Join our Mailing List

"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Politically incorrect tourism

February 27, 2009

Feb 26th 2009 | HONG YA, QINGHAI
 >From The Economist print edition
A pilgrimage to the birthplace of a jackal in monk’s clothing

ON THE eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau lies a shrine that,
according to China’s propagandists, should not exist. The house where
the 14th Dalai Lama was born in 1935, under the name Lhamo Thondup, is
tricky to find. It is tucked away in Hong Ya, a mountain hamlet of 200
people, which merges with the dusty crags to which it clings.
Worshippers and tourists are not deterred. They seek out a pair of
wooden doors with white prayer scarves draped through iron knockers.
Inside, they pay their respects to a man China reviles.

The residence, with its throne room and prayer wheel spinning next to a
portrait of the exiled leader, is a curious anomaly. It is there by
Chinese government design. A casualty of the Cultural Revolution, it was
rebuilt in 1986 when China was negotiating with the Tibetan
government-in-exile. Xinhua, the official news agency, reported that it
cost 350,000 yuan ($51,000) to resurrect, and boasts 61 rooms. In fact,
there are six at a push. One stores a motorcycle.

Its status has changed from propaganda tool to unofficially sanctioned
tourist spot (popular with Japanese tour groups) and discreet prayer
site. The house is looked after by Gonpo Tashi, a distant cousin of the
Dalai Lama. A tidy government wage of 3,000 yuan a month for his dual
roles as village head and school headmaster helps him guard the Dalai
Lama’s legacy. He charges tourists a 20-yuan entrance fee. Despite
last year’s unrest, he won permission for a new building to house the
main shrine. It now stands in the courtyard, painted brilliant yellow
and topped by a gilded roof.
Click here

The shrine is tolerated because Hong Ya is an unlikely focal point for
Tibetan resistance, high above a valley dominated by Chinese Hui
Muslims. Hardly any locals call it Takster, its Tibetan name. Although
70% of the population is ethnically Tibetan, no one speaks Tibetan
fluently. When the Dalai Lama was born, the region, regarded by Tibetans
as part of Amdo, a province of their historic homeland, was under the
control of a Muslim warlord, Ma Bufang. The Dalai Lama and his family
didn’t learn Tibetan until they moved to Lhasa in 1939.

Periods of tension require tiptoeing. The road to Hong Ya was blocked by
police last March after riots by Tibetans. A recent visit confirmed it
was open again. Gonpo Tashi’s wife was showing round a well-heeled
Tibetan couple, their hands clasped in prayer. A foreigner was not
welcome. She whispered that her husband was next door with the local
government boss. “Please leave or we’ll get into trouble,” she pleaded.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank