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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Tibet: Taking a leap of faith to see a vanishing culture

March 15, 2010

By Andrew Renton, for Canwest News Service
March 12, 2010

Mr. Chen stares fixedly at the bulbous computer monitor through thick,
horn-rimmed glasses. The overflowing ashtray and a few files crowd his small
desk to capacity. A blanket covers the worn chesterfield.

Anyone visiting Tibet Autonomous Region (which is anything but autonomous) -
must deal with the ever-changing Chinese bureaucratic hurdles of the moment.
Worse still, individual permits are only available in China.

Chen is a fixer. I find him up a dank corridor in building No. 3 at the
rundown, state-owned Camilla Hotel in charming Kunming. A handwritten
cardboard sign taped to the door reads simply, MR. CHENS OFFICE.

Within minutes, I have thrown caution to the wind and exchanged $900 in U.S.
bills for an illegible receipt. "Your permit and return airline tickets will
be ready in the morning," he assures me in clipped English, straight from a
James Bond movie.

"The price includes seven nights accommodation, breakfast and a guide in
Lhasa for three days. I will personally take you to the airport."

I admit to being a whimsical traveller who spins the globe, then buys the
ticket. Planning usually takes place at 35,000 feet.

But Tibet sounds dodgy. Riots marked the 50th anniversary of the Dalai
Lama's flight to India in 2009, resulting in a 30-day closure to foreigners.
The new public holiday, "Serfs Emancipation Day," was not a big hit in the
PR department.

Chen brushes my fears aside. "Tibet is open and safe to visit." Case closed.

Arrival in Tibet

A man carries a sign with my name in bold capitals. Gongkar Airport is 100
kilometres outside Lhasa, and at over 3,500 metres, I'm already gasping for
air.

The road snakes through a valley between high, treeless mountains before
reaching the outskirts of town.

I experience a moment of horror. Four-storey apartment buildings line wide
boulevards. Perfectly tended roadside flowerboxes brim with yellow mums.
Freshly painted fencing separates pedestrians and vehicles. Clusters of
twitchy, machine-gun toting soldiers stand guard at street corners.

Has the government of the People's Republic of China turned this fabled
city, of maybe 200,000, into just another provincial capital?

The Potala comes as a shock, then a feeling of relief. Perched on a hilltop,
this gleaming 13-storey castle with more than 1,000 rooms is breathtaking in
size, splendour and historical significance. A sentinel that refuses to be
smothered by new rulers. To the Chinese government, it represents both an
irritant and a cash cow from tourism.

Construction began in the seventh century and continued into the 1600s.
Using only manpower and donkeys, walls were built of rammed earth, wood and
stone. Molten copper strengthened the structure against earthquakes. Dalai
Lamas were carried home on palanquins. Visiting High Lamas were piggybacked
to the entrance.

Muttering pilgrims, with crinkled brown faces and twinkling eyes, fill the
sidewalk with whirling prayer wheels and fumbling beads. A man leads his
three favourite sheep around the sacred circuit. Prostrators propel
themselves along, one body length at a time. Some have spent months - even
years - getting here.

Walking in thin air

I am staying at The Lhasa International Hostel, a couple of blocks from the
action.

"Rest up" says my pretty guide. "Get acclimatized."

It never happens. I awake every half-hour gasping for breath. Some hotels
have oxygen piped into the rooms. Others provide "oxygen pillows" with a
protruding tube to suckle.

I love Chinese food, but for breakfast, I'm a bacon-and-eggs kind of guy.
Watery rice soup accompanied by steamed bread and a dry pork dumpling
doesn't help my exhaustion - or my mood. Thankfully, there's coffee - for an
extra 10 yuan.

"What? Climb to the roof of the Potala on my first day in Lhasa? Not a
chance," I wheeze pathetically. Too late!

"The reservation has been made. We will take it slowly," my guide responds
firmly.

The Potala is now a magnificent state-run museum with two palaces in one
building. The White Palace, (white exterior paint), is the business end,
which once housed the nation's bureaucracy. The Red Palace contains tombs of
Dalai Lamas, chapels, sacred scrolls - the religious part.

I give up an unopened bottle of water at the entrance (no liquids, more
fallout from 9/11?), produce my passport four times at various stages of
ascent, and shell out some $35 US in dribs and drabs for entry fees along
the way.

