After being persecuted on Twitter by Tibetan activist’s for posting photos from my trip there, I felt compelled to write this post. They maintain that I am supporting Chinese regime by promoting travel to Tibet but I disagree. I want to share with everyone what it is really like to visit Tibet.
Tibet has long held the fascination of the Western world. Locked away in the vastness of the Himalayas it has often caught the attention of explorers and traders as a hidden country of riches and treasure. Finally in the 1980′s Tibet opened it’s doors to the rest of the world. But it was in ruins. Between 1950 and 1970 China had taken control of the place known as The Roof of The World. They had exiled the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, as well as approximately 100,00 Tibetans and they had destroyed a great chunk of Tibetan history and culture. Today the Tibetan struggle is still going on. In protest to China’s regime innocent Tibetans are self immolating and many lives are being lost fighting for a seemingly impossible battle.
For a long time I have been fascinated by Tibet probably for the same reasons that travellers before me have. Theres such a mystery about the place as well as thousands of years of ancient culture and traditions. Having been shut of from the rest off the world for most of it’s existence, we only got to see glimpses of it through story’s such as Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer or My Journey to Lhasa by Alexandra David-Neel. Then I read an article by Lonely Planet that said :
“This remarkable place is changing fast. Investment and tourism are flooding into the region, inspired by a new train line from China, and GDP is rising even faster than the train tracks to Lhasa. Unfortunately the modernisation is coming first and foremost on China’s terms. China’s current wave of tourists has been dubbed “the second invasion” with a slew of new hotels, restaurants and bars set up and run by Chinese for the Chinese. Once the remote preserve of hardy backpackers, it is now local Chinese tourists who dominate the queues for the Potala and Jokhang. Lhasa is booming and even small towns across the plateau are being modernised and rebuilt. With every passing moment Tibet looks less and less like itself”.
It was then and there that I decided I had to see Tibet before it was lost to history forever. Years later I had booked a trip to Nepal and realised that this was finally my chance to go to Tibet. I booked myself a two week tour through Intrepid as it seemed that this was the only way I could legally enter Tibet. The instructions from the tour company were very specific. We were told that we must stay with our tour group at all times and we also must enter and leave Tibet with the tour group. Under no circumstances were you allowed to extend your trip in Tibet or leave your group to travel alone. It was also forbidden to bring any articles, books or paraphernalia on the Dalai Lama. We were not allowed to carry prayer flags or photo’s of the Dalai Lama or carry anything on our person that was associated with Buddhism. The reality of what I was doing started to sink in.
Just before I was due to leave Australia the doors to Tibet were once again closed shut. The Chinese had closed Tibet off to all foreigners, forbidding anybody to enter or leave Tibet. I was beginning to think that maybe I wouldn’t get to go there after all. But by the time I left for Nepal everything was open again. I arrived in Kathmandu and met the rest of my group. We had a couple of days of exploring before heading off to Lhasa. On the plane I was feeling excited but also a little apprehensive. I didn’t really know what to expect. On the plane we played travel games and stared in amazement at the landscape thousands of feet below us. Just as we were due to start our descent the pilot announced that due to poor visibility we would be unable to land. We were told that we were being diverted to Chengdu in China. I had to wait another day before I would get to see this fascinating place.
After a somewhat interesting night in Chengdu we were awoken at 3am to prepare for our flight to Lhasa. The airline in compensation had supplied us dinner the night before plus accommodation and breakfast. Unfortunately the dinner had made some of the group sick, the accommodation was dirty and breakfast was inedible. Our enthusiasm at 3am was at a bare minimum. Once on the plane we were given more food that was not only inedible but completely unidentifiable. There was also no choice given and everybody was forced to eat the same thing. All this was forgotten though as we flew over the Himalayas. The view was breathtaking. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more amazing, the peak of Everest appeared seemingly almost high enough to scrap the underside of the plane. I had now forgotten all about my tiredness and hunger and was overtaken with an immense excitement on the adventure I was just about to embark on.
