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Lhasa Tango in Tibet

Dalai Lama
Christopher Gardner

Journalists in tourists' clothing, two travelers learn evasive maneuvers in a country living under China's shadow

By Mitchell Koss

I almost sneaked into Tibet during the summer of 1994. My colleague Lisa, a television news correspondent, and I, a producer for the same show, had gotten journalism visas to shoot a short documentary in China. Specifically, we had gotten permission to visit Shanghai, one of the booming showcase cities of the People's Republic. Then Lisa suggested that we also make a side trip to Tibet. I said, "Sure."

But there was one problem. Tibet is officially a province of the People's Republic of China, and the government there wants journalists to be shooting video of high-rise buildings going up in Shanghai and Guangzhou, recording the emblems of the astonishing growth that has made China the world's second-biggest economy, according to the CIA. The government of the PRC emphatically does not want journalists recording images of discord, suppression or poverty--images common to regions like Tibet.

So, even if you've already gotten a visa to go to China as a journalist, or a tourist, or a business person, you must apply to get another visa to visit Tibet. And if you apply as someone whose profession is journalism, and you're not Diane Sawyer on a show tour, the answer is going to be no.

Tibet on the World Wide Web:

WWW Virtual Library, Index of Tibetan Studies: Keeps track of leading information resources in the field of Tibetan studies.

FAQ about Travel to Tibet: Travelers' comments from the Rec.Travel Library.

The Free Tibet Home Page: The history, the present situation, and what you can do.

On the other hand, the government of China has no objection to groups of especially affluent tourists stopping by Lhasa and dropping a few thousand bucks a piece. Soon after a phone call to a high-end travel agency, I was looking at a faxed itinerary for a visit to Tibet.

It was that simple.

Then a couple of days later, I was talking over the phone with my friend Phil, who is a member of the U.S. intelligence community--that is, a spook.

"How'd you talk them into letting you into Tibet?" Phil wanted to know, impressed, having himself done "mapping" in China for the U.S. Department of Defense.

"Oh," I told him, "we're not going as journalists, I booked us as tourists."

There followed the longest silence I've ever been party to over the telephone, a silence stretching out like an astral projection, vivid with imagery of my inevitable detection, arrest and conviction.

"Okay," said Phil finally, rallying: he's used to rallying after all sorts of knuckleheaded events. "This is how you play it. Before they arrest you, make sure you've found someone to get your tapes out for you."

After hanging up with Phil, I canceled the tour of Tibet.

Ten or 11 months passed. Then, one Monday morning last year, Lisa came to me again. "Let's go to Tibet."

I said, "Sure."

When I was a child, my religious beliefs were limited to marshmallow Santa Clauses. Since then, I've lapsed further--I don't eat sugar. So I was only peripherally aware of the ascendancy of the Dalai Lama among spiritual types in the United States. Lisa was more on top of things. She realized Tibet was becoming an American cause after seeing some monks chanting at Lollapalooza.

Before Tibet became fashionable, it was merely one more country whose people had been taken over by a more powerful nation. Although the Chinese government claims that Tibet has belonged to China for centuries, in practice, until recently, it was autonomous. Too remote to easily be controlled by Beijing, Tibet occupied a vast region of the Himalayas that was only sparsely populated by farmers and herders. Until 1959, the strongly Buddhist Tibetans were led by monks based in monasteries. Then the Chinese sent troops in, and Tibet's spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, fled to India, where he remains. In the decades since, China, with the stated goal of bringing Tibet into the 20th century, has waged a massive campaign to destroy the country's Buddhist culture.

Although the Beastie Boys, Harrison Ford, Richard Gere, Newt Gingrich and company may wish otherwise, the U.S. State Department recognizes Tibet only as a part of China.

As Chinese citizens, the Tibetans enjoy the same human rights as other citizens of China. That is, not so many. In most human-rights polls, the People's Republic of China ranks near the bottom.

