I complimented the young woman who works in the shop next to our guest house. Her English was perfect. How did she learn it so well? That's when she told us the most extrodinary story. And after what we have seen in Tibet, I am sure hers is one of a million similar stories.
When she was in grade school, her parents pounced on an opportunity for their daughter to escape communist China. 13 Lamas (Lamas are like Tibetan Buddhist Priests), with the trust of worried parents, took a school class of children across the border to India to live in the refuge of safety around the Dalai Lama. She and her classmates traversed on foot, for 30 days, the highest passes of the Himalaia, camping under the stars. She said she was very tired; these kids would walk all day, then cook dinner and collapse into their bed rolls... for 30 days! Once in India, they received a good education, raised by the Lamas and Monks, and began working as young adults and sending money home to their parents.
Soon however, each of the kids got frantic letters from their parents. The Chinese government discovered that they were missing, and threatened their parents and siblings if they didn't return to Tibet. So the kids came back to Lhasa to save their families.
Now, this university educated 24 year old woman is trying to squeak out an existence in Lhasa, Tibet. Because she defected, the government will not allow her to hold a job. They forced her back, but she is forbidden to work! She is working under the table in a little store, speaking perfect English to tourists buying a coke or little souvenirs. And all of her classmates are in Lhasa too, doing the same thing. They have no future, at least not legally.
It is amazing to me, China is slowly and systematically destroying the Tibetan people. Chinese are encouraged to move to Tibet and open businesses. Yet at the same time, Tibetans have a very hard time, jumping through endless hoops, starting a business, or owning/selling real estate in their own town. Most Tibetans can not get passports to travel to other countries, and sometimes even traveling to mainland China is forbidden. The government is making it extremely difficult for Tibetans to get advanced education, or to succeed financially. Stupidly, the Chinese government is sewing the seeds for rebellion and crime by preventing Tibetans from holding good jobs and denying educated young people opportunity. From what we saw, the Chinese are isolating the Tibetans and keeping them impoverished while taking over their cities and controlling their economy. Lhasa is now 75% Chinese! It is Tragic. FREE TIBET!
But there is hope, the Tibetans are a tough and resilient people. They have to be, living at 4500m on a dry and windy plateau. Fueling the government's frustration, they remain extremely religious, and keep a strong underground communication network. They continue their traditions and defiantly dress in their traditional clothes.
One morning I woke up thinking that the hotel was on fire. I walked outside to find the dawn light of Lhasa blocked by a dense cloud of sweet smelling smoke. Incense is being burned, a lot of it! Around the Jokhang Temple, are huge stone incense burners, stuffed full of smoldering Juniper branches and sending thick columns of smoke into the air. This morning, all of the burners were pumping at full capacity. Later we noticed that most of the mountain peaks surrounding the city had plumbs of smoke rising from them... what is going on? With some careful questioning, we learned that today, the USA gave the Dalai Lama the Congressional Gold Metal of Honor (Oct. 16, 2007)!
It was a little embarrassing that, as Americans, we did not know this. Of course, there was no media coverage of it available, and all Internet searches were blocked. But the Tibetans somehow knew, and because they can not gather, demonstrate, or express their happiness any open way, they celebrated with more subversive means. They burned an excessive amount of incense (really, the city was covered in smoke), those who owned businesses did not open that day, and most dressed in traditional clothes even if these were not their typical clothes.
In response, the police closed just about everything to tourists and locals alike. We wanted to walk up a sacred mountain just outside of town that day, but when we took the taxi to the trail head, we found it blocked by police who said it was "closed". When Rod (loudly) asked the policeman if it was closed because of the Dalai Lama, the people on the street looked down and smirked as the policeman said "no". When we drove away the taxi driver nervously chuckled and said "yes, because Dalai Lama". We couldn't visit the Ramoche Temple either... it was "closed" too.
However, we did get to see some of the amazing sights of Lhasa. Of course we toured the Potala Palace (accompanied by a 'guide', as required), which was beautiful and strange and thought provoking. This palace, built in 7th century AD, was the seat of the Tibetan government and the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas. For me, the most interesting part was the huge three dimensional golden mandalas, and the chorten tombs of previous Dalai Lamas. Many Tibetans walk the 'kora' (circumnavigation route) around it all day, and many do the kora with full prostrations at each step.
We visited the Sera monastery, about 5km North of Lhasa. Founded in 1419, became one of Lhasa's two great Gelugpa monasteries. About 600 monks live and practice there now, down from the original population of 5000. A Tibetan told us that pilgrims visit this monastery with their children and ask for blessings. Childhood problems as simple as sleeplessness or as serious as a terminal illness can be cured by a blessing here. Rod and I asked for, and received, a blessing for our journey to Mt Kailash from the Lama here.
About 40km East of Lhasa is the Ganden Monastery. We visited here, and received a blessing for Mt Kailash also, before we left Lhasa. Ganden was the first Gelugpa monastery, and is still the heart and soul of this sect. We walked the kora around the monastery and walked to the stupa on top of the mountain also. At the summit, I let prayer papers blow out of my hands by the strong wind. Each of the papers flew up and fluttering down after a while except for the yellow one (symbolizing Earth). Amazingly this little paper flew up and fluttered, then was swept up high into the sky and out over the vast river valley. It was continued out and up until i could see it no longer. My prayer for Earth was sent to the sky.
Lhasa is a most sacred city. It is so strongly a mystical place of pilgrimage and prayer, and a place where old traditions are held onto against the harsh forces of change. The Chinese (and to be fair, the influence of tourism) have done much to turn Lhasa into another bustling, dirty, and loud Chinese city, but luckily, the strong faith and will of the Tibetan people continue to resist. But for how much longer?
[See more photos of Lhasa using our photos link at the top right of the page]