Tibet is more accessible to foreign visitors today than it has ever been before. So far that simply means an average of about 30 visitors a week (in 1981) but the number is rising. For centuries, the Himalayan kingdom of Tibet was a closed world, jealous of its privacy and eager to keep everybody else away from its mountain fastness. At some stages in its history, it has come under the influence of empires in India to the south; at others, it has been a vassal state to the powerful Chinese empire to the east. But through it all, the Tibetans have maintained a sense of their own racial, cultural – some would say, national – separateness. The Chinese government says that Tibet has been a rightful part of China for ‘a long time’. Many Tibetans disagree. Whatever the truth of the matter, Tibet is now firmly part of the People’s Republic of China and is likely to remain so.
For the tourist, Tibet is one of the most fascinating places that can be visited in China. Lhasa, with its rarified air, friendly locals and the towering Potala, is a palpably different world from the heartland of China, thousands of miles to the east. Travelling to Tibet can be cripplingly expensive if you go with the China Travel Service, but most people would agree that Tibet is worth the sum charged.
Until 1951, Tibet was ruled by a Buddhist theocracy, headed by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan god-king who now lives in exile in India. Probably about 20 per cent of the male population in those days were Lamaist priests and the monasteries they inhabited were centres of power and wealth which controlled huge tracts of land and the peasants on them. There was slavery, and justice was often very cruel. Sanitation, modern medicine, even wheeled vehicles were unknown on the Roof of the World. Life there in 1950 was almost exactly as it had been in 1550.
The Communist Chinese view is that ‘before liberation, Tibet was a hell on earth, where the labouring people suffered for centuries under the darkest and most reactionary serfdom. Tibetan serfs and slaves lived worse than animals.’
One of the present vice-chairmen of the Tibetan Communist Party Committee, a woman named Pasang, gave the following account of her own life, published in 1972:
I was born in a slave’s family in Konka County, Tibet. I was a slave for nine years and lived like a beast of burden. Chairman Mao and the Communist Party saved me from slavery and nurtured me to become a Communist and a responsible cadre. My mother gave birth to me, but it is the Party which saved me and Invincible Mao Tse-tung Thought which sustains me. I want to cheer again and again: ‘Long live Chainnan Mao!’
Contemporary accounts by the handful of foreigners who penetrated the old Tibet, however, do not wholly back the Communist picture of unremitting misery. Heinrich Harrer, a German who spent seven years there and became an adviser to the Dalai Lama, saw the Tibetans as a happy people, proud of their independence, although he had much to say on the low standards of hygiene, and estimated the average life expectancy at about 30 years. ‘What saves Tibet is its cool climate and pure mountain air,’ Harrer said in his memoirs. ‘But for them, the universal dirt and the wretched sanitary conditions would surely engender catastrophic plagues.’
After the Communists secured their hold on the heartland of China in 1949, the following year the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began the long trek west to unite Tibet with the rest of the Socialist Mother-land. In April 1951, with the Communist army already occupying most of the eastern part of his country, the Dalai Lama sent a delegation to Peking and reached an agreement with the Communists under which the> PLA was allowed to occupy Tibet, while the Chinese authorities pledged to leave the existing political and social system intact, and to respect the religious beliefs and customs of the Tibetan people.
The first PLA units entered Lhasa in October 1951, but the agreement lasted less than eight years. Tibetan guerrilla forces began attacking Chinese army units in 1958, and in March of the next year, according to the Chinese, a large anti-Chinese force was gathered in Lhasa by the Tibetan ruling classes who proclaimed the independence of Tibet.
‘At nightfall on 19 March, the traitorous clique launched an all-out attack on PLA units stationed in Lhasa,’ said one Communist pam-phlet. ‘After two days’ fighting, the rebernon in Lhasa city was crushed. Rebellions in other areas were also quickly quelled.’ It was, the Chinese said, a revolt by the reactionary Tibetan aristocracy put down by the PLA in conjunction with the Tibetan peasantry.
