Wednesday, April 23, 2014


The smiling young Chinese border guard asked us "Do you have any books?"  We paused, as the enormity of the question drove home what we were about to experience for 10 days.  We have crossed many borders during the past two years.  In some, guards are searching for drugs and, as in Bolivia, the body searches can be very complete.  In others, such as Australia,  guards are seeking to prevent introduced species from wrecking fragile ecosystems.  Almost all are seeking to exclude dangerous weapons such as explosives or firearms.  As we stared at the young uniformed man before us, we realized with dawning sadness that books, ideas, and access to global social networks are the most dangerous imports into Tibet.

Tibet, or the rooftop of the world, has an interesting history including periods of jostling for independence from Monguls, Chinese, Thais, Nepalese and the British.  While it has experienced war, during the last two to three hundred years, it's people were better known for their study of philosophy, meditation, sentience, and the nature of existence.  Prior to 1950, Tibet was an autonomous nation with a rich Buddhist culture where most families had at least one son or daughter who were dedicated monks or nuns.  Thousands of monasteries existed; even small villages of a few houses far away on the vast Tibetan Plateau had their own small monasteries or nunneries decorated with prayer flags, food offerings, and incense.  Tibet had a history of isolation which led to a very strong and unique cultural identity which was only gradually allowing change in the middle part of the 20th century.  All that changed when 40,000 armed Chinese invaded in 1950.  By 1959, the embodiment of their God of Compassion, the 14th Dalai Lama, had to flee to India, in all probability never to
return again.  Even possessing an image of him is illegal in Tibet.  Most of Tibet's senior religious leaders are exiles.  Tibet was particularly impacted by Mao's cultural revolution and for a decade beginning in 1966, almost every one of the tens of thousands of monasteries were destroyed, monks and nuns were killed, imprisoned, or forced to marry, and people were forbidden to practice their faith.  In the decades that followed, there has been a slow return to allowing some freedom of religious expression; however, Tibet is now occupied by hundreds of thousands Han Chinese immigrants who have been encouraged with significant salaries, interest free business loans, and prominent positions to help modernize the "backward" Chinese province. Meanwhile, most Tibetans continue to experience many barriers to economic, political, and cultural power. The Tibetan quarter of the almost mythical city of Lhasa currently occupies less than 5% of the capital.  Lhasa is a modern Chinese city with scattered hints of its past cultural prominence.

We were surprised at the level of constraint and monitoring we observed.  In a trip of over a thousand miles, we rarely traveled for an hour without multiple stops by Chinese police and military who examined our visa, passports, and our guide's and driver's identification papers.  Getting permission to visit Tibet can be challenging with the country's borders frequently being closed to all foreigners.  When open, the rules change each year about which country is allowed visas, what group compositions can be allowed, which areas may be visited.  We asked one day to deviate from our approved path by 1.6 miles and were told how we could
not as the police would stop us.  Passports are required to access the web from internet caf├ęs or to check into hotels or visit tourist sites such as the Mt. Everest base camp.  Getting on the Internet, where email and other communication is monitored, was not very productive.  All social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Words with Friends, YouTube, etc. are blocked.  Chillingly, so are education sites with web addresses ending in .edu.  Uploading photos, documents, or credit card payments are all blocked as are downloading items.  No Amazon Kindle books here!  Cameras were everywhere, as were the riot police, police guards, metal detectors, and plain clothes agents.  Taking photos of the police, soldiers or guards is a serious offense in Tibet and could lead to a visitor's expulsion from the country.  The result is very disturbing for people raised in a free society.  We found mainland China to appear to be a freer society.  The decades of oppression are obvious as current Tibetan culture is a fragment of its former glory.  Our guide's language was peppered each day with the phrase "That is impossible" and we were to come to realize how limited his possibilities were.  While we faced censorship, he faced a lifetime of constraints.  However, he thought of himself as lucky, knowing his parents had faced much more.

In the end, despite more than 6 decades of Chinese occupation, we met some of the most passionate pilgrims, free nomads, and kind souls we have encountered on the planet.  Our next blog entry will describe the wonders that remain embedded within the people and place known as Tibet.

Posted from Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Images are of a Tibetan pilgrim completing a circuit in Lhasa; monks from the Sera Monastery who are currently allowed to practice their Buddhist religion; and of the ever present Chinese riot police marching below the silent and empty Potala, home of the exiled Dalai Lama.


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  2. Sally and Jess, thank you for sharing this post. It's so easy to take our freedoms for granted. I know that protecting our freedom to read, watch,live and speak, no matter our individual disparity, is of utmost importance-- essential.

    It must feel sad and oppressive at times in your travels.

  3. Thanks for being our eyes and ears in this excellent first hand look. Sadly, oppression like this is nothing new, but then neither is the presence of "passionate pilgrims, free nomads and kind souls" in spite of it all. If history is any guide, those people always outlive tyranny in the end. Let's be that!