What I didn’t realise when I set out for Lo Manthang was that I would be visiting Tibet. I may have read that Upper Mustang was culturally Tibetan, that they speak a dialect of Tibetan, and practice Tibetan Buddhism, but it was only visiting the monasteries day after day, hearing their low chanting from somewhere in the village, and being blasted out of bed at six am by horns and clashing cymbals that really brought home that this place was not Nepalese. But being in Nepal is what has saved this small pocket from the Chinese.
I think it was when I showed my photos of Mustang to our guide in Tibet (on the side of a mountain, far from the ears and eyes of anyone else, in one of the few places not under constant surveillance by cameras) and he exclaimed, “This is Tibet!” that I fully realised.
No doubt Mustang, so close to the Tibetan border (Lo Manthang is just 20kms), is under some influence from China. People report being forced to remove pictures of the Dalai Lama in exchange for food; there are rumours of Chinese spies; the Chinese installed a (now defunct) solar plant in 2015. But these Tibetans are still free to practice their religion and to travel because they are Nepalese citizens.
So that original journey, to see the mediaeval city of Lo Manthang, has morphed into an exploration of Tibet, or “Tibetaness” and the question that keeps coming to mind is: what is the real Tibet? Is it a place or is it an ideal existing in the hearts of those who identify as Tibetan or who practice Tibetan buddhism and venerate the Dalai Lama?
Having seen how Tibetan’s must live in their country after “liberation” by the Chinese, constantly under surveillance, being unable to trust anyone, even other Tibetans, with no access to the internet, unable to obtain passports, and severely restricted in their movement within Tibet, I decided I needed to see what life is like for those who have managed to escape. So two weeks ago I went to Dharamsala to witness the main Tibetan community in exile.
Unfortunately, it was a short visit; I plan to return and spend some time, but I was able to speak to some about their experience of leaving Tibet and how they felt about their country. I asked the young men working in the restaurant at my hotel whether they were born in Dharamsala or came from Tibet. All of them told me they had fled at varying times, more then ten years before, taking the treacherous journey across the mountains. I asked them if they wished they could go home. I thought they looked nervous when I asked this. Maybe it was my imagination, but having come from somewhere where anyone can dob you in to the Chinese I expect paranoia is hardwired. They said no. They were happier in Dharamsala. Some were hoping to move on to other countries.
One man told me how he hid in his uncle’s truck. His uncle was a business man, able to cross the Nepalese border. The man was just five. He told me he was happy in Dharamsala too. I asked whether if the Chinese left Tibet whether the Tibetans would still want to return. He said that of course this was “the dream” but they aren’t naive enough to expect this to happen, certainly not in their lifetime.
I met with a man named Yeshe Lhundup, who founded Tibet World, an organisation that provides education to Tibetans in Dharamsala in languages and various skills like computer programming and film-making. It provides a sense of purpose and community to those who have fled and helps them settle into the Tibet in exile.
Yeshe fled Tibet in the late ‘90s, walking across the Himalayas with a group. He went back to Tibet couple of years ago to visit his family (everyone I spoke to has left family behind in Tibet). I asked him if this wasn’t risky. He said the Chinese are allowing anyone who has been gone for 18 years to return in safety, but he knew there was a risk he could be detained. He kept to his village, avoiding Lhasa, but told me of his surprise at how the Chinese police constantly patrolled the village, stopping to question him and two friends talking in the street. He said he was surprised he wasn’t detained, having been part of protests before he left, and had written anti-Chinese content. I asked Yeshe if he was happy in Dharamsala. “It is an oasis,” he said. He missed his country and his family, but he too was realistic, saying, “We have lost our country. But there is hope,” which is what our Tibetan guide told me when I asked him about the future of Tibet. I asked Yeshe what he thought would happen when the Dalai Lama died. He agreed things would then become uncertain.
The walls of the hotel where I stayed in Macleodganj were covered in scenes from Tibet. They are the idyllic Tibet: the muscled nomad leading his wife across a stream as she rides a yak, surrounded by mountains; the Potala palace as it was before it became surrounded by roads and buildings and Chinese monuments. And without the Chinese flag perched aloft.
Perhaps this is the only Tibet that will survive, an idealised version, gone forever.