Tibetan exiles, however, have a slightly different story. They say that a rumour swept through Lhasa one day in early March that the Dalai Lama, then 23 years old, had been invited by the Chinese to attend a cultural performance that evening and had been asked to go alone. The ordinary people, fearing the worst, converged on the Potala Palace to protect their god-king, and rebel leaders among the crowds formed a committee which announced Tibet’s independence and demanded that the Chinese withdraw. Ironically, the Dalai Lama tried to calm the people in the hope of avoiding a bloody confrontation with the powerful Chinese forces. But he failed, and he and his immediate family disguised themselves and escaped overland to India. The Chinese, meanwhile, began shelling centres of Tibetan resistance in Lhasa and, the Dalai Lama says, ‘thousands of bodies’ were seen lying around the Potala afterwards. The Chinese, on the other hand, put the death toll at about 6oo. About 80000 Tibetans fled the country as a result of the rebellion’s failure, mostly to India and Nepal.
Tibet was now firmly under the control of the Chinese Communists who moved swiftly to destroy the old society which they saw as being so oppressive. During the 1960s and early 1970s, the whole of China was racked by the political campaigns instigated by Chairman Mao and his radical allies, and Tibet appears to have suffered more than other regions. Most of the monasteries were closed or demolished, and the vast majority of monks were forced to return to secular life. The peasants were also grouped into communes whether they agreed or not, and, in many cases, were ordered to grow winter wheat – a Chinese food grain – rather than the traditional Tibetan barley. Up to 1978, there was a concerted effort to stamp out the Lamaist Buddhist faith which the Tibetans believe in so powerfully but, as in the rest of China, this attempt to kill religion failed miserably.During the years following the 1959 rebellion and Chinese take-over, very few foreigners were able to visit Tibet. Most of those who did were apologists such as Han Suyin and Felix Greene who, in the words of Derek Davies, editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, ‘wrote accounts designed not to describe the inaccessible but to excuse the undefensible’.
Han Suyin’s inept book, Lhasa, The Open City, was written on the basis of a visit to that city in 1975, when Chinese Communist radicalism was at its height, but all she writes of are smiling Tibetans happy to have been saved by the Chinese Communist Party from the tyranny of the Dalai Lama. She writes of the Ganden Monastery, traditionally one of the three great monasteries of Lhasa, as if it still existed, never bothering to mention that this sacred Tibetan shrine had been completely demolished brick by brick by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. She talks of the pride she felt at meeting the Chinese Communist Party chief in Tibet, General Ren Rong, dismissed in disgrace in 1979 after the new Peking government of Deng Xiaoping realised what a mess the leftists had made of Tibet.
A more balanced view began to emerge in mid-1979 when the first group of foreign correspondents based in Peking were allowed to visit Tibet. Their reports were not flattering, and were perhaps a factor in the fall of General Ren Rong.
‘The Chinese make their disdain for the Tibetans obvious,’ wrote Nigel Wade, then the Daily Telegraph correspondent in Peking. ‘Disgust with the Tibetan liking for milk and butter may be one reason, and secret jealousy of the Tibetan’s achievements in art and, architecture another. Besides occasional instances of Chinese bullying Tibetans which I witnessed, Chinese down to the level of museum guides adopted a patronising, paternalistic air about Peking’s Tibetan subjects.
‘It is not China’s running Tibet as a colony which seems so offensive,’ he added, ‘but the smug refusal to admit that a colony is what it is.Hu Yaobang, the present Communist Party chief, made an inspection tour of Tibet in May 1980, as a prelude to a new, more enlightened policy towards this far-flung province. In a circumspect way, he admitted the colonial attitude taken by many Chinese posted to Lhasa. ‘A minority of Han [Chinese] comrades have displayed incorrect tendencies,’ he said, adding that as a result, it was necessary to ‘strengthen ties between the Tibetan and Han nationalities.’
