I visited Tibet in 2002. Although I saw only Lhasa and Shigatse I experienced and enjoyed the unique ambience which had captured the hearts of visitors over the previous 250 years. Now that 5 trains each day link Lhasa with other regions of China I am not sure that this ambience still exists.
George Bogle travelled to Tibet from India in 1774, tasked with opening a trade route to China. He failed, but his journals and letters show how he was charmed by the country and its people, especially the leader of that time, the Third Panchen Lama. His farewell, written as he crossed the border into Bhutan was so eloquent that it inspired James Hilton to write the novel “Lost Horizon”
Farewell, ye honest and simple people. May ye long enjoy that happiness which is denied to more polished nations; and while they are engaged in the endless pursuits of avarice and ambition, defended by your barren mountains may ye continue to live in peace and contentment, and know no wants but those of nature.”
Sir Francis Younghusband was the next significant British “visitor,” at the head of an aggressive military force in 1904. Tibet changed his life from that of an ambitious army officer to a poet, a mystic, a spiritualist. It is well known that Heinrich Harrer escaped to Tibet in 1944 and stayed 7 years. His attachment to the Dalia Lama and his people was deep and long-lasting. “Wherever I live I feel homesick for Tibet…” Alec Le Sueur, a Jersey hotelier, was tasked with the construction and opening of the first Holiday Inn in Lhasa in the 70s. His book: “Hotel on the Roof of the World” shows how his initial exasperation with Tibetans became a respectful envy of their simple life-style. I am clearly far from the first westerner to be charmed by Tibet and its people.
During my visit I saw how earnestly officials attempted to integrate Tibet into China. This would have been Bogle’s impression in the 18th Century, too. Tibetan Buddhism was practised throughout China, so the Emperor Qianlong paid homage to its spiritual leader, be it the Dalai or Panchen Lama. In return China offered Tibet protection and material support. As the Tibetans have never been a warmongering nation this was a symbiotic relationship.
In 2014 we find a changing picture. China is promoting Tibet for all its worth. Tibetan dance troupes, choirs, artisans are encouraged to perform and display their wares throughout China as physical reminders that Tibet belongs to China. Inside Tibet, the railway has brought a tsunami of tourism to the extent that some fear that it is becoming like a Disney theme park: “Join pilgrims walking round the Holy Mountain Kailash! It will bring you good luck!”
Of huge importance is the succession of the Tibetan spiritual leader. The present Dalai Lama, exiled in Northern India, is 78 years old – a good age for a Tibetan. The traditional method of selecting his successor is for the dying Lama to tell monks where his next incarnation is to be found, usually in the body of a small boy. The Chinese favour an alternative selection process, known as the Golden Pot, where they might have some influence. Their ideal choice would be a progressive Lama who has, alongside the religious schooling, an education in politics, economics and international relations. Sadly, some conflict between the two factions seems inevitable.
In 2015 it will be 13 years after my first visit, and I intend to return. I am not a spiritual person, but during my short time in Tibet I found a great peace. I hope that I will re-capture the feeling of inner contentment, despite the enormous changes.
David Syme is a retired linguist who has taught foreign languages in Scotland, Germany and Hong Kong, and English in Eastern Europe and beyond. He has published 2 collections of short stories about running in exotic places: “Running Away from Home” and “Running Home and Away”. Proceeds from book sales go to an Edinburgh based charity for disadvantaged children in Northern India (www.tong-len.co.uk)