Tibet before the Tumult

Article excerpt

THE CHINESE have heralded the T28 train from Beijing to Lhasa as the vehicle that will pull a backward region of their country into prosperity. In the West it is seen as a means of furthering the colonization of Tibet and the erosion of its culture. Among Tibetans the new rail line represents one more log thrown on a long-simmering fire that exploded this past March 14, and over the next several days resulted in untold deaths and much destruction. Before long, I hope to be able to report firsthand on the details and repercussions of the explosion. Here I simply want to try to provide a sense of the atmosphere that made it inevitable.

When the train made its first journey into Tibet in the summer of 2006, 1 was in Shigatze, a town half a day's drive from Lhasa that is on the regulation tour for Westerners and, now, for Chinese. I had been in western Tibet and seen very few Chinese tourists, but that morning at the Tashilumphu Monastery, once home of the Panchen Lama, the court before the first temple swarmed with them. After the Panchen Lama died in 1 989, the Dalai Lama approved one new incarnation and Beijing approved another. The Dalai Lama's candidate and his family disappeared.

As we were waiting for the temple to open, a Chinese woman tried to coerce an elderly monk into posing with her arm around him. The monk, embarrassed, compromised, standing beside her glumly. Her behavior was a sign that the average Chinese has not only no idea how to treat monks but no idea what their government has done in Tibet. Most continue to believe China liberated Tibet from a slave society groaning under the weight of wicked foreigners. This woman was confused by the monk's lack of enthusiasm for her presence.

An English-speaking woman asked me and my Tibetan guide, Tenzin, to take a picture with her. While my guide vacillated between impotent rage and worry about getting into trouble if he did not agree to the request, she was distracted. A third woman sought her help in mimicking a Chinese ad for Tibet travel featuring a simpering young female in local dress, arms spread wide, offering a khata, a white scarf given as a welcome gift or a sign of respect. The khata is properly offered between praying hands, not spread arms. The poser's friends suggested adjustments. None of them realized they were being offensive and insensitive. By the time the woman who had wanted us to pose returned, Tenzin had gone for a walk. She was annoyed when I thanked her for asking but said I did not want my photograph taken.

The trail for Chinese tourists ends for the moment at Shigatze, because traveling in Tibet is hard going and often uncomfortable. Good, even passable, food is scarce. There are neither accommodations nor restaurants suitable to upscale visitors after Shigatze. Since most of Tibet is over 12,000 feet above sea level, the high altitude also makes life difficult. Chinese tourists appreciate comfort, and their government likes to be in control. Shigatze is for both parties the last outpost of civilization. Perhaps accommodations will be upgraded after this summer's Olympics, for which a new road is planned to the Mount Everest base camp. A generation of young Chinese willing to sacrifice comfort for trekking will arrive, but it is not yet here.

In the course of planning a return trip last year, I decided I would take the T28 from Lhasa and stop at Shanghai. To get into Tibet, I took a Chinese bus tour. Besides myself, the group consisted of five Chinese policemen plus a senior police officer, who noticed everything; several young women; a Chinese professor now living in the U. S . who had been persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, and his Hong Kong-born wife; a Frenchman; and an Austrian who still believed weapons of mass destruction were buried in Iraq. The policemen were no cruder than their counterparts might be in any other country. All of them proudly wore their red baseball caps into the Jokhang Temple, the Tibetan equivalent of Rome's St. …