Travel in Tibet and get a nice welcome
A man in a hand-washed cheap black suit lurched towards me. Ahead another man pointed and yelled at a tourist. Beside me a local pushed my hand down and waved the other man away.
“No photos, put your phone away before they take it.”
I was crossing the friendship bridge between Nepal and Tibet overland. It was my first experience of the Chinese Governments iron rule. Unknown, unidentifiable men were shouting in anger at any tourist who tried to take a photo at this historic crossing point known as the “Friendship Bridge”.
In seven days I’d see a lot worse. I’d arrive in Lhasa, the capital, and witness a violent second uprising. I’d see both Tibetans, and the Chinese Army do terrible things. And, I’d document it. (Riots in Tibet, photograph of Tibetans in front of Chinese tank,)
How dare I mention traveling in Tibet!
That was in 2008. And, every time I mention anything to do about traveling in Tibet online since then I get hounded by “Free Tibet” type organisations and strange unknown people looking for photos. Indeed, I’ve had to block most from Twitter as they spam me with hate messages.
— TIBET (@TIBETANS) February 20, 2012
(edit: within a few days of publishing this article the above twitter account of @TIBETANS was suspended from Twitter. I’d also like to note that the amount of Tibet hate spam on Twitter has lessened greatly. Thank you to the Twitter spam team!)
It doesn’t stop with one tweet though. “Strangely” many copycat tweets start to emerge following the first.
Yes, the nation of peace & love has an army of twitter and comment spammers spewing out hateful guilt messages.
Are they right to condone me for my visit to Tibet? Let alone for sending a Tibetan news tweet out? Or for my belief that yes you should travel in Tibet?
Brief Facts about the Tibetan Autonomous Region
Before my travels in Tibet I thought it was an occupied country, in part, I was wrong.
- China maintains that Tibet has been a part of China since the 13th century
- China had no effective control over Tibet between 1912 to 1951
- In 1949, the People’s Republic of China was formally proclaimed in Beijing and in 1950 launched an armed invasion of Tibet
- The U.S.A. U.K, and many other nations have publicly noted that Tibet is a part of China
Even the Dali Lama, is quoted as saying:
“Most of the world who notices about Tibet, who pay more attention about Tibet, everybody knows, I am not seeking independence.” (source)
The problem with Tibet is not about wanting independence, though some would argue that point It is about many other things from freedom to civil-rights and equal rights to human rights atrocities and the list goes on.
For me, when I traveled through Tibet what I personally witnessed was something few people speak openly about and in some regards is much worse.
Witnessing Cultural Genocide in Tibet
While visiting a monastery in Tibet I spoke with a Monk. This, after being warned not to mention anything about “Free Tibet” or the “Dali Lama”. I was asking about the tiny red and gold boxes filled with scrolls along darkened red walls.
This was the monasteries library. It contained the history of both their monastery but also writings from others about Tibet over many centuries. There was only one problem with all this.
“This library holds our history,” said the Monk with an air of sadness. “But inside here is someone else’s history.”
I probed further and got my second taste of one nation eradicating the history of another. The Monk said these scrolls now contained a new history written by Beijing. Not being at my brightest at the time I had to ask again.
“Do you mean they replaced the original scrolls with their own?”
The monk nodded.
“Where are the old ones now?”
He shook his head and turned away.
Again later I asked another man about all this. And he gave it to me bluntly.
“Beijing replaced our records with what they see as the real history of Tibet, not ours.”
Beijing has wiped out the cultural and historical facts written by Tibetans throughout the ages and replaced them with their own version of history
If that’s not a part of cultural or historical genocide I don’t know what is.
China is not alone in re-writing its version of history
The further you probe into history books and compare events the sooner you’ll see different opinions on historical facts. The Vietnamese account of the Vietnam War is very different to the U.S.A. account. Indeed even if you read an English high school history book and compare events in it to similar books throughout Europe you will see clashes and alternative views.
So is China simply trying to make sure the entire nation is reading out of the same book when it comes to its history? Yes. But is it the right thing to do? In my view no. And in many more people’s view it’s not the only reason China has replaced old texts with their own.
Personally I can’t abide the eradication of a complete history. The Dali Lama himself in an interview offers his own take of Tibet’s history as a nation with a diverse history of independence (source). Some might question him, others will question the Chinese version. Either-way it’s important that somewhere both are recorded, and neither eradicated.
Who do you believe when all you hear is one voice?
I’ve already written my accounts of what happened during the riots in Lhasa so I won’t repeat the events here. However upon reaching Xi’an and later Beijing I was stunned by the Chinese Medias account of the riots.
- Reports first told of a few trouble makers in Lhasa – I just came from a city in flames.
- As the international media started getting footage, the Chinese Media categorically said there were no foreigners in Lhasa during the events – Sorry, but what am I nor the dozen others I met as the army moved in?