It was a beautifully clear day and we finally started our descent into Lhasa. I sat glued to the window trying to take in absolutely every piece of landscape, every little village, every tree, lake and mountain. My visual senses were overloading. But I was also terrified. Terrified of the regime and Chinese occupation. I wondered how dangerous it was to travel here. I got off the plane and was instantly assaulted by the high altitude. I couldn’t breathe properly and was fairly sure I was walking like a Thunderbird puppet. Standing in the car park waiting for our bus, I started to freak out a little bit. I really couldn’t breathe and felt like I was going to pass out. I kept moving to stand in a different spot as if somehow I could escape the lack of oxygen. I began to doubt my decision in travelling here but it would turn out that it was just the first of many, many hurdles for this trip.
We drove to our hotel which was featured in the Seven Years in Tibet movie starring Brad Pitt (Brad Pitt has been forbidden for ever entering China again for making this movie). We unloaded from the bus and a small Tibetan woman came to take my backpack to my room for me. The bag was bigger than she was and I didn’t feel comfortable with her having to carry it up 2 ladders to the third floor where I was staying. But we had been informed by our guide earlier that we must let them as it is their job and they needed their jobs to survive. Our room was extremely basic. It had the bare necessities and wasn’t very clean and a hot shower was non existent. We went for lunch and then went exploring the streets. It was then that I started to get a glance of what really went on in Tibet. The streets of Lhasa were lined with soldiers standing in groups, gripping their rifles tightly. We had been told by our guide to NOT take photos of them. If we did they would confiscate our cameras or destroy our film. You see, China doesn’t want images of this getting out into the real world. They want us to believe that Tibet is a peaceful and free place but this is far from the case. They were so intimidating that I was too scared to even get my camera out around them.
The Tibetan people stared at us with fascination. Tourists were a rarity here and they seemed intrigued by our presence. Everywhere I looked I saw ancient Tibetan tradition that was struggling to hang on amongst the Chinese infrastructure that was being put into place. We found a cafe that had WiFi and we went there for breakfast every morning and used the WiFi to connect with friends and family back home. At least that was the plan but it turns out it’s not that easy. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Blogger etc are unaccessible. Basically any social media site that allows you freedom of speech is not allowed. A friend on the tour was instant messaging with her boyfriend back in Australia one morning and had told him about the military presence in the streets. She had explained to him about their weapons and general intimidation. A few hours later when we returned to the cafe she could no longer access the internet. It was as if the talk about the military had set off some sort of red flag. She could not access the internet for the rest of her time in Tibet.
We went to visit the Potala Palace and it is one of the most amazing buildings I have ever seen. But as you wonder through the endless unoccupied rooms, the gravity of the situation hits you. Here I was walking through the palace past rooms where the Dalai Lama had held an audience or the room where he slept and yet the Dalai Lama himself was not even allowed here. I was in his house, a house that he was no longer allowed to live in. This brings up feelings of not only sadness, but of complete helplessness. How does an average person help somebody return to his home?
After a few days our time in Lhasa was at an end. It was time to jump in our bus and start the journey back to Kathmandu. Now we would be travelling through small country towns and getting to see the “real” Tibet. First stop was Gyantse where I nearly knocked myself out on a low hanging beam in the Stupa we visited and where we experienced the terrifying shaking of an earthquake. After that we drove on to Shigatse and it was here that we saw the traditional Tibetan homes and the way they truly lived. It was a harsh landscape. Everything seemed so dry and arid. The altitude was almost crippling and the cold chilled you to the bone. But the Tibetans lived out here on the land growing crops to make a living. Driving past we witnessed them out in the fields harvesting. It was all done by hand. They don’t have the luxury of machinery or technology. After cutting the crops by hand they then bundle them up and carry them on their back, their clothes worn and dirty from such hard labour.
