Passing through – Tibet tour…

9 01 2011

Note to all – As we are in China and we can’t access our blog (or facebook) properly as it is a blocked site, we have put pictures up on fliker – see this stream for pics of Tibet http://www.flickr.com/photos/53820442@N02/sets/72157625718139144/

The sound of clattering prayer wheels, the long sliding swooshes of pilgrims falling their prostrations over and up and over and up and over… The thick, glutinous, sticky scent of butter lamps ripe in the air, overlaid with a bite of tangy juniper incense. We stand before the Tashilhunpo monestary. Huddled deep into our thick fake coats, hunkered down under our woolie hats; pulling thin tugs on the light mountain air. ‘Buddism is all about karma’ our snappily dressed guide, Dawa, informs us, ‘and you are all rich in it! You are here and you have passports. These are signs of good karma. In Tibet I maybe will never get a passport. I put an application in 6 years ago.. maybe I will get one tomorrow.. maybe in a life time.. maybe when dead….’ we all eye each other suspiciously – we FEEL like a slightly grubby, slightly tetchy group of ‘independent’ travellers who have been forced onto a group tour by Chinese bureaucracy and paranoia … not a spiritually superior entourage of karmic passport wielding Buddhist pilgrims.

‘Winter is a good time to visit Tibet’ Dawa whirls swiftly on, ‘most of the pilgrims are farmers and this is when they have least work to do – many will have performed their prostrations over many MANY kilometres.. so be careful not to tread on them as we go..This is their prayer. So now we go in. No photos please!’ he pivots briskly on low heeled boots and is off, plunging hatlessly through the sea of worshippers into the main temple.

Temple fatigue is as easily caught as what-more-wat-ism or chateau-blow-out. And after 6 days of temple-tasticness temple fatigue was certainly peeking its baggy eyes over the shoulders of the thousands of Buddha statues that line the walls of the monasteries. Were it not for the jagged undercurrent of Chinese oppression that runs its benevolent strangle-hold over everyone and everything we would have given up any last blink of interest some considerable time ago. It is the pervasive presence of the hollow CCTV camera eyes that keep us sharp to the reality of life in a Tibetan monastery. The monks have invariably been at the forefront of opposition to the Chinese occupation in Tibet ever since they invaded/liberated in 1950. And the Chinese authorities are keen to this. In the past any young boy could be admitted to monastic life, now the intake is strictly controlled by the state.

Most of the monasteries were destroyed during the cultural revolution and even though China is making a show of rebuilding some of the key ones they are all merely thin paper wrappings of their former incarnations – they are not even made of the right materials; ‘concrete’ Dawa mutters in resignation ‘traditionally we build out of wood and stone.. they rebuild with concrete’. As we shuffle along with streams of grinning pilgrims, all chancing their luck for a cheeky little squeeze of the foreigners – each hoping to gain a smear of good karma in the process, we note that the 11th Panchen Lama (who’s traditional home this is) isn’t in. There are currently two Panchen Lamas – the one the Dalai Lama picked (Gedhun Choekyi Nyima) who mysteriously disappeared as soon as he was named; and the ‘active’ one (Gyancain Norbu) who was named by the People’s Republic of China. Gyancain Norbu (surprise surprise) lives mostly in Beijing.

While the Chinese claim it is their right to name the next Panchen it is Tibetan Buddhist tradition that the Dalai and the Panchen must be mutually recognised. It is thus a clear and cynical ploy by the Republic to gain control over the one person who will be responsible for naming the next Dalai and thereby increase their hold over Tibet.

So with the tight winds of oppression pinching at our cheeks, the silence of a thousand un-askable questions fluttering in our wake and yak noodle stew (thukpa) sitting warm in our bellies we load ourselves back on the tour bus… and on to Lhasa….

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