Three Weeks in Tibet

Trip Start Jan 31, 2005
Trip End Mar 30, 2006

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Thursday, October 20, 2005

As we wrote in our last entry, we returned to Manali by jeep after our week+ stay in Ladakh. After spending a few days in Manali recovering from our jeep ride, we took two days to get ourselves to the city of Dharamsala. It was a long few days on several different crowded buses winding up and down mountain roads. The first bus on the second travel day made itself memorable by stopping for a new fuel filter about 2 miles before our stop, which also happened to be the final destination of the bus - couldn't it have waited until after we all got off the bus? We didn't really know what was going on at first, but pretty much all of the Indians got off within a few minutes and started walking. After about 15 minutes, we asked what was going on, how much longer they would be doing repairs, and how far it was to town. Finding out it wasn't far, we decided to walk to the bus station, but ended up getting picked back up by the same bus about 10 minutes after we started walking (new fuel filter fully functional...). We finally pulled into Dharamsala a few hours later and then took one more bus up into the hills to the area of Dharamsala called McCleod Ganj.

McCleod Ganj is a particularly unique area of India because it is home to the Tibetan Government-In-Exile, the Dalai Lama and a large community of everyday Tibetans. While there is some Indian presence in the area, mainly because it has a lot of tourist appeal (meaning lots of handicrafts shops), we really felt like we had left India for awhile... We ended up staying for about three weeks, mainly because Allison needed to hunker down and work on law school applications and it seemed like a good place to settle for awhile. It turned out to be one of the best portions of our time in India. Something about the combination of the Tibetans' friendly hospitality, the beautiful hillside environment, several cheap and tasty restaurants (we became big fans of Tibetan food) and the general energy of the place...

The most significant and memorable part of our visit was learning so much about Tibetan culture and the Free Tibet cause. Being the current heart of Tibetan political activity, McCleod Ganj offered lots of educational opportunities - films and documentaries, a museum, the Dalai Lama's temple, speakers in restaurants and more. Additionally, because we knew we'd be staying for awhile, we started doing some volunteer English tutoring with Tibetan refugees for an hour each night. Since it isn't in the news much, here's basically what is going on there... China invaded Tibet in the early 1950s, claiming that it had always been part of China anyway. This was quite a stretch, but the international community more or less just stepped aside and let it happen. From what we've read, this was due to a combination of things. First, in the past, the two countries occasionally had had a somewhat reciprical relationship - Tibet offering religious guidance to Chinese emperors, and China playing an advisorial role in the administration of Tibet's government. Second, for quite awhile before the invasion, Tibet had isolated itself from the rest of the world (hardly any foreigners even allowed to enter - remember the movie Seven Years in Tibet?) and never really asserted itself as an independent state (such as by sending ambassadors to other countries). However, the Tibetans are culturally and linguistically distinct from the Chinese and had had their own government for hundreds of years. But without international support, Tibet could not fend off China with its tiny army, and China has been camped out there ever since.

Though invading and taking over an independent nation is bad enough, its treatment of Tibetans ever since has been even more appalling. Tibetans live and breathe Buddhism and the Dalai Lama (the current man being the 14th incarnation) is both their spiritual and political leader. He and the rest of his government ended up fleeing to India about 8 years after the invasion, fearing for his life. Meanwhile, China all but destroyed several important monasteries (using them as armories) and basically took over the administration of those that remain. China also has been doing its best to dilute Tibetan culture through its educational system (pretty much all in Chinese with no Tibetan history offered) and by settling Chinese people in Tibet. Photos of the Dalai Lama are banned and peaceful protest is violently repressed. In the last 50 years, tens of thousands of Tibetans have fled overland to India seeking religious and political freedom. We heard many stories from ex-political prisoners (some in person at lectures, others from documentaries) of brutality in Chinese prisons - water torture, cattle prods, solitary confinement, being forced to kill animals (against Buddhist beliefs), renouncing the Dalai Lama... All of this for peacefully protesting lack of religious and political freedom (and this is not just stuff that was going on 40 years ago - this is recent).

Even the students we tutored had pretty interesting stories. Jeff's student Phen Tsuk was a Buddhist monk who was sent to prison for three years for protesting Chinese policies. He had only gotten out of prison in April of this year, and left his family to escape to India in May. Allison's student Tsering spoke excellent English and gave a pretty detailed account of her escape. She said she had never heard of the Dalai Lama or that Tibet had been an independent country until she was sixteen, when her history teacher (who was Chinese, actually) broke policy and risked telling the class about Tibet's history, keeping a few students stationed at the door to keep watch for Chinese hall patrollers. Tsering was so moved by the story that she decided she would go to India to see the Dalai Lama as soon as she was able. A few years later she told her family she was going. Her mother was very upset and feared for her safety, but her father said they could consult a Tibetan astrologer and decide according to his recommendation. The astrologer said her leaving would be a good thing, so her dad brought her to Llasa (Tibet's capital) to find a guide (sort of the same thing as a "coyote" in Mexico, if you have heard of that). They paid good money for her to go with a small group (the guide, her and about 10 other people) which set off about a week after she got to Llasa. At seventeen, she was the oldest in her group. They walked for 21 days through the Himalayas in the winter to the Nepalese border, with neither enough food nor blankets. Her guide almost left her and another woman behind at one point, and, upon reaching Nepal, a local man extorted money out of the group in return for not being turned into the border police (Nepal does not actually allow Tibetan refugees to enter, although if they make it to Kathmandu, the UN can issue them refugee permits... or turn them back. This is a slight digression, but we listened to one monk talk about his own trip through Nepal, during which he and several other members of his group were shot by Nepalese officials - the police can get good money either from the Chinese government or Tibetans in Kathmandu in return for handing them over... Sad). Luckily, Tsering and her group made it to Kathmandu without being caught. She then moved on to India, where she has been for five years. Tsering would like to return to Tibet and teach English, but has been warned by her family not to due to likely retribution from the Chinese government against her and her family. Pretty sobering to hear this 23-year-old's life story.

So, think about all this next time you watch CNN and see how the whole world seems to want to be China's friend.

The heavy stuff aside, we also did a lot of fun things - see the photos for more details...
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