Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Tibet: The Utopia That Quite Possibly Never Was

Recently, a friend sent me a provocative article from the travel section of the New York Times called "Tibet, Now." Early on, the article notes some interesting travel statistics for Tibet. Specifically, estimates show that Tibet received approximately 1.2 million visitors in 2004 with estimates of 10 million visitors annually by 2020. The article noted that Westerners would be likely to rush to Tibet as soon as possible to see the country before it loses the mystical quality that will apparently be lost by an onslaught of visitors. Overall, the author seems underwhelmed. While he finds the beauty and magic of Tibet, he seems to find a Tibet that does not match his expectations--Shangri-La, it seems, will remain elusive.

But the article made me wonder: at any point could anyone have found that Tibet? The Tibet of our collective imagination? Can anyone travel to Tibet Michael Crichton-style? Time to back up . . .

Soaring Expectations

The article really got me thinking about my own visit to Tibet and my own reactions that constantly vacillated between awe and disappointment. For me, maybe more than most, Tibet had a magnetic effect on my imagination. As an environmentalist with generally left-leaning political orientation (I can visualize readers boycotting my blog forever: those readers can go back to their Glenn Beck soon), Tibet represented a culture of peace and simplicity that I had admired throughout college. More importantly, as a devoted wannabe mountaineer from an excessively early age, Tibet was the place. After growing up on the stories of Jack London, I had drooled through Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet and Reinhold Messner's The Crystal Horizon about his stunning ascent of Mount Everest from the Tibet side (by the way, Messner made that ascent in the monsoon season, meaning lots of extra snow . . . oh yeah . . . and since that might be too easy anyway, he climbed completely alone . . . and without oxygen). Tibet was a beacon on a really enormous hill, and finally, in the summer of 2005, I had my chance to go.

I traveled to Tibet with Clayton Brown, a good friend from the legendary Amarillo days (okay, maybe not "legendary," but we can pretend). Together we had a short stack of books that we savored like rare treasures in the face of frequent flight delays. One such book was Michael Crichton's Travels, which stands out as one of the most bizarre and generally mind-bending (and spoon-bending) travel books I've read.

In Travels, Crichton describes trips so remote and inaccessible that it created an entirely new baseline for adventure in my mind. His trips to Hunza and New Guinea remain far off dreams for me--heck, Hunza, as such, does not even exist anymore. He trotted around the globe on journeys that had to be outrageous logistical nightmares, code for excellent, unspoiled fun. After Clayton and I had finished the book, we had a new phrase for serious travel: "Crichton travel." After visiting Africa, I would call Crichton travel a modern version of traveling like David Livingstone except that Crichton travel, because his trips were so recent, teases us with the thought that a journey like that might still be possible.

Finding Tibet

Tibet was to be a real shot at Crichton travel. I had watched Kundun and prepared myself for the land of Lamas and altitude, religious pilgrims and yak butter tea, sounds of chants and the sour taste of chang, a Tibetan barley beer. And I got exactly that. While the Dalai Lama is in exile, I visited many monasteries and even got to spend the night in one featured below . . . at the foot of Everest no less!

The altitude was stunning. We had crash acclimatization by landing in Lhasa at over 12,000 feet. A week later, we had adjusted and raced, without being winded, from the monastery to Everest Base Camp, which sits at over 17,000 feet. The religious pilgrims were an inspiration, prostrating themselves across the crowded market streets in pursuit of the Jhokang Temple.

The yak butter tea tasted foul, but I will never forget the enchanting scent of yak butter candles burning below a Buddha sculpture that rose 20 meters above our heads. The chants were beautiful, and, while it tasted of lemons and smelled of rotting eggs, I consumed my fair share of chang. Namdrok Lake (first photo below) was a stunning turquoise, and, after seeing Chomolungma (the more accurate, original name for Everest meaning "Goddess Mother of the World"), I understand why so many are drawn to its summit.

That said, every moment that fulfilled my every wish on that visit was countered by one that left me disappointed and concerned. The end of Kundun, the film that fueled many of my romantic notions of Tibet, documents the events responsible for much of my current disappointment: the Chinese take-over. Now, Lhasa has more ethnic Chinese than Tibetans. Across the street, literally across the street, from the Potala Palace, seen at the top of this post, sits a "monument to the liberation" of Tibet that pierces the surroundings with its grotesque modernism: the phallic shape seems to add violence the otherwise religious milieu. Tibetan passersby cringe at the sight of Chinese tourists having their photo taken in front of the monument. The scene is heart-breaking. We later saw Tibetans cringe more violently as they labored for long days in the mud while hauling rocks to create massive highways . . . highways designed to achieve those 10 million annual visitors.

