High upon the roof of the world, in sight of the imposing peak of Everest and deep amongst the vast jaws of the Himalayas, lies the remote and wild frontier of a nation under siege.
Covering more than 1.2 million square kilometres (463,000 square miles), the region of Tibet has long been a land of mystery, written about in semi-mythological terms by explorers and travellers throughout the centuries.
It has always been a closed and unexplored world of myths, legends and gods, unreached except for a select few who traversed the plateau, often in disguise and at great risk.
Its capital, Lhasa, was a symbol of exploration and mystique, being the seat of the Dalai Lama and a destination for Buddhist pilgrims. The Tibet of the past is now consigned to the pages of history, instead replaced with a land seething with unrest, torture, repression and intolerance.
For many years it was a protectorate of the Qing Dynasty, Tibet was granted high levels of autonomy by the emerging Republic of China in 1912, in line with the freedoms it had enjoyed in the previous centuries.
However over the next thirty years, the unstable civil situation within China slowly escalated, leading to fractures and divisions, culminating in the Chinese Civil War and the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, whose policies, in turn, led to the forced incorporation of Tibet into the People’s Republic of China In 1951.As the last portions of the map were filled in and catalogued, western explorers, aided in their endeavours by the spread of empire, turned to the peaks and plateaus of Tibet on the wild borders of Bhutan, India, Nepal and China.
What they found was a land untouched. Whilst the mountains of the Himalayas were conquered one by one, and the tide of the modern world grew ever higher upon its border, Tibet remained the last true bastion of adventure within the region.
There had been a number of western expeditions throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries which charted swathes of Tibetan territory, but Tibet in its foreign policy was wholly reserved and notoriously reclusive. In 1921, Tibet officially agreed to allow the British reconnaissance mission of Mount Everest led by George Mallory.
Up to this point, many individuals entered the country disguised as pilgrims or traders. Tibet had relied on British support regarding China throughout the 20th century, but beyond a smattering of border skirmishes and the brief Sino-Tibetan war in 1930, large-scale conflict in the region was generally rare.
By the 1940s, Western influence had penetrated Tibet in small forms, with the presence of foreign dignitaries being an uncommon, but intermittent sight in Lhasa. Indeed, a selection of European and Asian nations had representation in the city in various forms, mostly as a result of the first and second world wars and political upheaval throughout China.
“China needs to be pushed for negotiations, the last of which was in 2010.”
In his book Seven Years in Tibet, Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer recounts his own experiences following his escape from a British internment camp in India in 1944.
Of Tibet, Harrer wrote: “There is one last mystery – a large country on the Roof of the World, where strange things happen. There are monks who have the ability to separate mind from body, shamans and oracles, and a God-King who lives in a skyscraper-like palace in the Forbidden City of Lhasa.”
Harrer’s journey took him from the Indian border, through Shangste, Lelang and eventually to Lhasa, a route of over 1,400km (870 miles). He traversed a land much unchanged by modern life on his arduous trek to Lhasa, documenting encounters with bandits, monks, oracles, gods and even a brief allusion to the mysterious Yeti.
His book gives staggering insight into the customs, traditions and society of Tibet, and in particular, Lhasa, as Harrer becomes an important member of their society and eventually a companion of the Dalai Lama. Harrer was also present when Tibet fell, fleeing in the face of Chinese invasion.
Tibet, now defined as the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) by China, was invaded and annexed by the Chinese communist government in 1951 and has remained firmly shut to foreigners – bar those on strict guided tours – ever since.
Lhasa, once a city of allure which attracted so many, is now a shell of its former grandeur, a pale reflection of the city described in journals and books before the Chinese invasion.
Tibetan culture remains, but the Chinese influence and presence is heavily obvious across the city. Harrer richly described Lhasa in the years before its fall, as do the writings of Alexandra David-Néel, the first western woman to enter Lhasa several decades earlier.
Both Harrer and David-Néel, upon reaching Lhasa for the first time, would have scoffed to think that within 50 years, the nation would be changed forever.Today, many of the monasteries which once perched high upon mountainsides, or stood deep within snow-swept valley floors now lay in ruin, or have vanished without a trace – ransacked and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
In recent years, a number of these have now been re-established, ostensibly in a show of tolerance by Chinese authorities. Tourism is encouraged, albeit it is closely monitored and often limited to Chinese citizens. Some advocacy groups have raised concerns that China’s continual repression of Tibetan monasteries is a blatant crackdown on religious and cultural freedom.
Beginning in 2017, Chinese authorities began an enforced dismantling of the vast Buddhist complex of Larung Gar in eastern Tibet. The complex, which has previously been the site of forced destruction of homes in 2001, is one of the largest and most famous, being home to an estimated 40,000 inhabitants largely made up of monks and nuns from across Tibet.
A statement issued in Beijing a year earlier stated that the population must drop to 5,000 inhabitants owing to safety and social concerns, a move which has prompted allegations of repression from groups such as Free Tibet.Founded in 1987, the advocacy group Free Tibet campaign for an end to China’s occupation of Tibet, challenging propaganda and advocating for the rights of the Tibetan people. “The founders of Free Tibet had a vision of a Tibet in which people are free to decide themselves the future of the country, either independent or as an autonomous part of China,” John Jones, their campaign and advocacy manager tells us.
“At the time, and today, they are not. They are subject to an occupation, with everything dictated to them by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party). The other part of the vision is that of a Tibet the human rights of all the citizens there would be protected,” Jones said.
Allegations of torture, kidnap and murder continue to be levied towards Beijing, with a number of escaped Tibetans, monks and civilians alike, giving testimony to the conditions imposed upon them by the Chinese authorities.
