Australia Tibet Council

Enabling everyone in Australia to be part of change in Tibet



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An Australian traveller's notes on eastern Tibet

Wednesday, 03 September 2014

An Australia Tibet Council member has recently travelled to the Kham province of Tibet. He visited the Tibetan town of Jyekundo (Chinese: Yushu), that was hit after a major earthquake in 2010, and saw a town with typical modern Chinese-Tibetan architecture and new Chinese businesses. He also saw the popular horse fair, an annual summer festival enjoyed by the local Tibetans with great passion. This is his second visit to Tibet. 

aayushu mapMany travellers intending to visit Tibet think that Lhasa and the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) are the only destinations of interest. However this ignores the large Tibetan areas of Kham (mainly in the Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Sichuan) and Amdo (mainly in Qinghai and Gansu) that are situated to the east and north-east of the TAR. Although these areas now have substantial Chinese influence in the large towns, which has steadily increased since the occupation in 1950, the rural areas are still very much Tibetan, either nomadic or small townships.

Travel to these areas can be readily arranged either through certain Tibetan NGOs (local or overseas) or Tibetan owned travel companies. The guides will speak English, often having been educated in India, and will explain the local culture, religious life and the current political and social situation. Apart from a driving tour, trekking and horse riding can be arranged, and maybe even white water rafting and cycling! The wonderful thing for those interested in getting off the beaten track is that it is very unusual to see Western and even Han Chinese tourists. Facilities are relatively basic and the high altitude (3500 to 4500m) might be initially uncomfortable, but these are more than compensated for by the fantastic scenery and very friendly and open Tibetans, especially in the company of trusted guides.

A trip such as this is very informative about the current situation in which the Tibetans find themselves. In the TAR the military is disconcertingly much in evidence and travel is highly restricted to the Lhasa-Kathmandu road via Gyantse and Shigatse, and Everest Base Camp if you're lucky. (Mt Kailash in the far west is still accessible also).

Lhasa for instance sometimes feels like an armed camp with marching squads of armed soldiers in full riot gear. By contrast in Kham and Amdo, the military and police are much less evident unless there are large gatherings of Tibetans for festivals such as the Yushu (Tibetan name: Jyekundo) horse fair, when armed police and troop carriers are clearly present. Presumably the police are not there to be provocative but they could certainly take a much lower profile. The Chinese police are not known for their PR skills!

But the police presence at Jyekundo is not sufficient to stop the local nomads from having a good time at the horse fair with their families, setting out picnics and cheering on the riders. Whether such impressive riding skills without saddles and stirrups will survive the popularity of ubiquitous motorbikes remains to be seen, now that many nomads find motorbikes more useful than horses. In theory, Tibetans should have good job opportunities repairing motorbikes but that requires training and cash to set up a viable business.

Horse riding2The associated dancing and singing in town during the summer festival draws many people from the surrounding areas and it is indeed fascinating to watch. The Tibetans are very proud of their culture and take every opportunity to show their dancing skills to the applause of the large crowd of onlookers.

Jyekundo town has been rebuilt largely with Chinese state money after the terrible earthquake in 2010, which killed at least 3000 people. The town has been rebuilt with a typical modern Chinese-Tibetan architecture and there are many new Chinese owned shops and large apartment and administrative buildings. The latter appear to be largely empty. The way in which the rebuilding has been done can be seen as a means for the Chinese authorities to encourage Chinese businesses and settlers to infiltrate and dominate what was almost completely a Tibetan town. Once there are significant numbers of Han settlers and businesses in a Tibetan town, then the local businesses are at a real disadvantage. Loans are harder for Tibetans to get from the Chinese state-owned banks, permission to trade is harder because of a lack of contacts within the Chinese bureaucracy, and Chinese businesses and government bodies prefer to trade with other Han.

