Lhasa is for lamas...

Trip Start Jul 26, 2006
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Trip End Apr 01, 2008


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Monday, September 11, 2006

A rainy day in Lhasa, Tibet offers a much-needed opportunity to reflect upon my experiences of the past few weeks. As I mentioned to one of my travel companions last night, I've appreciated the unexpectedly heavy dose of Tibetan Buddhism that I've been exposed to recently, but at the same time I'm a bit templed out. And unlike many of my Western friends, who appear completely awed by all things Tibetan, I have some nagging questions about the structure of ancient Tibetan society. Especially now, having visited labyrinth Potala Palace, the Tashilumpo Monastery, and the Jokhang temple (more on those in the "photos" section), where the massive tombs of past lamas (religious leaders) are inlaid with incredible amounts of gold and precious jewels, I can't help but feel a twinge of suspicion that these all-powerful leaders were perhaps living lives similar to the quite unrighteous popes of ancient Catholicism.

I take it as a truism that absolute power over others is a corrupting influence, and religious leader or not, it's frightening to consider what common Tibetans could have been subjected to by a corrupt feudal theocracy. This interpretation of Tibetan history would certainly seem to jive with China's version of events, who claims to have "liberated" Tibet. That's what makes church-state unions so frightening--their ability to inflict tyranny while remaining beyond reproach. On that same note, I'm finding Tibetan Buddhism to be much more dogmatic than I think I'd expected, and that's been a real downer. Regardless of these nascent critiques, however, the Tibetans have managed to create some absolutely stunning monuments to their faith, and it was quite easy to see why the Potala has been made a World Heritage Site, and why floods of tourists arrive in these parts daily. Amazing!

On the flip side, I've heard enough stories from Tibetans in recent weeks about the horrors of China's occupation that I feel as if, to quote Chinese farmer and environmentalist Tian Guirong, "when I die I will not be able to close my eyes." If this is what "liberation" looks like, I reckon I'd stick with the devil I know.

So yeah, the rain. It turns out that this is Tibet's rainy season, although judging from the barren landscapes I've seen surrounding Lhasa, that phrase must be quite relative. According to my travel guide, Tibet, or at least this part of Tibet, is one of the driest parts of the country. The Taiwanese woman who runs the establishment where I'm staying braved the rain this morning to take me to the train station and help me get a ticket to Beijing. She's a Buddhist herself who made a pilgrimage to Lhasa and loved the place so much that she decided to move here. She's quite the traveler, having visited at least the U.S., India, and Nepal, and her English is very good. Unfortunately, we were not able to secure a seat on the train until the 15th (I had hoped to leave on the 13th), and even then I got the very last "soft sleeper" ticket, the luxury ride, which cost in excess of Y1200 as opposed to the Y800 I would have paid for the hard sleeper.

The great thing is that the train leaves early in the morning, so I should get two full days of sunlight to view the Chinese countryside. I love trains, and this should be the momma of all train rides, taking the most luxurious seat on the highest railway in the world. This particular route has only even been running for a little over two months, and the new train station in Lhasa is impressively large and modern-looking. In addition, given some of the safety concerns I've heard voiced recently, better to take the ride now than later when it's had the chance to degrade a bit. Actually, I've heard concerns about the train from a number of fronts. Some people are concerned about the train's safety, given that it's at such a high altitude and was apparently built at least partly on permafrost. Other people were concerned that the construction of the railway was environmentally degrading and would bring in lots more traffic (and hence, more accompanying environmental destruction) to Tibet. And finally, some elements within the Free Tibet movement (who's website I can't access here--must be the "Great Firewall of China" at work) have called for a boycott of the train, because it advances China's occupation and integration of Tibet.

These are all serious concerns, and I don't want to minimize them. At the same time, I *really* don't want to spend a few days on a bus just going from Lhasa to Golmud, and at least from an environmental perspective, it seems difficult to argue against a train when your other options are a bus or a plane. As for the concerns of the Free Tibet movement, that's a bit trickier. For one thing, I don't think there's unanimity within even the Tibetan community as to how things should proceed and how foreigners can act in solidarity. And while I think China has been guilty of some absolutely heinous crimes in Tibet, and that international pressure should be brought to bear on the country to change its policies (e.g., stop the heavy-handed interference in the practice of Tibetan Buddhism), it also seems, at least from this end of things, that Tibet is a part of China for the foreseeable future. And as part of China, it should reap the same benefits of development as the rest of the country, an adequate transportation structure primary among them. So I don't know, probably a lot of faulty, self-serving logic employed there, but one can't help but focus on pragmatism on a rainy day in Lhasa.
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