The Potala Palace itself is a model of absurd revisionism. The Chinese curators have attempted to erase any acknowledgment of the fact that a Dalai Lama still exists and that he once lived in the Palace. Instead, the 14th has been erased, and the history of the building ceases suddenly with his predecessor. Similarly, the labels throughout the Palace try to invent a Chinese history that is likely unwarranted. The New York Times article mentioned the room of 1,000 Buddha figures: the label in that room notes, annoyingly, that over 100 of the figures were casted in China. Similarly, early Dalai Lamas are noted only by the fact that they had visited some Chinese emperor or another. The labels struggle with belabored prose that fails to establish any meaningful connection, and the visitor is left wondering why red flags fly all over town.

The air in Lhasa is pierced by cell phone rings and traffic, commerce and industry. European and US tourists are relatively few compared to the larger number of Korean tourists and Chinese tourists, but all tourist numbers are growing. Even our attempts to escape Lhasa, while offering more of the "pure" Tibet, still brought us reminders of the "Tibet, now." As mentioned earlier, we ended up crashing on the floor of a prayer room in a monastery at the foot of Everest. Next to the monastery, a Chinese government-run hotel offered plenty of rooms. Like most tourists, we decided to choose the floor of a sooty prayer room to avoid benefiting the government. Anyway, as I dozed off in the room with the scent of decades of yak butter candles feeding my reverie, a cell phone shattered the peace. Two sleeping bags over, a half-hour long conversation began, and I wondered if I could ever find my Tibet.

But, as I noted in an earlier posting about a visit to a Maasai village in Tanzania, while tourists wish some sort of pure travel experience, their own arrival and ability to arrive suggests that such experiences are unattainable.

I entered Lhasa and immediately checked into a gem of a hotel: the Yak Hotel. The place had Western toilets, comfortable beds, and excellent Internet connections. More importantly, the restaurant at the Yak Hotel, the Dunya Restaurant, offered some of the best meals we had in Tibet. Run by some Dutch and US expats, the Dunya restaurants is a model of fusion: we devoured yak-meat enchiladas and Indonesia fried rice with stir-fried yak. It was a delight. Just as we criticized the touristy atmosphere of Lhasa, we indulged in its comforts. The photos below feature respectively the comfortable beds of the Yak Hotel and the patio at Dunya Restaurant where we enjoyed the occasional Lhasa Beer and peaceful time with our journals.

Later, on the long trip back to Lhasa from Everest base camp, I sought some much needed digestive relief in a Chinese military outhouse . . . while the Chinese government certainly did not benefit by that visit, I was definitely, at least for a brief moment, quite thankful for that particular facility.

We also have to wonder how great a place pre-Chinese Tibet was. This thought probably has now left me losing both my Glenn Beck readership as well as my liberal fans, but hang on--throughout the country we saw few signs of hygiene or sanitation. Senseless death at young ages by easily preventable and treatable disease is quite common and, presumably, was much worse before Chinese hospitals could be built in the area. It's easy to reflect on a romantic history of a country as though the history is on film, sanitized and scripted: reality could have been harsh, excruciating, and brutal. But the trade-off for modern comfort is a certain sanctity and sense of autonomy, and, based on the devotion of the Tibetans, I imagine the modern comforts are not worth that price.

Utopia Means "No Place:" Go See Tibet

Tibet is an amazing place. After all of my debating back and forth, I still recommend visiting at some point . . . soon. Moreover, visit and hang onto those romantic notions because you will find exactly what you are looking for. The faith of the Tibetan people has remained steadfast through decades of occupation. The countryside is stark, stunning, but harsh. I admire the ability of the Tibetan population to make such a rich existence out of the arid landscape. You will find tourists and tourist accommodations, but, all in all, when it comes time to hit the sack, you'll be happy those exist. The Chinese presence may feel oppressive at times, but, even if they have shirked the responsibility, they are really the only ones that can safeguard a fragile environment. Regardless, go see Tibet, but do not expect to find a traveler's utopia.


Ricky Bobby said...

I can just see your excitement when you notice that you have a comment on this post...

Who be this?

Brad and Megan Knapp said...

I am assuming that this comment was made by Will Farrell in character. I am glad to have my blog finally attract the celeb-appeal since they are really driving the IT world these days. Thank you, Will . . .I mean, ricky bobby, I'm a huge fan.

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