Into the dragon's den I went and came out unscathed!
By Email[Wednesday, July 23, 2008 18:50]
Visit to Tibet and China

By Dhawa Dhondup (Acharya)

In the third week of June this year I entered the outer fringes of Tibet (Sichuan Province) and stayed in the area for twenty days. From what I heard from people there and later from news items in the free world, it appears I was one of the only few Tibetans, if not the only one, who managed to get into Tibetan territory at that time.

A Tibetan living abroad with a foreign passport had been turned away from the same Chinese airport a few days ago. He happened to speak Chinese and the Chinese officials had a ball abusing him and turning him away. Some Tibetans, with a certain South-East Asian-country passport, running businesses in China had the bad luck of going out of the country just prior to the March protests, and now are denied visa to re-enter China - they are still waiting at the gates of China! Upon my return to the free world the first news I heard was of the Tibetan lady from London turned away from Beijing airport.

Outwardly things do not appear too restrictive in places like Chengdu, Dhartsedo and even deeper inside Tibetan regions like Barkham, the places I visited. Handful of Westerners could still be seen wandering the streets of Dhartsedo ('Kangding'), although none in Barkham. Except for the heavy police presence, day and night, in Wuwuqi Tibetan Street (the Tibetan area of Chengdu) monitoring the Tibetans, Chengdu feels like an open city for travelers.

But these are sensitive times. Besides the ubiquitous close-circuit cameras on the ceilings of the hotels, when you check in, your passport is photocopied and sent to Public Security Bureau (PSB, the Chinese secret agency), and you are casually asked the inevitable twin questions: "Where are you coming from?" and "Where are you going next?" The answers to these are also sent by the receptionist to PSB. How do I know of this? Once when I was asked these I responded by asking back why am I being asked the same questions again and again, every time I checked in. In her innocence the receptionist blurted out that they have to send to "the police (she meant PSB)" these reports daily. I was told that there is certainly a personnel from PSB, in disguise as a hotel staff, in every hotel where foreigners stay. Definitely you get the feeling many eyes were watching you each time you entered or left the premises. Guys in crew-cut do hang around.

I had nothing to fear. I entered the country legally with a valid visa. I went as a pilgrim and as an observer, a pilgrim visiting my own motherland Tibet, and an observer of what it is like in Tibet and China. Intentionally, I did not engage in anything political, least the Chinese reassert their blatantly false accusation of protests in Tibet being instigated from abroad. Also, purely to not bring on unnecessary troubles to the locals I avoided contacts with them. In the handful of temples and monasteries I visited I did not engage in conversations except for making an offering or a donation.

But I went for daily rounds and prayers at local Tibetan temples and monasteries. I ate at Tibetan restaurants. I travelled in cars owned by Tibetans. There was bound to be chance conversations, compatriot confluence of ideas, experiences, narratives, and so on.

The picture one gets is there has been very heavy-handed crackdown on Tibetans, post 14 March. Monasteries and the ordained are particularly being subjected to a ruthless campaign of restrictions and scrutiny. In Ngawa ('Ngaba') region of Amdo, bordering Barkham, major monasteries of learning and practice have become deserted of resident monks: the younger monks who could not bear to stand the new political re-education of denouncing the exile leadership simply left their monasteries, only a few immobile elderly monks remain behind. "Unless there is going to be something done from outside about our country, from within here it is all finished" - such whispers of despondency reflect the situation inside Tibet.

Yet in Karze daily protests continue to the day, despite inevitable arrests and torture. Witnesses tell of Tibetans being shot right in the marketplace. A Chinese soldier to every Tibetan in Karze would still leave a surplus of Chinese soldiers - this is how hard the Chinese have come down on the Tibetans and yet the Tibetans are still defiant.

Tibetans who had to leave Lhasa because their hometown is in eastern Tibet, and not holding a Lhasa resident permit, use this common phrase in describing what it had become to be living in Lhasa, "Sem-pa kyi-po khyoen-ney min-dhuk" Mind-is-not-happy-at-all.

Early in the morning of 24 June I saw people waiting across the road from the local Ngawa ('Ngaba') County Court, in Barkham. Armed troops marched up and down the main street of the town. Words spread that three Tibetans who protested, in Ngawa, were going to be sentenced that day. Representatives from local institutions were decreed to attend the proceedings, to give it a facade of an open public trial.

