Yes, we know, you just love those cute monks in saffron robes. But check out the real Tibet.
If you open almost any book on Tibet, you’re likely to see big colourful pictures of mountains and monasteries, oversized Buddhas, and chanting saffron robed monks. What you probably won’t see are the building sites and army bases, flashing neon signs, coach loads of package tourists, and red light districts so vast they’d make a Dutchman’s jaw drop wide open.
But the reality is these are the two very different sides of Tibet. The ancient, mystical Buddhist side and the atheist, communist, Chinese side. Because, like it or not, Tibet is a part of China, and has been ever since the Chinese troops first marched in 1949.
Unable to win the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people, the Chinese adopted a relentless policy of population transfer (to shift the ethnic balance), political and religious intolerance, and forced integration, so that today the Tibetans are very much an oppressed minority in their own homelands.
While the Dalai Lama, the country’s spiritual and temporal leader, continues to campaign against the Chinese from exile in northern India, the Chinese continue to march in, literally in their millions; “Chinese-ifying” everything, and leaving a remorseless trail of construction in their wake.
Until only recently a great deal of the country was closed off to visitors. The route between Lhasa and Kathmandu being all most travellers were permitted to see of a country the size of western Europe. But in the last few years, either to polish their international image, or cash in on those easy dollars, the Chinese have been opening the doors for the first time, and inviting people to come inside.
Lhasa is the capital and these days feels more Chinese than Tibetan. It will be the base from where you make your trips out to explore the rest of Tibet.
Close by, Lake Manasarova is the holiest lake in Asia for both Buddhists and Hindus, and the Tirthapuri hot springs make up the trio of revered sites in western Tibet.
From Golmud, the new train to Tibet is now a viable route into the country. The pressurized cabins running on permafrost tracks are a source of much pride amongst Chinese engineers, and much fear amongst Tibetan intellectuals, as 4000 Chinese immigrants arrive at Lhasa station everyday in the hope of starting their new life in the Tibetan Autonomous region.
In the Eastern area of Kham, lie some of Tibet’s most colourful people, and festivals.
The Kawa Karpo mountain is the second holiest mountain in the country, and hosts fabulous sunrise display each morning to those pious enough to get out of bed on time.
And the far east province of Zhongdian is both stunning and tranquil, shamelessly renamed Shangri-La by the Chinese authorities in a ruse to lure more tourists.
While some of these alternatives would once have proved too arduous and time consuming for many, they are becoming greatly more accessible with each passing year. Because if there’s one thing the Chinese do well, apart from cooking, making martial arts movies, and audibly hacking up phlegm in public, it’s build roads.
The newly opened up route through Eastern Tibet to China’s Yunnan province is testament to this. Boasting some the finest scenery the country has to offer, it’s now accessible to anyone with enough Yuan, and of course the right paperwork. Road Junky tells you how…