Lhasa to Base Camp
At the long last of a bumpy ride from Lhasa, and after two grueling hours of a morning hike, we finally arrived at the base camp of Mt. Everest. The snow-capped peak glistened in the morning sun. I was gasping for oxygen at the high elevation of 5,500 meters, but the view of the highest peak on earth still made me hold my breath in awe. It looked almost within reach! What would the view be at the top of the world? I confess I do not understand why people risk their lives to scale top mountains. But now with Mt. Everest in firm view, I too felt the urge of getting closer to it.
The lesser mountains and valleys in Tibet are perhaps less satisfactory for big ego, but are no less magical. Endless layers of slopes keep emerging from the end of the sky. Pristine lakes with turquoise water lie coyly in the arms of snowy mountains. It was still early spring. Patchy grass that started to appear on the slopes seemed almost endangered by grazing yaks and sheep. Tiny alpine flowers creep up optimistically against the cold and the wind. To the most exclusive scenery, add the people whose smiles infect even the most jaded tourist and the monasteries that dot the landscape and testify to Tibetan people's utter devotion to their beliefs. For a long time of my life, I shall remember the lone pilgrim in the desert walking slowly but resolutely towards the next destination, and the little girl shepherd standing by the roadside waving to passers-by. Life is tough on the long stretches of barren land that we drove past. But people have not given in to monotonicity of their limited material existence.
To most travelers, the spiritual wealth that stems from Tibetan Buddhism is what makes Tibetans smile from the bottom of their hearts. Many westerners claim that they came to Tibet to rediscover the spiritual values that have long been lost in the developed world. It is indeed difficult not to admire the way Tibetans devote themselves to their religion, but the cynical part of me tries to argue that the Tibetan spiritual life survives perhaps because most Tibetans have not had any genuine opportunity to try the alternative materialistic way of life. You don't complain about your dish if you don't know what other people are eating. In Lhasa, where urbanization and commercialization are taking off at an amazing speed, the streets are filled with Tibetan youths who prefer sneakers and jeans to the traditional Tibetan robes, and Cantonese pop to the traditional Tibetan tunes. If it were not for the Chinese government's suspicions towards foreign interest in Tibet, Japanese or American investment in Tibetan tourism could have by now transformed Tibet into a place like Nepal. Maybe Tibetans are especially spiritual because of their unique religion, but the history of mankind has shown that traditional values are no match for the appetite for instant material gratification fueled by modern technology.
Many western travelers are quick to denounce the Chinese policy of modernizing Tibet as violation of the Tibetan people's free will. But they fail to realize that their "preservationist" attitude can also be seen as an attempt to impose western values on Tibet. The Potala Palace in Lhasa is a great place to admire, especially from a distance, but I am sure no westerners would want to live in one of the rooms there, at least not before someone installs running water, hot shower, and elevators. After all, this preservationist attitude is not dissimilar to the idea of putting endangered animals in the zoo, and we are reasonable sure that animals don't enjoy the zoo and yearn to go back to the wilderness. Just as the Chinese should be told that Tibet should and can choose its own destiny without being forced to accept the Chinese version of modernization, western pilgrims should think twice before they brand every attempt at economic development in Tibet as another Chinese plot to destroy the Tibetan way of life.
At one of the greatest monasteries near Lhasa, a monk asked me discretely if the one country, two systems principle currently in place for Hong Kong will be applied to Tibet someday. I said that the principle would be an ideal arrangement for Tibet, but I hated to tell him that I do not believe that it is ever likely. The truth is that the one country, two systems principle was offered to Hong Kong as part of deal with the British in exchange for Chinese sovereignty over the former colony (Hong Kong Island and Kowloon were ceded to Britain in perpetuity after the opium wars) and the British pledge to continuing support for the local business community. But what can Tibet offer to the Chinese government? Not sovereignty, as Tibet is part of China and the Tibetan exile government is recognized by no country. Even Taiwan, which normally chases anything that the mainland is up against, will not support Tibetan independence. The Chinese government is willing to grant autonomy only for something it does not possess. The tragic truth for Tibet is that the very spiritual values that have so far sustained their culture against the onslaught of the Han Chinese also deprives them of the only effective means of gaining a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Chinese, namely violence and terrorism. Witness Palestine and Northern Ireland. Would the people there obtain genuine autonomy without using violence to convince their colonial masters that autonomy is the only lasting solution? Some may count on the eventual awakening of the Han Chinese to the principle of self-determination. But signs are not encouraging. Talk to any young Han Chinese and one will realize that years of government propaganda have made generations of the Chinese believe that Tibet has always been part of China. Incredible as it sounds to western ears, the Chinese claim over Tibet resonates well even with those Chinese who are critical of their government and its rough treatment of its own people.
The political future of Tibet does not seem too bright to any outside observer. In the meantime, the magic and the tragic of Tibet and its people live on, like the lone pilgrim walking stoically in the desert, oblivious of the ruins of fortress left by ancestors centuries ago, or the tourists snapping photos from a brand-new four wheel drive.