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The Road into Lhasa, Tibet by Biophile



Written by: Genevieve Howard

I drove into Lhasa in a beat-up 20-year-old 4×4 that just made the journey. There were four of us, all slightly smug that we had managed to avoid making the 20-hour journey in a Chinese bus.

Getting into Tibet was as easy as it was difficult. A 26-hour train ride from Beijing to Xining, the polluted poverty-stricken capital of the Qinghai province. One day and innumerable negotiations later, we were on an infrequent train heading for the plateau town of Golmud. We were going into the middle of nowhere, and few trains can run so close to the nothingless we were attempting to reach.

Twenty-eight hours later I woke up to that nothingness. A flat desolate plain of rock and intense blue sky. It was what I imagine the moon would look like out of a train window. We were 2,000m above sea level and climbing, the air tore into my lungs, my stomach turned. So close, what happens if we are turned back? Government regulations concerning foreigner’s entry into Tibet change weekly, if not daily. We had traveled 5,000kms in three days to get to this point.

Our permits into Tibet, issued at the government Chinese Tourist Office for foreigners in Golmud, cost Y1,700 (about R1,500), involved copious amounts of paperwork and smiles but relatively few hassles. The clerk even offered us a choice of transport. Having experienced the likes of the rambling falling-apart Chinese bus, one of those that looks like it was built in the 1950s in Mao’s Great Leap Forward, we chose the dodgy 4×4.

Amazingly, the 4×4 made the journey to Lhasa in 20-hours, non-stop. The barren moonscape of the plateau makes the journey a soul-searing trial of emotions. The stark barrenness of the landscape strikes against the night in such a way as to make the mind echo its bleakness. With no electricity in the surrounding countryside, there is no light. It is real, unimaginable darkness. The 4×4 had no headlights. The single track dirt road, interspersed with Chinese police check points and often hardly a road at all, was negotiated by the stars – layers of them so close you feel you could reach up and touch them.

We scaled the 6,000m above sea level passes in mental numbness, sometimes so high on the plateau that the mountains receded below us and the snow could not fall for lack of sky. We drive through all of this, arriving in Lhasa on four day Chinese government-issued tourist permits we had no intention of honouring. Once in Lhasa it is easy to get yourself lost in the beurocratic system and my four day permit became an unofficial three week stay in the capital.

Lhasa is nothing I expected of a capital city. In fact, it is nothing I expected of a city. I could walk the length of the city in about an hour. There are no high rise buildings, no freeways and no traffic jams. There are no high powered men and women in suits clutching briefcases rushing from one meeting to the next. Every thing is rather well, laid back. The entire country runs on Beijing time. This means that even though Lhasa is three time zones away from Beijing, whatever time it is in Beijing, it is officially that time in Lhasa. It also means that things start a little late in the day. Residents begin stirring into the streets at about nine, when the sun rises. Shops open at ten, and pavement restaurants – normally a couple of wooden benches and a fire – open soon after.

Waking up on the plateau is always an ordeal. Hotel rooms tend to be dirt floored and stuffy. They also seem to collect the nearby toilet aroma throughout the night, no matter how securely you proof the door. Adding to the heady smells of waking up is the dirty bed linen you have just slept in – the experience comes standard in all moderately-priced hotels on the plateau.

Lhasa is 3,200m above sea level and every step I made through it pushed against my compacted lungs. Climbing the steep steps to the Potala Palace, winter home of the exiled Dalai Lama, on my second day, the air tearing into my head, I was mortified to be overtaken by a group of elderly Tibetan “amlahs” muttering fervent prayers as they attended the holy kora around the palace.

It would not be the last time the Tibetan people overtook me. The surrounding hills of Lhasa are home to the three most important monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism – Sera, Drepung, and Ganden – each built on the side of a mountain. Wizened pilgrims, their faces beaten by the harshness of the plateau, prostrate the lengths of the koras, the sacred pilgrimage routes surrounding the monasteries. They scale the sides of the monastery mountains on their knees, clutching their prayer wheels and muttering mantras. In Tibet, I discovered a gentle spirituality so imbedded in the selves of the people living it that it put all I knew of the Western world to shame. After three weeks in the capital, the Chinese-ness of Tibetan life began to overtake me. The euphoric high of being in Tibet after years of dreaming never quite escapes you, but there are things you begin to notice outside of a government controlled tour group.
Surprisingly, getting out of Lhasa legally was a lot harder than getting in. In anticipation of political unrest on the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising, the Chinese government had closed most of the tourist routes into and out of Tibet, and all tours were suspended. With a dwindling number of tourists in the city, I was becoming more noticeable.