On the other hand, in most places in China, government repression isn't the first thing you notice, because, in most places in China, no one dares challenge the government. I have worked in China--with and without official permission--several times in the past two years, and I've never met anyone willing to offer even the faintest on-camera criticism of the Chinese government.

But the Tibetans are supposedly not so docile. They have even been known to demonstrate for Tibetan autonomy. And right now, for reasons relating to the nation's rapid growth and transformation, the Chinese government is most afraid of what it refers to as "splitism." We might call it the beginnings of revolution or of anarchy, real dangers in a land that has lost tens of millions of people to both this century. So according to Amnesty International, thousands of Tibetans are in prison, many of them Buddhist monks and nuns.

Merely by sending another check to the specialty tour agency, Lisa and I booked a two-person tour of Tibet. When our tourist visas arrived they listed our profession as "educators." While we were at it, Lisa made arrangements for us to interview the Dalai Lama himself at his Dharamsala headquarters.

Before leaving for Tibet, I went to see some exiled monks perform at a high school. At the monks' invitation, my wife and I watched the performance from backstage, in the area where the monks relaxed while not performing. When they ate saltine crackers and Cheddar cheese, they offered us some. We declined. They insisted that we eat, saying their consciences would not let them dine while we fasted. "You are in Tibet now," one of them said. "You have no choice."

Summarizing this exchange fails to convey how gracious, how plainly hospitable, the monks were, how gentle. So when they began warning me about Lhasa, their mild speech went right to my intestines: There are spies everywhere, they said. TV cameras monitor public gathering places. When the Chinese security apparatus finds out that Lisa has been in touch with His Holiness, we will be picked up.

"And in certain restaurants in Lhasa, Chinese restaurants, particularly those run by Chinese Muslims, you have to be very careful."

"Oh?"

"Yes, they serve human flesh."

"Oh."

Oh. Out of the cruel snows of this region, after all, comes the yeti, the abominable snowman, a creature of belief. Now a new creature seems to be getting credited with equally terrifying powers: the occupying Chinese.

The video safety announcement for China Eastern Airways has a Muzak version of "My Way" playing under it. Once we were aloft, the flight attendants served salty snacks: dried fish in little plastic bags. I held on to the home video camera we had brought in place of our Beta-cam. Tourist.

Mount Everest drifted past at eye level, then we were walking across the tarmac in a treeless valley, toward the terminal of a no-frills, military-style airport--an airport that turned out to be 100 kilometers from Lhasa, easy to defend in case of a revolt by Tibetans, a good place to land reinforcements.

Everything seemed to be going fine, although a little chaotically, as 180 or so tourists, mostly European, milled around at the airport police check. But first the large parties of Italians were cleared to leave, then the smaller parties of French. In the end, there were only Lisa and I.

As challenges in police detective work go, the problem we presented wasn't a huge one. The police has merely to page through our passports. Among the dozens of visas inside, some clearly were marked "journalist" ... for Iran, Algeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, France, Korea, etc.

"They say that we're journalists," said Lisa, who is Chinese-American and speaks Mandarin.

Being arrested for professional reasons isn't that much different from being arrested recreationally. There is the moment of fluidity, when life can go either way. And then they've got you, and everything from then on is their call.

But they didn't have us yet, and Lisa, despite having never before been arrested, seemed to grasp instinctively how to tip the scales. She began speaking in Mandarin to the police. Yes, we did indeed have journalist visas in our passports, but we were actually educators, just as we had written on your tourist visas. And now, our very expensive vacation was being ruined.

And to my surprise, I could see that the police suddenly faced a real dilemma: In a court ruled by fear of authority, fear of stepping out of line, what do you do about brazen denial, about a person who is not intimidated when she should be. It seemed to be a puzzle that they had never before encountered. They looked at the official visas stamped in our passports, but you could tell that they were wavering.

We were invited to a large, totally empty waiting room, with a grand view over the tarmac to the spooky, bare mountains beyond. To keep us company, they sent a smiling young policewoman in a green army uniform, cap with red star, too much makeup, and clunky high heel sticking out of her baggy green trousers.

