Saturday, November 16, 2013

October 30, Lhasa

I am writing from my elaborate hotel room in Lhasa, Tibet, at over 12,000 feet.

I decided not to take altitude sickness medicine (Dimox) after hearing that some people were prescribed 125 mg, some 250 mg, and some 500 mg, plus hearing what side effects could be. In fact, one man did make himself sick with it and felt better after he stopped taking it. No point taking medicine to make myself sick when there's a good chance I'll be okay with the altitude. After all, San Miguel is 6,500 feet in altitude so I figure my body has to be somewhat used to it.

We flew over snow-covered mountains – and clear air and sunshine, finally!! – for over two hours before descending slowly into Lhasa. Lhasa is built on a wide flat plain in between low mountains. Of course it is above the tree line so the mountains looked like gray-green velvet -- tundra, with a dusting of snow on top. 


Lucky me, there was a big snowfall here two days ago but the sun has melted it all. We were told the temperature outside is 25 degrees F. but in the sunshine it felt much warmer. What with the air pollution and the Chengdu fog, I haven't seen sunshine like this anywhere in China, not even Hangzhou: it is such a blessing.

Chinese takeover or no, there is no question I am in a different country. Signs are in Tibetan first, which looks like Hindu – which I found out later is correct because written Tibetan is based on written Sanskrit -- and then Mandarin, occasionally in English. Maybe a third of the people I've seen so far are wearing traditional Tibetan clothes, not western clothes. Driving in from the airport I saw thousands and thousands of trees planted. Everywhere I've gone in China there have been huge groves of trees planted, along with highway beautification plantings: Tibet too. It must be a special kind of tree to survive at this altitude.

Passing some small villages, I learned that most people in these villages still keep the animals, especially the yaks, in the first floor for heat, and the people live on the second floor. Yaks are prized animals, inherited from ancestors and the source of meat as well as cash. Two families will take turns selling one yak a year, so half a yak is enough for one family for an entire year. Not all villages have electricity yet. People here are Buddhist and prefer to eat yak meat than fish – there are rivers here -- because they prefer to take one big life for food than many small ones.

Here is another place I will probably bore you to death, but I find this fascinating, as I do many oddball things. Here is, verbatim, information prepared for us about the yak by Overseas Adventure Travel:

Nearly a million wild yak, formerly seen grazing freely on the Tibetan plains only half a century ago, have decreased sharply in numbers to only about 15,000 due to the increased need for yak meat.

The yak is a large bovine weighing about a ton and nearly six feet tall at the shoulder and having sharp horns spanning about three feet across. The ones you are most likely to see on the plains now are a cross between a bull and a yak. Not quite as large as the wild yak, these are usually in colors of black or gray. There are superstitions concerning herds of yak: only one of a certain color in a herd is bad luck, while just two of a color is considered good luck.

The yak does not like to be away from the herd and usually they crowd together quite tightly. It is because of this that herders know they can push a herd through a pass blocked with snow and they act a a natural snowplow. Yak live easily in high altitudes and in fact if they descend to lower altitudes their bodies react strangely. They become susceptible to diseases and parasites, and it can even upset their reproductive cycles. Their blood has triple the amount of red blood cells than an average cow, thus making it easier to thrive in the oxygen-thin air of Tibet.

Yaks have square-tipped tongues and use them to get their food from the hard-frozen soil as they are used in temperatures that go to about 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The yak is covered in layers of coarse and shaggy hair, but underneath their outer coat is a layer of fine undercoat, creating a natural all-weather coat.

Tibetans rely heavily on the yak for milk used in making cheese and butter. The butter is used in tea and in butter lamps that are used for making offerings at monasteries. The yak hair is woven into rope, also used in religious practices, and the tail hair occasionally was used in making false beards. The wool of the outer hair covering is used in making blankets and tents, while the hide is used for the soles of Tibetan boots.

Hardly any part of the yak is wasted once it has been killed. Even the heart is used in local medicines and the dung is used as fuel. The yak is very important to the Tibetan family and usually given a name as would be given to a child. The number of yak owned by a family indicated that family's wealth. In the springtime, the yak coats are carefully trimmed and the fur used in numerous ways.

Herders take great care in maintaining the health of their yak, moving them from area to area for food. Each family has learned various veterinarian techniques to take care of its own yak.

Nearly five million yaks live on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau and they are instrumental in making the harsh living condition of the plains bearable to the Tibetans.

The Tibetans believe there are five elements to the world, not four as they did centuries ago in Europe, and each has a color:
Sky – blue
Clouds – white
Earth – yellow
Water – green
Fire – red

These are the colors seen in Tibetan prayer flags, string weavings, and, in intense colors, painted on a building. We have been told about the limitations on photographs here: not in Buddhist temples, of course, and no photos of anything or anyone military or the police. This reminds me of when I took a photo of a Northern Ireland police station surrounded by barbed wire during the Troubles in 1985, and was arrested. That time was actually great fun because I got to talk politics with the station chief before he decided I wasn't an IRA gun moll after all, despite my red hair and green eyes, and returned my camera to me. I suspect the Chinese military and police in Tibet are not particularly interested in talking politics, nor would they be especially kind and forgiving.

I am going to have to figure out how to get political information here. I have already been told things by Mike and the Lhasa tour guide, Sunshine, that I will have to check the truth of. Mike says that Chinese people are “bored” with politics because they are sick of what politics means in China: The Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward (when everyone contributed all the metal they owned to help the country industrialize, and consequently many starved to death because they couldn't farm), and the Thousand Flowers Campaign (when everyone was urged to put up big public posters proposing improvements to the society, only to have the improvements interpreted as criticisms for which they paid pretty high social prices). There is no question but that the poor Chinese people have been through terrible political upheavals since the Communist victory in 1949, and of course the wealthy people had a terrible upheaval of their own in 1949.

The two guides say that Tibet used to belong to the Chinese empire in the Qin Dynasty and the Tang Dynasty and others. They say that the Dalai Lama has agreed to the takeover of Tibet, but could not explain why he has never returned to Tibet. They say that the Dalai Lama is equal in Buddhist importance to the Panchen Lama, the one the Chinese government “found” to “replace” the Dalai Lama after the takeover – I think this is wrong.  The Panchen Lama doesn't even live in Tibet, but Beijing. They say that when Nixon came here in 1972 he signed a treaty granting recognition to Tibet as part of China. They say that one reason China took over Tibet in the 50s was because 85% of the people lived in slavery and only the top monks lived well. This one can't be right: there is no way the Chinese went to all this trouble, expense, and political opposition to rescue poor slaves. There was a quick mention of Tibet containing minerals, which makes a lot more sense to me. The WIIFM rule holds for countries as well as for individuals: What's In It For Me?

On the way from the airport we stopped at a restaurant for lunch. An unheated restaurant. Getting out of the bus I was dizzy and lightheaded, and when I opened my little bottle of hand sanitizer a bunch of it spurted out because of the lower air pressure. The rectagonal table for six people, no large glass lazy susan, was a relief: it is much more sociable to converse at a table for six than at a table for eight or ten. The quality of the conversation itself was much improved. We started with Buddhism and then went on to Judaism and Christianity. Of course I had to explain how I can feel strongly Jewish even though I am an atheist: Christians never understand that without the explanation – that unlike Judaism, there is no Christian “culture.” One man asked me if I used to work on Yom Kippur and was surprised when I said never. I always considered my absence from work a form of public education for Christians, to remind them that the United States is not 100 percent Christian. After lunch the dizziness and lightheadedness went away, but I sure am noticing the thin air.

When I arrived at the Lhasa airport I realized I had left my blue nylon windbreaker – actually my brother's windbreaker – back in Chengdu. I hope to get it mailed to me in Wuhan, but if not, David, I owe you a windbreaker. That left me with only a sweater and a thin fleece cape for warmth, plus the woolen hat and gloves I had bought at the Great Wall. The hat is warm but is giving me the worst case of hat hair I have ever had. With the sunshine more warmth really isn't needed, but if it was 25 degrees in the daytime I hate to think of what the temperature will be at night. I asked Sunshine, the local guide, to go with me to buy a fleece jacket for another layer. She said she would do the buying because it would be cheaper for her: true! The first price given to us was 150 yuan, about $25. Sunshine's next bargaining price was 80 yuan. The seller looked unsure so I wound up doing the rest of the bargaining myself and bought it for 55 yuan, about $9.50. I love this.

This afternoon is rest time, the very first one, especially useful given the altitude, with a lecture on Tibet later this afternoon. Writing is resting for me!


