In 1992 I left Delhi and began living in a small village in the Indian Himalayas. It was spring when I arrived. I got up every cloudless morning and walked out onto the balcony of my cottage to see the white mountains toward the east straining high on their plinth of air. I could gaze upon the mountains for hours on end, especially in the long evenings, when the distant snow refused to disappear beneath the encroaching darkness and continued to glow an imperious red late into the night. My landlord often joined me on the balcony. One evening he asked me if I knew what lay beyond the mountains. I shook my head. "Tibet," he said.
In Tibet earlier this year, I remembered how surprised I had been by my landlord's reply. How had I managed to lose sight of this basic geography, something so immediately obvious in all my atlases?Tibet, the broad high plateau between India and China, bigger than even Western Europe, and the source of most of the great rivers of Asia (the Indus, the Yangtze, the Tsangpo, the Sutlej). How could I not have known that the Indian Himalayas bordering Tibet, a bus ride away from my own village, were predominantly Tibetan in culture and Buddhist in religion?But then, Tibet was to me, as it has been to many others, a fantasy rather than a real place, a resonant cliché, "the roof of the world," rather than a clearly defined area on a map.
I had read how the Chinese, who first invaded Tibet in 1949, had killed hundreds of thousands of Tibetans and destroyed thousands of monasteries and temples. I had read that the traditional society and culture of Tibet were gravely threatened. But, growing up in a Hindu Brahman family in India, I had also inherited a religious, and therefore immutable, idea about Tibet: it was the sacred homeland of great seers and sages, people capable of levitation and astral travel.
Later, while reading the accounts of 19th- and early- 20th-century travelers from the West, I came across similarly romantic, if more apparently rational, notions of Tibet: it was the isolated, inaccessible country that had remained untouched by the drastic transformations imposed by railways, roads, steamships, and industries, a civilization where religion and tradition were living forces and whose peoples radiated a serenity and gentleness long extinct in the frantically modern and aggressive societies of Europe and America. While working on a book about the Buddha, I came across a slicker version of this virtual Tibet: in such Hollywood films as Seven Years in Tibet and Martin Scorsese's Kundun, the place appeared purely as the setting of a benign, medieval religiosity, threatened only by atheistic Communism.
Our modern fantasies of a simple and whole past are fragile. Perhaps that's why we hold on to them so tenaciously. After finishing my book, I finally went to Tibet, seeking, like many travelers before me, to confirm everything I had imagined about it. For the first few days, at least, I was not disappointed.
The magic began on the flight to Lhasa from Kathmandu when, defying predictions of bad weather and low visibility, Mount Everest unexpectedly emerged, all sheer rock and ice, looming well above the thick cloud cover at 25,000 feet. And then, after a long, snowbound mountain range, the Tibetan plateau revealed itself in all its purity and vastness.
Chinese military officials supervised our arrival at Gongkar airport. Their stern faces and green uniforms were the first reminder of the political status of Tibet. Outside, government-appointed tour guides with Land Cruisers waited to attach themselves to tourists, and bilingual banners—on which Chinese ideograms dwarfed the elegant Tibetan script—proclaimed Tibet as part of the rapidly progressing Chinese "motherland," according to the translation provided by my ironic Tibetan guide.
But less than a mile outside the airport, the empty countryside began: barley fields next to a broad river, whose still surface reflected with spellbinding clarity the deep blue sky, the surrounding bare hills, and, occasionally, the white massifs guarding the remote horizon.
This was the Yarlung Valley, the cradle of Tibetan civilization, where the first known ruler of Tibet emerged in the seventh century, and from where the Tibetan empire once spread as far as Afghanistan and Bengal. At Yumbulagang, the site of the earliest known building in Tibet, yaks with black horns and bushy white tails waited to carry us to the small but imposing hilltop temple, from which the valley with its fields and hills appeared dramatically vacant and beautiful. After the blinding light outside, the temple's chapels were dark and mysterious, crowded with gilded statues of the Buddha, the walls hectic with murals of the multiarmed demons that the Tibetans revere as protector deities. The temple had been recently renovated and opened to visitors, but the monks looked removed from time as they pored over manuscripts amid an overpowering aroma of sandalwood incense and rancid yak butter burning in lamps.