Share this article

print logo

PURELY TIBET 'DAYS OF HEAVEN' IN THE SHADOW OF MOUNT EVEREST

"The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, the religious and political leader of the Tibetan people. . . . The Dalai Lama has developed his philosophy of peace from a great reverence for all things living and upon the concept of universal responsibility embracing all mankind as well as nature. In the opinion of the committee, the Dalai Lama has come forward with constructive and forward-looking proposals for the solution of international conflicts, human rights issues and global environmental problems." -- Oslo, Norway, Oct. 5, 1989.

A YEAR AGO this month the Dalai Lama went to Oslo to receive the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, the first in the history of the prize specifically to mention efforts on behalf of the environment.

Although the Dalai Lama has not been in Tibet in more than 30 years, anyone visiting his country quickly understands that his views reflect the attitude of the Tibetan people toward their environment. Their individual pilgrimages through the rugged highlands of their country bear an uncanny resemblance to the wilderness travels we in the West find so liberating.

Back in 1981, when I led the first American adventure travel group to the Tibetan base camp for Mount Everest, I had the feeling that I had seen all this before. A member who had spent time in a Buddhist retreat in Colorado suggested the possibility of reincarnation.

But as a lifetime Californian with little exposure to Buddhism, I had a more practical explanation. I had seen a similar landscape in my home state.

Tibet's open vistas of arid lands that rise up to join eternal snows bear an uncanny resemblance to the eastern Sierra of California. Both regions lie in the shadow of high mountains. The most obvious difference is in scale -- at 29,182 feet, Mount Everest is two 14,495-foot Mount Whitneys.

The instant connection I felt with Tibet's wild environment soon extended to include the Tibetan people and their exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, who has lived in Dharamsala, India, seat of the Tibetan government in exile, since his flight from the Chinese communists in 1959.

More than 30 years later, his spiritual presence still is felt in the remnants of Tibet's old Buddhist culture. Monks with impish grins walk through the streets, and oval-faced women greet visitors with smiles that rival the rising sun.

It is hard to comprehend such serenity in the face of one of the great cultural tragedies in history, where all but 10 of Tibet's 6,000 monasteries were destroyed and 1.2 million people were killed by the Chinese communist regime.

Despite the Chinese invasion, visitors to Tibet still find one of the Earth's unique wild places, where human beings have lived in harmony with their environment for more than a millennium.

While most of the civilized world has spent the past few centuries treating nature as an enemy to overcome, Tibetan Buddhists have maintained a reverence for the interdependence of humans and nature. This interdependence is the essence of the Dalai Lama's philosophy of each individual's universal responsibility.

A visit to Lhasa, Tibet's capital, provides a short course on how Tibetans practice compassion toward other human beings in their daily lives. The traveler feels instantly accepted, even loved, by strangers on the street.

Pico Iyer, a staff writer for Time, says, "I felt these were days of heaven, and I would never know such purity again."

But to see the broader picture of how these remarkable people relate to the Earth, one must travel deep into the outback, as I did on the most memorable of my five visits to Tibet -- a pilgrimage on a simple path around a holy mountain where Tibetans and groups of foreign trekkers share a common goal.

Shorter itineraries to Mount Everest Base Camp or overland to Kathmandu will give a traveler a feeling for Tibet's snowy heights and vast open spaces, but to see some of the wildlife, no other organized trek rivals a journey to Mount Kailas.

We began in the fabled city of Lhasa and drove west on dirt roads for five days to reach the base of Mount Kailas, which Tibetans believe is the earthly manifestation of mythical Mount Meru, the center of the universe.

The wildlife that disappeared from most of Tibet after the arrival of China's armies was still here in the far reaches of western Tibet. We saw antelope, gazelle, mountain sheep, wild yak, wild asses, wolves and many great birds of prey.

The land grew more austere each day, until it became a multihued surface of rounded rock dotted with grasses and sedges. We seemed to be riding on the bones of the Earth. I understood how pilgrims, walking overland for weeks or months, believe they are arriving at the center of the universe.