Since then, the Peking government has admitted many of the mistakes made in the years of leftist rule, and has taken some concrete steps to improve matters. The rural communes have been virtually dismantled in Tibet as in the rest of China, and the Tibetans have been allowed to grow their barley or graze livestock as they wish, rather than being forced to follow Chairman Mao’s directive to mindlessly grasp grain as the key link’.The more liberal religious policy in China which has led to the opening of hundreds of churches and mosques around the country has, likewise, been implemented in Tibet, where religion has a stronger hold on the ordinary people than anywhere else in the country.
Visitors to Tibet since it was reopened in 1979 have been over-whelmed by the devotion of the Tibetan people to the Dalai Lama despite his long absence. They are also moved by the shows of deep faith displayed by many of the Tibetans, particularly the pilgrims to Lhasa who crawl round some religious sites including the Jokhang monastery, often hundreds of times, prostrating themselves and praying as they do so.
In 1979, secret talks began between the Chinese and the Dalai Lama. As a result, a number of delegations of Tibetan exiles, led by senior representatives of the Dalai (including his sister and elder brother), visited Tibet and were allowed to travel virtually wherever they liked. The leaders of one delegation that journeyed there in mid-1980 addressed a pro-Dalai Lama crowd that had gathered outside their Lhasa guesthouse; the delegates were immediately expelled from Tibet by the Chinese authorities. One delegation leader said, on his return to India, that he had been saddened by the poor living conditions of the Tibetan people.
The Dalai Lama has said that he would be willing to go back to Tibet if he was sure that most of his people were happy under Chinese rule. He has recently commented favourably on the positive changes in the Chinese administration of the region, adding that ‘although things are improving, still there are a lot of things to be done.’
The Chinese want the Dalai Lama to come back to legitimise their rule, but he will apparently be little more than a religious figurehead if he does return. And there is no guarantee he would be allowed to live in Lhasa.
The Dalai’s great rival, traditionally and today, is the Panchen Lama, two years his junior, who has taken a completely different road and become a vice-chairman of the Chinese National People’s Congress. ‘Our Tibet, which is part of China, can only go forward along the socialist road,’ he says. There is no doubt that for many, perhaps most, people in Tibet, life is better now than it was before the rebellion. Serfdom has been ended, schools and hospitals have been built where before there were none. The average income of Tibetans in 1981 was reported to be 200 yuan (about UK 60) a year, 11 per cent higher than in 1980. The 1982 all-China census indicated that there were 1.8 million people in Tibet. This figure does not include the people’s Liberation Army personnel stationed in Tibet which, according to foreign estimates, may number about 200000. However, some Chinese personnel have begun to be recalled to the central provinces, to give Tibetan officials a greater role in the running of their land.
But there is also ample proof that many Tibetans are unhappy tinder Chinese rule. Two foreign students, Christina Jansen and Susette Terenent Cooke, spent more than a month in Tibet in the summer of 1980. ‘As far as we knew, we were the first foreigners to cnter Tibet along the new Chengdu-Lhasa highway,’ they wrote in an article published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, adding: ‘The message from workmen, monks, pilgrims and students was the same: they wanted us to go to the Dalai Lama and tell him of their wish for a separate Tibet under his leadership.’Foreign correspondents who visited Lhasa again in mid-1980 were handed two unsigned letters, one of which said: ‘We ask the United Nations to help us. The Chinese invaded Tibet and are destroying everything including the economy, the religion, the culture.’
The Chinese leadership is clearly aware of the problems that exist in Tibet and is taking set steps to try and lessen the poverty of the region while at the same time allowing the Tibetans a greater degree of ‘autonomy’. Time will tell if the Tibetan people as a whole, and their leader the Dalai Lama in particular, can come to terms with the fact that Tibet is now a part of the People’s Republic of China.
The city of Lhasa, which, at 12087 feet (3683 metres) above sea level, is about 150 feet (46 metres) higher than the highest capital of an independent country (La Paz in Bolivia), lies in a river valley and is dominated by the magnificent POTALA PALACE, once the centre of government and the winter residence of the Dalai Lama.
