20 February 2007

Free Tibet, And Then Some

Only three days here and I’m really starting to see why Richard Gere and Sandra Bernhard are so committed to the Tibet issue (and why Brad Pitt would have spent seven years here). While Lhasa is fascinating and there are no words to describe the country’s (yes, I called it a country) beauty, the more I learn the angrier I seem to become. Actually, I think it’s more disappointment than anything. I came to China and fell in love with the people, the culture and the energy, but what China has done to Tibet is despicable and unforgivable. Every place, sign and street has a story that somehow involves oppression.

It started when we first arrived and I noticed that the store signs were trilingual – Tibetan, Chinese and English. Impressive, yes, but on closer inspection I noticed that the Tibetan (the native language of about 95% of Lhasa’s population) was written in extremely tiny characters along the top of the sign. The Chinese characters were ENORMOUS and the English was slightly smaller than the Chinese. “Oh, it is law that all store signs must have Chinese characters in the center and they must be at least twice as large as the Tibetan,” Diki told me. Super. Then it was the street signs. When China “liberated” (that’s what the Chinese and all their historic records call the fifty-year period when Chinese soldiers entered Tibet and ransacked every Buddhist structure except the Potola Palace. We might call it “conquered” or “brutally destroyed” but hey, “liberated” works too) Tibet in 1959 they renamed every street in Lhasa to something very “revolutionary” like “Beijing Avenue” and “Mao Lane.” The signs have characters and pinyin then in microscopic letters, Tibetan. Of course, most Tibetans can’t read Chinese and continue to refer to the streets by their original name. Awesome, Mao. Awesome.

Then came our tour of the Drepung Monastery. Before the Cultural Revolution it housed 7000 monks and was the largest Buddhist monastery in the world. Now, thanks to government-imposed restrictions, only 500 monks are allowed to live at Drepung. A majority of the complex remains in ruins, with PLA soldiers wandering through to make sure things are “in order.”

We found the same was true at the Sera Monastery, which, at 1300 years old, is the oldest Buddhist monastery in Lhasa. Before the Cultural Revolution it housed 5000 monks. The Chinese government now limits residency to 400. They continue to carry out their daily debates over Buddha’s scriptures, only now PLA soldiers are in attendance. There was one saving grace here, however. High atop the hill sits a Buddhist nunnery, home to 27 nuns. The Chinese army found it too difficult to hike the mountain (so totally Chinese), so they just let it be. Great determination guys!

Of course, the heartache doesn’t stop there. Next we toured the Summer Palace, where the Dali Lama spent the warmer months before being exiled to India in 1959. This sign appeared at the entrance:

Again with the whole liberation thing, as if the Dali Lama was just such an ass and wouldn’t share the park grounds with devout Buddhists. I’m still unsure as to what they mean by “restored.” Apparently that refers to allowing Budweiser to set up an enormous bar just feet from where the Dali Lama – the head of the Buddhist faith and believed to be a reincarnation of God himself – used to lay his head.

Or maybe they’re referring to the zoo, which promised this:

Instead, we got this:

The zoo was six cement cages for the brown bears and deer, a monkey pit full of soda cans and beer bottles (that the monkeys were drinking), a really pissed off lion, and a clinically depressed tiger, not to mention this black bear who was just begging us to let him out:

I must have missed the Ferris wheel and rollercoaster, as well as the happy animals. Nice job “liberating” and “restoring.”

Then today we left the city to visit one of Tibet’s three holy lakes, all at an elevation of over 15000 feet. The drive was spectacular and the views were full of unmatched beauty. The lake itself was sadly covered in snow, masking its green and blue iridescent brilliance but even still, it took my breath away. Once again, the Chinese found a way to taint this. Diki informed us that the Chinese government built a dam in the lake, draining it out day by day. In ten years it may be completely gone. She also told us about her Chinese tourist guests, who insist on washing their feet in the holy water. “I explain it is holy water and that this is not allowed, but they just tell me that it is China and they can do what they want, then they don’t stop.”

This new train route seems to be at the heart of the problem. “It’s cheap for the Chinese and the government gives them money to move here. Since it opened crime in the city has doubled and more and more Chinese tourists have come. I don’t really like it.” This, of course, left me feeling rather guilty, as I supported this new endeavor, though at least my aunt and I are touring responsibly.

