Monday, 5 December 2011

The Roof of the World

'Tibet'...just the name of the place ignites a flame of curiosity, enthusiasm and interest in everyone we meet. Everyone seems to want to go there and everyone has an opinion. For most it conjures up the image of a country that has endured years of turmoil and tyranny at the hands of the Chinese, a mysterious land that wants only to be permitted to live peacefully, in a Buddhist governed serenity; an ancient way of life that has been all but destroyed by the evil Maoists. The Chinese would argue that this life was in itself is a dictatorship of sorts, that they are freeing the Tibetan people from their religious shackles. I had always wanted to see it for myself and, as far as is possible, make up my own mind.

I had very much enjoyed Beijing, and the spirit and energy of the Chinese people there, but as we edged closer to Lhasa on the train and I began to see convoys of army trucks lining the highways, ugly concrete buildings and structures that looked out of place with the natural landscapes and ancient villages we were passing through, and later in Lhasa, the intimidating army presence all around town, I began to feel a more sinister side to the country.

I have recently read Greg Mortensen's books 'Three cups of tea' and 'Stones into schools' which talk about his charitable organisation, the Central Asia Institute, that sets up schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Whilst there has been much controversy surrounding his work (and its authenticity), one thing rings very true in his experiences. He argues strongly that in order to establish sustainable and meaningful change in any society it is first necessary to listen to the people on the ground, to employ a grassroots bottom-up strategy that engages local people and achieves their buy-in at all stages of development, whatever that development might be. A simple and logical process to follow you might think but one that is rarely adhered to by most NGOs and aid groups, let alone imperalists. Mistakes are constantly made in this arena, when the powers that be come into local communities and impose their own ideas, in their own ways. Despite often being well meaning, initiatives implemented in this fashion invariably fail to achieve their end goals harmoniously and rarely result in widespread acceptance of processes, such as is painfully in evidence in Tibet.

Aside from the wider issues of human rights violations and the use of extreme violence of which I have no first hand knowledge and therefore cannot comment, this was very much what I saw in Tibet - two worlds living side by side, co-existing, sometimes colliding, but not integrating in any way whatsoever. Processes being implemented, development projects going on all around but with virtually no buy-in from the Tibetan population who seemed to be being increasingly marginalised in their own country. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in their tourism industry which supposedly afforded visitors, including the Chinese (of which there were many) an insight into Tibetan life. Instead what we got was a Chinese censored tour of some main 'sights' and visits to towns that held little Tibetan influences or charm and instead had begun a concrete sprawl out into the countryside in true Chinese fashion. The most authentic Tibetan villages we stayed in had seen no money or infrastructure and were in the far flung parts of the country where the Chinese presumably didn't care to live. It made me feel extremely sad and at a loss as to what the future of the country will hold.

View of Lhasa and the Potala Palace from the train
What makes their situation even more tragic is that the very way of life that they have been trying to protect and preserve for the past 50 years is also no longer the answer, at least in my view, from what I saw of their Buddhist traditions. If the Chinese were to walk away tomorrow and leave the Tibetans to their monasteries and Buddhist rituals, that wouldn't work either. You only have to see the Potala Palace to see that the religious governance of the country was, as the Chinese argue, in itself a form of control and dictatorship and, much as many Tibetans did not seem to gel with the Chinese ways of life, it was also very clear that many of them enjoyed elements of their secular influence. Indeed, it struck me as very peculiar throughout our time in Tibet that a religion that is supposedly so self-less, altruistic and well, humble, should also incite such fervent idolatry and worship; and not of a mythical God-like figure, but of an individual - the two things seem at odds with each other. In this sense Tibet is a very odd and sad place as it is stuck between two eras, clinging on nostalgically to the past, to a life that would never now work, and resisting and fighting against a development that is not of their choosing and in which they have played no part. I don't pretend to know what the answer is but I was left with a very melancholy feeling as we travelled through this land of snows.

Our guide, as expected, said little about any of this as we made our way from Lhasa to the Nepalese border. She made the odd comment but it was mainly restricted to what went on in the cultural revolution in the 1960s, which of course not only had devastating consequences across Tibet, but the whole of China and is responsible for much of the destruction of the Tibetan way of life.

Politics and religion aside, Tibet is a stunning moonscape-like country. We must admit that we were a little disappointed to have to experience its vast and untouched beauty through an organised tour, along with hundreds of other snap happy tourists, but sometimes that's just the way it goes. I can't say we felt we saw any of the 'real' Tibet in a cultural sense, nor did we really experience the hospitality and kindness for which the Tibetans are famed outside of their own country, but the landscapes were breathtaking (quite literally up at Everest), and the introduction to Tibetan Buddhism was fascinating, colouring our subsequent travel in Nepal and India substantially. One thing they might want to work on is their hospitality though. Don't get me wrong, I am aware that we were travelling through a fairly primitive and rural area and I don't expect all that much at all, but if the Mongolians can extend every courtesy  despite their very simple existence, then I am guessing the Tibetans can too! I guess when you're paying through the nose for a tour you expect a certain level of cleanliness and service which, well, was lacking a little. Here are just a few things that made Chris and I chuckle on our little tour- our Do's and Don'ts for the Tibetan Tourism Industry:
  1. Do clean the bathroom (ever!)
  2. Do change the sheets after guests have left (every time, not just once a month) - generally people don't take to snot encrusted duvet covers.
  3. Don't shave your beard whilst wandering around your restaurant, it could put the customers off to have bits of hair scattered over their entrees.
  4. Don't slop food EVERYWHERE whether when serving or clearing away. If you do mistakenly spill some food, Do clear it up.
  5. Don't walk into a guest's bedroom without knocking first...and Don't then barge through into the bathroom and randomly flush the toilet
  6. By all means Do grow your little fingernail to unforeseen lengths but please Don't pick your nose with it in front of customers.
  7. Don't use the customer's knife to stir their tea
  8. Don't serve the starter an hour after your guests have finished their main course
  9. Don't text message your mates instead of getting your customer's bill. If you repeatedly tell them to sit down and wait then they may just get up and walk out.
  10. Most important of all - Do try not to let your new born puppy pee on the restaurant floor. If this isn't possible, Do at least prevent the mother from crapping under your customer's table and then eating its own poo.

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