It seemed innocent enough—two monks talking and laughing with an Asian foreigner, asking questions in broken English about me and the U.S. However, the tone quickly changed as they exchanged some furtive glances and motioned for me to follow them. We found ourselves in a side street off the main road through Lhasa, sitting on some steps in front of what appeared to be an older abandoned residence constructed in the Tibetan style. Satisfied with my answers about the U.S. and that I wasn’t a Chinese spy, they proceeded to ask me about news of the Dalai Lama. Since I hadn’t been keeping up on his whereabouts, I told them he had written some books while in exile in India and then reached into my daypack and pulled out photos of him. Their smiles quickly changed as they looked around wondering if they might be watched, slipped the photos into their burgundy robes, and thanked me profusely. One of the monks reached into his man-purse and offered me a blessing wrapped in a prayer flag. Accepting with both hands, I bowed slightly out of respect. He saw the journal I was holding, pulled out a pen and motioned to see it. Handing it to him, he wrote a street address in both Chinese and English. I wrote my email address on another slip of paper and gave it to him. We never contacted each other again even though I considered it many times. I snapped a picture of the two of them, exchanged goodbyes, and went our separate directions. The entire interaction took less than 15 minutes, but the experience still stays with me nearly 16 years later. That was Tibet in 2000, decades after the Chinese occupation, but before the revolts in 2009. Some things such as the spying on the Tibetan people haven’t changed. Many other aspects have changed dramatically.
Should you visit Tibet?
That was a question that I considered for months before actually deciding to visit again. I knew Sheri wanted to see what I experienced many years ago, as did my sister and brother-in-law, but I knew that it wouldn’t be the same place I visited before. The Chinese occupation of Tibet has brought modern conveniences to the area, including paved roads, high-rise apartments, improved agriculture and irrigation, clean water and sanitary sewers, widely available cellular coverage, and daily train service from major Chinese cities. All this made me wonder, is the money we’re spending actually getting into the hands of the locals and benefitting them? Sure, there are Tibetans like the Vichy French who collaborated with the occupying Germans in exchange for favorable treatment, but were the Tibetan people as a whole really better off?
Despite outward appearances and the attempt by the Chinese government to put a happy face on the Tibetan people, not everything was beneficial for Tibet. The culture and even the people themselves have been slowly sublimated by the Chinese. Every building and every utility pole was adorned with at least one, if not two, Chinese flags. The government certainly didn’t want you to forget who occupied this “autonomous” region. Large statues of contorted Chinese figures celebrating some event reminiscent of Mao-era propaganda occupy neglected public spaces where nobody goes. For most people, there is no reason to celebrate. Signs are written in large Chinese characters with a smaller Tibetan Sanskrit version above it. Architecture has been primarily the sterile-looking monolithic Chinese buildings and only just recently adopted more of the local Tibetan facades in the new structures. Good paying jobs with more potential income are often only available to the Chinese who moved to the area in exchange for concessions from the Chinese government. Intermarriage between Chinese and Tibetans is encouraged.
What I thought was unusual 16 years ago, has now become the norm. Dissent has been squelched, monks have been nearly outlawed, and foreign tourists are even more strictly regulated. Surveillance cameras are nearly everywhere. Tourists and guides are watched and recorded during their entire tour. Cameras and microphones in our van recorded everything that occurred and everything that was said while we drove from place to place. It wouldn’t have surprised me if our hotel rooms were also bugged. Our arrival into Lhasa and even simply driving between cities required several police checks of our passports and travel permits. The government tracked our movement and wanted to know exactly where we were all the time.
We gave up our privacy when we entered the country and its effect almost immediately began to contaminate our psyche. We were only in Tibet for a week and didn’t realize just how oppressed we felt until we left the country and felt a palpable sense of relief. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to live there and have that experience every day.
Should you visit Tibet knowing all this occurs? That depends on how comfortable you are with the knowledge of this reality. I would still encourage going, if only to see for yourself and be a testament to what is happening to Tibetan culture before it disappears completely and becomes just another Chinese park attraction or dusty museum exhibit.
A good tour company is hard to find
Since foreign travel is highly regulated, booking through a tour company is the only way to enter Tibet. We booked our tour with Great Tibet Tour, Tibet Roof Of World International Travel Co. Ltd. It would be great if the tour company was operated exclusively by Tibetans, but too often there is a Chinese partner involved. I still don’t know where our money really went, to the Tibetans or the Chinese. It’s not an easy distinction. What I do know is that our Tibetan guide did his best to show us his country in the best possible way. He was enthusiastic about his culture, the religion, and their spiritual leaders. It was just unfortunate that the tour company and people in that office who organized our tour didn’t know what was happening at the sites we were visiting.
