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Tibet (Bod to Tibetans, Xizang to the Chinese; 西藏, xīzàng), the “Roof of the World”, has exerted a magnetic pull over travellers for centuries. The scenery is awe-inspiring, the religious devotion overwhelming, and the Tibetan people welcoming and wonderful. Scratch below the surface, however, and it is all too apparent that Tibet’s past has been tragic, its present painful and the future bleak. Tibet today is a sad, subjugated colony of China. While foreign visitors are perhaps more worldly than to expect a romantic Shangri-la, there is no doubt that many are shocked by the heavy military presence and authoritarian restrictions, both reinforced following protests in 2007–08. The growing civilian Chinese presence, and construction of apartments and factories alongside traditional Tibetan rural homes and monasteries, are further causes of disquiet, but all this doesn’t mean you should stay away. Many people, the Dalai Lama included, believe travellers should visit Tibet to learn all they can of the country and its people.

In reaching Tibet, you’ll have entered one of the most isolated parts of the world. The massive Tibetan plateau, at an average height of 4500m above sea level, is guarded on all sides by towering mountain ranges: the Himalayas separate Tibet from India, Nepal and Bhutan to the south, the Karakoram from Pakistan to the west, and the Kunlun from Xinjiang to the north. To the east, dividing Tibet from Sichuan and Yunnan, an extensive series of subsidiary ranges covers almost a thousand kilometres. The plateau is also birthplace to some of the greatest rivers of Asia, with the Yangzi, Mekong, Yellow and Salween rising in the east, and the Indus, Brahmaputra, Sutlej and some feeder rivers of the Ganges in the west, near Mount Kailash.

Tibet’s isolation has long stirred the imagination of the West, yet until a British expedition under the command of Colonel Francis Younghusband invaded in 1904, only a trickle of bold eccentrics, adventurers and Jesuit missionaries had succeeded in getting close to Lhasa, and then only at serious risk to their lives – it was Tibetan policy to repel all influence from the outside world. So great was the uncertainty about the geographical nature of the country even 150 years ago, that the British in India despatched carefully trained spies, known as pundits, to walk the length and breadth of the country, counting their footsteps with rosaries and mapping as they went. When Younghusband’s expeditionary force finally reached Lhasa, they were, perhaps inevitably, disappointed. One journalist accompanying them wrote:

If one approached within a league of Lhasa, saw the glittering domes of the Potala and turned back without entering the precincts one might still imagine an enchanted city. It was in fact an unsanitary slum. In the pitted streets pools of rainwater and piles of refuse were everywhere: the houses were mean and filthy, the stench pervasive. Pigs and ravens competed for nameless delicacies in open sewers.

Since the Chinese invasion in 1950 (China prefers the term “liberation”, to which you’ll see endless Communist-erected monuments), Tibet has become increasingly accessible, with approaches eased by plane links, paved roads and the controversial Qinghai–Lhasa railway. Each new route has accelerated heavy, government-sponsored migration into the region, and although it is impossible to know how many Chinese now live here – like so much else, population data is strongly disputed – it is likely they outnumber ethnic Tibetans. The situation is most marked in the cities, where the greatest opportunities exist: not only are the numbers of Han and other Chinese growing all the time, but they are also increasingly economically dominant – a situation further exacerbated by the rail line.

Today’s Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), though covering a massive 1.2 million square kilometres, is but a shadow of the former Tibetan lands. The old area, sometimes referred to as Greater Tibet, was carved up by the Chinese following their invasion, when the Amdo and Kham regions were absorbed into Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces. The TAR consists only of the West and Central (U-Tsang) regions of Greater Tibet and divides into four geographical areas. The northern and largest portion is the almost uninhabited Chang Tang, a rocky desert at an average altitude of 4000m, where winter temperatures can fall to minus 44°C. South of this is the mountainous grazing area, land that cannot support settled agriculture, inhabited by the wide-ranging nomadic people with their herds of yaks, sheep and goats. Eastern Tibet, occupying around a quarter of the TAR, is heavily forested. The relatively temperate southern valleys, sandwiched between the nomad areas and the Himalayas along the southern border, are the most hospitable for human habitation. As such, this is the most populated area and where visitors spend the majority of their time, particularly in the extensive valley system of the Tsangpo River (Brahmaputra) and its tributaries.

