Monday, November 7, 2011

Postcards from Lhasa - Part 3 - Guest Post from historian Sandy Lydon

Welcome to the last post in the three part series by guest writer, Sandy Lydon, professor emeritus of Asian and Asian American History. He is writing direct from Lhasa, Tibet where he, along with Gary Griggs (Professor of Earth Sciences and Director of UCSC's Institute of Marine Sciences), and Cherie Barkey (Professor of Modern Chinese History) are leading an intrepid group of travelers, most of them from Santa Cruz, California, on an amazing 2 1/2 week adventure through China, Tibet, Hong Kong and Macao. You can find details about the trip itinerary on Sandy's website. Included in this post are my own photographs taken on two previous trips to Tibet - in July of 2001 and October of 2009.
Our Trusty Tibetan Drivers
Tibetan Plateau - 2001
The Road to Yamdrok Lake
We spent several months researching a get-out-of-Lhasa day and after getting advice from all quarters (but most importantly, our travel connections, Asian Pacific Adventures one of the most experienced travel wholesalers on this side of the world), we decided to do a temple-less day (a day without temples in Tibet is, well, let's just say unusual) and make a day-trip to Yamdrok Lake. The road westward along the Yarlung Valley is a dream freeway, as the highway glissades along the south bank of the river, and when the mountains press up against the river suggesting that the highway cross to the other side, the Chinese highway engineers punched tunnels – big, long new tunnels – to avoid re-crossing the river. The river is splayed out and has evidence of some high water, and building a bridge across it is no easy matter. Better to punch the tunnels.

Yarlung River
Yarlung River Valley, Tibet - 2009
The Yarlung Tsangpo, the river we are following, is the headwaters of the Brahmaputra River, that monster holy historically important river that tumbles out the Himalayas down into India. It is an amazing to realize that almost all of the Big Ones – Asia's big rivers, begin up here – the Hwang Ho (Yellow), the Yangtze, the Irrawaddy, and here the Brahmaputra. Tibet's snows are Asia's reservoir, and, as Gary Griggs has pointed out in our pre-trip session and commentaries during the trip, global warming is beginning to diminish these snows, and posing dire consequences for billions of Asia's population. The snowpack melting up here means danger for folks living in low-lying places like Bangladesh.
Mighty Bramaputra River
Tibet - 2001
Tony's Chinese History Lesson
As we rolled along beside the river, Tony began a remarkable re-counting of China's history, and for the next 45 minutes or so he wove historical and personal accounts together, compressing over 2,000 years of history (we won't worry about before the Qin Dynasty, he said…).  It might sound strange to be doing general Chinese history with Tibet rushing past the bus windows, but it was perfectly appropriate because the bus windows were fogged up and no amount of the driver jiggling the controls could clear them.  We were in a long classroom and Professor Tony, with the assistance of a hand-out, was vow-determined to reach the present-day.  Both Cherie and I have taught that sequence and were enthralled – and so was the rest of the group.
Yamdrok Lake
They were more than right about the view of the lake. As the bus topped the ridge and pulled onto a flat graveled parking area (joining a few other 4-wheel drives and one other bus of Chinese tourists), the lake spread out before us to the south, and beyond it the snow-capped Himalayan massif, and Mt. Nojin Kangtsang which is a wicked-looking wedge of snow and ice towering over 23,000 feet. Yamdrok Lake is one of the three holiest Tibetan lakes, and it is believed that if it every dries up, that Tibet will cease to exist. The Dalai Lama has visited it as has every major Tibetan historical figure. It is long and narrow beginning way off on our left and disappearing on our right. The hills framing it are bare brown rock, and the Tibetans say that the lake is shaped like a scorpion, the coiling tale out of our vision to the right. The lake is a stunning blue, and the air atop the pass is still, clear and bracing. I've never spent much time walking around above 16,000 feet, (we crossed the 16,000 foot Tangulla pass on the train), and the feeling is one of giddiness and restraint. You KNOW that you can't do much, so you don't.

There are a group of locals selling stuff in the parking lot – you can get on a yak and have your picture taken (Jane Kling, Marty Williams and Janet Jones did that), or you can pose with some formidable looking black Tibetan mastiff dogs who wear red ruffled collars that make them look like characters in a Punch and Judy show, or you can just try and discourage the young men and women selling jewelry. "Hallooooo" – "you want buy cheap?" Most of us began our visit determined not to buy something, but it might have been the altitude, or the absolutely splendor of the view, or whatever, because we bought enough jewelry to open a store.