All foreign travel outside of Lhasa is controlled by the government FIT travel agency. The agency arranges permits, routes, transport and guides for foreigners wanting to explore outside of Lhasa. After a week of negotiations regarding our itinerary and the cost of our leaving Lhasa, we managed to settle on Y6,000 (R5,500) and the only route still open to foreigners at the time – from Lhasa through eastern Tibet to the Nepali border. A trip of seven days driving through some of the most breathtakingly desolate landscapes in the world. Tibet leaves a small piece of itself within every traveler, and every traveler has to decide what to do with that small piece. This is not easy, for Tibet is not easy. It is a beautiful country, with a spirituality lived into the very life of its people. It is a hard, desolate spirituality and this is what makes it beautiful, mythical. But this is the surface. Travellers who spend a little longer than the government tour group allows – and there are many who do this – catch a glimpse of below the surface, to the simmering tensions beneath.

Some facts about Tibet:

China declared Tibet an “autonomous region” of China in 1951, with Mao claiming that the Chinese occupation was the “liberation” of the Tibetan people from the “superstition” of religion, saying the Chinese would bring modernization, industry, and progress. Fifty-five years on, there is no electricity or running water outside of Lhasa, few schools and even fewer clinics or basic health facilities.

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet into exile in India in 1959, establishing the Tibetan government in exile in Daramsala, northern India, in 1960. Photos and images of the Dalai Lama are illegal in Tibet. Only eight of Tibet’s 6,259 monasteries, nunneries, and temples have survived Chinese occupation, all others have been destroyed.

The three main monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism – Ganden, Sera and Drepung outside Lhasa – were destroyed by the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution. Ganden Monastery was once the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the world with 6,000 monks. There are now a token 100, and the monastery is in ruins, with walls caving in around 10m-high gold statues of the Buddha and artifacts inlaid with precious stones.

All monks in Tibet have to pledge allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party. They also have to sign a declaration against the Dalai Lama.

The population of China is composed of the majority Han people and several minority groups, but only the Han are considered citizens of China. As a result, minority groups like the Tibetans cannot apply for passports and other documentation needed to leave the country.

Despite this, thousands of Tibetans make the treacherous journey across the Himalayas into Nepal and India each year. The journey takes months and crosses vast desolate regions of snow with no food and no shelter. Most do not survive the journey. Those who do survive have no contact with their families — parents, siblings, spouses or children — in Tibet and can never return home. There are currently more than 80,000 Tibetan refugees in exile. Despite the Dalai Lama’s repeated appeals for talks, the Chinese government refuses to discuss the issue.

What you can do:

The Tibet Society of South Africa (TSSA) is the only support group for the Tibetan struggle in South Africa. Based in Durban and operating nationwide, the society is officially recognized by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.
The founder of TSSA is Renato Palmi, who also works as a consultant for the Tibetan government in exile.
“People with a conscience need to be aware of what is taking place in Tibet,” said Palmi
“There is a lot people can do, independently or collectively.”
For Palmi, the main objective is to keep the issue of Tibet alive and to make people aware of the human rights abuses taking place in the country.

“Read,” says Palmi. “Read and learn as much about Tibet as you can. Then put the issue of Tibet out there as a public issue, such as letters to your newspaper or introducing the subject of Tibet on radio talk shows. Also important is taking the issue to the South African government and asking why they are not recognising the rights of the Tibetan people,” said Palmi.
“Writing letters to the Chinese embassy in South Africa, expressing your concern about the Tibetan issue is also helpful. The hypocrisy of the international community makes me really angry,” continued Palmi. “They show so much concern about those who violate human rights and here you have a people who practice a freedom struggle of non-violence and the world ignores it. It seems that violence attracts attention and freedom.

Like the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, Palmi encourages all who can afford to visit Tibet to do so.



Published with the kind permission of Biophile

The Biophile online portal and print magazine deals with matters close to the heart of everyone who shares their concern for the future of our planet and species, and who aspires to lead an ethical, environmentally sound life, in harmony with all of earth’s creatures.

The mission of Biophile is to impart knowledge with truth and integrity for the highest good of all. Biophile is not affiliated to any religious, political or philosophical ideology or organisation. Their ethos is one of co-operation and sharing.


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This article was published on Saturday 23 May, 2009.
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