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Seven Days in Tibet Can be Edgy Tourism Experience

April 28, 2009

By Hazel Parry
Earth Times
April 27, 2009

Hong Kong - It was when a policeman took them
aside on the steps of the 7th century Jokhang
temple in Lhasa that the Taylor family realized
the extent of the sensitivity of being among the
first tourists allowed back into Tibet.

'We'd been on the roof of the Jokhang where you
get the panoramic view of the Potala Palace and
Barkhor Square and where every tourist takes a
bunch of pictures,' said Chris Taylor, an
expatriate history teacher in Hong Kong.

'There was no problem for the Chinese tourists,
but on our way down, there was a plain-clothed
policeman who checked our camera, and he didn't
just check it but zoomed in and looked at every little bit of each photo.

'He stopped at one picture where there were five
or six soldiers in the middle distance who I
hadn't even spotted. The policeman was very
friendly about it, but there wasn't any question
about it - we had to delete the picture.'

Arriving in Lhasa on April 6, the Taylors were
among the first foreign tourists to be allowed
into the troubled province after a two-month ban
as Tibet a series of sensitive anniversaries.

After a turbulent year in which tourism has been
severely restricted, Beijing has reopened the
troubled province to foreigners and aims to draw
three million Chinese and foreign tourists in 2009.

For Taylor, his teacher wife Justine and
daughters Molly, 8, and Martha, 10, it was a
holiday that had been more than a year in the planning.

They first tried to visit at Easter 2008 but the
March riots scuppered their travel plans - and
with only days to go before their visit this
month, it appeared they might again be shut out.

'On the Monday before we left, we were told by
our travel agent 'There's no chance of you
getting in'. Then late on Tuesday I got an email
saying 'You're in',' said Taylor.

Tibet was fully reopened to foreign tourists on April 5.

'We went partly to go to see [Mount] Everest as
it's the best time of year to see the mountain
when the air is clearest,' said Taylor, a
41-year-old Briton. 'But we also wanted to see
Lhasa in the context of what's happened in the past couple of years.

'... I always had slight doubts about the
morality of going there. But in terms of personal
risk, I think it's probably safer now than it is ever going to be.

'In Lhasa, there is a big military presence and
there are huge issues to do with that which I
don't take lightly. But you'd have to be a very
brave Tibetan to do anything now because there are armed soldiers everywhere.'

The biggest disappointment of their holiday was
the sterile and lifeless atmosphere of the
monasteries. 'In some cases it was like looking
around a gorgeous museum where monks used to be,' Taylor said.

'The Potala Palace in Lhasa is awesome but it is
totally dead. You have the feeling this used to
be an important religious place but you were just
wandering around something that has no life. Then
the further you got from Lhasa the more alive the monasteries are.'

The absence of tourists also gave Tibet an almost
deserted feel. 'We were wandering around Lhasa
and there was virtually no one there except
Tibetans and pilgrims and a whole bunch of soldiers of course,' said Taylor.

'Outside Lhasa, there was just no one on the
roads. We hardly saw another car and we had
[Everest] Base Camp to ourselves which I think is
pretty unusual. It added to the feeling of remoteness.'

Mandarin-speaker Taylor - who has previously led
a party of his students to North Korea - said he
was uncertain of what to think of Tibet after the
holiday although he believes if anything it made
him more sympathetic to Beijing's viewpoint.

'Lhasa is tightly controlled because there is a
lot of potential for uprising among the monks,'
he said. 'The further you go from Lhasa the more
it ceased to matter. For people out in the
country, it is a question of subsistence, and it
might be more important for them to have good roads and good housing.'

'It is true China has put in a lot of money, and
it's also true that China is completely unable to
see there are other issues as well,' he said.
'They just don't get all that stuff at all. But I
also got the feeling maybe life has got a little
better for peasants out in the countryside.'

What left the deepest impression for Taylor,
however, was not the soldiers, the monks or the
thorny political issues but rather the sheer
drama of the scenery - a majestic landscape that
has enthralled travellers for centuries and
outlived countless political dynasties.

'I don't think I have ever been somewhere that I
have regretted leaving so much,' Taylor said. 'It
is like another world entirely, and as soon as
you leave you feel like you really want to be
back in the remoteness of it all again.'
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