Video: Tibet: A threatened culture

Gary Higgins

Peering past the endless expanse of ice-capped Himalayan peaks, a glimpse of the vast and rugged Tibetan Plateau is visible in the distance. Tibet is called the roof of the world, and the reason is obvious.

It was October of last year, before the most recent troubles, and my fiancée and I were landing in Lhasa, Tibet’s ancient capital and most sacred city, after a week in China. Most Chinese we spoke with were either unaware or unwilling to discuss conflicts affecting the Tibetan region.

Read more

Official site of the Summer Olympics

Tibet Online

Tibetan government in exile

Cranes and construction sites dwarf ancient buildings throughout Lhasa. Modern offices and apartments, factories, greenhouses and military compounds sprawl far beyond the ancient Tibetan Buddhist center. Except for the towering Potala Palace, the former home of the Dalai Lama, and a small Tibetan quarter around Barkhor Square, the bustle of downtown Lhasa resembles many other modern Chinese cities.

As the influx of Han Chinese into Tibet continues, culture clash and conflict, particularly in Lhasa, are on the rise. In March demonstrations at monasteries and in Barkhor Square turned deadly and sparked worldwide protests that continue on the verge of the 2008 Olympic games that open Friday in Beijing.

To many Tibetans, it appears their history and way of life is eroding and being replaced by a modern Chinese state. Strict government rules and religious restrictions have contributed to the animosity and tension. Chinese flags must fly over Tibetan homes; Tibetan flags are outlawed.

All mass communication is controlled by the Chinese government. Of the dozens of television and radio stations available in Lhasa, only one is broadcast in Tibetan, and all content is dictated by the government.

Nearly all Tibetans are practicing Buddhists. Tibetan Buddhists believe the Dalai Lama is the current incarnation of a long line of Buddhist masters who have become so enlightened they are exempt from the cycle of life and rebirth. Carrying a picture of the Dalai Lama is now a crime in Tibet. The question of the successor to the current Dalai Lama is of grave concern, with the Chinese government demanding the selection meet their approval.

Tibet is a vast and arid plateau surrounded by rugged mountain peaks. Ice melt feeds rapid rivers. Sacred and brilliant aquamarine lakes are visible from dramatic switchbacks on mountain roads. The thin air is dizzying at 12,000 feet in Lhasa. We were cautioned not to exert ourselves until we became acclimated to the altitude.

Weathered and weary faces dot the landscape. These are pilgrims. They walk only a few steps, then prostrate themselves. All four limbs and forehead must touch the ground. This is repeated thousands of times as the devout make their journey through the sacred circuit of holy sites. It is said that one million prostrations in a lifetime will purify the soul.

In the heart of Barkhor Square in Lahsa, sun- and wind-burned faces contrast with vibrant colors of traditional clothing, turquoise and bright red sea coral jewelry. Acrid smoke pours from giant incense burners near the 7th-century Jokhang Temple, considered to be one of the most sacred temples in Tibetan Buddhism.

Faces are a captivating mix of old and young. Their features resemble those of many American Indians with high cheekbones, dark eyes and hair, and golden reddish skin. Many women wear finely woven braids with coral, turquoise and gold jewelry adorning hair and hands.

Thousands of pilgrims converge near the temple for prayer and prostrations. They walk circles around the temple, always in sets of three, always in a clockwise direction, many carrying prayer wheels.

As the midday crowd grows, a police vehicle blasts music over a loudspeaker and disrupts the procession by traveling the opposite direction through the crowd. Unfazed, the pilgrims spread, allow the vehicle to pass and continue their rituals.

Three hours north of Lhasa is a region traditionally populated by nomadic people. They had recently settled into a small, newly constructed outpost town. Livestock and people mill about as curious children ask for money in English. It was suggested that the nomads were recently forced into settlements by the Chinese government as a way to count them and control their movement.

A final side trip involving harrowing hairpin turns and a treacherous mountain pass brought us within sight of the brilliant deep blue waters of Lake Yamdrok, one of Tibet’s most sacred lakes. Forty-five miles long, it is the region’s largest source of fresh water and has great spiritual significance as the “life power” of the Tibetan people.

The Chinese government completed Tibet’s largest hydropower plant on Lake Yamdrok in 1996. Environmentalists believe a drop in water level will lead to greater environmental concerns. Tibetans say that if the lake was to dry up, it would lead to the death of all Tibetan people.

We stopped to visit an elderly farmer who offered us yak butter tea, a salty, milky and slightly greasy hot beverage frequently consumed by Tibetans. He showed us inside his home, which included a modest-sized Buddhist shrine.

His remote village, hours from Lhasa, was seemingly insulated from the troubles of the urban center. He recalled how as a teenager the Dalai Lama had passed along the primitive mountain route in front of his home as he crossed the Himalayas into exile to India.

As the farmer peered out at the same road, now paved and carrying busloads of people through his village, he lamented the changes since he was a boy.