Our travel begins in Tibet, lands of Buddhism and word highest peaks. We wanted to meet that culture, known for their high altitudes and spiritual wealth, still rooted in its traditions but undergoes a profound upheaval of society.
In order to understand correctly the current situation of Tibet, it is necessary to watch attentively the history of this population. We can consider the beginning of a Tibetan kingdom on 7th century, when the Yarlung dynasty unified a clear and independent territory. During thirteen centuries and until 1950, Tibet has known several periods of isolation and politic instability.
In 1950, the People’s Liberation Army of China set off a military intervention and invaded Tibet. Two provinces (Kham and Amdo) of the old Tibet were completely integrated to China, and one administrative area was created as the Autonomous Region of Tibet. These events mark, for the first time, the beginning of a social and economic transformation that leads the Buddhist decentralized regime to a modern socialist state, under the authority of Beijing Government. Thus, this leads quickly to the apparition of a national feeling against threats on religious institutions and on the traditional way of life.
After bomb drops in 1959 in the capital of Tibet, the 14th Dalaï-Lama ran away from Lhasa to the North of India with the help of the CIA.
Today, the government in exile still claims the sovereignty of the “Great Tibet”. At its height, this Tibetan cultural area covered 1/3 of the current Chinese territory.
Through our eyes
We were greeted in Lhasa in a relatively tense context: a lot of police control in the train between Beijing and Lhasa, high military presence in Lhasa, special permit required (journalists and diplomates are not allowed to come) and obligation to be accompanied… After long researches, we choose a 100% Tibetan owned agency committed to environment and social issues : Tibet Highland Tours (https://tibethighlandtours.com/category/social-initiatives/).
Arriving in Lhasa, one thing is directly visible: there is a high economic development. A clear large works policy is implemented here and allows to unblock Chinese cities. A lot of new residential buildings, road and rail infrastructures are being built. The China government is really award of the economic potential of Tibet. A third of China water resources would come from Tibet and the Himalayan plateau represent potentially significant resources for China (gas, coal, gold…). That is why, China maintains a strong ‘colonization’ policy, especially in Lhasa: an irreversible assimilation process. Today, less than 5 to 8 % of the inhabitants are natives Tibetans. What is ironic is that Chinese people cannot provide manual works on high altitudes, so they have to employ Tibetans.
Beyond being an economic stake, Tibet is an important geopolitical location for China. Indeed, some territories and politic conflicts with India make Tibet a highly strategic place. That is why ¼ of the Chinese nuclear arsenal is apparently located there. Furthermore, the owning of Tibetans glaciers and rivers allows to control irrigator rivers such as the Gange, Mékong, l’Indus…
Tourism is the major source of income in the country, behind yack breeding and agriculture. This business sector is also largely promoted by China. The goal is to make Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as the prime tourism destination for Chinese middle class. Because it is sacred sites for Tibetan and also because it is tourist-attraction, monasteries destroyed by the Red Army in 20th century are re-build, others religious monuments are conserved and well-protected. That is why, we met a lot of Chinese tourists during our trip. On the contrary, western tourists were not numerous because of the administrative difficulties. It costs and it is a long way to obtain the permit, but it is worth it !
The purity and the beauty of the Tibetan spirit, that is what we discovered during our trip. “Be virtuous before be talented”, that sums up the Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. We were impressed by the complexity and depth of Tibetan Buddhism, whose erudition extends from philosophy, to science, history… We were witness of the endless devotion of that population to the religion. Beyond the physical limits, old ladies bow down along sacred path around temples, that shows how faith is strongly establish in the daily life of Tibetan people. Tolerance, justice and equity are values advocated in Buddhist religion. We often could feel it strongly during our tour: Tibetan people were very welcoming, ready to help us and start a discussion despite the language boundary, we exchanged lot of smiles…
Tibetan culture heritage is maintained thanks to old people who transmit their knowledges and beliefs to their families. All our 5 senses were captivated by this authentic culture. Vision with lot of colors thanks to beautiful traditional clothes and religious ornamentations. Smell, with the incent in Lhasa streets every morning. Touch thanks to the softness of the fabrics. Hearing by the noise in Lhasa city and the calming silence in mountains. Finally, taste with tasty yack meat, sweet tea, yummy momos.
Today, the conservation of Tibetan culture heritage is strengthened thanks to the touristic development, but it seems also that there is a strong cultural oppression. The red flag with five stars at the top of the Potala Palace, former residence of the Dalaï-Lama today in exile, is the symbol of Chinese rule over Tibet. Pictures of the current Dalaï-Lama or of the Tibetan flag are severely prohibited. Almost all the most important monasteries are strictly controlled by policemen inside. One of the hardest surveillance measures against Tibetans is the limitation of the mobility. Tibetans must ask and pay for a special permit if they want to settle down to another city. Moreover, it is very hard to get a passport for a Tibetan if he couldn’t show his allegiance and support to China.
As a foreigner of China visiting Tibet, these security rules were even more strict. For example, our local contact had to warn the police of our presence to each city we passed through during our trip: there was a lot of pressure on him because it is a very political job. Another example, an English man who was piloting a drone on Potala Square while he was not allowed to. His passport was blocked, he was interrogated by the police and they called his embassy. We also saw how the road between Lhasa and the Everest Base Camp, near the border with Nepal, is controlled: more than one military checkpoint every hour driving. Every tourist is controlled during the night with a flashlight to check if he is still in the base camp.
In the end, compared to his neighbor Nepal, Tibet has a quick development illustrated by new roads and infrastructures. But this economic growth is paid at the cost of a progressive cultural dilution. The important question to raise is what will happened when the current Dalaï-Lama will die. Is the Tibetan people will accept a new Dalaï-Lama named by China or will there be two Tibet: one exiled and another under Chinese domination? And which future for the Tibetan culture? How far goes the right to the self-determination of a people?