Three nomads who had come a thousand miles joined us for the 34-mile walk around the peak. One of them, a square-shouldered, gentle man named Tsewang, confided through an English-speaking Tibetan in our group that when he was a child in the early '60s, Chinese soldiers had forced his family into a commune and took away all their yaks, goats and other personal property.

They almost starved because most of the food they raised in the commune was exported to China. Suddenly in 1983 they were told they could go back to living in their yak-hair tents and divide up the few remaining animals.

But while the nomads are regaining their traditional ways, Tibetans in the cities continue to be subject to waves of repression that have had a profound effect on both human rights and foreign tourism.

Peaceful demonstrations countered by military violence closed Lhasa by martial law periodically after September 1987. Only after similar events in Tiananmen Square in Beijing were seen live on network TV did the world begin to believe the rumors of mass torture and death that have been coming out of Tibet ever since Chairman Mao's communist takeover in the '50s.

With Lhasa closed and China's reputation at an all-time low, the government could not have been surprised to see foreign travel to Tibet plummet from a record high of 84,000 in 1987 to a mere trickle of 3,600 in 1989 -- an average of just 10 arrivals a day.

But a funny thing began to happen. Trekking agencies reported continued demand for travel in Tibet, while interest in mainland China waned.

Many seasoned travelers had been eagerly awaiting the day when Lhasa would reopen so they could see the old "Forbidden City" that holds the most spectacular of Tibet's monasteries and the 1,000-room Potala Palace where the Dalai Lamas lived. Martial law was finally lifted in Lhasa in May 1990, just in time for the tourist season.

There is more of Tibetan culture to see these days than there was a decade ago. Some monasteries have been rebuilt, more Tibetans wear traditional clothes, and open practice of religion is more common, although still repressed within the monasteries. Visitors also are more likely to see old traditions because travel options have greatly increased.

Since the lifting of martial law in mid-1990, most adventure travel companies have resumed not only their Lhasa destinations, but also the broad range of itineraries in the Tibetan outback that they had developed in the early '80s when the region gradually opened to official tourism for the first time in history.

Access to Lhasa is now relatively simple. Twice-a-week flights have been reinstated between Kathmandu, Nepal, and Lhasa -- the air-hour of a lifetime on a clear day crossing the Himalayas near Mount Everest. This route avoids the time, hassle and expense of traveling through mainland China to catch a daily jet flight from Chengdu in Szechuan Province to Lhasa.

For adventurous souls who have more time, the Kathmandu-Lhasa highway is open, although sections are sometimes impassable due to rock slides. When this happens, the journey normally continues by hiring locals eager to reap some quick cash to carry luggage to vehicles waiting on the other side. The delay is usually a matter of hours rather than days.

As of this writing, only organized groups with prior arrangements are allowed into Tibet. However, the government does recognize "groups of one" with a hired guide and an advance reservation.

What the Chinese wish to avoid is the presence of unregulated individual travelers -- low-budget backpackers from the United States or Western Europe -- whom the government suspects may be members of an imagined "Dalai-clique" that collaborates with the Tibetans to promote the independence movement.

Ten years ago, groups were not given accommodations in the city of Lhasa proper. Now, foreigners can stay within the city at a monstrous cement hotel managed by Holiday Inns.

Returnees from Tibet this year have told me it feels quite safe for foreigners these days, but not for those local people who continue to voice their allegiance to their exiled Dalai Lama.

It is even illegal to give a Tibetan a picture of the Dalai Lama, as I discovered in 1988 when I was tried and found guilty of sedition in absentia in Beijing after a Chinese driver reported that I gave Tsewang's family a photo as a gift.

Ironically, what the Dalai Lama wants so badly to preserve is exactly what the Chinese tried so hard to destroy and now want tourists to come see. Perhaps this will be Tibet's eventual salvation.

The rest of the world wants a chance to experience the vestiges of the Dalai Lama's Tibet, where, he says, "in simplicity among our mountains, there is more peace of mind than in most of the cities of the world."

There are no comments - be the first to comment