Strangely, there are no monks around. All signs of the present (the 14th)
Dalai Lama have been studiously removed. The few people muttering mantras
appear to be cleaning staff or caretakers dressed in navy blue overalls.

It is still worth every penny as I teeter breathlessly from one
extraordinary piece of history to another, vowing to return once I become
acclimatized.

The old Tibetan part of town is spread around Barkor Square. Hawkers here
sell prayer flags, strings of beads, prayer wheels, sacred white and yellow
scarves. Incense burners fill the air with the sweet smoke of juniper sold
from overflowing sacks by rows of vendors.

Three exhausted pilgrims with a pushcart proudly receive yellow scarves,
signifying mother earth, from a well-wisher impressed by their journey.

A monk raises the bar by prostrating sideways.

At the head of the square, the Jokhang is Tibet's most sacred temple.
Prostrating pilgrims pack the entrance, which has been a flashpoint for
riots and demonstrations. Military patrols move nervously among the crowds.

Despite a thorny past as an army barracks during the Cultural Revolution,
then a hotel for Chinese officials, the temple has survived since the
seventh century. One hopes a UNESCO designation will slow the homogenization
of the area.

Side streets are jammed with vendors selling yak butter, yak skulls, butter
churns, traditional clothing, furniture, bread - even red riding boots with
fancy gold trim and turned-up "Pinocchio" toes.

I hand my Rockports to the shoe repairer. A sole is coming unglued. Do I
want it sewn on? No. Glued? Yes. She mixes glue and rubber particles scraped
from an old tire.

After filling in a few weak spots, she hands the shoes back with a satisfied
expression. They are still perfect today.

I am limited to the Lhasa Prefecture by my travel permit. Beyond just
getting lost in the winding alleys of the Tibetan Quarter, there is much to
see. The Norbulinka, the summer palace of Dalai Lamas, is set in park-like
grounds just minutes from the Potala, the Winter Palace.

There are several monasteries on the edge of town. I visit Sera and Deprung,
from which activist monks were dispersed across the country or jailed after
the recent riots. However, it is fascinating to watch teachers and their
novitiates hotly debate religious points every afternoon in the leafy
squares within these walls.

I rent a Land Cruiser with driver for the iniquitous sum of $180 US and
spend a day in the vast grasslands. An unseasonable snowstorm has
sugar-coated the mountaintops - a magnificent backdrop for herds of yaks and
streamers of prayer flags, which hang from every bridge and outcropping.

Full marks to Mr. Chen for smoothing the way. Without his assurances, I may
well have skipped this fascinating and thought-provoking destination.

An extraordinary introduction to an exotic but troubled country on the roof
of the world.

Author's note: Tibetans represent a third of the population in their own
capital. And that proportion is quickly diminishing, with Han Chinese
flooding in, attracted by government incentives. Rapid redevelopment, best
viewed from the roof of the Potala, is limiting Tibetan culture to an
ever-shrinking corner of the city.

The time to visit is most definitely now.

If You Go

* Visas and permits: All visitors to China must first obtain a visa.
Download an application form. You will note that permits to visit Tibet
cannot be obtained this way. Permits to visit Lhasa MUST include a quasi
three-day tour, i.e. a hotel and mandatory guide.

* Guide book: Far and away the best in-depth guidebook is Tibet - The Bradt
Travel Guide, written by Vancouver's Michael Buckley. This book explains how
and where to obtain permits, including using Mr. Chen. Buckley's knowledge
of the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple and the country generally shows a
real passion for detail.

* Food: definitely not a highlight. Yak butter tea? Yak steaks broiled to a
crisp? Yak soup? Stay with banana pancakes and Chinese food.

* Health: The altitude in Lhasa was a problem for me, and if you plan to
visit popular Everest Base Camp, the altitude is a stunning 17,000 feet
(6,240 metres). Diamox is a suggested medication. Ask your doctor before you
go. Take lots of sunscreen, a hat and a variety of clothing to combat
exhausting dry heat and freezing cold. The weather can turn on a dime.

* When to go: There are no weather guarantees, but the period from mid-March
to mid-September is your best bet. And avoid the freezing winter months.
c Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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