- Chinese Media blocked the BBC and censored out international coverage of the events saying they were spreading provocative lies – A bizarre series of interviews were shown with a couple of “highly educated” western people denouncing international media and governments for supporting radical terrorists in China.
- When I asked a hotel owner in Xi’an how the situation was he looked at me in confusion? What problem in Lhasa? It’s nothing. He wasn’t interested. No one in mainland China seemed to be. Why? Well, judging by the news reports, not much was going on.
I left Lhasa under armed escort. It was a city covered in black smoke from violent explosions, fires, and riots. I left Lhasa as the Chinese army poured in like a river of green and black. I left Lhasa staring out a window watching a foot stomping army and convoys of concrete screeching tanks charge in for hours upon hours. I left Lhasa seeing that same army take whole families away based upon hearsay. I left Lhasa having met some brave people who stood up for what they believed in, and knowing I, nor anyone else would see them again.
Paying the price for witnessing history
I was offered over USD$10,000 by an international media company for my photographic and video footage of what happened in Lhasa during the live events. I know of people at the time who accepted such offers. I did not take the money, nor share the footage.
I saw the look of terror on local Tibetan’s faces as CCTV showed grainy images of people on the streets that may have looked like them. They were terrified of the Chinese Army that were making house calls with the same images looking to take away people for questioning.
Not just the individuals but their entire families. These were just random people on CCTV on the streets that “could” look like anyone.
These were the same people who helped keep me and others safe when our building caught fire. The same people who sheltered us from the Chinese Army as they raided buildings.
I could not ever morally nor ethically hand over any image that could harm these same people.
Yet in the years that followed I’ve been harassed through email by many people. Some from organisations looking for these images and video footage. Many claiming to be from Free Tibet organisations, or historians, or even researchers.
Most of these people have come up short on proving their identities and true intentions.
Back in 2008 I contacted the Tibetan Government in Exile and asked them what I should do with the footage. They said “Don’t give it to anyone.”
The others argue that they don’t want it getting out as it incriminates people.
I never published the identities of anyone. I never accepted payment for any footage, nor gave it away. And again, whenever I mention about traveling in Tibet online I get hammered by Free Tibet organisations.
So yes, from both sides I’ve had my fill of harassment about Tibet.
Travel in Tibet and listen to the Tibetans
Today I listen to tourists in Nepal ask about how to travel overland to Tibet. I help them with the correct practical information, and indeed managed to help them get the cheapest tour prices.
If there’s something I’ve born witness to over the past seven years of no-return travel and watching the world go by it’s this:
“take everything under consideration until you witness it yourself”
Before going to Tibet I had incorrect facts. Upon traveling there I learned the correct facts in person from many sides.
I don’t think what many Tibetans online are doing is correct in trying to promote their causes. However I strongly dislike the replacement of Tibetan culture and history by Beijing. What’s more I have a disdain for international governments who disapprove of China’s human rights atrocities in Tibet yet keep open trade agreements with them.
Forget politics, travel to Tibet for people, spirituality and natural beauty
Of course you could just throw caution to the wind and travel inside Tibet to see its raw beauty. From Mount Everest’s North Side, to remote near lunar like mountains. Experience the Tibetan people who not many get to visit in their well spaced out towns. Taste unique Tibetan food and enjoy a beer in a local bar. Wonder at giant natural blue ice lakes and monasteries built into mountains.
To do this you simply need to work through some bureaucratic red tape and plunge yourself into a mandatory tour that’s approved by Beijing. Or, given the winds of change a not so mandatory tour depending on how Beijing sees the current Tibetan “situation”.
Either way it’s not hard to get lost in Tibet’s relatively untouched natural beauty. There are few places like Tibet’s landscape on earth.
Is it right to travel in Tibet?
Having witnessed this “region”, and China among many more I can categorically say if you have doubts on visiting Tibet based on politics, put them aside. Go and visit Tibet and see for yourself.
I can write twenty articles on the subject, but it will still be my view. You will see, hear, taste, feel, and experience amazing things on so many levels upon visiting Tibet yourself it won’t be hard to come to your own conclusions.
Moreover, if you are very fortunate, you might meet people who will tell you tales of the past. A past that’s slowly vanishing. In doing so you will bear witness to history and even record snippets of it.
If you are planning a trip to Tibet do check out my guide on: How to travel overland into Tibet
It’s by experiencing and seeing things for ourselves that we learn the most. No matter who is right or wrong what you take away from traveling in Tibet can only help to document what’s happened there.
Comprehend it based on this and give others an inkling to also see Tibet for themselves. It’s only once you have the knowledge yourself that informed decisions can be made that can make eventual changes.
These are my views on visiting Tibet. What do you think? Would you travel to Tibet?
This is an additional feature travel article