A young Buddhist monk, no more than 10 years old, stomped past me, the laces of his Nike sneakers coming untied as he walked. Clutching at the front of his burgundy robe, he glowered when I smiled at him. “No!” he shouted, making a beeline for our guide, Kunga. After a brief exchange, the boy threw a fierce look over his shoulder and disappeared through a wooden door. ‘He wanted to know how to say, “Don’t take pictures of me” in English,’ Kunga said with a rueful smile.
I couldn’t blame the little monk for being upset. We were a few miles west of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, in the Drepung monastery—a sprawling, ancient site first built on in 1416. The complex was once home to more than 10,000 Buddhist monks; today there are fewer than 500 in residence. Those who remain still attempt to live a traditional monastic life, praying, cleaning the monastery, and preparing handmade butter sculptures as religious offerings, despite the constant crowds of tourists traipsing through the premises brandishing selfie-sticks and video cameras. Reincarnation being a key tenet of Buddhism, some Tibetans believe photographs capture a tiny part of their soul and trap it here on Earth after they die, so prefer to avoid the sniper-like scrutiny of Western and Chinese lenses.
My encounter with the young monk encapsulated the many dilemmas facing potential visitors to Tibet. China has been accused of “Disney-fying” the autonomous region, exploiting a centuries-old culture for profit by heavily promoting tourism (particularly from elsewhere in China), while restricting the freedoms of individual Tibetans behind the scenes. This fraught, fractured area was recently brought back into the political spotlight when Nancy Pelosi—the Democratic Leader of the House of Representatives, and one of the most prominent supporters of Tibet’s exiled leader, the Dalai Lama—made an unannounced trip to Lhasa in early November. An outspoken critic of Chinese repression in Tibet, Pelosi’s trip set a new precedent for tourists in two minds over the rights and wrongs of visiting.
Tibet has been a source of international contention since 1950, when China led a military assault on the region, coercing its leaders into signing a treaty that allowed its military occupation. In 1959, a full-scale uprising against the Chinese led to thousands of Tibetan deaths—a conflict China’s government denies—and spurred the Dalai Lama to flee to India, with around 80,000 Tibetans following his lead. Then, in the mid-1960s, China’s Cultural Revolution led to the destruction of hundreds of monasteries in Tibet. International and domestic opposition to the occupation has been bubbling under ever since, with monks protesting the situation by self-immolating in the streets as recently as 2008.
For these reasons and more, I had spent five months wrestling with the idea of visiting Tibet. In that time, I had journeyed around the world by train accompanied by a photographer, researching and collecting stories for a book on rail travel. I had begun in London in early May and travelled overland through Europe to Russia, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, before finally deciding to take the Qinghai railway to Tibet.
One experience that helped me decide about visiting was an earlier stop on my journey: North Korea, where I travelled beyond the showcase capital of Pyongyang and into the remote northeastern province of Chongjin. The visit was an exercise in learning not to judge without first-hand experience. When I asked my North Korean guide about the ethical debate over visiting his country, he said his people welcomed foreign tourists: “We want to become a member of world society. We are 20 million people and we are not guilty. Don’t punish us for something that is not our fault.”
With his words in mind, my photographer, Marc, and I boarded a train in Xining, central China, and embarked on the 22-hour journey to Lhasa. It was a trip that would take us through a high-altitude desert, at times reaching 5,200m—and would literally take our breath away. In order to prevent altitude sickness, oxygen hissed from nozzles in each compartment, but despite it, waves of nausea rippled through me throughout the trip. At times, I felt so much pressure at my temples it was difficult to stay awake and take in the view from the windows: the plateau slipping past us dotted with deer and raggedy bell-tagged yaks, and lakes appearing like spilled mercury at the base of suede-smooth mountains.
On board I met Tashi, a Tibetan guide who reassured me that tourism to Tibet was not just a good thing, but vital to Tibetans who had little other means of communication with the outside world. Tashi told us that he had become a guide simply to meet foreigners, and had befriended a family of Swiss tourists who, on their return home, had helped him find a place at a university in Switzerland. An invitation letter from the university had allowed him to leave Tibet – a privilege rarely extended to Tibetans, who are restricted from leaving mainland China by law.