We drove on up endless winding roads and over passes that were 5000 metres high in altitude. We stopped at one pass that was just over 5000 metres. There was a huge mountain with a glacier of rock solid ice. The temperature was almost unbearable. Then three Tibetan women appeared out of nowhere. They were dressed in traditional Tibetan costume and offered to have photos taken for ¥10. I was completely dumbfounded. Where did these women come from? We were in the middle of nowhere and it was freezing. It was then that I spied a makeshift tent behind a large rock. Did these women live up here in this climate? Is this truly what they had to do to survive? Then I was hit with a moral dilemma. Did I give them money for a photo or would that be considered exploiting them? They obviously need the money to survive but then am I an ignorant Westerner taking advantage of their situation?
As we travelled on the group became sombre. Us girls had a discussion about it one night in our room. We had trouble understanding the deep depression that was creeping into all of us. Everyday we were confronted with contrasting images of the sheer beauty of the landscape and the look of defeat and oppression that the Tibetans wore on their faces. It was beginning to affect us all. These people were prisoners in their own country and I felt completely helpless. Eventually we made our way to Mt Everest National Park. Once we entered we had to go through three Chinese checkpoints. It would seem that they wanted control over Tibet’s greatest tourist attraction – Mount Everest. We arrived at our campsite and got ready for the 5km walk to Base Camp. We were told by our guide once we reached Base Camp we must catch the bus back. Bus? Yes, it would appear that the Chinese have put in a road all the way to Base Camp. They wanted to capitalise on tourism as much as possible and this included ruining what should be a once in a life time travel experience – walking to Base camp. They had also built a China Post store where you could send postcards and other mail. Whilst they had spent the money on these unnecessary additions to Base Camp, they neglected to spend the money on basic things such as toilets. The toilets were so disgusting that it was more hygienic to wee outside.
We continued our travel through Tibet’s small country towns slowly making our way back to Kathmandu. I was exhausted. The altitude had made me sick. I felt as if I hadn’t slept in weeks. I had a cold and a sinus headache that was threatening to make my head explode. It had been weeks since I had a hot shower or a decent meal. I would randomly burst into tears because this trip was the hardest thing I had ever done. Our accommodation was less than basic and the group was dealing with their own individual feelings of what it was like to experience a place like this. A constant feeling of helplessness consumed me at all times. I suddenly felt guilty about all the luxuries I had at home. Things that we take for granted every single day. Things that people in Tibet have never had the luxury of experiencing. The feeling of travelling through such a place will stay with me forever. It has changed the way I see the world.
Five months after Tibet I was in New York and had just been to see the UN building. I glanced across the street and saw the familiar prayer flags blowing in the breeze. I crossed the road to see what was going on. There was a Tibetan hunger strike in place. A couple of Tibetan men lay in a makeshift bed while others had a petition against the Chinese regime. I got talking to a man from Tibet and he explained what was going on. The men in the bed had not eaten in 26 days. They were trying to get the attention of the UN. I told the man that I had recently been to Tibet and he was completely overwhelmed with gratitude that I had taken the time to visit his country. He thanked me profusely for my support. I signed the petition and so did my friends and family that were travelling with me. I often wonder what happened to those two men that were starving themselves for justice.
So for those of you thinking of travelling to Tibet be warned – it is NOT a tourist destination. Don’t go with illusions that it’s all peaceful and harmonious. Tibetan people are fighting for their lives. They are fighting for their country and their culture. Everyday you will be confronted with images of poverty and oppression. If you do go, go with the intention of helping and raising awareness. The rest of the world needs to know what really goes on there. When I returned home I joined Free Tibet. The photos that I took there (that are causing so much controversy on Twitter) are being shared to show the beauty of an ancient culture that is being destroyed by the Chinese. The proceeds from each Tibetan photo I sell goes to Free Tibet. So are the activists on Twitter right? Am I promoting travel to a “prison”? I think I will leave it in the words of the Dalai Lama:
“Go to Tibet and see many places, as much as you can, then tell the world”