By afternoon the marketplace was abuzz with the tragic news that of the three Tibetans one was sentenced to life imprisonment, with belongings to be officially confiscated, another Tibetan was sentenced to eleven years and the third to eight years. I felt sad and mournful that evening, thinking three fellow Tibetans have been subjected to a colonial law and sentenced in a remote country town, away from the knowledge of the outside world. Against my own wish I thought it far too dangerous to make any attempt at finding out the names of the three Tibetans who would suffer for a long time in Chinese prisons. I would not do anything to add to their false accusation of exile instigation.

Again, for that reason, when I noticed a poster on the walls to the entrance of the hotel where I stayed a night at Tanpa ('Danba') I feigned not seeing it, let alone give it a second glance. At the first sight I read the heading "'Zin-bZung bKa'-rgya" (Order for Arrest), with black and white photocopied passport-profile photographs numbering over thirty faces. The odd thing about the poster was it was entirely written in Tibetan. I wondered if the Chinese authorities were trying to play down the extent of the recent protests, in the eyes of the Chinese public, by concealing the "Order for Arrest" behind the veil of a language unintelligible to the public. Having wandered about the hotel for a whole day and night when I suddenly noticed the poster the next morning my initial thoughts were the officials were sending a threatening warning to me. Only when I found out that the hotel's wall adjoined with that of the main long-distance bus-stand of Tanpa I realized it was a mere coincidence.

Four days later, by sheer coincidence a similar poster was pasted on the wall to the entrance of the hotel I stayed in Dhartsedo, a distance of over a hundred kilometers away from Tanpa. Here the poster had been defaced and torn apart - Tanpa bus-stand is too small a place for anyone to attempt such, whereas in a relatively much busier town like Dhartsedo some brave people have taken the advantage of night-time darkness and a busy traffic of pedestrians.

These are the things I saw. I had decided not to become a courier of rumours and I wasn't going to ferry across gossips here to there and there to here. Other things I witnessed were:

A few hours after the sentencing of the three Tibetans in Barkham ('Maerkhang') the local television showed an in-depth programme titled "March 14," in Chinese. A petite host spoke with a tone of vengeance. The footages focused on interviews of Han victims and charred shops of Lhasa. Incredibly, they still show the Chinese policeman in disguise wearing Chupa and brandishing a long sword, prompting others to riot! Many months after the disguise was busted (by a Thai tourist) and the Chinese propaganda of the footage discredited and the picture apparently taken off the official Chinese websites, they are still showing it in June 2008, to an audience in remote town in Sichuan province!

What is telling is there was hardly any extra footage of those days that weren't in the Western broadcasts. Part of the programme focused on the alleged biased attitude of Western media in reporting of the protests. BBC online pages highlighted and circled with fluorescent ink by the Chinese, which we have seen way back in March, were still being shown in June 2008!

In the afternoon of 5 July I arrived back in Dhartsedo ('Kangding'), after visits to Barkham and Tanpa. Police cars and motorbikes patrolled up and down the main solitary road of the town. At one stage there was a police motorcade of three motorbikes at the front, followed by four cars and another three motorbikes at the rear. Fearing protests from the Tibetans next day on the important day of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's birthday, the Chinese officials were making a show of their arms, to intimidate the Tibetans. Tibetan monks and nuns walked about the streets uncowed.

The following day I stayed in the town till midday. It was a Sunday and the main marketplace was quiet. But there were Tibetans, especially elderly ones, who were offering juniper-incense at the giant hearth of the local temples, fervently turning the massive prayer-wheels, and audibly reciting the extensive Long-life Prayer of His Holiness, The entire three secrets of the infinite Victorious Ones/...

When I headed towards Chengdu that afternoon, I recited in the car Gang-ri ra-wai kor-wai zhing-kham dhir/...(In this realm surrounded by snowy mountains/...) all the way upto Erlang Tunnel ('Erlangsha' Tunnel). After a full five minutes through the tunnel, on the other side I changed the recitation into Gang-ri ra-wai kor-wai zhing-kham dher/ (In that realm surrounded by snowy mountains/...)

In this part of Tibetan territory Erlang Mountain Pass, into which the tunnel had been dug through, demarcates the border between Tibetan territory and Chinese territory. It is here, when coming from below the plains of the Chinese area one sees the first road signage in the Tibetan language, in gold lettering Erlang PHug-Lam (Erlang Tunnel).

(If I manage to find some time, a second part will follow this, telling besides other things, how I was hassled by the Chinese officials at the entry into the country, during the stay, and at the final departure at the airport, and how I was able to stand up in their face as a Tibetan.)

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