Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Tibet Headf**k

After flying over such beautiful landscape its a shock when you land in the pristine (still being finished) white tiled expanse that is Lasa airport. Situated in a valley surrounded by those velvety mountains i loved so much from above it leaves an impression, or a dent in the psyche of what's to come. Armed with Chinese soldiers, inspectors, H1N1 specialists, and passport inspectors together with their service rating machines on their passport desks (like the ones you get in service station toilets to rate the cleanliness of loos on the M1) - arriving in Tibet is just like... well, arriving in central China.
As i arrived in Tibet, i found out about Mike Alexander passing away, as my Blackberry started to work for the first time since i'd left Delhi. Another illustration of the technology that courses through Tibet courtesy of China Mobile, and a very sad beginning to my time in a land that was once inaccessible and forbidden.
Everywhere we travelled there were different measures to combat H1N1 Swine flu. In Tibet you walk through a metal doorway, stand on the footprints and get your temperature measured whilst being surveyed by Chinese uniform guards. None of the people that work in Lasa airport are Tibetan, at least they don't look it, and i would think you can number the amount of Tibetans in the Chinese army on one hand. However, this is where the head f**k bit starts, when you start thinking its been 60 years, and most of the employees of this airport in Chinese uniform were born in Tibet. Infact, the head f**k starts before the plane even lands with the 60th anniversary posters in the plane and the article in the China air magazine about the invasion sorry liberation of Tibet.
I knew that visiting Tibet was liable to be depressing. And from the point where i'd recieved an email containing horrific news on the China mobile network, to walking through the space ship airport with the monotone uniformed staff i really thought the culture that i had so longed to see have been mown down by the oppression of the model uniformed employees smiley face service button and the bathroom tiles of China.
I stayed in this sad mood all the way to Tsedang city which did nothing to raise my spirits as it was so f**king weird. (i apologise for all the swearing, but you gotta understand how strange this place was)
HUGE tiled (yes again with the tiling) buildings, office blocks, China post, China mobile, China billboards and EMPTY. The whole place seemed totally EMPTY!!
You come out of Lasa airport past a few barbie doll shops, avoiding the trench in the ground toilet, picking up a packet of crisps to munch on the way through straight into Tibetan countryside in the dry heat and farmers and Tibetans in the fields ploughing with cattle and yaks, and two story Tibetan houses with washed out prayer flags and the Chinese flag, and painted doorways into Robocop city. Empty Robocop city.
I can't tell you how strange it is. There's the odd Tibetan, complete with apron, and horse and cart, or tractor engine and buggy, and then the odd mercedes complete with Chinese business man, but mostly the place was empty. Apparently as it was the celebration of 60years since the Chinese invasion  liberation of Tibet (1949) most Chinese had gone back to China  sorry, we're already in China, i meant Beijing for the holidays. (To celebrate invading you go back home) Then we get to the hotel. Where i would guess apart from us there's 6 other people staying. And this place has 6 floors and looks like a tiled palace. Its all so weird, and i felt so tired and sad. I really didn't want to end up feeling angry, but in Tsedang city with the emptiness and the lack of good feeling anywhere, that first day in Tibet was very low.
Don't get me wrong i was excited to be in Tibet at all, and very lucky. What i hadn't mentioned before in my blog before was the total nightmare problem we had getting visas. We found out the night before at 9.20pm that we were leaving for Tibet for definate at 6am the next day. As Tibet was closed because of the Chinese celebration of the invasion  liberation of Tibet, they thought it wise to not let foreigners in, in case trouble started and there was someone to witness it. But believe me, with the amount of armed, uniformed personell in China Tibet, there was no way that our bunch of farming friends were going to be trouble. It was more likely to be me - but this isn't my homeland, and although i've seen all the dvds and read the books, and met monks like Palden Gyatso, i have never been willing to stand up for a cause without seeing things for myself and weighing up the balance of the situation. I decided not to write about the neon office blocks, and the tiled buildings and the emptiness straight away, because i didn't know who was reading it, and i hoped that the next day i would feel a lot brighter, after all i'd just heard about my friend Mike, so i was bound to feel blue.
I'd heard people say that the situation in Tibet isn't all bad, that the Chinese government have invested billions in the area, that there's clean water, a communications network, higher standard of living, schools etc.
