It had been my intention to continue publishing regular blogs, but then I got sucked into the relaxing good times of Railay, Thailand and my attention span for blogging dropped dramatically. Seven years ago I visited Railay, and it was really the only spot I wanted to revisit when Aimee and I came to Thailand two weeks ago. It’s an amazing peninsula on the south western side of Thailand – close to Koh Phi Phi – with few people, gorgeous beaches and towering limestone cliffs. Our time here has been a big departure from how we have travelled the previous month and a half, and the first time we could really say “we’re on vacation”.
I believe my last blog left off as we were headed to Tibet, which was a grueling two day train ride from Chengdu, China. We arrived to an unseasonable wind storm, which kicked dirt and grime into our faces and left me with my first “tan” of the trip. We had to change gears immediately from independent travel to tour travel upon arrival, as Tibet can only be visited through a tour group. This was a policy strictly enforced in and around the Beijing Olympics and has remained in place ever since. China is very sensitive to outsiders and their attempts to display political messages to the world - or the local populace - with regards to a free or independent Tibet; forcing tours adds a measure of security to preventing these outward displays. The reason is simple: if I were to brandish a Tibetan flag and yell and scream about a free Tibet I would be promptly arrested and kicked out of the country, but that would be the end of it. China wouldn’t want an international incident after all. My poor guide however would be held accountable for the long term consequences of my actions, which could result in up to seven years in jail. He would not warrant an international incident, he would simply disappear. So, my potential guilt restrains my potential actions and the Chinese policy is a success.
Tibet is an occupied nation: riot patrols of Chinese military make regular circuits through the streets, large military conveys snake through the mountain valleys and check points verifying identity cards abound. The Chinese soldiers are in their late teens or early twenties. If you look at the whites of their eyes you’ll notice that most are bloodshot from excessive drink and their cheeks are reddened for the same reason. There is very little for them to do except play soldier, play basketball and drink. They are for the most part children; children with big guns. My only direct contact with the Chinese military was at a checkpoint on the way to Everest, where I was selected at random for a bag search. It took only a moment to realize that the search was for show only, so myself and one of the other tour participants attempted to teach them how to say “Sorry for the inconvenience”, which was a disaster but broke the awkward tension into giggles on their part. They are after all children; children with big guns.
To the Chinese people the official position is that they liberated Tibet. Who from? We’re not entirely sure, but they were “liberated”. I suppose it was the same sort of liberation that the Native Americans suffered at the hands of Europeans during the colonization of North America: liberation from their lives, their culture, their land and their resources. Tibet is a mineral rich nation with a strong religious foundation in Buddhism. During the “Peaceful Liberation” of Tibet in the 1950’s (or thereabouts) China was deeply concerned about the religious hold that the monks and Buddhism held over the Tibetan people. In China the decision making process is accomplished by the state. It’s not like the middle east, where state and the church are effectively the same, or North America where there’s the state and the advertised illusion of church separation. For them it’s just state, and China is very conscious of religious influence in its affairs, to use the words of a Chinese general of the time “Religion is poison”. Thus, destroying the hold religion had over the Tibetan people was viewed as paramount for the successful takeover of Tibet and eventual integration with China in the 1950’s (or thereabouts). This was pursued with much vigour through violent atrocity after violent atrocity for decades resulting in thousands upon thousand dead and countless religious sites and artifacts destroyed. But, the Dhali Lhama escaped to India and the Tibetan people survived with their belief system intact till the court of international opinion eventually forced China to change its violent ways. Though Tibet is occupied, violent clashes with the military are rare. This does not mean that China has given up controlling the Tibetan population they have just changed tactics and elongated the timeframe for their success. Rather than fight the religious influence that the monks and Buddhism have over the population they are now trying to control that link.
Something I didn’t know before arriving in Tibet was how the Dhali Lhama was actually chosen. I didn’t know that there was another powerful figure in the hierarchy known as the Pensha Lhama (excuse spelling) who finds the new Dhali Lhama after his passing and in turn the Dhali Lhama finds the new Pensha Lhama on their passing. When the last Pensha Lhama died the current Dhali Lhama found a young boy who exhibited the qualities of the Pensha Lhama and named him publicly to be the successor. The boy has not been seen since. China then named a new Chinese friendly Pensha Lhama who has taken over the role. Though this person is viewed as a fake or fraud by the Tibetan people it raises disturbing questions as to the future of Tibetan Buddhism once the current Dhali Lhama passes.
The threat to Tibet doesn’t end there as China has also increased settlement and modernization of Tibet by Chinese mainlanders. There are now significantly more Chinese than Tibetans in Tibet, and the Tibetan youth are increasingly being lured away by the siren’s call of commercialization; the new religion of Coca Cola and KFC.
As for our time there it was beautiful but brief, and being chained to a tour really hindered our ability to step outside the confines of what someone wanted us to show us, as opposed to what we wanted to see. We ate and saw lots of yak – who are surprisingly shorter than we imagined – saw the peak of majestic mount Everest, struggled in the cold of base camp under heavy yak blankets and the thin air, saw Tibetan mastiff, attended a monk debate and countless other things.
It was an enjoyable leg of this journey but a sobering one as well. I’m happy that we had progressed through China by the time we started Tibet because otherwise I fear I would have been too strongly biased against China if it were the other way around. In all honesty I actually quite enjoyed China and was pleasantly surprised by almost everything I saw there. You really can’t fault the people of China as they know nothing of their government’s treatment of Tibet, literally nothing. The actions of China are also not unique as there are hundreds of historic parallels to draw from. I alluded to the treatment of native americans during colonization – or in a more passive extent, even now – so can we really say we’re much better?
From Tibet we carried on to Hong Kong and into Thailand. I’ll summarize them when I throw some photos up with everything else. Internet isn’t particularly fast here, so it’s mostly going to be text this time around. This is our last day in Railay before we make our way to the north of Thailand and Chiang Mai. With our remaining time left we will be spending most of it in Vietnam before heading to Singapore and then home at the end of June.
I hope everyone is well,
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