All too often, large parts of temples and monasteries were closed for renovations or repairs. Sometimes the entire site or route was closed. It could have been because we scheduled our trip so soon after the entire region reopened after being closed for two months to foreigners, but for the tour company to not know about the closures at major tourist sites is a failure to communicate and is unacceptable. At one point, we walked nearly a kilometer uphill to the Gyantse Fort to find the gate locked and nobody there.
It was bad enough that a year after the earthquake that struck Nepal and the Himalayas, the highway from Tibet into Nepal was still closed and we were forced to make expensive alternate flight arrangements. However, not being able to see or do what was on our agreed upon itinerary felt like we were getting cheated by the tour company and given a second-rate visit. Our guide did his best and tried to be flexible taking us to alternate tourist sites, but it was still disappointing to miss some of the major sites on our original itinerary without compensation.
In addition to the botched itinerary, our tour company made it extremely difficult to pay for our trip. They didn’t accept major credit cards and the only way to pay them a deposit was through PayPal or a wire transfer. Neither method offered any assurances that we would receive what we paid for or that we had some recourse if we did not. Added to that inconvenience was an additional 3% that we were made to pay to use PayPal. That was a cost they should have eaten for making us jump through hoops. The final payment was cash only, and since we weren’t carrying huge amounts of U.S. dollars, that meant several trips to an ATM to get the necessary amount of Chinese currency. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but convenience and customer service isn’t really an attribute of this tour company.
Finally, there’s our Chinese driver. He was extremely friendly and very helpful with our bags and making sure we had our daily allotment of drinking water, but that was the extent of his helpfulness. Because of a major accident involving some Chinese professors, the government implemented roadside checkpoints to clock tour drivers and make sure they aren’t speeding. Our driver was always speeding, dangerously passing cars and buses on hairpin turns and around blind curves, and then needed to stop before the next checkpoint to adjust his overall speed. He used those opportunities as his smoking break. Mario Andretti Wong seemed more concerned with racing up or down the mountain to his next smoke break than with our safety or comfort. He never once asked if we were cold or hot and needed heat or ventilation. He drove around corners and over speed bumps with a total lack of regard to how we were tossed about. He was careless, nearly running over a woman on a scooter, causing her to flip her bike, and acting as if he wasn’t at fault when it was obvious to everyone he caused the accident. He also ran over a small puppy in a parking lot and left it for dead as it suffered from its injuries. I really don’t see how he could have received his driver’s license or why he continues to have one.
Because of these issues, I really can’t recommend the company we used. There are better tour companies out there. It’s just a matter of finding one.
A few things to remember
You are no longer free to say what you think nor do as you please once you enter China. In China, you are subject to Chinese law so you should be aware of a few things.
Because of the revolts that occurred in the past, Tibet is closed during the anniversary months of February and March every year to all foreigners. April is not a good time to go since it’s difficult to get the necessary permits so soon after the region opens.
Your tour company in Tibet must arrange for your Tibet Travel Permit before you will be allowed to board a flight or train to Tibet, or cross the border from Nepal. They will need to either courier the documents to you or scan and email them. You must keep these with you at all times until you join with your tour company.
You must have a Chinese visa prior to visiting Tibet. If you need to obtain a Chinese visa, do not mention Tibet as part of your plans. You could be denied a visa. You may have to fabricate an itinerary if asked to produce one.
Do not mention the Dalai Lama while in Tibet. Even the mere mention has resulted in deportation for some tourists.
Do not carry contraband or questionable materials into Tibet, including anything with images of the Dalai Lama, books by or about the Dalai Lama, or Tibetan flags. You could be deported or arrested for sedition.
Assume that you are being watched and listened to at all times no matter where you’re at. Not just electronically, but also by people around you. Avoid being critical of the Chinese government and its leaders.
Be careful where you point your camera. Do not photograph any government person or place, or at least be discrete about it.
Try to enjoy yourself despite being constantly monitored and surrounded by an oppressed populace. For me, this was probably the most difficult thing to do.
Visit the galleries on my photography site to see more photos of Tibet. I had so many photos, I had to separate them into different galleries for different parts of Tibet.