Lhasa is, in fact, two cities, one Chinese and one Tibetan the Chinese one, the larger of the two, is neatly laid out and consists of buildings much like those built after 1949 in other parts of China. The Tibetan quarter, by contrast, is old, ramshackle, dirty and full of atmosphere. The smell of stale yak butter hangs over everything. The houses are mostly two-story structures with flat roofs and low doors through which you have to stoop to enter. Nearby is the JOKHANG TFMPLE, a huge structure which has been renovated and has roofs of gold which glint magnificently in the sun. The pilgrims finger prayer beads and mumble Buddhist sutras while turning prayer wheels (shaped like toy tops and containing pieces of paper inscribed with the words ‘Hail! The Jewel in the Lotus’ many thousands of times), sending blessings to the gods. Men and women alike smile and stick out their tongues at strangers in the age-old Tibetan sign of welcome.
One curious anomaly in Lhasa is the group of Nepalese traders who run about two dozen shops selling many goods unavailable in other stores, including tea, cosmetics, and other items imported from India. The Nepalese also sell some antiques and other bits of junk, but visitors should always be sure to haggle with them. Many of them speak English, and as people truly worthy of the phrase ‘strangers in a strange land’, they are interesting to talk to. To look after this community, there is a Napalese consul-general who drives an Austra-han-made, black Holden sedan.There are apparently no restaurants serving Tibetan food in Lhasa-in her book, Han Suyin makes the extraordinary claim that ‘Tibetan cooking does not exist.’ It, of course, does, and consists largely of mutton and tsampa, a mixture of barley, tea and yak butter. If you are on a CTS tour which includes a visit to a commune near Lhasa, tell your guide beforehand that you would like a real Tibetan meal and it may be possible to arrange one. However, Lhasa does have a number of local teahouses in the city which are highly recQmmended – if you can find them.
The Chinese appear to have ceased, for the moment, their attempt to stamp out the Lamaist religion in Tibet. The Jokhang Temple, which in 1979 was open only once a week, is now open six days a week for worshippers, and some monasteries have started taking in novice monks again for the first time since the late 1950s. However, even those monasteries that are still open, a minute fraction of the number before the rebellion, are virtually deserted compared to the old days. The DREPUNG MONASTERY, for instance, which used to have over 10,000 lamas now has only 200.Another of the great monasteries, the SERA MONASTHRY is perhaps most interesting for what goes on behind rather than inside it. On a mountain top not far away, there is a flat rock on which takes place the renowned Tibetan ‘sky burials’, ceremonies in which dead people are chopped up and fed to the vultures.
This form of burial is very popular with Tibetans, and remains the most common form of funeral. The undertakers carry the bodies up the mountain at dawn and lay them face down and naked on the flat rock as mourners stand to one side. According to one description, the butchers dismember the corpses and strip the flesh from the bones, then chop off the heads and remove anything soft and edible from the skulls. The torsos are ripped open and everything except the bones chopped into pieces small enough to be swallowed by vultures. The bones are then collected and crushed into a powder as the circling vultures come closer in anticipation of the feast to come. Yak butter and Tibetan barley are mixed in with the bone, and the resulting mash sprinkled over the chopped flesh. The vultures, perhaps 50 in number, recognise this as their cue and move in to begin breakfast. When they have finished, the undertakers wash the blood off the rock, ready for the other funerals, which reportedly occur several times a week at Sera, the only ‘sky burial’ ground near Lhasa.
The bone is crushed and mixed with more appetising condiments because Tibetans consider it to be a bad omen if any of the body is left uneaten. In an article on the subject written from Lhasa, Reuter correspondent Richard Pascoe reported that the normal charge for a sky burial was about 6o yuan (UK 20), while the undertaker gets the clothes of the deceased as part of the fee.
