Safety is what it boils down to. Having a home, feeling at home, being in control of your environment, having a familiar place to return to; these are the things that make us humans crave home.

My trip to Tibet has made me think a lot about the notion of home. When my mother had to move out of the home which had been my family’s for 58 years and, worse, it was sold to a stranger, I didn’t cope. I ended up in my psychologists room choking back tears at the loss of what had always been home. And yet my grief was a mystery to us both. It had never been a happy home, in fact I had always felt something of an outsider. I hadn’t really lived at home since I was sent to boarding school at the age of twelve and had no connection to the town having lost contact with all my primary school friends. And anyway, I had my own home now where I lived with my own family.

In the latest edition of Creative Nonfiction magazine Emily Wortman-Wunder lists all the reasons she thinks she shouldn’t feel a sense of belonging to the place her parents live: she wasn’t born there, she left as soon as she could, she hates a lot of the hokey things about it and so on. And yet, like me, she had to face the inevitability of them leaving that home and never being able to return and it hurt. She writes: “The thought of never coming back fills me with grief”.

What does this have to do with Tibet? Its inhabitants are at home and yet so many would flee if they could (and still do when possible) because the Chinese are changing their home into China. And the Tibetans in exile in Dharamsala wish they could return, even though they would return to a place that is no longer the home they left.

This is why my next trip will be to Dharamsala. It completes the trilogy. I’ve visited Lo Manthang, a place that is Tibetan and yet in Nepal and from which so many inhabitants are moving to seek what they hope will be better, easier, more exciting lives. These are Tibetans who were spared the devastation of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, who never had to witness, and in some instances participate in the destruction of their monasteries, but who instead let their monasteries fall into disrepair and left it to foreign artisans and money to restore them for…whom?

I’ve experienced the precariousness of life in Tibet under the constant and ruthless gaze of the occupying power where its inhabitants are effectively imprisoned, and now I want to see what life is like for those who were able to flee the Chinese but have lived in a state of limbo for almost 60 years. Tenzin Rigdol’s film Bringing Tibet Home exposed the depth of longing and plain homesickness of these exiles as they walked tearfully upon the soil of their homeland and then desperately scooped it into whatever containers they had so they could take it with them back to what they regard as their temporary homes.

Even some Palestinian refugees, having fled the Nakba 70 years ago still live in the hope that they will one day be able to return to their villages despite the fact many no longer exist.

They want to feel safe and in control. And home is who you are. Where are you from? was the first thing I asked my new cleaner when he arrived. Bhutan, was his reply, and it meant I could place him, though trying not to make assumptions. Why was he here? And did he miss home? How long before he could return? Far from Australia was that focal point to which he belonged and that would draw him back as soon as it could.

I recently moved house after 14 years in the same place. I’m happy about it because I’m enjoying a new lifestyle, but I feel a bit adrift. We are renting and know we won’t be here a long time. Neither do I want to return to my previous home. I’m not stateless, or living under occupation but I feel curiously adrift. I don’t really know where home is any more and I don’t know where it will end up being, but for now I feel safe and have some control over my living space, and that’s fine.

Under Constant Surveillance

The Potala

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.

Tibetans in the Barkor

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.¬†

Dashcam pointing inwards

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.

Nepal: the road from the Chinese border

And we were free.