Lhasa, Shigatse and Gyantse offer the most accessible monasteries and temples – the Jokhang, Tashilunpo and the Kumbum, respectively – and are also tourist-friendly cities with the biggest range of facilities in the region. The Potala Palace in Lhasa remains an enduring image of Tibet in the Western mind and should on no account be missed, plus there are plenty of smaller sights in the city to keep anyone busy for several days. Farther afield, the Yarlung and Chongye valleys to the southeast boast temples and ancient monuments, and the ancient walled monastery of Samye is easily combined with these. The route between Zhangmu on the Nepalese border and Lhasa is well established, although by no means overcrowded, and trips can be made to the huge Mongolian-style monastery at Sakya and to Everest Base Camp.

Whatever your destination, any trip to Tibet faces obstacles. As part of their Beijing Olympic bid, the Chinese government promised increased freedom for Tibetans and for foreigners visiting the region, but a confluence of events – the unfurling of a Tibetan flag at Everest Base Camp by some American students in 2007, mass protests and rioting by Tibetans in spring 2008 – ended those dreams. Extremely strict travel regulations are now in effect now (see Travel restrictions in Tibet). Travel to the region is likely to be expensive: the restrictions both limit movement and push up the amount foreign tourists have to spend, creating economic pressure for them to stay in place. Tibetan organizations abroad ask that visitors try, wherever possible, to buy from Tibetans and to hire Tibetan guides. At all times, you should avoid putting Tibetans – and yourself – at risk by bringing up politically sensitive issues. You can go home, Tibetans have to live here. Emails are another area where you should be careful – the Chinese authorities monitor emails more strictly here than in the rest of the Republic – so, again, avoid sensitive topics and mentioning people by name. Sensitive websites, including any suggesting support for Tibetan independence or the Dalai Lama, are of course blocked in China.

However, it’s important to remember that there are two sides to every story. The pre-Chinese Tibetan administration was a xenophobic religious dictatorship, feudal in nature, that stifled economic progress and tolerated slavery. The people who had the most to lose in Tibet when the Chinese arrived, the monied and the ruling classes, were the same people that fled to India and never returned. What they left behind was a working class so uneducated the people didn’t even know they had been existing in a state of serfdom.

Economic development brought by the Chinese, as well as things like running water, electricity and health care, mean Tibetan people have a chance to make a better life for themselves and ironically, strengthen their culture. Meanwhile, the Han and other ethnic Chinese groups migrating into Tibet are not demons. Most are people trying to make a life for themselves and their families, and they may have little knowledge or understanding of the wider political implications of their presence – as with Taiwan and Xinjiang, all Chinese are taught almost from birth that Tibet is an “inalienable part of China”, and to suggest otherwise is heresy.

Brief history

According to legend, the earliest Tibetans came from the union of the ogress, Sinmo, and a monkey, reincarnation of the god Chenresi, on the mountain of Gangpo Ri near Tsetang. Ethnographers, however, think it likely the Tibetans are descended from the nomadic Qiang, who roamed eastern Central Asia, to the northwest of China, several thousand years ago. The first Tibetan king, Nyatri Tsenpo, believed to have come to earth via a magical “sky-cord”, was the first of a long lineage of 27 kings who ruled in a pre-Buddhist era when the indigenous, shamanistic Bon religion held sway throughout the land. Each of the early kings held power over a small area, the geographical isolation of Tibet making outside contact difficult. Nevertheless, it is apparent that as early as the seventh century there was considerable cultural exchange between Tibet and its neighbours. Pens, ink, silks, jewels and probably tea reached Tibet from China in the seventh century, and for many centuries Tibet looked to India for religious teaching.

