Lama Temple. So you see, there is historical precedence for Beijing to take a hand in settling the domestic affairs of Tibet.

A tour of Potala Palace, even when limited by one hour per tour group during the tourist high season, can be quite revealing. We saw many statues and stupas (our guide called them tomb pagodas) made of solid gold. The 5th and the 13th were consider the greatest of the deceased Dalai Lamas. The stupa for the 5th weighed nearly 4 metric tons of solid gold. The 13th was so revered that his stupa was unveiled for public viewing only once every year. We were not there on that lucky day but were told that his stupa was as magnificent as the 5th. Perhaps a coincidence, they were the only two Dalai Lamas that wore a mustache during their time on earth.

By my seat of the pants estimate, there are easily 20 to 30 tons of gold sitting just in the Potala Palace. I felt indelicate to ask as to exactly how much gold there is in Potala but I did ask our guide as to where all that gold came from. We mined for our gold, he said, Tibet is rich in natural resources.

Good thing, I thought, the Spaniards did not hear about the gold of Tibet. They could have sacked Tibet the way they did in Mexico and Peru--which brings up the story of speculation as to why the 13th Dalai Lama is so revered by the Tibetans.

In 1904, the 13th led the Tibetans against the incursion of the British expeditionary force led by Francis Younghusband outside of Gyantse. The Tibetans had no concept of the destructive powers of modern weapons such as the machine gun. A tragic massacre ensued which gave Younghusband the pretext needed to march on to Lhasa. (Apparently the 13th was not there in person, he had removed himself to outer Mongolia out of harm’s way.)

A typical unequal treaty was the result, but even the British government felt repelled by the one-sided circumstances and the massacre of Tibetans needed for Younghusband to bring back this treaty. London promptly consigned it to the dust bins and never took advantage of any of the terms of the treaty.

It would take more research to understand why the 13th was so revered by the Tibetans, with a stature on par with the 5th. As the leader of the military confrontation with the British, he was an unmitigated disaster. The Tibetans probably looked upon him as the symbol of Tibet’s resistance to British imperialism. The Beijing government has erected a memorial in Gyantse in honor of all the “martyrs” of that historic confrontation.

It will take more scholarly research than represented here to understand why the Brits did not proceed to take over Tibet. Perhaps they were satisfied that then Czarist Russia were not in Tibet contrary to the rumors used to justify the invasion into Tibet. They had no idea of the amount of gold in Tibet nor the immense collection of art objects that could have overflowed the British Museum.

An interesting side note is that the 13th, the immediate predecessor of the current one residing in Dharamsala, eventually fled to Moscow, (USSR being the other player of the “Great Game,”) and died there. It would be interesting to find out exactly how the 14th was selected because there is a chance of history repeating itself when the current one passed on.