I had been fearful of this trip as we were flying blind, trusting the recommendations of our travel professionals, and hoping that the group would be able to weather the 2.5 hour one-way trip up the switchbacks to get there. The group declared the visit to be not only worthwhile, but also one of the high points – literally and figuratively – of our Tibet stay. And as we inched slowly back down the mountain to the river, we could see why the Yarlung Valley below is called the cradle of Tibetan civilization – there just aren't that many places hospitable enough for human habitation. This is tough country.

Alan Richards noted that if you stayed on the road that dropped down and skirted the lake, you could eventually reach Nepal. We'll save that one for another trip.
Yamdrok Lake - looking south to Mt. Nojin Kangtsang and Nepal
Near Gyantse, Tibet - 2011
Photo by Gary Griggs
Prayer Flags adorning the Gamta Pass
Yamdrok Lake, Tibet - 2011
Photo by Gary Griggs
Tibet Conclusions
As we packed up and prepared for our descent to Kunming, a mere 6,000 feet, and heavier air, I was trying to find an answer, some wisdom, some Solomon-like solution to the Tibet-China conundrum. But I haven't one. Group members continued to come back from Lhasa excursions with stories about seeing the Chinese soldiers encountering the Tibetans, and none of them were nice. Even those in the group who befriended Tibetans out on Barkhor square, usually broke off the friendship after ten or fifteen minutes for fear of endangering the Tibetan. By all accounts the Barkhor is filled not only with uniformed soldiers (who seem to enjoy shouldering you out of their way), but also plain-clothed men and women with ear pieces, watching and listening for any sign of disruption or protest. I used to think that the soldiers on Tiananmen Square were pretty scary, but they are nothing compared to this occupying army in Lhasa. And, I noticed that not only were there fire extinguishers at every soldier station, most of which are really pop-up shade structures like you'd see at the flea market, but one member of each squad was carrying an extinguisher on his back in a backpack, to extinguish any spot fire that might spring up.

The other night, I tried to Google the title of the move Seven Years in Tibet, but the screen locked up and for a day I couldn't Google at all. There are keywords – Seven and Tibet – that must be set up to catch such inquiries.

The group continues to try and process what we've seen and heard, but the answers are coming hard if at all. It's easy to simplify things from the comfort of your living room, to paste on a two-word bumper sticker and feel smug that you know it all. This won't distill to a bumper sticker. The answer lies somewhere between complete Tibetan independence, and this heavy-handed occupation. The Chinese have made accommodations in other places, the most obvious being Hong Kong (where we'll conclude, intentionally, this trip), and someday they will no doubt do so with Tibet. But I have the feeling that, as long as many people in the world us that two-word bumper sticker, the accommodation won't happen. The Chinese are a proud people, and, as Cherie Barkey said it yesterday as we were having lunch in one of the multitude of airports we went through, "It's face." The Chinese must find their own way, and it cannot appear that bumper stickers or Richard Gere or anyone else outside China had anything to do with it. It is, after all the Middle Kingdom, the Center of the World. During too much of their history, the Chinese were occupied and humiliated. Time and again, particularly during that period in the 19th century when the Europeans and Americans periodically raped and looted the place (you can visit some of the spoils in the British Museum, the De Young, etc.), China was made to kow tow to outsiders. No more. And whether it is adjusting their own currency, or human rights, or Tibet, she will not be told what to do.

China and Tibet will eventually work it out. The Chinese take the long view of things. There's no rush. And, in my opinion, if you want to help the process along, say a prayer for the wonderful Tibetan people, and go out and take off the bumper sticker.

Editor's note: text has been minimally edited to circumvent any possibility of censure by the Chinese government.

All of the images posted here are also available for purchase as 8x10 and 5x7 fine art prints and A2 size greeting cards (all printed on archival water color paper) at Be sure to send me a message if there is something you'd like that you don't see listed, or if you'd like a custom size or item, as I truly enjoy creating one of a kind items that hold special meaning. Thanks!!

1 comment:

  1. If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.