A penny for 'em..

Okay, brace yourselves because this one is going to be wordy, politically edgy and maybe even slightly pretentious. But bear with me. 

I couldn't move on from Tibet without mentioning at least something about the politics of the country. For one, it's everywhere - in the capital, in the villages, in the streets and even at Everest. But most importantly, it's on the minds and in the words of every Tibetan I spoke to whilst we were there, and as such I think I have to write about it. I'll try and be objective, relaying only things I've seen or heard in person but, like anything political, you tend to find yourself forming an opinion and I intend to share mine with you here. 

First of all, some history and few 'facts' - just to set the scene. In the early 7th century, Tibet, once unified under Songtsan Gampo - the first of the Tibetan kings and he who is venerated in most monasteries and temples, had an empire that stretched from the eastern edge of the Middle East, down into northern India and through into western and southern China. This empire was conquered and reconquered, first by the Mongols and then by the Chinese, and whilst for much of the time sovereignty belonged to somebody else, Tibet was often left to govern itself. The religious and political figurehead was, and still is the Dalai Lama, and this living spiritual link to Tibetan Buddhism essentially had control over much of the day to day running of the country and it's people. So far, so Wikipedia. 

The part of history that really defined my experience in Tibet happens after China's Civil War and the rise of the People's Republic. Initially China seemed to offer Tibet a fair hand, negotiating an agreement for Tibet's civil autonomy from China (and creating the dreadfully named Tibet Autonomous Region - TAR), but after the Tibetan Rebellion in the 1950's (and the Dalai Lama's resulting escape to northern India) China renounced any agreements and started to exert it's military and political dominance over the area. Drujal told me that in suppressing the Rebellion, the Chinese military killed as many as one million Tibetans and destroyed thousands of monasteries, which was the start of China's increasing occupation of Tibet. 

Despite a softened political approach in the 80's, and timed to co-ordinate with the Tiananmem Square protests, Tibetan monks from across the orders began an uprising the ended in a brutal physical suppression and a legacy of anti-separatist propaganda and governance in the TAR. It's this air of repression that most coloured my journey through Tibet and the thing I'll talk about a little more, if I've not already bored your legs off. 

Since the last uprising, the Chinese Government have began a concentrated and sustained attempt to bring Tibet more into line with mainland China through a vigorous (and well financed) campaign of social engineering. Chinese people and businesses are given substantial economic incentives to relocate to Tibet and the government financed the Beijing-Lhasa railway to facilitate Chinese immigration to the region. It's been so successful that posters in the train station are publicising four new lines from mainland China to Lhasa that will open in the next few years. 

And it's not just infrastructure in which China is investing. According to the Times, China has invested over $40 billion in Tibet since 2000, almost doubling it's GDP and encouraging economic growth in the region that far exceeds that of similarly developed nations. The money shows, especially in the capital; Lhasa's roads are smooth, it's streets are crammed with expensive shops and the skyline is skewered with cranes announcing the continued development of new malls and hotels. You could be cynical and suggest that this investment is to facilitate the discovery, extraction and transportation of the vast reserves of zinc, copper and lead recently uncovered within Tibet's borders (enough to double China's reserves of these precious metals), but perhaps that's something for another post. 

These are rather 'subtle' methods of affecting a country's genetic makeup though; much more obvious are the Chinese flags that flutter from every building, no matter how rural, the nationalistic music piped out over PA opposite the Potala Palace and the intimidating presence of the Military. During my time in Tibet, I have seen literally hundreds of soldiers - all carrying either assault rifles, tear gas launchers or shotguns - just standing watch, mostly in public places and on roofs, a constant reminder to the people of Tibet of what to expect if there's another uprising. Taking pictures of these soldiers, even accidentally, can result in forced deletion of said pictures or even confiscation of the camera entirely. We were warned that even remarking on their presence could result in 're-education', especially for Tibetans, who can be imprisoned, without trial, for sedition for even the vaguest hints of dissent. 

This oppression extends to even the most sacred of Tibet's cultural makeup: its religion. The Dalai Lama, as a vocal opponent to the Chinese Government, is exiled and his image, which is fundamentally important to most Tibetans, is verboten. All temples and monasteries of a recognisable size have permanent military garrisons - Door-Je tells me they are there for the monks protection, before flashing a grin dripping with irony - and the Government collects all of the entrance fees from all of the visiting pilgrims and tourists. The red LEDs of CCTV cameras blink in even the darkest corners of the Potala Palace and there are orange jump suited 'caretakers' around every corner in almost all of the country's major monuments. Even the website of the Nobel Prize is blocked, after the Peace Prize was awarded to the Dalai Lama. 

The shame of it is that the Chinese agenda seems to be prevailing. Sure, most of the Tibetans I spoke to were angry and frustrated by the occupation of their country - and make no mistake, it is an occupied country, if not legally then certainly in spirit - but when they did speak, it was with sideways looks and in hushed tones. Our local guides, bar the most intimate of conversations, were reluctant to even mention the Chinese for fear of having their licences revoked or being tossed into jail. So nothing's said, not unless you ask about it, and everyone just gets on with their lives, resigned to their fate as China's political and economic plaything. 

Worse still is the effect all this is having on the upcoming generations. Teenage Tibetans, especially in the capital where their exposure to Chinese wealth is all the more alluring, are starting to eschew their nomadic roots in favour of trucker caps, Nike trainers and train tickets to Beijing. Door-Je tells me that in his village, one close to Drujal's in the Amdo region, children no longer want to stay with their families in the countryside but first travel to Lhasa before moving on into China for work, and the rural communities are suffering because of it. Villages are getting older, and herds are thinning as there are no new herders to fill the gaps as the elderly step down from the saddle. Progress, I suppose you might call it, but it's progress that seems to be undermining the heart of Tibetan culture and family life. 

I know that this whole post is ill-researched and hopelessly naive, but the state of affairs in Tibet was so apparent that it coloured the whole of my stay there. I know that taking potshots at the Chinese Government, one of the bête noire's in today's international community, is easy and that their claim over Tibet is probably above board and 'legal' - if that word means anything at all. I also know that three weeks in a country doesn't make me an expert on Chinese-Tibetan relations, but I can't help but feel for the people of Tibet. The methods by which their culture is being usurped and discouraged - both directly and indirectly - reeks of oppression and suppression. Tibet, as a political talking point, has dropped off of the international agenda recently - perhaps because China now owns a large part of both US and European debt - and it probably won't reappear any time soon as there are probably hundreds of problems of greater, or more savage, urgency to deal with, hence why I think it's worth mentioning here.

So in lieu of the international community storming Lhasa, or me chaining myself to a railing in Beijing, I would just appeal to you to learn a little bit more about Tibet and what's going on there. Visit if you can, it's a genuinely amazing place, but if you can't then start with perhaps the Dalai Lama's talk on TED.com and the Econmist has some excellent articles on Tibet's politics well worth reading (http://www.economist.com/topics/tibetan-politics). If thats too much trouble then you could read the Wikipedia page and go on from there. I don't know what good it'll do Tibet, but I guess you never can tell.

I'll leave you now, having almost certainly put the mockers on my re-entry into China, and I hope you're all doing well.