It was in the time of King Songtsen Gampo, the 33rd ruler in the dynasty, born in 617 AD, that expansionism began. Songtsen Gampo’s twenty-year rule saw the unification of the country and the aggressive spread of his empire from northern India to China. To placate their assertive neighbour, China and Nepal each offered Songtsen Gampo a wife: in 632, he married Princess Bhrikuti (also known as Tritsun) of Nepal, and in 641 Princess Wencheng arrived from the Tang court, sent by her father, Emperor Taizong. They both brought their Buddhist faith and magnificent statues of the Buddha, which are now the centrepieces of Ramoche temple and the Jokhang in Lhasa. Songtsen Gampo himself embraced the Buddhist faith and established Buddhist temples throughout the country, although the indigenous Bon faith remained the religion of the ordinary people. Following his death in 650, his descendants strengthened the kingdom politically, and in 763, Tibetan armies even took the Chinese capital Chang’an (modern Xi’an). Trisong Detsen (742–797), another champion of the new faith, invited two Indian Buddhist teachers to Tibet: Shantarakshita and the charismatic and flamboyant Padmasambhava. The latter, who was also known as Guru Rinpoche, is regarded as responsible for overcoming the resistance of the Bon religion and ensuring the spread of Buddhism within Tibet. Although he is closely associated with the Nyingma school of Buddhism, you’ll spot his image somewhere in most temples.

In 838, the infamous Langdarma came to the throne, having assassinated his brother. A fervent supporter of Bon, he set about annihilating the Buddhist faith. Temples and monasteries were destroyed, monks forced to flee and the previously unified Tibet broke up into a number of small principalities. A Buddhist revival involving monastery construction, the translation of scriptures into Tibetan and the establishment of several of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism was spearheaded by the arrival of Atisha (982–1054), the most famous Indian scholar of the time. Politically, the country was not united, but the various independent principalities lived largely in harmony and there was little contact with China.

Absorbed in domestic events, the Tibetans had largely neglected the outside world, where the Muslim surge across India in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries resulted in the destruction of the great Buddhist centres of teaching to which the Tibetans had looked for generations. And to the north and east of Tibet, the Mongol leader Genghis Khan was beginning his assault on China. In 1207, Genghis Khan sent envoys to Tibet demanding submission, which was given without a fight, and the territory was largely ignored until Genghis Khan’s grandson, Godan, sent raiding parties deep into the country. Hearing from his troops about the spirituality of the Tibetan lamas, Godan invited the head of the Sakya order, Sakya Pandita, to his court. In exchange for peace, Sakya Pandita again offered Tibetan submission and was created regent of Tibet at the Mongolian court, making the Sakya lamas the effective rulers of Tibet under the patronage of the emperor. This lasted through the generations, with Godan’s son Kublai Khan deeply impressed by Sakya Pandita’s nephew, Phagpa.

When the Chinese Ming dynasty overcame the Mongols in the fourteenth century, Tibet began a long period of independence, which ended in 1642 with the Mongols intervening directly in support of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso (1617–82), of the Gelugpa order. Often referred to as “the Great Fifth”, he united the country under Gelugpa rule and within fifteen years, largely neglected by Mongol rulers, established authority from Kham to Kailash – the first time that one religious and political leader had united and ruled the country. He invited scholars to Tibet, restored and expanded religious institutions and began work on the Potala in Lhasa.

One disadvantage of the reincarnation system of succession (in which a newborn child is identified as the next manifestation of the dead lama) is that an unstable period of fifteen or twenty years inevitably follows a death while the next reincarnation grows up. Initially, the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1682 was concealed by his regent, Sangye Gyatso, who raised the Sixth Dalai Lama to adulthood while claiming the Fifth Dalai Lama had entered a period of solitary meditation. The following two centuries saw no strong leadership from the Dalai Lamas, and there were repeated incursions by Mongolian factions. The most influential figures in Tibet at this time were the regents and representatives of the Manchu rulers in China, the ambans. During the nineteenth century, Tibet became increasingly isolationist, fearing Russian plans to expand their empire south and British plans to expand theirs north. Afraid of being caught in the middle, Tibet simply banned foreigners from their land. But at their borders, Tibetans continued trading with Indians, and in 1904, their one-sided trading arrangements exasperated the British, who determined to forge a fair treaty on the subject. The Tibetans refused to negotiate, so an expeditionary force was sent in 1904 under Colonel Younghusband. Meeting with obfuscation and hostility from Tibet’s rulers, the invaders marched further and further into Tibet, and fought a couple of dispiriting battles against peasant soldiers armed with scythes and charms of invulnerability – gifts from their lamas, who stood at the back yelling encouragement. Patching up their poor opponents in improvised field hospitals along the way, the British marched up to Gyantse through the Chumbi Valley and eventually on to Lhasa. A series of British representatives in Lhasa forged good relationships with Tibet and became a window on the outside world.

