I was less than a week old when my parents had to leave Tibet for India because of the full-scale invasion of Tibet by the People's Republic of China. After forty-six years I recently went back to the country of my birth for the first time.
I flew into Lhasa via Chengdu and then travelled by road from Lhasa to Kathmandu via the Tibetan border town, Drum. It was a short trip but I was more than happy to be able to visit places and talk to local people as I wished to. Why did I go to Tibet? The simple answer was Tibet is my home.For a long time I said to myself I would go when the political situation in Tibet becomes more stable and visitors have more freedom.
Unfortunately, when I visited it was not like that at all as Tibetans were still living under the heavy handed oppressed rule of the PRC. As an overseas Tibetan holding a legitimate Australian passport I received very biased treatment at the Chinese visa offices. First of all, I could not get a Chinese visa at the Consulate Office in my state in Australia but had to apply for it at the main Chinese Embassy in Canberra. In China I also had great difficulty obtaining a permit to enter the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Eventually I only got the permit after paying a significant bribe to a travel agent. Lately the Chinese government has been trumpeting loudly about "developing western regions", which include the TAR and the opening of the railway line from Beijing to Lhasa via Golmud. On the other hand, we also hear news from various independent sources that this development is of primary benefit to Chinese migrants and is a pretext to bring even more Chinese into Tibet, thereby marginalizing Tibetans economically and demographically in their own country. Tibet is changing very rapidly and I thought that if I don't see her now then I might not recognise her in future. So I decided to go there immediately and also find out what I can do to save her.
My first sight of Tibet was from the aeroplane, looking down on range after range of mountains. Occasionally, the tops of some peaks poked though the cloud and I worried the plane would hit them! Those endless mountains are testament to Tibet's geographic structure. Tibet is not an integral part of the Peoples Republic of China and its geography is as unique as its race, language, culture and tradition. Those mountains reminded me of a long life prayer to His Holiness The Dalai Lama:
In this land surrounded by snowy mountains,
You are the source of all happiness and good.
Mighty Chenrezig, Tenzin Gyatso,
Please place your lotus feet until samsara ends.
I felt thrilled as well as sad, and kept saying to myself: How dare they!
How could the Communist regime of China occupy this snowy land, which is so perfectly suited to its Tibetan inhabitants, and not to Chinese. I also thought that if not for the Chinese government it would be very unlikely that I would ever be flying in this jet plane to Lhasa. I also noted that apart from a dozen western tourists most passengers were Chinese. I also asked myself what benefits this plane to Tibet brought for the Tibetans. I never stopped looking down, as my mind was filled with the beauty of the mountains beneath me. Some were clad with snow but most looked bare and rugged. They were surrounded by plateaux with here and there a patchwork of farming land, open pasture and even a small desert. I felt that the mountains had warmly welcomed me back home.
The plane landed smoothly at Gonkar airport and from there I went straight to Lhasa by bus. Like most tourists I was impressed by the good standard of the highway from the airport to Lhasa, which at one point runs through a long tunnel cut into the mountains. That must have saved a huge amount of travelling time. What puzzled me a bit was the sight of many soldiers posted along the side of the road for a great distance. These soldiers had their back towards road and faced mostly barren mountains and occasionally a herd of animals with their shepherds.
As we approached the city of Lhasa the signs of the development and modernity were even more apparent, to the point where it was difficult to see any legacy of old Tibet. All of a sudden I saw the Potala in the distance, which really assured me that I had indeed arrived in Lhasa. But somehow I found it difficult to view the Potala without the image of His Holiness The Dalai Lama in my mind. The bus pulled up at the far right side of the Potala in the vicinity of one of the entry/exit area for tourists visiting the Potala. The area was jammed with tourists and motor vehicles but I was mesmerised, stunned and overwhelmed by the awesome beauty and blessing of the majestic Potala.
On the same day I went to the Jokhang Temple. Situated in the centre of old Lhasa it is regarded as the spiritual centre of the city and is one of the holiest destinations for all Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims. Built in 647 AD the Jokhang enshrines the famous statue of Lord Buddha offered to the 7th Century Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo, as a gift from his wife, the Chinese Princess Wencheng. Among a huge crowd of tourists are also a good number of Tibetan devotees from far and near, all moving in line inside the temple as they offer prayers and receive blessings. I followed an old Tibetan grandmother who never stopped murmuring prayers as she bowed down to every holy image and offered them butter lamps. To my astonishment when she came in front of the Shakyamuni Buddha statue she said aloud: "May the Victorious Wish-Fulfilling Jewel (His Holiness The Dalai Lama) live long! May I see His face! May I hear His voice!"
Despite His Holiness The Dalai Lama's concerted efforts to secure through dialogue a mutually acceptable solution for the future of Tibet, the Chinese government continuously calls His Holiness 'a separatist' and enforces a harsh policy in Tibet of punishing anyone displaying any sign of loyalty to His Holiness. Possessing a photo of His Holiness is a serious crime.
However, I observed that both young and old Tibetans all still hold fervent faithful devotion to His Holiness as a Buddha of Compassion and a Noble Peace Laureate. Many of those I met said to me: "You are so fortunate!"