She invited me to have a seat in one of the room's 300 or so vacant chairs. Then she insisted. I realized I was in Tibet now and had no choice. I sat.

They clearly didn't know what to do next. The policewoman wandered away. We wandered out into the airport lobby, immense, austere, totally empty. We felt bold enough to get out our home video camera and start taping. A few cleaning women, Tibetans, came out singing, their voices rising louder as our home video camera approached. But they never glanced at us. Between verses, they whistled--eerily, fiercely, the song of birds willing to wait as long as necessary to eat your flesh. As their hard music filled the lobby, it began to seem that the Chinese government had not won yet.

After about four hours, for no apparent reason, the airport police let us go. We walked out of the airport. The patient tour guide booked by the travel agency was still waiting for us. He had on a Levi's jacket and tinted glasses. A cigarette dangled from his mouth. He wore a brown baseball cap emblazoned with TIBET. His face was blank.

When we got into the car, there were some seconds of silence as we assessed one another. Finally, our guide offered, "Maybe you were lucky just now." "Why," Lisa asked him. He shrugged. "Why do you think they let us in?" Lisa persisted. "Maybe they didn't have proof," he answered. "Proof of what?" she asked. "That you are journalists," he answered. I was waiting for him to say that he was taking us back to the police. But he was making a decision. "Do you think they made a mistake letting us in?" Lisa asked. Suddenly the guide broke into a big smile: "Yes," he said.

We started driving through the gray afternoon, toward Lhasa and our rooms at the Holiday Inn. After a moment, our guide said, "There are the rules. No talking in the hotel, because of spies. No talking in the monastery, because of spies. We can talk in the car.

"We are not allowed to discuss politics," he continued, "but I am authorized to talk to you about Tibet. I will tell you about Tibet."

"Do the Tibetan people like being a part of China?" Lisa asked him.

"If I say no, it would only be the truth about Tibet, and I am licensed to tell the truth about Tibet."

We drove in silence along a field of haystacks shaped like the tents of nomads.

"When we are done shooting here," our guide said, "you will give me your tapes and address. I will send them to you."

"Why are you helping us?" Lisa asked.

"It is my duty as a Tibetan," he said.

When we stopped along the roadside to pee, our guide put white scarves around our necks. "Welcome to Tibet," he said.

As we entered Lhasa, our guide pointed to the buildings we were passing--massive blocks of new, plain buildings, broken by frequent construction sites. "Look," he said, "what do those buildings look like?"

"Like buildings from anywhere else in China," Lisa answered.

"Yes," said our guide. "Where has Tibet gone?"

The term that the Tibetans in exile use is "population transfer." They claim that there are now 7.5 million Chinese living alongside the 6 million Tibetans. The Chinese government puts the number of Chinese at around 50,000.

In one part of town, the Chinese-style buildings stopped abruptly, like the end of history. We pulled up in front of a square. "This is the Jokang Monastery," our guide said. "Today, they say that Tibet stops at these walls."

At the monastery, a religious event was going on. An unbroken stream of Tibetans, three or six across, was passing clockwise around the outside walls. The people wore raggedy clothes; the hues of their garments were vivid, angry, the only bright colors to be seen in this high, bare land.

A few old women in the procession cranked handheld prayer wheels. But otherwise the crowd did not seem avidly spiritual. Some people chatted.

Outside the spinning ring of pilgrims there was second ring, this one of vendors selling used clothing. It was the kind of desperation selling that you'd see in markets in Moscow in 1993, or in Budapest in 1990.

We made our way through the crowd into the monastery. It was dark. The smoky brick-and-timber interiors formed a map to a different sort of world than the one the Chinese are building out of microchips. On an open area several floors up, we were introduced to an English-speaking monk, a friend of our guide's. Lisa sat next to him on a bench as I rolled tape.

"Does it make you sad that Tibet looks like China now?" Lisa asked. The monk nodded and laughed without making much noise.

"I suppose the Chinese do it because they like tourists," Lisa said.

"But not your kind of tourists," the monk said, glancing sideways at Lisa, then staring forward again.

