This was written a few weeks before Touching Base, and before I arrived in the Tibetan exile community in India. I doubt many of you got far enough down that post to be expecting the full post from Tibet that I promised, but if you did, here it is.
Two years ago I spent a couple of weeks travelling in the West Bank and Israel. The holy city of Lhasa, more than anywhere else I’ve been, brought back those memories of Jerusalem. We had only a single week in the whole of Tibet, mainly spent in a Land Cruiser the steering wheel of which had a neutral position 90 degrees clockwise of where it ought, travelling the length of the Friendship Highway. It seems somehow wrong to have enjoyed that time, for fear that I’m becoming a kind of occupation junky, but the rich texture of experience we had there revealed a land of great beauty.
From the roof of our hotel, across toward the Potala Palace, the Lhasa old town appeared part Tuscan hill village, part refugee camp, only in a distinctly Tibetan architecture style that, until that day, I never knew existed. On the floor below, our (slightly malodorous) bathroom had imitation Hello Kitty tiles and our bedroom quite possibly the least comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in—pitted and rough like a tent pitched in a rocky field. At ground level monks roamed the winding market streets shopping for blenders and rice cookers, and Chinese soldiers kept watch on street corners, feet fighting to resist the western beats from nearby Tibetan music stores.
I never happened across evidence of the kind of day to day disruption of livelihoods we saw in Palestine (though I understand rapid industrial development and mining are destroying nomadic communities in the west), yet the presence of the occupation is overwhelming, and the atmosphere stifling. The Tibetan flag is visible only by it’s absolute absence. Pictures of the Dalai Lama are forbidden. Tibetan phrasebooks are impossible to find, and the only guidebook available inside the country is that published by the Chinese government. As I understand it, it’s difficult even to study the Tibetan language beyond a very basic level in school. Back in Hebron I was stopped in the street by people wanting to talk politics, everyone had an occupation story to tell. Here nobody did. People are afraid to trust their neighbours. Even alone they were reluctant to speak to us. There’s simply no sign of dissent. There are no Banksies on the walls here, nor hastily scrawled slogans of night-time activists. Though I’ve not been able to check all the facts independently, we heard stories of shocking discrimination against ethnic Tibetans and legal incentives for Han Chinese immigrants to colonise the country that should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention.
Away from Lhasa the the Chinese presence is less pronounced, but every small town has its Chinese quarter, usually far larger than the Tibetan old town, crowded with restaurants and hotels hungry for a share of the Chomolungma (Everest) Yuan. The few monasteries that remain are sad places, more like museums than centres of prayer and study, with the monks banned from meeting together since the uprising in March. The street patrols by the People’s Liberation Army are less ubiquitous between Lhasa and the border town of Zhangmu, but convoys miles long crawl the shiny new roads through the high mountain passes.
Entering the Chomolungma National Park, for the final drive toward Base Camp, the tarmaced road disappeared, and it started to become apparent why a 4×4 was necessary for the journey. The Chinese rebuilding of the Friendship Highway became an increasingly less obvious work-in-progress, and the track narrower and rougher for the winding passes. The lower dragon-scaled mountains on the edge of the park looked ready to rouse any moment, but for the streams flowing down their sides that gave the whole area the artificial glistening wet look that I thought only existed in Unreal worlds. The larger ones had clouds gathered around their tops as if they were chimneys of some unspeakable power station.
Then, as you summit the final Gyatso La Pass, you get your first glimpse of Chomolungma. Our guide told us that the local name means “beautiful woman” in Tibetan (though Wikipedia says it’s “Saint Mother”), and it’s obvious why people become obsessed with her. The clouds had gathered at smaller mountains. Chomolungma actually produces her own, with the wind carrying the snow from the summit into the clear blue expanse. Descending from Gyatso La toward the Great Himalaya Range, I couldn’t take my eyes off her, turning my head from one window to another with the zigzagging road. And every time she appeared afresh from behind some lesser hill the wonder was just as great.
Base camp itself was a slightly sadder place than I had expected, though it’s hard to say whether that was because of lower tourism, or just it being off season for climbers. Walking the last few kilometres from the modern camp to the foot of the mountain the landscape had become dryer and more sandy and the cliffs more orange. I’m pretty sure Starbuck crashed somewhere near here in 105. In a last show of Chinese bureaucracy, it is forbidden to set even a foot on Chomolungma herself, and the historical base camp site is now only a small military outpost. We were able to climb a small hill for a close up view and photo opportunity.
We had planned to have one final night in the shadow of the mountain at Tingri, but following a landslide on the road our guide advised that we push on to Zhangmu directly from Base Camp. Crossing the Himalayas and descending the narrow gorge toward Nepal the desert of the plateau gives way to incredible lushness. The blockage on the road turned out to be not a natural landslide, but rather a team of over enthusiastic Chinese road builders, who’d detonated not only the cliff-side route of the new road, but that of the old road as well. After a couple of hours waiting while engineers made meticulous adjustments to the position of a large girder that appeared to be supported on nothing, and was due to form a temporary bridge, we were allowed to walk across to a waiting Land Cruiser for the final few kilometres into town.
And that, following one night in a hotel with a stunning view down the Bhote Kosi valley, was the end of Tibet. I’d like to end with “Free Tibet!”, or some other punchy, simplistic slogan, but, in truth, I barely believe Tibet even exists any more. A couple of weeks later in Pokhara, Nepal, we watched Seven Years in Tibet. To visualise the difference between the historical Tibet and the country we visited, and know that not one frame of the film can have been shot there, was one of the most emotional experiences of our journey so far. Later still, while staying with Mel and Steve, an imported copy of the Guardian we saw reported that even the Dalai Lama has now given up. Somewhere there’s hope for the people of Tibet, but I’ve yet to find out where it is.