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. Continue reading
Imagine my surprise when the tour company sent me an email where the first sentence began with, “Tibet is closed…” My first thought was scam, but I decided to do a little research and to my relief and disbelief, Tibet is indeed closed to foreign travelers EVERY year for the months of February and March. Really. This closure isn’t advertised, nor can you find it on any official websites. In fact, if you call and talk with someone at the Tibet Tourism Bureau, they’ll tell you that Tibet has never been closed to visitors.
A little background: The closure is a result of civil unrest that occurred in March 2008 when certain sensitive anniversaries are recognized. Specifically, Tibet Uprising Day occurs on March 10th to commemorate the armed uprising that occurred in March 1959. The uprising resulted in a violent crackdown in Lhasa and the Dalai Lama fleeing to India on March 30, 1959, where he has been in exile ever since. Because of these anniversaries, the Chinese government closes Tibet and I’m sure the official reason is for public safety. However, I suspect the government is also trying to give Tibetans less of an audience by keeping out anyone with a camera. Continue reading