When I first saw the Potala Palace I cried; firstly because I had long dreamed of making the high-altitude train journey to Lhasa and seeing the Potala, and secondly because it was obvious Lhasa is rapidly being turned into another Chinese city, replete with identical high-rise apartment blocks.
We were met at the station by our guide who greeted us with “Tashi Delek!” and the traditional silk katas, which he draped around our necks. Close by was a Chinese soldier armed with a large rifle. Once in the car we were told that we would see many police and soldiers on the streets of Lhasa but that we must not photograph them. Sure enough on the corner where we stopped and were led to our hotel, several police with full riot gear ready to go stood surrounded by Tibetans going about their business. In front of the stony-faced police, smiling Tibetan faces said, “Welcome to Lhasa!”
We followed our guide through the narrow winding streets of what is known as the Tibetan area, as though the whole city weren’t Tibetan. It is the original part of Lhasa and surrounds the most holy of Tibetan Buddhism’s monasteries, the Jokhang. Women in traditional Tibetan dress–a wrap-around pinafore over a blouse and with a colourful striped apron at the front– and some men wearing the traditional Chuba–like an over-sized dressing gown worn with an arm in only one sleeve–walked in a never-ending stream fingering their prayer beads and murmuring prayers. At each corner a camera watched them.
A welcome lunch was provided in the dining room after we stowed our bags and had time to catch our breath. My head was swimming after the jump from 2200m in Xining to 3800m. We were advised to rest that day and not to shower to give ourselves time to adjust. I didn’t need any encouragement to rest although I did try to shower and found the hot water refusing to arrive so gave up.
As we sat at lunch two well-dressed Chinese women came in. My first thought was that they were office workers on their lunch break; they didn’t look like tourists. But it occurred to me that it was strange that such women would come for lunch in a boutique hotel dining room, tucked away in the Tibetan area. I looked at the man behind the bar and saw him looking at them. His face was serious. There was a young couple also having lunch. They looked like backpackers. The barman didn’t stare at them. So my next unsettling thought was, were these plain-clothes police?
And so began nine days of guarded conversation and careful photography. The oppression of constant surveillance cowed my usually adventurous husband. On every other trip we’ve done he strides out early in the morning, often before I’m awake, to explore the area and get his bearings. He made one furtive foray that afternoon and afterwards was too afraid. He became sick and twitched nervously every time I took my phone out to take a picture in the street.
I, on the other hand, was not the slightest bit afraid. I was instead angry and sad that people as gentle as the Tibetans obviously were, had to live this way and that I too had to be intimidated into pretending that China isn’t systematically undermining Tibetan culture. It continues to make me angry because for fear of endangering our guide, I still can’t speak freely.
What I can say was that the Dalai Lama is conspicuous by his total absence in conversation and by being the only high lama whose picture is never seen. Photos of the previous, 13th Dalai Lama, are displayed in the monasteries, as are the Karmapa Lama and controversial, Chinese appointed 11th Panchen Lama, but the only reference to the present Dalai Lama was when we saw what were once his living quarters in the Potala.
I saw the ruins of old houses next to where new buildings were going up. People picked through the rubble. We drove past the new “education precinct” where boarding schools are being built for Tibetan children from other areas of Tibet. Here they will be educated away from their families, taught only in Mandarin from as young as grade three. An enormous portrait of Xi Jinping greets the students at the entrances.
At each entrance to the Barkor, the area that surrounds the Jokhang, police are stationed. All bags must be screened and once we had to produce our passports and were asked which hotel we were staying in. The Tibetans have to produce their ID cards and were frequently questioned. Once inside you step into the clockwise current that sweeps around the monastery, clockwise being the traditional, respectful direction. Shops and restaurants line both sides so you can break off to do some browsing. Police are stationed at regular points and in the square outside the entrance to the Jokhang are firefighters sitting ready. There have been several self-immolations by monks in protest against Chinese controls. Lighters and matches are forbidden in the Barkor.
The Tibetans ignore the police in riot gear, the armoured vehicles, the soldiers marching in formation, and continue in their clockwise pilgrimage. Some perform prostrations as they go, lying face down, getting up, walking a couple of paces, then lying face down again. They wear knee pads and blocks on their hands. The police look on, faces impassive.
As wonderful as it was to go inside the Potala and the Jokhang and wander the narrow streets of the Tibetan area, it was hard to enjoy being in Lhasa, and even as we journeyed south, where the surveillance was only marginally less (we had a camera in our car!) we could never relax and began longing for escape across the border to Nepal, like so many Tibetans who will never have that opportunity. It was like an inevitable punctuation to the end of our trip when our China Lonely Planet guide was confiscated at the border. We bought it in Australia and had used it throughout our three weeks in China but they took it at journey’s end. No books, no maps to be taken out. Paranoia and stupidity combined.
Nevermind. As we walked across the bridge to Nepal, which can’t afford bag screening machines so instead has a quick feel of your bags outside a rough hut, and climbed into a jeep for the bone-jarring ride on the roughest road imaginable to Kathmandu, we still had our Tibet Lonely Planet guides and Pocket Maps stored in our iPads.
And we were free.