"Is it bad for you to be speaking with us," Lisa continued.

The monk stared forward as if he had not heard. Then he spoke, "If they find out, trouble. But we don't know how strong they are. Sometimes we think they can hear us in our homes. Where are they? Everywhere."

"Are you afraid of being arrested?" Lisa asked.

"It's a problem, no?" the monk said. "Big problem. I'm the only one here who speaks English. If they take me there will be no one left who speaks English to tell our story."

The monk led us through the monastery to where other monks were chanting. Let me tell you about it, this was fervid chanting that was trying to drive away demons from a bedeviled land. Chanting fitted perfectly to the gloomy dimness broken here and there where small spotlights shown on golden Buddhas so garish, grimacing so fiercely, they seems possessed themselves.

We wandered from room to room in the dark, led by the monk. The chanting followed us, houndlike. At some points it was so loud we couldn't hear the explanations for what he was showing us. I gathered that most of the statues we were viewing were replicas, the originals having been destroyed by the Chinese.

At some point, the monk turned and said, "There used to be another monk here who spoke English. But when they found out he was talking to people, he was given a six-year sentence." And having said that into our home video camera, he'd placed himself in danger, too. Then he strolled on, watched by a gold Buddha who grinned as if he didn't care whose government controls Tibet.

In the '80s, Deng Xiao Ping, the ailing 91-year-old supreme leader of Communist China, used to like to say, "Let all the Chinese people be rich."

Since then, the place has been growing, with the economy increasing by more than 10 percent per year for over a dozen years. Today, on a weekday night, you can walk out of the Peace Hotel in Shanghai and head down Nanjing Road through miles and miles of well-dressed crowds, under miles and miles of lights bright enough for downtown Las Vegas, past miles and miles of stores familiar to habitués of the Stanford Shopping Center or Valley Fair, past miles and miles of a society changing as fast as children in preschool, past miles and miles of energy and cell phones and hopes for the future as fervid and indistinct as hopes for one's next incarnation.

And that brings up another problem with the situation in Tibet.

I before leaving for Tibet, Lisa and I had arranged through Amnesty International to have dinner with some émigré Tibetans.

The next day, one of the people we'd met telephoned to say, "The real problem isn't just human rights. It's cultural. The Chinese are moving in and setting up businesses. Those Tibetans who can are learning Mandarin to get ahead. Those who can't adapt are pushed aside. I'm afraid the Tibetans will end up like the Native Americans, drunk and relegated to reservations, and only brought out to put on traditional dances for the tourists."

But if, as a young person in Tibet, your choice were to wear a pen protector in your pocket, speak Mandarin and hold down a job that allows you to buy the latest home karaoke setup, or to wear robes, chant and sleep on a board in a cold room, which would you choose? If, as a parent, you had to make that choice for your children, which would you choose?

Back out in the square in front of the Jokang Monastery, our guide was more nervous. He stopped a few times to see if we were being followed. His hands shook. He pointed to the TV cameras mounted on buildings. "They are watching."

When we got back into our car, he made the driver stop to see if we were being followed.

I began to feel that I was witnessing another kind of faith. Not faith in His Holiness, in Buddhism, in Tibet, but faith in the absolute power to do evil; faith in its controlling omnipotence. It is one of the two remaining faiths on which the post-socialist Chinese government now bases its power, the other being the chance for prosperity.

My father tells me that, back in the '50s, when he was a teacher, he would sometimes ask his class: "What gives me the power to tell you what to do? If all of you suddenly decided to get up and walk out of class, what gives me the power to stop you?"

Some kids, he says, would answer, the school board, or the state, or the principal.

And my father says he would reply to them, "If I went to the principal and said, 'They won't listen to me,' what do you think he would do?"

And so on, until my father came to the punch line: "What gives me the power over you is you. If you all wanted to walk out of here at once, what I could do is nothing. That's how power works."

Depending on whom you listen to, the Chinese government is becoming extremely afraid that portions of China are metaphorically close to getting up and walking out of class.