Amdo and Kham are famous for the many monasteries that have existed for centuries as noted by foreign travellers.  What is surprising is the rate at which they are being repaired from the depredations of previous years (particularly during the Cultural Revolution). It's always hard to find out who is paying for this work. There appear to be a number of sources. The Chinese government funds monasteries that appear to show a close connection between the old Chinese and Tibetan states, and also monasteries that worship Shugden. (Shugden is a Gelugpa protector spirit that is not recommended by HH Dalai Lama. Hence the active support of Shugden by the Chinese Communist Party).

Other monasteries are financially supported by Western Buddhist organisations and by Chinese Buddhists both within and outside China. Of course local Tibetans also support their monasteries but they have much less financial resources than external organisations.

Many monasteries have government appointed religious police who ensure that the monks do not overtly support the Dalai Lama either with photos or during teachings. These police are usually local Tibetans who live in or near the monastery - not surprisingly they are not very popular with the monks!

It should be mentioned that many, if not most, Tibetans, at least outside the TAR, have photos of the "Three Jewels" as they are referred to in their homes: The Dalai Lama, 10th Panchen Lama and the Karmapa. Occasionally a photo of the Chinese appointed 11th Panchen Lama will be shown in a monastery alongside one of the previous 10th Panchen Lama, but this will be at the insistence of the local state religious authorities. As far as I know only one place in Tibet has photos of His Holiness the Dalai Lama approved and that is at his birthplace in the small village of Takster near Xining.

In the Yushu area, Kagyu monasteries seem to be the most prevalent but Gelugpa and Nyingma monasteries are also present. It's fascinating to watch skilled Tibetan painters working on the highly detailed thangkas and murals within the monasteries. At least these are skills that belong to the Tibetans themselves even if the actual buildings are often built using Han tradesmen such as builders, carpenters, plumbers and electricians.

It is essential that more young Tibetans become tradespeople, but they are at a great disadvantage because all higher education is in Chinese language. Ideally there would be schools in Tibetan areas that could teach basic trade skills so there wasn't a complete reliance on Han tradespeople.

There is a small vocational training centre in Nangchen, the small town south of Jyekundu, at which about 30 orphans and nomad children are taught basic traditional skills such as thangka painting, sewing, tailoring, dancing and singing. This small school was established by seven local Tibetan university graduates who wanted to give something back to their community. Ideally the students would also be taught English, Chinese, basic science, etc but there are not the facilities or teachers. Most Tibetans will speak some Chinese unless they are nomads, but their standard is often not high enough for them to attend higher education. Donations to assist this school would be readily accepted through the NGO that organises travel in this area.

Regarding education, there is concern amongst older Tibetans that their children are losing the ability to properly speak, read and write Tibetan because so much of their education is in Chinese. Of course this is exactly what the Chinese government would like to happen. One way to counter this loss of language and culture is to have school books written in Tibetan that appeal to the students, not just dry academic religious works. For primary school children such books could be cartoon stories about non-political figures such as Milarepa and King Gesar. For these to be widely used throughout schools in Tibet, the local government authorities would have to give their approval, after which printing of the books would have to be paid for.

Foreign travellers to this area would find it very interesting to read books written in the 1920s - 1930s by British and Americans who lived and travelled there. These books show how minimal the Chinese presence was at the time with a very few Han or Muslim administrators and a few soldiers in the larger towns. These observations are contrary to what the present Chinese government would like the outside world to know but the CCP has not been known to let the facts get in the way of their propaganda.

My visits to Tibet, particularly to those areas where it is easiest to talk openly, lead me to think that the greatest challenge for the Tibetans in Tibet is to keep their culture whilst they can do little to avoid their day-to-day lives being affected by either Chinese officialdom, the Chinese language or the Chinese media (TV, music, etc). They have to somehow reconcile the need to exist in their modern world without being seduced by the materialism of modern China. Fortunately their Buddhist religion is still a great support for Tibetans despite government restrictions, but it is not hard to see that the younger generation, as elsewhere in the world, may find the traditional inner world less appealing than the external world of mobile phones, TV, modern music and fashions.