Few people visit Tibet (or at least one of the Tibetan fiefdoms) only once in their life, and what keeps them coming back is the warmth, gentleness and compassion of the Tibetan people. A nation kept in chains, they maintain a positive outlook, politeness at all times, and utter devotion to their religion.
The smiley charm of their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama is not restricted to enlightened monks or reincarnated lamas. And it’s this typically Tibetan characteristic that has single-handedly won them support across the western world. From Richard Gere, to Pierce Brosnon and the Beasty Boys, not to mention the thousands of travellers who have visited Tibet, Ladak, Sikkim, Bhutan or Dharamsala, you would not be the first to be moved and inspired by the tenderness of the Tibetan people.
Spend a morning at the Jokhang temple in Lhasa, and you’ll see hundreds of Tibetans from across the country (recognisable by their traditional dress) as they stagger the final few steps of their often arduous pilgrimage to the temple. Many old or decrepit, such is their continuing devotion that it’s not unusual for them to walk and/or prostrate themselves hundreds of miles from their villages to the holiest temple in Tibet, sometimes taking years to do so.
Whilst the people of Lhasa are becoming used to tourists, and in some cases learning the scams so predominant in India and Nepal, in the small towns and villages across the country you’ll encounter nothing but welcome curiosity. It’s not unusual for whole groups of locals to gather round you and just stare. Not with the condemning or judgemental eyes you may have come across in parts of the Middle East, but with a kind of innocent bewilderment, or just flat-out gob-struck awe.
It would be inaccurate to talk about the people of Tibet without mentioning the Han Chinese, the dominant Chinese ethnic group who rightly or wrongly inhabit the country. In some places, such as Lhasa, they outnumber the Tibetans by as much as 3 to 1. The vast majority of them are also extremely pleasant, and despite their tendency to shout a lot, spit everywhere, eat dogs, and urinate in public, they are essentially decent human beings.
It would be unfair to judge them by the politics of their government, and/or the often appalling behaviour of the officers and officials to whom Tibet is left to be governed. The Chinese are also poor and most inhabitants of Lhasa come to carve out a better life for themselves and their families, and know little about the Tibetan history other than the propaganda with which their government feeds them.