The antecedents of the sky burial ceremony are not known, although it is similar to the funeral ceremony of the Zoroastrians in India who leave ‘bodies on the top of high pillars to be eaten by vultures. One possible reason for it may be that, in much of Tibet, the ground is so hard and the earth so shallow that digging graves for the dead would be difficult.
Getting to see a sky burial is not impossible, but it’s not easy either. The Sera Monastery is several miles outside Lhasa and the Chinese are unhelpful. But although the funerals take place soon after dawn, it would be worth the effort. The monastery is perhaps two hours’ walk from Lhasa, or else you could try hitchhiking. At that time of the morning, you may even get a lift with the funeral cortege.
Tibet is still technically closed to foreigners, but a couple of tour companies have managed to acquire the rights to send in tour groups, and some Hong Kong and foreign travellers have made it overland from Sichuan to the east, a long, slow journey, taking two weeks or more. About 1500 tourists visited Tibet in 1982 and further increases are expected because of the area’s great potential as a foreign ex-change earner – foreigners appear to be willing to pay almost any-thing for the privilege of seeing the Potala with their own eyes. however, it is important to remember that it is not Tibet which has been opened to tourists but only the city of Lhasa and its environs, and sometimes 5HIGAT5E (Xigaze), a city on the road between Lhasa and Katmandu. Most of the wild and woolly territory is still very much closed, a fact which should be kept in mind when trying to judge Tibetan standards of living – Lhasa is the Mayfair and Knights-bridge of Tibet.
A large amount of Tibetan antiques were available when the first foreigners arrived in 1979 – carpets, silver items, prayer wheels, daggers and other things – but there is increasingly less to be found now and black-market prices have rocketed. One risk in buying Tibetan antiques is that the Chinese customs may decide that they cannot be taken out of the country.
The high altitude in Tibet sometimes affects visitors. People who go overland have time to get accustomed to the rarefied air as they climb slowly up on to the plateau, but those who arrive by aircraft frequently feel strangely lightheaded, a symptom sometimes followed often by nausea, headaches and fatigue. It is said to take up to two weeks for the effects of altitude sickness to wear off, and the Chinese provide pillows filled with oxygen for those who feel breathless. The cardinal rule is – don’t drink too much alcohol.
How to get there and where to stay
Most foreigners visiting Tibet do so on package tours, and stay only two or three days. The vast majority arrive by air from Chengdu, although there are also scheduled flights from Lanzhou. Flight plans, however, are often cancelled or delayed due to bad weather. Once there, there is a bumpy three-hour drive from the airport into Lhasa. Some intrepid students and back-packers have managed to get travel permits for Lhasa and have made their way overland from the Chinese heartland, mostly travelling from Chengdu. However, all police stations around China now seem to be under strict orders not to issue permits for Tibet, and police reportedly check all buses heading west out of Chengdu and pull foreigners off. But for those who do manage to get through, things are a lot easier once in Tibet.
The main hotel, the Lhasa No. I Guesthouse near the Potala, has two wings, one for the regular tourist foreigners who pay up to 250 yuan (UK 75) a day, and one for the students who pay five yuan for a bed-space. There is one other guesthouse just outside Lhasa, but the distance from town makes it difficult to explore Lhasa properly, and it is therefore best avoided.
The Lhasa Public Security Bureau is said to be very good with permit extensions and some people travelling on their own have reported being able to spend a month and more in Tibet. One American was even taken on by the Lhasa Languages Institute as an Lnglish teacher with the knowledge and approval of the regional government, almost certainly the first Westerner to be employed in Tibet since the handful of foreigners working for the Dalai Lama were kicked out in 1951. But after two months, Peking apparently found out and ordered that he be removed.
Until mid-1981, it was possible to travel out of Tibet via Shigatse to Nepal – a three- or four-day trip by bus – but the road was washed out by floods in mid-1981 and, at the time of writing, had still not been re-opened. In 1980, the Chinese authorities were considering starting tours into Tibet from Katmandu, which is far closer to Lhasa than is Peking, and the idea will presumably be revived once the road is re-opened.