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Long route home Our trip all the way home, trying to catch no planes and stay on the ground like civilised people. It's taking us via India all the way to Europe from Japan, the furthest of the Far East...


CHINA | Monday, 1 November 2010 | Views [544]

The Tibetan culture we're allowed to see seems to be defined very narrowly by religion, so we end up traipsing around a succession of temples and so forth.  They are magnificent, with a series of fantastic gold statues and mandalas. But seeing lots in quick succession means they start to become much of a muchness.  The same icons and spirits come up time and again.  While it's all very informative at the start, it gets a bit repetitive towards the end "here's the wisdom buddha again, a green tara...".  All the temples are very busy, with lines of people making offerings of money or butter. It's clear that people have need of blessings and the Chinese obviously aren't stopping all religious activities.  (Though they are carefully controlling them: the familiar round faces of the Lamas we know have been replaced in the temples with images of Chinese approved Lamas; strange to see pictures that looked like politicians in orange robes.) The buildings are relatively modest outside, but the finery inside is resplendent with gold, silver and gemstones.  So much for eschewing worldly belongings - yet another case of religious megagreed.  It seems to be common to display whole sets of idols, for example triple sets of a compassion buddha, wrathful buddha and wisdom buddha or past/present/future buddhas.  Jokhang temple in Lhasa has the twist of many people performing a kora outside where they fully prostrate themselves in front of the temple.  The Potala palace is a strange place, a palace with no real main hall (at least that we saw), rather just a progression of resplendant rooms.  In the old days the Lamas would take a new throne when they came to power, so instead of one throne room there are several, diminishing their impact.  This is one place where the security is strict and time limited - we are forced to rush through in just an hour, which our guide manages very well indeed.

Monasteries are also on the list, the highlight being Sera Je, where a bizarre ritualised 'debating' session takes place every day.  Senior monk asks a question of the junior monk, who gives an answer.  If the answer is deemed to be complete then the junior wins.  If not (in practice this is all the time) then the senior monk yells a lot and aggressively slaps his hands together in front of the junior.  It's photogenic and funny for a while, but it becomes rapidly ugly as more and more juniors seem visibly upset by this constant assault.  Some get angry, some sad but it's a time for negative emotions.  The guide assures us that it only appears agrressive but we can't help but wonder whether this is a good thing. Phalkor monastery was another highlight, especially the room of the protectors, a fantastically tribal room reeking of barley wine and butter and echoing to the sound of drums and chants.  Next door was the Khunbum stupa, a needlessly lengthy line of devotional rooms which afforded superb views from a wonderfully elegant structure.  It was designed to progress upwards in a fashion not unlike the Chinese, which of course the Tibetans are completely seperate from culturally, cough cough.  Across from that was a wall being painted by traditional means - lobbing a bucket at the wall.  The painters were surprisingly accurate.

There's less security than either of us imagined, hardly any checkpoints either.  In the entire journey we disembark once to present passports and once a man comes onboard to check them.  The border is also pretty painless, our delay was actually on the Nepali side as one member of the group had overstayed er visa. When we do enter into China the bags come off and through an x-ray, then a quick open of them, nothing taken out, no books checked, nothing leafed through. (We had been warned that guide books, maps showing Tibet as seperate from China, pictures of the Dalai Lama etc would all be confiscated by border guards.) We have to line up in the order in which we booked the tour tickets, which is odd, but otherwise there's no nonsense to deal with.  The nonsense is waiting up the hill - our bus was double parked so we had to wait again to get moving.  Police in Lhasa are pretty ubiquitous, with lines of armed guards marching through the city, but outside we hardly see them, other than in stations and the like.  At the train station they're brusque and forceful, especially with the Tibetans, and they seem puzzled by our screw-together chopsticks but still allow us on.