After more or less successfully getting into Tibet as tourists and making it through one day, our second morning in Lhasa found us a bit hung over from all the intrigue. We went out jogging, but the altitude, and remorse, slowed us down.

"Our guide didn't expect us to be journalists. He didn't ask us to come here," Lisa said. "But then there we were, and he only has a few minutes to decide what to do. He had to decide to be heroic in an instant. But now what?"

"He probably went home last night and looked at his parents," I said, not to be outdone in self-reproach, "and wondered if he was looking at them for the last time."

"I called the tour company," our guide said when we were back in the car with him, "and told them I don't want to take you around anymore, because I think you are journalists."

We drove over to his tour offices. His boss, a smiling man, leaned over and listened as we told our story of tourism. He invited us to go downstairs and have tea in the common room where the tour-company employees relax.

We had eight or 10 cups of sweet milk tea flavored with vanilla. At one side of the room, employees shot pool--abysmally. At another side was the kitchen.

From time to time, our guide came down to give us updates.

"The police from the airport have telephoned to the security police in Lhasa," he said at one point. "But I have a trick." A while after that, he came back and said, "I told them that, yesterday, I only took you to a restaurant. You saw nothing. This is my trick."

An hour later, we were sitting on couches drinking even more tea with the security police--a more impressive group than had been at the airport. The uniformed ones had more stars on their shoulders. The boss, in plainclothes, had a big gold watch. The sun had come out at last, filling up the room.

Lisa talked with them in Mandarin. "I told the chief he looks like my uncle," she whispered to me.

The boss spoke to the No. 2 policeman, who spoke to us in English, politely but firmly.

"You will leave on the next flight out. Tomorrow," the No. 2 policeman said. "In the meanwhile, you will stay at the Holiday Inn."

"Can we go sightseeing?" Lisa asked.

"No."

"But you're ruining our vacation," she said.

I ended up writing out a confession--but not a complete confession, as they had already let us into their country. I confessed to being a journalist on vacation. Lisa and I signed it.

On the way back to the hotel to begin our house arrest, they let us get out and shoot some video of the Potala, the Dalai Lama's ex-palace, just in case we really were tourists.

On the video, Lisa is waving at the camera: "Hi," she says. "I'm standing in from of the famous Potala Palace. The Dalai Lama used to live here. Now it's a museum." And then she gives her big famous smile. And you can see in her eyes that we are now seeing Tibet as the Chinese want us to see it, as tourists. But this view is no different than the way that the French want us to view their past at Versailles, or the way we Americans present the colonists and the Native Americans dressed up at Williamsburg. Because none of us is innocent enough to really want to go back to past times. And every time that I've seen that bit of video since, I haven't know how to set my face, for not being innocent.

Just before our car pulled up to the grounds of the Holiday Inn where we would begin our house arrest, our guide said, "Give me your tapes and your address. This is my trick."

Lisa and I looked at each other. Although cowardice comes naturally to me, I am inclined, once I've started out on a limb, to keep going. Let them arrest me, beat me. They can't have my tapes. But in this case, Lisa and I weren't the ones facing the most punishment.

I handed them over, thinking I'd never see them again. In 18 years of journalism, it was the most defeated I'd ever felt.

Everything was very discreet. The police made our guide sleep on a couch in the lobby, and then put out plainclothes officers to watch him watching us. But excepting that we couldn't leave, we were free to roam, to visit the Hard Yak Cafe and the swimming pool, to have yak tartare. And after a few hours, the Holiday Inn began to seem the perfect metaphor for the situation in Tibet. Rather than a beheading, the Chinese are presiding over a gently smothering of Tibetan culture.

At the airport the next morning, they didn't make much of a ceremony about kicking us out. "You'd think we'd at least get to be at the front of the line," Lisa said.

There is another Tibet, the Tibet-in-exile, lead by the exiled Dalai Lama. The only problem was getting there.

At 5 in the morning, on three hours' sleep, particularly if you're in an Indian airport, bad news doesn't sink in, it kind of stutters in, crashing through the barriers of fatigue and desperation.

