Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Lhasa, Tibet, China

Since Tibet has been in the news recently, perhaps this would be a good time to post my travelogue on Tibet I wrote in October 2005.

To get to Lhasa by airplane, which until recently was the only practical way, one must go through Chengdu, get off the plane and re-board 30 minutes later. The photo below was taken flying west looking South towards the Himalayas.
We started taking our Diamox (altitude adjustment medicine) two days before and kept taking it for another 2 days. Lhasa has an altitude of 3650 meters (11,975 ft.) and I immediately felt it getting off the plane. I took it real easy the rest of the day. We stayed at the Lhasa Hotel which is rated 4 stars. Each day after our tours, we ate then came to our room and either read or watched CNN before falling asleep about (9:30, two hours earlier than our normal bedtime). The air is extremely dry and soon became the most difficult climate change to deal with. I would drink about one quart of water through each night.

Tourist wise the first thing to knock off when arriving in Lhasa, is the Potala.

To get to the top, you start by going up a steep inclined cobble stone driveway to the left. Then you climb various stairways, going through several rooms showing one particular Dali-lama or/and one of his wives or another. Pictures were not allowed inside (scared you know). Lots of gems, gold plating etc. on the very stylistic artwork which seems to fit all my pre-conceived images. Most rooms had big pools of yak butter burning and while I didn’t find the smell offensive (some do) the atmosphere was heavy. All the rooms were dingy and dirty due to the yak butter precipitation. Meanwhile a steady stream of “pilgrims” marched through clutching a hand full of one Yuan bills and depositing them along the way. (One Yuan=$.08) Many would touch objects and chant what I assumed was a small prayer along the way. Their dress was very, very colorful and the women’s hair was always braided with liberal use of various types of combs and other female hair mysteries. We spent about 2 ½-3 hours inside with occasional forays into the bright sun. After a while it got a little claustrophobic and I was glad to start the trek down.

Judith and I are not really good group tourists. We were with a guide and guides the world around have to know a lot of history in order to become guides and they start rattling off this and that fact about the contents of the this and that room. We just are not that interested. We won’t remember anyway mostly because its way too much information to process and generally don’t care about the details. But there are always people in a group that listen to the guide and even start asking questions. We, and especially myself, usually are a couple of rooms ahead of main group so we stop and wait for them to catch up. We could have knocked the Potala off in 2 hours easy. We both like to see and watch and if it looks like something we have already seen, move on. I felt the greatest impact watching the “pilgrims”. I also experienced the vast wealth and millions of man-hours that have been invested in the Potala.
The Tibetans seemed very comfortable having their pictures taken and they stared at us with what seems to be as much curiosity about us and we had towards them. The Tibetans have this very obvious natural red coloring in the cheeks, even the small children.

Early in the morning, we visited the Dreprung Monastery perched half way up the mountain, overlooking Lhasa and the valley. We saw plenty of monks, some talking on their cell phones. There were more pilgrims here also.
Below is the top of the Jokhang Chapel as seen from the upper floor of the tourist section. It houses the most sacred Buddha in all Tibet. It was built around 640 A.D.

Some History

The Qing dynasty was toppled in 1911 and by the end of 1912 the Manchu forces were escorted out of Tibet. In 1913 the 13th Dali-Lama returned to Tibet from India where he had taken refuge when the British invaded Tibet in 1905. Tibet was an independent nation (although this is deeply disputed by China and some evidence to that can be supplied) until the Chinese, one year after the communist take-over of China, evaded Tibet in 1950. In response the Tibetan government enthroned the 14th Dali-Lama, a 15 year old. In the next nine years various small uprising came and were stuffed out. In 1959 a major uprising took place during the New Year’s celebration. Later, it became clear the Chinese government was about to kidnap the Dali-Lama and in March the Dali-Lama fled to India disguised as a solder. In 1966 the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution began and the Red Guard began to systematically destroy the four “olds”, i.e. old thinking, old culture, old habits, and old customs. Even Buddha was accused of being a “reactionary”. Tibet was especially hard hit. Thousands of monasteries, icons, and lives were destroyed. Oddly, the Chinese protected the Potala. Chinese actions in Tibet in the past have been just short of genocide. Today China is different although still being the “heavy-handed big brother”.

