Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Elapsing Moon – A Trip to Tibet

by Maple Xu

[in translation]

Tibet's ambience this year is quite apprehensive. The shadow from last March's riots remains; to the central and local governments, each bush or tree looks like an enemy soldier. They basically don't welcome individual tourists. For safety considerations, I made an exception to my usual practice and joined a tourist group.

Lhasa's street, May 2009

This is the third time I’ve entered Tibet. The first time, in June 1992, I took the train from Chengdu to Xining, then a bus through Tsinghai Lake, Tanggula Mountains, Hoh Xil, Yuzhu Peak to arrive at Lhasa, then a truck from Lhasa to Shigatse and Zhangmu, and finally a small military postal plane (with only 4-5 seats) to return to Sichuan.

The second time was October 2003, in a car with friends. We entered Tibet from Yunnan's Gaoligong Mountains. Along the way were huge roadblocks caused by landslides, and muddy pitfalls that had formed under year-long rains and the grinding of heavy trucks; the road couldn't be called a road. As such, what remains in my memory is not scenery and place names, but nervous worries on when our delicate car made for urban use would become stranded, in a place with no cell phone signals.

This third trip, in May 2009, is the result of a sudden fantasy: I wanted to ride on the new high-speed train from Shanghai to Lhasa, to enjoy the sights of the Tsinghai-Tibet Plateau in the pressurized train-car that prevents both ultraviolet exposure and altitude sickness.
Lhasa's first day gives me a strange feeling. On the streets it is not only tourists that are sparse, Tibetans are also hard to come by. When you occasionally run into one or two, they shy away, and avoid any photo-taking. Instead, soldiers are everywhere, like every three or five steps there is a checkpoint. They are fully armed, with submachine guns and iron shields in their hands. Even the insides of the Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace are full of armed guards. Foreigners must get permission from the local police before going in. Which places are open for visiting and which are not are all at the local police's mercy, otherwise guns can be fired at any time. It is a bit frightening but also a bit exciting. (I'm surprised that our tour guide, a 28-year-old Tibetan named Phurbu I'll describe in detail in the next log, tells me in a private conversation that the presence of the soldiers actually makes him feel safer.)

I don't dare to focus my camera on soldiers or the locals, so I take pictures of the scenery.But the originally narrow, grassless dirt road harmonious with the Potala Palace has been replaced by a clean, wide cement thoroughfare lined with green trees, red flowers and heavy car traffic. It is no longer suitable for Tibetans dressed in Han-style clothes to reach the Jokhang Temple (Dazhao Shi) in the traditional manner by making body-length kowtows all the way. Modern iron fences disharmoniously surround age-old temples; the bold and unstrained Tibetan dogs that used to run around on the streets freely can no longer be seen. Local residents are well behaved, their polite but vigilant eye-expressions replacing honest and simple smiles. All in all, now Lhasa can be called a modern and civilized city, yet an unnamed loss fills my heart.

The Lhasa without the thick smell of smoking pine and burning incense, the Lhasa without pious believers in dusty Tibetan robes who kowtow and pray along the way, the Lhasa without people leisurely sitting on the ground and looking at tourists with friendly smiles, the Lhasa that has lost its original look, how does it distinguish itself from Chongqing or Shanghai or any other tourist city?

Another thing that surprises me is the large amount of white waste, results of quick food supplies for tourists. Neither the Tibetans nor the local government seem to care about it. Those white plastic containers, abandoned as freely as one pleases, lie calmly in the holy city's sunlight, at every corner of Lhasa, even the riverside of the beautiful Yarlung Zangbo, becoming the most eye-catching scenery.
The temples are obviously overloaded with tourists that have brought serious damage to the architecture and Buddhist statuary, but the desire for ticket revenue seems only on the rise. In recent years, the involvement of the World Heritage Committee has forced the temples to restrict the number of visitors. However the temples are not short of counter measures. Large-scale price increases are only a small appetizer. On the surface, they limit the number of entering visitors to 200 a batch. But they maximize the number of batches a day by herding the visitors like sheep. In front every Buddha or bone-pagoda is not a lama but a fellow wearing a wide-brim hat, who shouts non-stop "Hurry, move! Don't pause!" And the crowds follow the order obediently as if in a spell; whether you are old or young, whether you are a foreigner or Chinese, you must move with a speed that can't even be called "looking at flowers on a running horse." In less than an hour, you finish a tour that would normally need the better part of day.
Exiting the dim palace and coming outside into the blinding sun, tourists look at each other in blank dismay: "What did you see?" As if suddenly awaking from a dream-walk, they are annoyed at being fooled, but the only thing they can do is to find balance and pleasure in the misfortune of the next batch of visitors.

I guess this is the dilemma that every old city whose main revenue comes from the tourist industry faces. To maintain a historical place and local traits often also means keeping outdated and coarse ecology. Don't Tibetans also wish to live a modern life, to have flush toilets and hot-water showers in their homes? What rights do we have for ourselves to enjoy modern convenience, while requesting others to live in a primitive environment for our entertainment?

Yet I've also heard that in tourist towns of the US West, they paint bathrooms and service areas the same color as the surrounding mountains; I've heard in Rome they’d rather spend hundred times more to maintain the city's old look; I've heard in Yunnan a businessman pulled down every electricity pole in his tourist area and painstakingly hide the power network underground; I've heard in Zhouzhuang, Zhejiang Province, villagers lay in front of steam rollers to stop the construction of a highway across their ancient town.
The Lhasa River, May 2009
A few days ago someone was puzzling over why nothing was happening on June 4th this year. Another one smiled: If you talk about 6.4 with those born in the 80s or 90s, they will ask, What's that? Another kind of currency?

Will there be one day that Chinese become so poor that their only possession is money?

My memory brings me back to the dusk one day over a decade ago. By the limpid Lhasa River, several Tibetan girls were humming and washing clothes. At the end of a flagstone path one or two yellow houses stood with black-and-red window frames, prayer streamers hanging above the roofs. The sky was a clear blue infiltrated with a tint of purple. A breeze sent over a faint smell of smoking pine and the strong fragrance of buttered tea, as well as the acrid odor of burning cow-manure cake. I languidly lay on the meadow until sunset and the moon rose. That wheel of dreamy moon – its quality you could never find in an urban moonlight – is carved into my bone marrow.

That moon has long elapsed behind tall buildings and colorful neon lights. Will it ever return?

(All photos ©2009 Maple Xu)

No comments: