I experience an electrifying culture shock upon arrival in Lhasa. Not because it is so different to what I’m used to in London, but because it is so similar. Having been raised on a diet of Tintin in Tibet and other tall tales of a snowcapped mountainous land inhabited by a mystical people, I was expecting a paranormal experience, monks in snowboots, maybe even a yeti or two. So imagine my surprise when I notice that the Tibetan man driving me from Lhasa airport to my hotel is wearing a Playboy jacket. Which he might have bought at the Playboy shop that I later see in central Lhasa, near the Nike shop, the Tibet Steak House, and a casino in which young Tibetan men in leather jackets, hair spiked skywards, try their luck at the slot machines.
Far from being possessed of a super- human serenity, the capital of Tibet bumps and grinds to the same sounds heard in cities around the world: the honking of car horns, the screeching of motorbike tyres, the loud flirtations of young men and women. The guys wear Kappa tops and jeans, the girls short skirts and pink T-shirts. Because that’s another thing about Tibet — it’s not even cold, never mind snowy, at least not in July. More than 3,600 metres above sea level, I find myself oxygen-deprived and short of breath and suffer a severe dizzy spell after ascending a flight of stairs too quickly — yet it’s so warm that I get sunburnt. Reading Tintin books prepared me for a lot in life, but not this.
We all know that the Chinese rulers of Tibet rain misleading propaganda upon us. They refer to their invasion of Tibet in 1950-51 as ‘The Peaceful Liberation’ and their instalment of a Stalinist regime in the following decade as ‘The Democratic Reform’. They have labelled the Lhasa riots of 2008 — during which angry young Tibetans attacked the property of what they see as the privileged Han Chinese immigrants — as ‘The March 14th Incident’, failing to account for what fuels the fury of a significant number of Lhasaites. Yet western Tibetophiles, those largely posh lovers of all things Tibetan, mysterious and Dalai Lama-related, have also sown a whole lot of BS about Tibet. Their depiction of Tibet as a unique paradise packed with softly smiling monks and childlike men and women is as skewed — and patronising — as any piece of Chinese misinformation.
Right from the publication of James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon in 1933, which invented the idea of Tibet as ‘Shangri-La’, to the pro-Tibet fawning of modern celebs such as Richard Gere, Sharon Stone and our own Prince Charles, the popular image of Tibet is, in the words of one academic Tibetologist, as ‘somehow outside the rest of the world’. Gere, who follows the Tibetan Buddhist religion, says Tibetan culture has a ‘resonance and a sense of mystery’ and says you can find ‘beingness’ in Tibet (apparently you can’t really ‘be’ anywhere else).
The American writer Donald S. Lopez Jr, a stinging critic of the narcissistic ramblings of western Tibetophiles, says they have ended up depicting the Tibetan people as ‘super-humans’ (and the Chinese as ‘subhuman’) who live in a ‘peaceful land devoted only to ethereal pursuits’. It’s balls. Ethereal pursuits? One of the first places I visit is the Tibet Green Barley Brewery just outside Lhasa, the highest brewery in the world, where they churn out 470,000 cans of delicious beer a day. Tibetans lap it up. Sorry, Mr Gere, but they do. And over the past month they’ve lapped it up while watching the World Cup. The young bespectacled Tibetan showing me around the brewery says Tibetans ‘love beer and football’, which might come as a shock to those who think they only love meditating and spinning prayer wheels.
Of course Tibet has some striking cultural traditions and its fair share of religious devotion. Out of a population of 2.9 million, 46,000 — around 1.5 per cent — are Buddhist monks and nuns. When I visit Jokhang Temple in central Lhasa, Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest site, I see more and more of these saffron-clad monks and nuns and also ordinary Tibetans, very poor-looking ones, fully prostrating themselves on the ground in devotion to the Buddha, their heads stained with mud and their faces red and raw as a result. But most inhabitants of Lhasa are not like that. At a bazaar near the temple a handsome young Tibetan in an Italia football top and jeans is telling two wide-eyed British women in pidgin English why they should buy his ‘very sacred, very special beads, bracelets’. You can’t help feeling that he is exploiting the naive western middle-class thirst for a bit of Tibetan magic in order to make a quick buck. Good on him.
The problem with the Tibet-patronising activists of the West is that they hate Chinese rule in Tibet for all the wrong reasons. They hate it not so much for its authoritarianism or its deprivation of democracy, but because they don’t like the fact that it is modernising what they fantasise to be a perfect eco-garden of calm and stillness. So Free Tibet UK slams China’s ‘large-scale infrastructure projects’ in Tibet, including its construction of the vast Gormo–Lhasa railway which connects the Qinghai province of China to the Tibetan capital, despite the fact that it created thousands of jobs for Tibetans and has improved trade. Such projects, complain Free Tibet UK, ‘erase existing socio-cultural differences between China [and Tibet]’ — in short, they harm Tibetan culture, which should be always pure and innocent, not dirty and modern. Patronisingly, Richard Gere says that as a result of Chinese intervention in Tibet, the Tibetan people have ‘lost their focus’. Yes, they’re drinking beer and buying Nike products instead of sitting in the lotus position for 20 hours a day.
Tibetans are furious at the implication that they should live simply and frugally for the benefit of wealthy westerners who would like to be able to visit an unspoiled Shangri-La once every couple of years. ‘Do they expect us to keep riding our yaks while they drive cars and fly in planes?’ demands Suo Lin, director-general of the Information Office of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, which runs Tibet under the guidance of Beijing. A Tibetan museum worker tells me: ‘It’s always the people who live most comfortably who would like Tibet to remain stuck in the Middle Ages.’ Tibetophilia has always been about well-to-do westerners trying to escape what they see as soulless modernity by running off to a fantasy paradise. They want to keep Tibet as their own personal museum, to preserve it in cultural formaldehyde, to freeze it in time. As Philip Rawson said in his 1991 book Sacred Tibet, ‘Tibetan culture offers powerful, untarnished and coherent alternatives to western egotistical lifestyles, our short attention span, our gradually more pointless pursuit of material satisfactions…’.
Well, leaving Lhasa and driving to the city of Linzhi in south-east Tibet, I see some of this real Tibetan culture — and it isn’t pretty. Here in the countryside, people are much poorer than they are in Lhasa. The vast majority of them work in agriculture or animal husbandry. Most look exhausted. I am introduced to a 47-year-old herdsman, who looks at least 60, who works thankless hours on the land and still pumps water from a well. Is this the natural, sacred, at-one-with-nature kind of existence that the rich Tibetophiles would like Tibetans to continue ‘enjoying’? The herdsman’s ten-year-old son, Gamagongbu, wearing a Puma cap, tells me he definitely doesn’t want to be a herdsman; he wants to work in Lhasa city. Has this simple child of Tibetan tradition ‘lost his focus’ or achieved enlightenment?