The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Tubten Gyatso (1876–1933), was an insightful and capable leader who realized that Tibet’s political position needed urgent clarification, but he had a difficult rule, fleeing into exile twice, and was much occupied with border fighting against the Chinese and tensions with conservatives inside the country. Following his death, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama was identified in Amdo in 1938 and was still a young man when world events began to close in on Tibet. The British left India in 1947, withdrawing their representative from Lhasa. In 1949, the Communists, under Mao Zedong, created the People’s Republic of China and the following year declared their intention “to liberate the oppressed and exploited Tibetans and reunite them with the great motherland”. This probably had as much to do with Tibetan Khampa tribesmen attacking the bedraggled Red Army on the Long March as with Chinese notions of irredentism. In October 1950, the People’s Liberation Army invaded the Kham region of eastern Tibet before proceeding to Lhasa the following year. Under considerable duress, Tibet signed a seventeen-point treaty in 1951, allowing for the “peaceful integration of Tibet”.

The Chinese era

Initially, the Chinese offered goodwill and modernization. Tibet had made little headway into the twentieth century; there were few roads, no electricity, and glass windows, steel girders and concrete were all recent introductions. Hygiene and healthcare were patchy, and lay education was unavailable. While some Tibetans viewed modernization as necessary, the opposition was stiff, as many within the religious hierarchy saw changes within the country and overtures to the outside world as a threat to their influence. Throughout the 1950s, an underground resistance operated, which flared into a public confrontation in March 1959, fuelled by mounting distrust and hostility – refugees from eastern Tibet fled to Lhasa and told of the brutality of Chinese rule, including the sexual humiliation of monks and nuns, arbitrary executions and even crucifixions. In Lhasa, the Chinese invited the Dalai Lama to a theatrical performance at the Chinese military HQ. It was popularly perceived as a ploy to kidnap him, and huge numbers of Tibetans mounted demonstrations and surrounded the Norbulingka where the Dalai Lama was staying. On the night of March 17, the Dalai Lama and his entourage escaped, heading into exile in India where they were later joined (and still are today) by tens of thousands of refugees.

Meanwhile, the uprising in Lhasa was ferociously suppressed – the Chinese killed 87,000 people between March 1959 and September 1960. From that point on, all pretence of goodwill vanished, and a huge military force moved in, with a Chinese bureaucracy replacing Tibetan institutions. Temples and monasteries were destroyed, and Chinese agricultural policies proved particularly disastrous. During the years of the Great Leap Forward (1959–60), it is estimated that ten percent of Tibetans starved, and it wasn’t until the early 1980s that the food situation in Tibet began to improve. Harrowing accounts tell of parents mixing their own blood with hot water and tsampa to feed their children.

In September 1965, the U-Tsang and western areas of Tibet officially became the Xizang Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China, but more significant was the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), during which mass eradication of religious monuments and practices took place under the orders of the Red Guards, many of them young Tibetans. In 1959, there were 2700 monasteries and temples in Tibet; by 1978, there were just eight monasteries and fewer than a thousand monks and nuns in the TAR. Liberalization followed Mao’s death in 1976, leading to a period of relative openness and peace in the early 1980s when monasteries were rebuilt, religion revived and tourism introduced. However, by the end of the decade, martial law was again in place – thanks to China’s current leader, Hu Jintao – following riots in Lhasa in 1988–89. In the early 1990s, foreigners were allowed back into the region, and as the decade progressed it appeared the Chinese government was keen to exploit Tibet’s potential for tourism. Assurances given in the build-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics also indicated an eagerness to move away from the hardline authoritarian stance in the region, which was proving a source of diplomatic friction. In the event, riots and protests in Tibet, as well as Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai, meant a return to sealed borders and all-but martial law. Though exact numbers of political prisoners are unknown, around 1000 Tibetans are still unaccounted for following the crackdown in response to pre-Olympic protests, and dissent of any kind is dealt with more harshly now than ever.

