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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?"

A trip to China and Tibet

November 27, 2009

Julie Gilgoff
Examiner (Canada)
November 25, 2009

Pat and Doug Donaldson met in the Peace Corps in
the 1960’s. They bonded over their love of travel
during their Peace Corps stint in Africa. The
couple got married abroad and moved to Albany,
California where they’ve lived ever since. Pat is
now a retired teacher and Doug is a
mostly-retired lawyer who still takes on
environmental regulation projects in the East Bay.

Although Pat and Doug now lead a peaceful life in
Albany, the couple has never lost their zest for
travel. Through a friend, they found a tourist
agency called XY Tours that brings mostly Chinese
Americans to China. Doug and Pat have taken a
total of four trips with this agency, and have
been the only ones present who do not speak
either Mandarin or Cantonese dialects of the Chinese language.

They found that the rewards of being a part of a
Chinese tour group outweighed the challenges.
Being with a group of Chinese tourists allowed
them to see parts of the country that are
infrequently traveled and that they never would
have seen on their own.  While they missed some
of the Tour Guides’ jokes, and narrative, the
couple did plenty of research before their trip
so that they knew something of the history of each destination they visited.

This trip to China was different from the past
three because it included a tour of the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China.

High altitudes: first impressions

Pat and Doug flew into Lhasa, the capital of
Tibet, at an altitude of 11,500 feet. The flight
was beautiful. The couple compared the landscape
to the Nevada desert, the craggy peaks of the
Eastern Sierra or the intermountain valleys of
the Rocky Mountains supersized with lots of yaks.
They would be in the midst of desert landscape
and then see a cluster of snow-capped peaks.

The Southern slopes of the Himalayas catch the monsoon rain.

Descending a bit lower the land is green and
forested with vegetation. There are several
microclimates that they saw on that flight alone.

A long way from home

Doug and Pat Donaldson spent three weeks
traveling the Tibet-Sichuan highway in
accommodations that rarely had heat and sometimes
had no running water, at altitudes between 10,000
and 17,000 feet. Along the road they saw pilgrims
prostrating themselves on their way to the
Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, which for many Tibetans
is the most holy temple. The tourists in their
group would signal to the jeep or bus driver each
time there was especially breathtaking landscape
that they wanted to photograph and the driver would try to pull over.

Pat said, "Everywhere you look there were
thousands of colorful prayer flags, at holy
places, on hillsides, on mountain passes, and
piles of mani stones with the mantra OM MANI
PADME HUM carved on them. Tibetans were spinning
their prayer wheels, and repeating mantras on their rosary beads.”

Among the many tourist attractions they visited,
Pat and Doug went to the Potala Palace, the
former residence of the Dalai Lamas, until the
present Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala, India.

Pat described the tomb of the 13th Dalai Lama,
which was 16 feet high, made of gold, encrusted
with gems and 200,000 pearls. Doug and Pat bought
a book from the palace and noted that it
contained no pictures of the 14th Dalai Lama. It
was prohibited to talk about him.

Pat contrasted the beauty and spirituality with
unsettling images of armed police on the corners,
clusters of soldiers at gas stations, and
security cameras everywhere. They also visited
the Samye monastery, the site of an uprising of monks in 2008.

Visits to Tibetan Villages

Pat and Doug admired traditional Tibetan homes
with sloping stone walls, elaborately carved and
colorfully painted window trim and doors. They
said that some rooftops were orange, covered with
the drying corn crop, others were green with
drying turnips. Everywhere, people were busy with
their harvest and thrashing their wheat crop.

They wished that they had been able to
communicate with Tibetans that they encountered
in smaller towns and villages. Tibetans seemed
friendly and willing to talk. Once Pat and Doug
were invited in to a Tibetan house and served yak
butter tea and peaches. The woman who welcomed
them into her home was a gracious host, a
28-year-old taking care of her mother-in-law, a
woman Pat’s age who appeared to be completely crippled by arthritis.

At one prayer-flag-covered-rock-outcrop, Pat and
Doug were told that it was a site for the ancient
Tibetan ritual of sky burials.  In this ceremony,
Tibetans put a deceased person’s  body out for
the vultures to feed upon and in this way, human
life remained connected with  the natural cycle of life and death.

China's control over Tibet

Obama recently visited China and talked about
human rights. The Chinese President compared
their efforts to control Tibet to the Northern US
states’ struggle to keep the union together.

But Doug thinks that China’s actions more closely
resemble the US’s westward expansion and
suppression of  of the Native Americans. “The
Chinese are trying to control local culture. They
are most interested in preserving  the colorful
dress of their minority peoples; they
aggressively manage religious expression, limit
freedom of speech  and work hard to buy Tibetans
off economically. They want them to become
Chinese. Since the 1950’s China’s government has
been saying that Tibet needs to be rescued from
the Dark Ages. To live as a Tibetan is to lead a
religious life. Many  families would give their
children to be monks, but the spiritual emphasis is slowly lessening.”

Pat pointed out that whatever opinions they have
formed are limited by their brief impressions
while traveling. "We don’t have an accurate
picture of what life is really like,” she said.
“We saw security cameras and military presence
but we don’t speak Tibetan and couldn’t talk to Tibetan people."

The couple admitted that perhaps the Chinese have
improved some Tibetans’ standard of living, at
least monetarily. Some Tibetans now have good
jobs in the government. These individuals are
paid well. Tibetans with money can now buy
motorcycles, cars and houses. And most of the
towns and villages they visited had electricity.

In Chengdu, Sichaun Province, Doug and Pat noted
the Chinese government’s successful initiative to
control air and noise pollution by requiring
hundreds and thousands of vehicle owners to
switch from gas  engines to electric motors. "We
were told it was accomplished in less than 2
years -- you just can’t make these sort of
drastic changes that quickly in a Democracy," they said.

There is a train that was recently built from
Beijing to Lhasa, which opened up that formerly
geographically isolated region.  Doug says that
Tibetans now appear to be a minority in Lhasa,
their own capital. The train brings in thousands
of people a day. The Chinese government offers
incentives for people from Central and Eastern
China to migrate to the West, another parallel
that Doug draws to American history when Pioneers
were moving to western states in the 1860’s and
1870’s. In Tibet, Doug says, you could even have more than one child.

Doug also described the controversy about the
Panchen Lama, who is the second ranking Lama
after the Dalai Lama. The 14th Dalai Lama
recognizes a different Panchen Lama than the
Chinese government. The Panchen Lama that the
Dalai Lama named has vanished from the public
eye, and the People’s Republic of China says that
he is being held in protective custody. Whether
or not the Chinese government should be involved
in the naming of the 10th Panchen Lama is the
subject of much controversy relating to China’s control over Tibet.
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