Introduction to Tibet – June 2006

Introduction to Tibet:
We had been looking forward to biking in Tibet for several years, and we were excited when we finally crossed the border! Tibet lost its independence to China in a swift takeover in 1950, of course, when the Tibetans were “liberated” by their aggressors, who also drove Tibet’s spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama, into an exile that lasts until this day. Tibet is now officially known as the “Tibet Autonomous Region” – one of many provinces in China.

Tibet has variously been known as Shangri-la, the Roof of the World, the Land of Snows…For centuries, the Buddhist kingdom of Tibet has had a unique hold on the imagination of the West. It was believed to be a land of riches and treasures, a lost land steeped in magic and mystery and religion. But Lhasa was also the “Forbidden City” and until recently, very few Westerners ever laid eyes on the Holy City.

Tibet was closed to foreigners for several decades after the Communist takeover, and when its doors were finally opened in the 1980s, it was no longer the same kingdom that had so captivated the foreign imagination. A lot of Tibetan cultural and historical heritage was deliberately destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution, as the Reds brutally set about reordering Tibetan society in accordance with Marxist principles. Religion was forbidden, monks killed or forced to discard their robes and marry, and scriptures burnt and used as toilet paper. The Dalai Lama was declared Enemy of the People Number One and Tibetans were forced to denounce him as a traitor and parasite. There was talk of talk of happy Tibetans fighting back tears of gratitude at becoming one with the great Motherland.

Traditional Tibet remained fundamentally unchanged for many centuries. Technological invention was unheard of, and manual agriculture and animal husbandry are still the principal industries in Tibet. But change is coming at a fast pace. Tibet has changed more in the past 50 years than during the previous 500, due mostly to the Chinese takeover and influence. Several regions are becoming more developed and immersed in a cash economy. We saw many towns under construction along the road leading from eastern Tibet to Lhasa. A construction frenzy seemed to be taking place when we biked through the region in July 2006, as the new railway connecting Lhasa to the rest of China opened that same month and the government got ready for a mass invasion of Chinese tourists. The Chinese government is actively encouraging not only Chinese tourism to Tibet, but also Chinese immigration to Tibet – many say as a sort of way to keep the Tibetan population under control. As the Chinese immigrate in mass numbers to open businesses, Tibetans are in danger of becoming a minority in their own homeland.

We saw how the Chinese were increasingly encroaching upon the Tibetan territory. It is at its most noticeable in the capital of Lhasa. Only 4% of the city is now the traditional Tibetan quarter! The rest of the city is a modern metropolis that looks exactly like any other large Chinese city. Chinese shopkeepers have pushed out Tibetan shop owners, and Chinese tourists and immigrants are arriving in astonishing numbers on a daily basis! We arrived in Lhasa just a few short weeks after the Rail line opened, and already there was a swarm of Chinese invading the town – many thousands arrive per day in order to stay for business! Everyone who has been there in the past told us stories of how rapidly the face of the city has changed, and even for us first time visitors, it was very obvious.

But it was just as obvious on the road leading to Lhasa, starting about 150 km. before the capital. The government is expecting a huge increase in road traffic. But there was still very little traffic on the road when we were there – only a few jeeps or buses owned by the Chinese, and a few motorbikes decorated with stickers and plastic flowers, driven by local Tibetan men.