Meanwhile, the profile of the Tibetan Government in Exile, led by the Dalai Lama, is again on the wane following a peak in the early 1990s when it was fashionable for the likes of Richard Gere and Steven Seagal (who claims to be the reincarnation of a great lama) to be seen shaking hands with His Holiness. Based in Dharamsala in northern India, the organization represents some 130,000 Tibetan refugees, 100,000 of whom are in India.

In the face of China’s growing economic power, the world community has evaded making a stand on Tibet, leaders now even dodging meetings with the Dalai Lama to avoid recriminations from Beijing. For his part, the Dalai Lama, known to the Tibetans as Gyalwa Rinpoche and regarded as the earthly incarnation of the god Chenresi, has never faltered from advocating a peaceful solution for Tibet, a stance that led to his being awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. Relations between the Dalai Lama and Beijing, which had thawed leading to serious discussion of him being allowed to visit Tibet, were again stymied in the run-up to the Olympics. Chinese officials publicly blamed the Dalai Lama and his “clique” for violent protests and branded him “a wolf in monk’s clothing” and “a devil with the face of a human but the heart of a beast”. It can only be assumed that such rabid name-calling plays out better with Chinese audiences than the international community.

In the meantime, several thousand Tibetans every year make the one-month trek to India, an arduous and dangerous journey over the mountains. Pilgrims have been picked off by Chinese snipers as they crossed the Himalayas – an incident in 2006 caused international outcry when it was captured on film by a team of mountaineers – though increasingly those who escape stay only for a few years before heading back home.

For the Tibetans who remain, the reality of life in Tibet is harsh. Per capita annual income in rural areas is less than £1 per day and adult literacy across Tibet less than fifty percent. It is estimated that China subsidized the TAR between 1952 and 1998 to the tune of ¥40 billion – yet Tibetans are among the poorest people in China and have the lowest life expectancy in the country. As Tibet provides the Chinese with land for their exploding population along with a wealth of yet-to-be exploited natural resources, the influx of more educated and better-skilled Chinese settlers, with considerably more financial resources, threatens to swamp the Tibetan population, culture and economy. However, the largest threat to the Tibetan way of life – and the biggest promise of modernization, and therefore rising living standards – comes from the Qinghai–Lhasa railway line built at a cost of US$4 billion. It makes little economic sense in the short term but is proof to foreign investors of China’s commitment to improving the infrastructure to facilitate mining operations – uranium and copper are in particular abundance in the region. It aids the immigrant Han population, who consume huge quantities of expensively imported food – the Tibetans, in contrast, are largely self-sufficient. The line also allows for the swift and large-scale movement of troops and military hardware into Tibet.

The project was hugely ambitious, with more than 1200km of new track being built by 11,000 migrant workers (few of them Tibetan), much of it at an altitude of over 4000m and on permafrost, with more than 30km of tunnels. It was claimed the train carriages were to be pressurized, like an aircraft, to avoid passengers suffering the discomforts of altitude sickness during their journey; however, open windows in toilets, and splitting headaches and nausea during the journey, suggest this was more hype than reality.

If you’re interested in doing some background reading on Tibet, it’s best to begin at home before you leave, as much that would be considered essential reading by Western audiences is simply not allowed or available in China – this includes almost all guide books (including this one), with their bourgeois imperialist references to Tibetan independence.

But beware: searches of luggage do take place – particularly at the Nepal–Tibet border at Zhangmu – where any literature deemed unpatriotic to China, anything remotely resembling a Tibetan flag and anything containing images of the Dalai Lama (though, with all pictures of him banned, it’s worth pondering how the guards looking for the pictures know what he looks like), will be confiscated.

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