Today in Lhasa, the Chinese have spent more money on the infra-structure than any other province and as we were there, the railroad linking Tibet with the rest of China was announced completed ahead of schedule. We saw the railroad and I must say, speaking as an engineer, it is a marvel. The airport and roads leading to it are new also. Chinese in Tibet can have two children rather than one and taxes are low. Decent housing and shops are being built rapidly, replacing shacks.

Enterprise is thriving and the overall standard of living has been raised significantly. Tibet on its own would be a third world country. As near as I can tell, the Tibet culture has long been focused on the Buddhist religion with a significant portion of the population in monasteries being supported by the rest of the population, which is poor. As a person who has little good to say about any religion, I don’t think it’s such a loss for the Tibetans to lose some of their culture. Instead they have economic opportunities to build better lives for themselves, their offspring, and enjoy a better, more balanced life.

I realize this is not politically correct to say, but if you really look into past history Dali Lamas sometimes acted like despots and lived like kings while the rest of the country lived in a feudal state. The Dali Lamas were religious rulers that ran the country. This is not a good thing.

You can find people prostrating themselves all day long. They start out with hands in a prayer position, then touch their forehead, throat, and heart, fall to their knees (knee pads required) then stretch their bodies out full length. They have small board on the palms of their hands and they slide their palms out and the boards allow sliding to occur. Then they slide back, raise to their feet and start again beginning where their head advanced. This is called the act of Kora. It is also a way to get the endorphins going until people are in a trance-like condition.
This goes on especially in front of the Jokhang Chapel and watch out for the small children who like to put their hands in your coat pockets while you are taking pictures or listening to the guide.

We took one day to travel to what the Chinese call the highest salt water lake in the world, the Nam-tso. The elevation is just under 16,000 feet and to get there you must go over a pass of about 18,000 feet. The small bus we traveled on had to stop twice to allow the engine to cool. The wind was to the back of the bus as we traveled upward which did not help engine cooling. Once there we had lunch outside on the rocks and then walked about a 1 ½ miles around a small peninsula. A couple of our group did not feel well enough to complete the circle, leaving me as the lone male to carry on. The vistas there and along the way were awesome. This is really big sky country.

Tibets pile up rocks to honor their ancestors
Yaks are center to the nomadic tribe’s existence. Yaks supply water proof cloth, rope, butter, milk, and the dung is dried and used as fuel. Yaks are very valuable and many of the nomadic tribes have enough yaks to be considered rich. The black dots in the photo below are yaks.
On the way back from the lake, we visited a nomadic woman’s tent home. I did notice there was a solar powered generator in the tent which supplied enough energy to power up a light bulb. This woman and her husband, who was off tending to the yaks, had many yaks and were well off. She was young and very pretty.
More pilgrims below at the Dreprung Monastery.
Tibet was a tremendous experience, but tough physically. BTW, just before we came there was a big earthquake in India and it was felt here slightly.


vikkitikkitavi said...

It seems clear to me that one way the Chinese have sought to quell dissent in Tibet is by simply bringing in so many ethnic Chinese that they outnumber the native population. Hence the Chinese are allowed 2 children in Tibet, but only 1 in China.

Dad E said...

You are correct that increasing the population of non-Tibetians is a big part of the plan to make Tibet part of an economic expansion. Economic inducements are also given out for Han Chinese to move to Tibet. I am not sure if other Chinese ethnic groups, of which there are many are included.

The railroad is part of the plan, making the transfer of materials and goods back and forth to the the rest of China more economical.

And it seems to be working. The standard of living is increasing, their are more jobs, better homes, etc.

A reporter named French talked to a Han taxi driver and he said Tibetans "are lazy and they hate us for, as they say, taking away what belongs to them. In their mind showering once or twice in their life is sacred, but to Han it is filthy and unacceptable. We believe in working hard and making money to support one's family, but they might think we're greedy and have no faith."

Tis a clash of cultures.

Dad E said...

Please forgive the typo above. "...there are more jobs,...".

I am truly conflicted about Tibet. Chinese people are industrious and hard working and believe in education. They are more like Americans than almost all cultures in this regard. Tibetans are deeply spiritually oriented, spending vast amounts of time praying and supporting the huge population of monks who add nothing to the general well being of daily life.

The Chinese government is Orwellian, trying to control information and afraid of freedom of expression. But they do try to stay away from religion, letting people practice theirs, of which there are many, except when seen as a threat.

China will not give in regarding Tibet. I am certain of this. What we can hope for is a gradual move towards more transparency and indiviual freedoms for all Chinese people, Tibetans included.