Post-lecture, which was really really interesting! I wanted to learn about Tibetan/Chinese politics and I did. The teacher, Nima (which means Sunday because she was born on a Sunday: there are many kids named Nima in Tibet!) has taught English at the local university – a government job – for sixteen years. She told us that six or eight years ago she had the chance for a few years to get a Master's degree at a university in Hawaii that I never heard of, so she was teaching at this university all those years with a Bachelor's degree.

The Tibetan population – as opposed to the Han Chinese in Tibet – is about three million, with half of them living in Lhasa. The Chinese have been encouraging more and more Han people to move to Tibet, and the situation is as precarious as I suspected it was. Nine years of schooling are required of all “permanent” residents, so Muslims who do not consider themselves nor are they considered permanent residents often do not send their children to school. For the others there are two programs in school. In the Chinese program the only required language is Mandarin; in the Tibetan program, both Tibetan and Mandarin are required. Since 1951 when the Chinese government annexed Tibet, more and more people, including Tibetans, learn only Mandarin because people believe this is the way to a good job.

Nima is a devout Buddhist and is concerned by the extent to which the Tibetan Buddhist culture and language are dwindling. Not only is there the school problem, but as a government employee she is threatened with losing her job if she goes to a religious festival and is identified with a security camera. She doesn't know first-hand of anyone to whom this has actually happened but she is afraid to go and so her husband, who has a private-sector job, and her daughter go, very upsetting to her. She is not in the least interested in joining the Party, which she is encouraged to do and which carries status and economic privileges, because she would have to choose between the Party and her religion. This is the second source I've heard this from so I'm pretty sure it's true. Asked how she felt about independence for Tibet – she even knew about the “Free Tibet” bumper stickers in the US – she said she didn't actually care if Tibet is independent or an autonomous region in China or a Chinese province like the others, as long as the Tibetan culture is protected and survives. I think this is also the Dalai Lama's position. Of course this is just Nima's opinion, but I am not likely to hear many other opinions in this insulated tour group.

What Mike told us yesterday about Tibet was right in some respects. Before 1951 there was indeed feudalism, what Mike called “slavery.” Rich families had serfs working for them who did not have a choice about doing that, and their children had to work for the families too. That's a pretty good definition of slavery, actually. And monks did have disproportionate power, second only to the Dalai Lama – all of whom until 1959 lived in the Potala Palace here in Lhasa and other monasteries in Tibet. Every family was required to send one son to become a monk, and ten families were required to support him. The Chinese takeover was in 1951, only two years after the revolution. In 1959 there was an unsuccessful Tibetan rebellion, after which the Chinese rule became stricter. Asked if Tibetans felt they could openly criticize government policy, Nima said no, it was “risky.” Many Tibetans do not like the Chinese policies and they apparently mean it:  there is friendship but very little intermarriage.

After she left the room, Mike took pains to point out the progress in the Tibetan society since 1951, and I don't doubt him. They now have infrastructure, education, health care. Before the Chinese came the society was still largely nomadic with a 95 percent illiteracy rate; now it is 58 percent. According to Mike the life expectancy pre-1951 was 35; now it's 65 (which I find hard to believe). Regardless of the specific numbers, it is clear than in the last sixty years Tibet has moved from being a feudal country into the modern world.

But these two versions are not contradictory at all. I am sure Mike is right that many people have much better material lives now. I am sure Nima is right that many people have lost a great deal in terms of their culture and language. Mike values the material progress, Nima the religious life. On the other hand, it is such human nature to value what you don't have. I do wonder: if the Tibetans could keep as much of their traditions as they liked, would they pine after material advantages more? And if Mike had religion in his upbringing, which he didn't, would he feel a severe lack in his life at its suppression?

Not only is there no central heating but people leave doors open when they go in or out. My toes feel like they have frostbite (they don't) and I keep my woolen hat and at least two warmth layers on at all times – in my room, in the lecture room, and in the restaurant. I took notes at the lecture wearing woolen gloves. I am used to Mexican warmth, but we are all complaining about the cold. I will keep the electric heater going all night to counteract the cold from the single-pane glass windows. Late October may be too late to come to Tibet.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jo,
    I liked this best of your blogs.
    A good case of when a more 'advanced' country takes over a less advanced. Improvement goes hand in hand with loss. Thanks for this, Eve