Their implication was because I have an opportunity to have audience with His Holiness, and came from a country where people enjoy human rights and freedom.
Next day I went into the Potala and the Norbulingka, the Jewel Park, the summer palace of His Holiness The Dalai Lamas. Founded by King Songtsen Gampo in 637AD, the Potala was the foremost residence of The Dalai Lamas as well as the seat of the old Tibetan government. Within the Potala are some of the oldest Tibetan chapels dating back to 7th Century and a great many sacred objects, including the tombs of past Dalai Lamas. The Potala represents one of the greatest Tibetan artistic and architectural achievements; hence it is one of the major pilgrimage and tourist destinations. Currently it receives an average of 1500 visitors daily and there is some concern about the risks of this causing structural damage to the building. As a Tibetan I found myself amazingly privileged to be able to just walk into the Potala, my feeling of happiness was mixed with sadness. I was happy because to me, walking into the Potala was not only a part of spiritual journey, but also like going back to the Tibet of the past. I was sad because the Potala has been transformed into a mere museum, another clear indication of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. I also felt like an intruder because the Potala is really the true residence of His Holiness The Dalai Lama, even though resides in India as a spiritual and temporal head of the Tibetan government in exile. The Chinese government really has no right to allow all these tourists into the Potala. I noticed that most of the travel guides and translators were Chinese. Their knowledge of Tibetan history, culture and Buddhism was so obviously poor that I found them very amusing rather than informative.
Norbulingka, the Jewel Park, was not what I expected. The zoo within the park was probably one of the worst zoos I have ever visited. The animals, of which there were not many varieties, looked underfed and were kept like in jail. My favourite was a yak although it gave me an unwelcome look and even chased me when I took a photo of it. A large part of the park seemed to be inaccessible, with some sort of work in progress. However, the new palace called Tagten Migyur Phodang and built during the lifetime of the current Dalai Lama, was well maintained and a centre of tourist attraction within the park.
Over the following few days I went to see the four greatest monasteries of the Yellow Hat tradition of Tibetan Buddhism: Ganden, Drepung, Sera and Tashi Lhunpo. I also took a number of walks around the Barkor, where the Jokhang is situated and the population is mainly Tibetan. In order to gather spiritual merits and purify negativities, Tibetan devotees circumambulate the Jokhang, offering incense and butter lamps. They do this practice especially on any special lunar calendar day, such as full moon days, and in heavy traffic. I joined them on numerous occasions and felt a deep sense of connection with those Tibetans. We are pursuing the same spiritual path, but I had to remain very vigilant not to become distracted by the alluring shops along both the sides of the path.
My first impression on visiting all these great ancient monasteries, which once housed tens and thousands of monks and produced a great many prominent Buddhist masters, was that they were now reduced to battered deserted towns.
I had no impression of those monasteries existing now as living centres for undertaking Buddhist studies and meditation. Personally however, I found an immense sense of inspiration and spiritual upliftment in visiting these monasteries, which are indeed a legacy and testimony to the accomplishment of old Tibet. At the same time I thought that had old Tibet developed politically and economically in alignment with the contemporary world, alongside this magnificent advancement of the spiritual tradition, then we would not have lost our country and Tibet might not be the backward nation it was at the time of the Chinese invasion in 1950.
I not only had the opportunity to visit some important historical and religious sites but also during my stay in Tibet I mingled with and talked to as many Tibetans as possible in order to get an overall feeling of what it was like living in Tibet under the Communist government of the PRC.
Unfortunately, what I learned from them and my observations during the trip very much affirms what I already knew before.
It is true to say that in Tibet today:
Tibetans are a minority and second class citizens in their own home land. Tibetans are marginalised demographically & economically by Chinese migrants. Repression of Tibetan language, culture and religion is now worse both in urban and rural areas. Tibetan lands and homes are taken away by the Chinese government, and Tibetans are left homeless and penniless. Tibetans do not have the freedom of religion and speech Tibetans do not have the freedom of mobility in their own country. Most Tibetan children have no access to school or their parents cannot afford schooling & further education. Tibet's natural resources and mineral are being exploited at accelerated rates. Most rural Tibetans do not have access to basic health care. Chinese is the official language and mandatory for employment. Chinese migrants are the primary recipient of recent developments and booming tourist industries. Chinese migrants are taking over most jobs and business opportunities from Tibetans. All developments in form of the new railway station, large apartments, roads, airport etc, which the PRC promotes and boasts of to the outside world as evidence of the "developing Western region" are turning out to be the ultimate weapon in wiping Tibetan civilization from the face of the earth.
It was a short journey, but the most rewarding I have ever taken in my life. Even though what the Communist Chinese government has done and is doing to Tibet is unforgivable, I must say that I found the ordinary Chinese people I interacted with in China, Tibet or anywhere else, to be most friendly and many were even sympathetic to the cause of Tibet.
I would strongly suggest that all Tibetans in exile visit our homeland themselves to discover the past, present and future of Tibet. No doubt Tibet today is facing the darkest period in its history of over two thousand years, but there is still hope for the spirit of Tibet will never die.
The writer of this article wants to remain anonymous.