|Holy man never loses hope
by Tracey Barnett
A backpacker threw a well-thumbed China travel guide on to my bed and pronounced, "Take it, I don't want to ever see that country again."
It was a bitterly cold winter morning in Hong Kong in 1988, and I didn't care what he said, I was going. My eyes fell on to some loose photos that had spilled out of the book. They were small pictures of the Dalai Lama.
"Take those with you," he added off-handedly. "People really like when you give them out if you get close to Tibet."
My China-cursing acquaintance had been wrong. After six weeks' travelling I found an astounding, fascinating, stunning country whose surface I had only begun to scratch.
But I never made it to Tibet.
Authorities were turning away backpackers at the region's borders. A few weeks earlier there was some Tibetan unrest that travellers were calling "the backpackers' rebellion".
People before me were entering the region with pictures and writings of the Dalai Lama and handing them out to grateful Tibetans, anxious to get hold of anything bearing the image of their exiled leader.
Almost 20 years later, I may never see the Tibet of my imagination because that Tibet no longer exists. The reality of half a century of Chinese occupation trumps my postcard romanticism of the land of the Dalai Lama.
Boxes of Chinese apartments have risen up against the backdrop of the Potala Monastery. A railway stretching 1142km to Lhasa is destined to open a floodgate of progress, ferrying the region's mineral resources back east after depositing influxes of Chinese settlers, who now outnumber Tibetans in Lhasa.
And the man Tibetans revere above all others, the Dalai Lama, will mark his 72nd birthday next month in India having not set foot in his homeland for 48 years.
Time is winning against Tibet, and most of the world has stopped noticing the quiet cultural genocide taking its toll if Richard Gere isn't there to do a press conference.
Not many noticed when the Belgian Government cancelled a visit by the Dalai Lama last month in response to pressure from Beijing before trade talks.
Even our own Prime Minister has hesitated to book a formal meeting when he arrives here this weekend.
Few marked the arrival of adulthood this year for a young 18-year-old man called Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, or even know his name.
In 1995, when the boy was only 6 years old, the Dalai Lama chose him from a combination of dreams, divinations and oracles to become the second-most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism, the Panchen Lama, or Great Scholar.
If this sounds like something from another time, it is. The Dalai Lama has chosen the next Panchen Lama for centuries. Traditionally, he has guided his training through adulthood. Upon this Dalai Lama's death, the Panchen Lama will return the favour, in turn choosing and teaching the next Dalai Lama.