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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

In Tibet, only Lonely Planet carries a statutory warning

August 11, 2010

Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times
August 9, 2010

Lhasa, Aug. 9 -- When Beijing invites a bunch of
Indian journalists to visit Tibet, the words
'Dalai Lama' are carefully tucked away in the
travellers' minds. But in case we had forgotten
about the Dharmasala-Lhasa connection, the
authorities themselves wouldn't let us forget. At
Gongga Airport, where we landed in

Tibet, a customs x-ray machine with the special
function of finding books inside bags, caught
fellow traveller Siddarth Vardarajan carrying
diabolical contraband: a Lonely Planet Tibet
guidebook. The customs lady explained the book
had to be confiscated as it "wasn't true".

The offending bit: a line where the Dalai Lama
says "Tibet is my country". While I wondered
whether the line merely meant the Dalai Lama was
stating he was Tibetan, rather than wresting
propriety of Tibet from Beijing, Siddarth
unsuccessfully urged the stern lady making
frantic calls on her pink cellphone to tear out
the offending page and return the book.

I kept as quiet as a collaborating mouse, fearing
for the books I was carrying: The Dragon in the
Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet since
1947 by Tsering Shakya and Tintin in Tibet. Far
more dangerous than Lonely Planet, I would have thought.

Post-Modern Life

The first thing that hits you as you enter Lhasa
is how modern and different it is from our mental
image of Lhasa gleaned from movies and books. The
disconnect is natural, considering the Chinese
have been cagey about letting outsiders visit. So
it's the Tibet of sepia-toned photos of the
40-50s and Tibetans manning momo stalls in Dilli
Haat that we carry in our heads.

Ba Yi Road has rows of shops, restaurants and
bars on either side. I could have easily been in
Manhattan if it wasn't for the signs — Tibetan on
top and, in larger typeface, Mandarin below. The
roads are clean, wide and, barring a few vans and
cars, rather empty. Anyone who talks about
Beijing destroying local culture simply by
bringing modernity to Lhasa may be suffering from
Richard Gereitis, that ailment which makes people
want Tibet to be a quaint museum populated by monks turning prayer wheels.

At the square in front of Jokhang monastery, one
of Tibetan Buddhism's most sacred sites, I find a
very different place from the one in March 2008,
when authorities carried out the bloodiest
crackdown in decades in unrest that left a reported 80 dead.

Today, a Tibetan stall owner helpfully lights my
cigarette while tourists and worshippers throng
this intersection of modernity and tradition. I
look at a young Tibetan boy on his way inside.

He's wearing an NYPD cap and a T-shirt with a
Ferrari logo. Can't see Richard Gereitis
sufferers approving this. But who says the 'Gucci
monk' in faraway Dharmashala wouldn't approve of
modern life coming to his old Tibet?

Village People

I stumble on to a picnic behind Junba village
after breaking away and following a dirt road
between mud and brick houses and used as a
jogging track by resident chickens. On the
meadow, the dudes are sitting under trees playing
cho, a dice game, with each guy shouting 'Thut'
loudly with each throw, while another lot are
chugging Lhasa beer and playing cards.

The women sit on the other side wearing their
best -- Tibetan traditional gear for the ladies
and T-shirt 'n' jeans for the girls — gossiping
and bitching ("You really think these suckers are falling for all this?").

It does look a bit set up (sorry Beijing, but
there is a lot of counter-propaganda doing the
rounds). But even as a set-up — they do this with
British delegations visiting Dalit households
too, you know -- it's nice to see the happy
people of Junba (population: 681) doing their bit
to make me want to come back to rural Tibet.

Some 15 minutes later, I'm back in the van. We
cross some wet grasslands and get down again,
this time at a field that looks suspiciously like
the picnic ground I just came from. Yup, it's the
same place. Our hosts have brought us for a
'cultural programme' while we sit at a low table,
have Lhasa beer, and watch traditional dances. I
see one girl a few feet away, chewing bubble gum
and wearing cartoon monkey patches, the word
'Angel' and 'RD&G' on the seat of her jeans, titter away.

Smoke for Safety

I had been told China was a "paradise" for
smokers. And it is. Not only is smoking not seen
as a dangerous, subversive activity in Tibet, it is encouraged.

For starters, you can smoke anywhere and
everywhere -- hotel lobbies, restaurants,
even,  barring the inner sanctums, monasteries.
It turns out that in Lhasa's rarefied air (this
time of year oxygen levels are at a 70 per cent
high) smokers have an advantage over non-smokers
in that their bodies are suited to using depleted air.

That, anyway, is the standard excuse for every
second person I see chugging up. The tourist
brochures may advice you not to smoke (or drink
or take a shower) during your first few days in
Tibet, but the belief here is that smoking
protects against altitude sickness. Or so I've
come to believe. In glorious Tibet, smokers are free!
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