When i heard them say this i leapt to the defense of the Tibetans because its easier sometimes to see things in black and white, but i dont think that helps anything. And the truth is this is a very complicated situation. Especially with the Chinese propaghanda machine on top of it all muddying the water (i'll give examples of this later) so that even some Tibetans dont know the reality anymore. Parents dont talk about what happened to their children because they're worried their children will get angry and then get in trouble. Children have to illegally leave the country and go to India to listen to accounts of the invasion liberation and then sneak back and try to continue to exist in an occupied liberated country.
And then whats more of a headf**k is the Chinese are rebuilding a lot of the temples they destroyed in the invasion liberation with Tibetan workers, but for tourists.
If you believe the films and accounts of Tibetans, then you'll know that religion - Buddhism, was and is central to Tibetan life. I've seen this with my own eyes, and i know it to be true. Whatever you think of religion, it is the Tibetans lifeblood, and when the atrocities occured in the monasterys and the buildings were destroyed and the monks and nuns tortured and imprisoned it must have caused unimaginable pain to the Tibetan population. But now the temples are being rebuilt. But for tourists. But they are being rebuilt, and in the traditional way. But for money from the Chinese and (other) foreign tourists. Or maybe for the happiness of the Tibetan population. I dont understand. Irrespective, the Tibetans that are still in Tibet i believe are glad that the temples are being rebuilt.
But there is a pervasive emptiness about the new temples, and i dont mean that they are literally empty like the big office buildings in Tsedang, i mean they feel empty, like the worship and centuries of care that had been destroyed cannot be rebuilt by breeze blocks and concrete in 10 years. Alot of the temples i visited on the first day in Tibet after arriving had been built in 1982. Year of the tourist. They looked and smelt like temples and even looked old, as it doesnt take long with butter lamps burning for colours to be dulled but it didn't feel quite right. I felt uneasy. I didn't understand why Tibetans would stay here when it felt so wrong. I didn't know who i could talk to about my questions because i knew that sometimes there are spies, and i didn't understand. I saw malicious intent in Chinese tourists visiting Tsedang temple the first temple built in Tibet (reconstructed) and where the Buddhist teachings landed when they apparently fell from the sky. I kept trying to understand. When you are inside the Tsedang temple you will see a throne of the Panchen Lama. The other highest ruler in Tibet, next to the Dalai Lama. The throne is empty of course, expect for the photo of the 10th Panchen Lama, and of the 2nd 11th Panchen Lama. (The 1st 11th Panchen Lama disappeared the day after he was chosen by the Dalai Lama 20 years ago and hasn't been seen since, the 11th Panchen Lama in the photo is the one the Chinese chose). I feel odd talking about these things as this isn't my country, and although i've learnt about them the English government has had has its errors. I protested against the Iraq war and they did it anyway, it wasn't in my name, i dissassociated myself from it. But the Iraqis will never know that. Hell it was the English government who partly started the whole problems with the Chinese in Tibet in the first place. But for some reason i feel very moved by Tibet, and very saddened by it, and now ive been to Tibet and i've looked and i've seen, and now i'm trying to work out what a headf**k it is.
The temples are filled with money, stuffed in the laps and in the frames of the different statues of the deities and kings in the temples. The money has Chairman Mao's head on it. Chairman Mao stares around from his papery financial disposition stuck to the silk of Tsongtsen Gampo's lap and i think he probably laughs.
Funnily enough however the Tibetans do too, cause they have such a smiley happy disposition generally as a people that my jaw is aching from grinning at Tibetans walking up the hills to the monasteries.
I still don't understand.
So i keep thinking about it, and i'm still thinking about it, and i will write more about it until i understand. All i can say is that for the first 24hours in Tibet it was a huge headfuck. Such conflicting strange feelings and contradictions that its hard to tell whats going on. Just when you think its all dark and gloomy you see light at the end of them tunnel. The situation isn't black and white. And not all these Chinese in uniform are to blame.
However, i didn't see one Tibetan in uniform, one Tibetan in a position of authority, one Tibetan talking happily without pressure or duress or neccisity to the Chinese. Most Tibetans i saw were doing manual labour, hardly any Tibetans i saw even round the Jokhang owned the shops there. But more on this later. My mind was so sandblasted by the first 24hours in Tibet, that...
I went bowling. The empty bowling lanes across the square from the hotel seemed a very fitting past time after such a weird day. The very sweet lady opened them up specially for us and i heroically lost a game. I went bowling in Tibet on our 2nd night in Tsedang. In my mind there seems something very wrong with that, but that's because of my preconcieved ideas of what Tibet was all about. Clearly the Chinese pre-1949 had none of the preconceptions i did, and consequentally none of the hangups or headf**ks since.
Well, some of the Chinese anyway.
(You see what i mean about Headfuck?)

1 comment:

  1. wow, thanks for that.
    hope you're enjoying it all despite the HeadF++K.

    Russ x