As we neared the end of our journey and began to approach Lhasa, flat-roofed houses appeared in terraced rows, blue-tiled, grey-bricked and red-flagged. A Buick car garage rolled past alongside a Mitsubishi manufacturer and an avenue lined with Chinese flags. Out of nowhere, Lhasa station soared upwards and outwards like a space-age hangar, and a blast of icy air slapped my cheeks as I stepped off the train.
After passing through police checks and scanners we found Kunga, our guide, dressed in a hoodie and baseball cap, and flashing a phenomenal smile. Independent travel to Tibet is not permitted, so in addition to a Chinese visa, visitors must obtain a Tibetan permit from an agency and stay with their guide for the duration of their visit. Placing a traditional khata, or white scarf of welcome, around each of our necks, Kunga handed us bottles of water, instructed us to hydrate to combat altitude sickness, and drove us into Lhasa city center.
Pine trees and posters of Chinese premiers dotted the roadside, and fake Apple outlets sat alongside stand-alone Calvin Klein, New Balance, and Adidas stores. As Kunga drove us carefully through streets congested with taxis and electric mopeds, a sign overhead read “Welcome to prosperous, harmonious, legal, civilized, and beautiful, socialist new Tibet.” A recurring billboard featured the face of a pretty, pale-skinned woman before and after an eyelid lift, a popular cosmetic procedure in China. On the pavement below, bent-backed elderly women in multi-colored skirts shuffled along, their hair plaited with traditional purple ribbons, looking incongruous in this determinedly modern scene.
This was not the Lhasa of my imagination. I had pictured monks in woolly socks and sandals walking through pedestrianized lanes strung with prayer flags, circling handheld prayer wheels as the quiet gong from a monastery echoed in the hills. Instead I met monks taking selfies on iPhones, and fanning themselves with handfuls of Chinese yuan. When one nun I befriended took my phone and showed me how to scan the code to add me as a friend on WeChat—the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp—and subsequently sent me emojis of the Buddha bursting into golden light, I realized that in my naïve Shangri-La reverie, I had totally misjudged what Tibetans might want from life in 2015.
But it wasn’t all Lhasa Vegas. On my second day in the city, Kunga led me up the steep steps to the Potala Palace, the now-abandoned former home of the Dalai Lama. Climbing the steep steps up the main entrance, we panted alongside red-cheeked nomads twirling their prayer wheels with children on their backs. Before long, we found ourselves in the Dalai Lama’s throne room. Adorned with Tibetan currency and swathes of khata, the low-ceilinged room was held up by engraved wooden beams telling the stories of previous lamas in intricate, colourful detail. Two elderly monks sat on guard, their faces creasing like walnuts as they chuckled over a video one was showing the other on his phone.
Catching my eye, one monk beckoned us over. On learning that I am originally from India, he shuffled off through the crowd, returning with three orange scarves pulled from the Dalai Lama’s throne. Knotting one around each of our necks, he explained to Kunga that Indians are friends of Tibet because they took in the exiled Dalai Lama, before a Chinese guard stepped in to separate us and the monk moved away. Uncertain if this was something everyone received, we looked around the palace and saw that no one else had been given the scarves.
On our final evening in Lhasa I was browsing in an English-language bookshop and asked the owner if he had a copy of Seven Years in Tibet, Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer's controversial book about his friendship with the Dalai Lama. A pretty girl with bobbed hair and huge hipster glasses came over. “No,” she said. “The Chinese police don’t allow that book. If they find it they take it away.” Lucy, as she called herself, agreed to go next door to a bar called Anglamedo, where two students were listening to music from a Macbook Air and eating spaghetti Bolognese. Over cups of yak-butter tea, I quizzed her about the curious mixture of tradition and modernity I’d seen in Tibet.
We chatted for a few minutes, then I asked Lucy why there was such an enormous range of Lonely Planet guide books on sale in the shop next door if Tibetans aren’t allowed to travel. “Oh, people don’t buy these books,” she said, poking at the gleaming yellow blobs of butter on the surface of her tea. “They come in and read them one by one, so they can find out about other countries”.
The image of young Tibetans poring over guidebooks about countries they may never see filled me with sadness—and with a profound sense of my own fortune as I thought back to all the countries I had seen on my recent travels. As Lucy shook my hand and told me how fun it had been to hear about my train journeys around the world, I knew that my decision to come to Tibet had been the right one.