On the way back we stopped in a small village, wandered around and shared some western treats with the adorable children. In fact, when we pulled out some Oreo’s they FORMED A LINE to make sure everybody got one. That act alone should be enough evidence to indicate that Tibetans are definitely not Chinese, never have been and never will be. We also learned from Diki that every house must, by law, fly the Chinese flag or risk being fined. The Tibetan flag is banned, as are pictures of the 14th Dali Lama, “but I still have one in secret,” Diki told us. The Chinese government has been gracious enough to build schools, but they require that students learn in Chinese, which nobody can read or speak, making it impossible for many to get an education. It’s like this constant effort to oppress an entire ethnic group. China, if you don’t like them THAT MUCH, then why don’t you just let them go? Instead of trying to rub them out and dampen their spirits (because I can assure you that will never happen) just give them their country and religion and be done with it.

The final straw came upon our return to Lhasa. We stopped once more in front of the Potola Palace so I could get a few more pictures. This time, we were let out on the “Central City Square” side. This square was obviously built by the Chinese and was reinforced with granite slabs so they could roll tanks across it. At the far end stands the “Monument to the Glorious Liberation of the People of Tibet and its Return to The People’s Republic of China.” It sits directly in front of the Potola Palace. “Yeah, nothing is supposed to be built in front of the Palace because it is disrespectful to Buddha and the Dali Lama (by the way, the 14th Dali Lama’s selection to become the 15th Dali Lama miraculously disappeared in 1995, along with his family. Luckily, the Chinese government quickly chose an alternate without consent from number fourteen). I think the Chinese knew this when they build this thing,” Diki told us. I’m sure they knew, and I’m sure they did it on purpose. It’s just appalling what they have done to these people and this land, and the reaction from the international community has been abysmal. Of course, that’s no surprise. The US still has yet to acknowledge Taiwan as an independent nation, despite it being one of the only full-fledged democracies in the region. How could we? We don’t want to anger China and potentially harm Wal-Mart’s third quarter profit margins! After all, it’s just a little island nation and a few oppressed Tibetans in some remote part of the world, right?

Despite everything, their spirit never wanes. Robin and I were lucky enough to be here for Tibetan New Year (which they have only been allowed to celebrate for the past eight years) and let me tell you, you ain’t seen a party til’ you seen a Tibetan New Year Party. It looked and sounded like we were in the middle of a war zone, there were so many fires and explosions. After a skyrocket zoomed between our heads we decided inside might be a little bit safer. I had only one thought on my mind: get somewhere high. Elevator to the top floor (funny story. We’ve been here three days now and had no idea there was an elevator until this afternoon. When we arrived the bellhop carried our bags up the stairs, which made us think there wasn’t an elevator, leaving us huffing and puffing four and five times a day. Oops). Anyway, now we were on the top floor and the view was incredible. Still, all I could think was: get somewhere higher.

I wandered down a side hallway, around a corner, behind the bar and up some secret stairs, eventually ending up in a “VIP Room” (according to the sign on the door) that had a 270-degree view of the city. The show was brilliant. Fireworks in every direction as far as the eye could see. Blues, yellows, greens, reds, oranges and purples filled the night sky for a solid two hours, a perfect representation of the spirit of these people.

Their kindness and commitment is inspiring. Their hope is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Despite all the suffering, oppression and chaso, they remain hopeful for a brighter future. Diki is a perfect example of this. “We have faith that the Dali Lama will return soon and Tibet can be itself once again. He will come. I know he will come.” I certainly hope he does. I can’t even imagine the type of fireworks extravaganza that would follow, but I’d love to be here to see it.


Rockwell said...

Brave stuff filing this from inside.

Travel can be revelatory. I've learned the romantacism often attached to the hype of Communist regimes comes crashing down upon personal inspection.

Kyle Taylor, Global Citizen said...

How true that is! It sounds great, the whole "People's This" & "People's That," but then it doesn't really carry too much weight. More details once I'm back on the outside...

Anonymous said...

You can still see Tibetan writings in Lhasa, that's wonderful. Now, I couldn't find any Native Americans' writing while I visited the U.S. What happen? Are they extinct already?

As for Tibet, I'm not sure you can visit the Potala Palace if Dalai (or Dali if you like) Lama still in power, it is exclusively for the elite of the feudal regime. Now, if you also learn a little bit of history, the last Panchen Lama was a supporter of the "liberation."

Anonymous said...

Hey, anonymous!
RE: Lack of Native American writing. You really show your ignorance! All Native languages in the USA were non-literate languages (meaning they did not have an alphabet nor any way to write the language) until the 1800s when systems were developed to write some of the languages (e.g. Cherokee alphabet or use of Latin alphabet for Navajo, etc.) Apologists for the Chinese oppression are akin to those who pointed out how good Hitler was for the Jews, Poles, etc.