Last Day in Lhasa

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July 9th 2010
Published: July 11th 2010EDIT THIS ENTRY

Today I go back to Shanghai. I slept in a bit, then went to Summit Cafe for my usual coffee and cinnamon roll. I fly back to Shanghai at 3:40. I just met a girl from Kentucky in the cafe! What a small world! She and her husband have been teaching in China and are now going back home to return to school.

Some reflections on Tibet:

I won't get too political here because I know that is not what is about, and I've only experienced a small part of Tibet so I am certainly no expert. But, that said, much of what I've seen leaves me sad and confused. I wish I could have come here 15 years ago, or even 20, when I think it was still Tibet. There is a definite Chinese influence here and there are definitely more Chinese people in Lhasa and Shigatse than there are Tibetians. The typical rows of Chinese shops are everywhere as are the umbrella-toting Chinese.

I see Tibetian people everywhere, don't get me wrong. But they are either old people circling the Jokhang and Potala with their prayer wheels or they are sitting at their souvenir stands
Lhasa ApartmentsLhasa ApartmentsLhasa Apartments

Many buildings in Lhasa have this same design on the windows.
trying to sell jewelry and junk made in China to the Chinese. When they see a Western person, they definitely want us to take a look at what they have, but they are not pushy. Some are desperate though, and I hear it in their voice. It is heartbreaking. I bought some of that jewelry made in China simply because the Tibetian woman selling it was not only lovely, but so genuine and I think she genuinely believed that what she was selling was unique. It wasn't, but she was. I told her her skin was beautiful, and it was. She said no, no, that my white skin was much better. The grass is always greener...

The people selling the souvenirs are actually so plentiful they block the route the pilgrims must take to circle Jokhang Temple. There is a patience and a calmness about the Tibetian people that the Chinese simply don't have. I can walk in their shops, where there are truly unique things made in Tibet, and they let me look to my heart's content, and when I leave empty handed I thank them and smile, and they thank me and smile.

On route to Shigatse, we stopped at some viewpoints and there were always Tibetian people there selling cheap jewelry. It is the same jewelry I see when I walk down Hong Mei Lu next to my apartment in Shanghai. Some of it is beautiful, made with glass or stones. But it is Chinese. And these people are poor villagers who are desperate to sell. I can't help but wonder what they did before the Chinese came, or would be doing, if the Chinese had never come to Tibet some 50 years ago. I saw plenty of people working in the fields - tea, vegetables, they can even grow small watermelons in greenhouses now. Would everyone be doing this just to survive if the Chinese had never come?

On the drive to Shigatse, I also saw fields and fields of yellow flowers. I asked Pussang what these were for. They are to give to Buddha, he said. And the ones that wilt or die are fed to the cattle. Buddha. I saw a lot of temples and monasteries here in Tibet, some totally rebuit after the Cultural Revolution, some hundreds of years old. They all had one thing in common. Opulence. Buddhism is not a modest religion and I believe it asks a lot of its believers. In each temple there were thousands of RMB just laying around as offerings to different lhamas or gods. There was yak butter burning, liters and liters of it. This is a staple food for the Tibetians. There was dried fruit, candy, liters of milk, fresh fruit, and all manner of things presented to Buddha on the alters. I saw hundreds of people - dirty and thin and gaunt and poor - waiting in line to give Buddha food, yak butter, scarves, and money. Money. Sometimes 5 or 10 yuan. A Tibetian can eat for two days on less than 10 yuan. I was amazed. From what I can see in Tibet, Buddha takes a lot from his believers and gives very little in return. But perhaps eating a meal is not as important as inner peace.

I am not a believer in Buddhism, so perhaps this observation is easy for me to make. But I saw a lot of people donating their lives to Buddhism even though they are not monks. Monks are provided for. They have a place to sleep, food to eat, books to study. But those who are not chosen (the Chinese government limits the number of monks that can live at each monastery) to be monks but still choose to donate their lives to Buddha are destined for a life of poverty as far as I can see. But again, perhaps that inner peace is enough for them.

The little bit of Tibet that I saw has convinced me they will never be free from China. They don't have the power, education, or gumption to even fight back because they believe so strongly in peace. The Chinese, however, don't care. The majority of Chinese people care only for China and their own. Tibet is part of China now, but the Tibetians are not. They can travel freely to China with no visa, but they cannot travel freely within their own country. We stopped at multiple checkpoints where my guide and driver had to check in, not me, the foreigner. Of course, I had a permit to travel to certain areas and that permit had to be signed at each place I visited. My guide took care of that. I am also not free to go where I want in Tibet. No foreigner is. But no Tibetian is either.

I didn't discuss the Chinese occupation with the Tibetian people, but I can tell they don't like it. There are Chinese soldiers marching in groups of 6 or 8 through the streets of Lhasa and every town in Tibet. There are Chinese soldiers on the tops of buildings holding big guns and watching the people down below. There are frequent checkpoints along the roads fully stocked with Chinese soldiers and policemen, but they cannot read or speak English. This is where the Tibetians have an advantage. They learn Chinese, Tibetian, and English in the schools. The Chinese government has not yet put a stop to this, and I imagine they won't because English is taught in so many of their local schools in China. Perhaps the current government is open-minded enough to allow them to continue to study the Tibetian language as well. It is nothing like Chinese.

I feel pity and sadness for the Tibetian people, yet I do not know how they would survive and prosper without the Chinese. What would they do? They would have no money to spend and so few jobs here. Tibet is a conundrum, definitely. The situation here is much like the situation between Israel and Palestine, only it gets less media coverage and there is no fighting. The Tibetians have no military and no weapons. How can they fight back? With arguments for peace and basic human rights? The Chinese don't care about either of these things, in my opinion.

That is enough ranting for me. I am ready to go home. Not to Shanghai, but to my home. A place that is far from perfect, but at least I understand it. And I am free to go where I want.


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