"You can't bump us off the flight to Dharamsala," Lisa explained to a clerk in the Delhi airport. "We're supposed to interview the Dalai Lama there in two days."

"No problem," the man from the little airline said. "I will be calling a taxi."

"But it's 500 miles away. In the mountains," I said.

"Nice, air-conditioned taxi."

A few hours later, a nice air-conditioned taxi pulled up in front of our hotel. Lisa and I loaded in our video gear and got in. The taxi pulled away, honking through traffic, heading toward another Tibet, the Tibet-in-exile headquartered in the Northern Indian village of Dharamsala.

Northern India rolled by, honking: big trees, buffalo, monkeys, temples, commerce, dal and chapatis.

Fourteen hours later, still honking, we pulled into upper Dharamsala, which had looked to be lit up like heaven as we wound up to it from the road below. We unloaded our gear. I paid the meter: $420. The next morning there was a double rainbow over the valley, to affirm our pilgrim status.

Up at the Dalai Lama's palace, where they were waiting for us, there was a Long Life ceremony in progress, several days of chanting by hundreds of monks in from of hundreds more onlookers, Tibetans ringed by tourists.

Let me tell you about the chanting: There was something athletic about this chanting, the chanting of people not in danger of being stopped by the police, the chanting of people whose only challenge is the physical drain of chanting.

I spotted a Tibetan wearing a Cats sweatshirt. In contrast to the austere mountains of Tibet, the land here was rich. But against the generous greens of these mountains, the colors of the people's clothing seemed muted.

"It has a kind of museum feel," Lisa said.

That afternoon, we saw the bench on which Richard Gere is rumored to sit occasionally when he is in Dharamsala, and we interviewed the travel agent in whose office the bench rests.

We interview some monks, who explained that the principal duty of a monk is the memorization of text.

"Can I ask you a personal question?" Lisa said, interrupting him.

"Go ahead," said the monk.

"Do monks think about sex?" asked Lisa.

"I'm not sure," said the monk. He then proceeded to speak for 10 minutes without answering the question.

At night, walking through the village, fireflies land on your clothes, and remain lit as you move.

After all that sneaking into Tibet and being bounced out, after the ride up to Dharamsala and the days there, we were pulling for the Dalai Lama, pulling for him to say something that would make sense of it all.

Before the interview with His Holiness, an aide took us aside and said, "He gives hundreds of interviews. He answers the same questions many times. We'll give you 15 minutes. Don't bore him."

An hour into the interview, he was still genial. He laughed frequently.

Finally, Lisa had to ask him flat out: "Millions of people pray to you as a living god. Do you hear their prayers?" His Holiness laughed again.

"I am just a human being," he answered. "You look like a human being," Lisa told him. "A poor human being," His Holiness continued, "unfortunate human being. Lost his country and forced to spend the better part of his life in exile."

And then he laughed again, the laugh of a man who had suddenly made us see Tibet as he wanted us to see it.

At the end of our interview with His Holiness, he was wearing a baseball cap from our news organization, holding Lisa's hand and saying, "There's no reason we can't work this out just between you Chinese and us Tibetans. We don't hate. We admire much about you. And all the world loves your restaurants." And he laughed.

Afterward, we got scarves like the ones our guide had given us that first day in Tibet. But now I wasn't sure which country these new scarves were welcoming us to.

Three weeks after our return to Los Angeles, our Tibetan tapes showed up. Our guide has done what he'd said, and smuggled them out of Tibet to someone who, in turn, mailed them to us from Europe.

I was telling my friend Phil, the spook, about this over the phone. He was impressed.

"Don't burn that guy," Phil instructed me. "We'll need guys like that when the time comes."

I'm still not exactly sure what Phil was talking about, but I hope that when our guide's time comes, he'll be able to recognize it.


A documentary about Tibet directed and produced by Mitchell Koss and Lisa Ling will air on public television.

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From the April 4-10, 1996 issue of Metro

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