In many ways, the real highlight of Tibeten culture came on the second night when we escaped, along with the Czechs, Germans and Latinos, the awful hotel-linked restaurant and stumbled on a Tibetan dance show.  We didn't really understand it at first - lots of young Tibetans wandering around like host-boys, dressed in traditional outfits.  On the other tables were teenagers sipping from what appeared to be baby bottles filled with...something.  We thought it might be karaoke but then the kids started singing traditional(?) songs on the stage, adorning each other with scarves and clapping wildly.  By this point we'd progressed to names and writing Japanese kanji in the hope that they would resemble the Chinese characters.  With lots of gesticulating we managed to find out most of what we wanted to know, but lots was lost in (no) translation.  They were fascinated by our hair and stroked us a lot.  Even more interesting were the cameras, they demanded shot after shot from the big-lens people.  As the night wore on the singing stopped and techno music came on.  We disco-danced for them, but they seemed reluctant to dance with us, preferring to show us traditional whirly-dancing instead.  They were obviously having  lot of fun, kicking each other and flirting endlessly.  All of this was so much more interesting than the temples and the antiquated traditions.  Here was Tibetan culture surviving because of it's merits, because a new generation genuinely believed in it.  Rather than stagnated ritual, this was evolving, natural and free-flowing.  It had energy and life, and an audience of young and old.

Buddhism in Tibet appears to revolve around two things, yak (zo) butter and money.  Lots and lots of money.  Granted, most of the notes are small ones, but added up they must total a lot.  The monks we see are often obviously not giving up the worldly desire for pies, that's for sure.  It's quite obscene to have a situation where there is all this poverty, far more than in the rest of China, yet gleaming riches and priviliged monks everywhere.  Every single picture, every idol, every staircase has notes and offerings laden around.  We've seen this before of course, in the many buddhist countries we've been to, but this is by far the most open and crass.  There's also an interesting thing regarding learning, if you pass under a whole load of scriptures then the knowledge accumulates inside your head, so libraries have little rat-runs in order for kids and tiny adults to scamper along under the books.  Also, many of the pre-Buddhist dieties have been incorporated into the beliefs and now occupy the position of protectors, fearsome demons who can look after you in your moments of doubt.

In our visit to the monastery in Bylakupe, we saw a very thoughtful and reasoned religion - where monks were encouraged to study deeply and to question religious texts, where they lived moderate, modest and well ordered lives. What we saw in Tibet was a series of grand supsertitions, of blind offerings and prostrations - entirely understandable given the tough conditions in which people live, but very much at odds with the considered beliefs we'd seen before, a very different side to Buddhism.

Food in Tibet was almost uniformly appalling.  The ingredients available are no longer limited due to the brand new Chinese roads and railway, but the quality is Chinese-standard.  Every restaurant we eat at has a predictable and stilted menu featuring butchered western food, same-same modified Chinese, average Nepali rip-offs of Indian or Tibetan food.  Noodles are the order of day, usually overcooked and soggy in a bland soup (thukpa).  Portions are mini-size and there appears to be no real care or pride, but then that's often the case in identikit tourist restaurants.  Yak is the most popular meat, it's stringy and tough when overcooked but pretty good on the rare occasion it's cooked properly.  Yaks (or zo) provide al the dairy too, and it's rich.  Either milk or butter is mixed into tea - the latter creates something not unlike a buttery milkshake.

The politics of Tibet are an interesting case, and better spoken than blogged.  The Chinese have done a lot and brought great wealth and development.  However, it's come at a human price that we can't always see.  It would be very easy to say that the Chinese have been uniformly good based on what one is shown, but that's not the whole picture.  It's fairly obvious that a lot of the stores and shops in Tibet are owned by mainland Chinese, for example.  It's certainly true that Tibetan people have lost freedom, and large numbers are forced to live in exile. We felt very sad that it was relatively easy for us to experience Tibet's charms and beauty, while the Tibetans we'd met in India could not return to their homes.  Equally, there are many faults with many of the arguments put forward by the Free Tibet movement.  It's as hard to agree with religious dictatorialism and cultural stagnation as it is with state repression.  Tibet needs to break the link with the Lamas, as indeed they announced they will at the summit when we passed through India.  For all the problems China brings, Tibetan children can now get educated and break away from the stifling tradition.  In a short journey through, we got glimpses of both sides of things, but it doesn't leave us in a position to judge or comment, any more than a Chinese person who'd spent a week in Northern Ireland could make pronouncements. If that sounds glib and undecided then so be it - for now that's how it is.


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