Golog Jigme, a Tibetan monk and human rights activist escaped from Tibet in 2014, following over six years of harassment from the Chinese authorities. Initially arrested in 2008 following a series of riots and protests across Tibet, he endured imprisonment and torture, before escaping from imposed detention and fleeing into India. He gave testimony detailing the abuse he suffered in an interview with Free Tibet.
“I was re-handcuffed with the hot chimney of that stove between my arms. My arms, chest and both sides of my face got burned and blistered. I was tied to the iron chair, with both legs and hands shackled. Now the weight of my whole body was born by my shackled legs and wrists. I was removed from that iron chair occasionally, but then faced beatings on the floor. Then they put me back onto the chair again. In total, I was put onto the chair seven times.”
Golog Jigme endured physical and mental abuse over a period of several months, ostensibly for the crime of producing a documentary, Leaving Fear Behind, a film which examined the treatment of Tibet by the Chinese government during a time of intense international attention – the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
He was arrested on false charges and during his eventual escape to India, was accused of murder and had an arrest warrant issued against him. Golog Jigme’s story may be shocking, but it is just one of many told by Tibetan escapees.
The filmmaker who worked alongside Golog Jigme on Leaving Fear Behind, Dhondup Wangchen, was also imprisoned from 2009 to 2014. He had previously worked as an activist, championing Tibetan rights through the printing of books detailing the teachings of the Dalai Lama – a topic heavily restricted by the Chinese government: “I remained in informal detention until I was tried and sentenced on December 28, 2009, to six years in prison for subversion of state power,” Wangchen testified to the US Congress in 2018.
“Once you enter the torture centre, you feel your life is over. Death awaits you.”
“There are thousands of Tibetans like me, actively involved in the struggle. Tibetans in Tibet are not victims but agents of change trying to explore and use every opportunity to fight for a better future. We need support and partnership from the outside world.”
The abuses suffered by the Tibetan people have culminated in a number of protests and demonstrations. Most recently, the 2008 uprising, which originated in Lhasa before spreading across Tibet in March of that year.
More than 300 monks from Drepung and Sera monasteries marched towards central Lhasa, demanding the release of six imprisoned monks. Initial arrests of a number of the monks escalated tensions within the city which erupted into violent protests. Tibetans turned on Chinese residents of the city, whilst police response was swift and brutal.Peaceful demonstrations across Tibet were violently suppressed by government forces, leading to the detention of thousands of Tibetans, and hundreds of deaths. Self-immolation – the act of setting oneself alight in protest – has been performed by many Tibetan monks and citizens, with more than 140 people dying in this way since 2009.
Just why the monasteries and holy men and women of Tibet drew the ire of Beijing before and during the Cultural Revolution lies in their historical and cultural significance within Tibetan culture.
Traditionally, it was common for Tibetan families to have one or several members serving as monks or nuns, and the close relationship between monasteries and the local population became focal points in life within Tibet.
Monasteries issued loans, levied militias, enhanced trade and dispersed wealth across their respective regions. Monks were strongly represented in local government and often acted as arbitrators during disputes.
To the invading Chinese, they, along with the monasteries in which they lived were rival bases of power, and stood as ideological barriers in their cultural conquest of the Tibetan plateau.
Whilst the arguably more tolerant policies of today have reportedly moved away from the forced labour, wholesale destruction and banning of religious practice experienced in the 1960s and ’70s, Beijing continues to exert almost total control over religion across Tibet.
Freedom to teach, to recruit and train monks and administer leadership changes are all heavily restricted, and imagery of the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, are banned.
Monks and nuns face ever growing numbers of Chinese tourists as their complexes become a key part of China’s methods of cultural tourism, whilst protests and demonstrations are banned and swiftly suppressed.
The trend of dismantling religious complexes and alienating monks and nuns continues across the rest of Tibet. Labrang Tashikyil, an often visited site in the province of Amdo has become known as ‘Little Tibet’ owing to its rebranding as a tourist attraction.
The complex has suffered heavily as it and many other monasteries have been renovated in recent years to make room for hotels, shops and facilities, constructed for the new wave of tourists encouraged to visit the region.
As recently as September 2019, Free Tibet reported that almost half of Yarchen Gar, one of the largest Buddhist sites in the world, had been demolished, displacing thousands of monks and nuns.
In the same report, the reason for the destruction is indicated as being a move to create space for new hotels and car-parks, something which many Tibetans have decried as one way in which their culture is being ‘Disney-fied’ in the pursuit of Chinese tourism.It is now possible to visit Tibet with greater ease than ever before – however many strongly believe that to visit the oppressed nation is to support China’s ongoing stranglehold.
Independent travel is not allowed, and any person wishing to visit must be issued a permit and be part of a guided tour. Whilst the Dalai Lama has encouraged foreigners to visit Tibet, to do so is to see a country and people through the lens of a government accused of human rights abuses, repression of culture, widespread murder, false imprisonment and beatings.
The future of Tibet remains uncertain – aspects of Tibetan culture are now dictated by Beijing, including the appointment of the next Dalai Lama, and its people are severely under-represented in local and national government.
“China needs to be pushed for negotiations, the last of which was in 2010,” Jones concludes. “If those parties could be brought to the table to discuss Tibet’s future, it would probably be the most constructive thing that international governments could do.”
It is unlikely that the Tibet that Harrer and David-Néel found themselves in will ever be fully re-kindled, but the people of Tibet are resilient, and remain un-cowed in the face of their continued oppression.
Featured image by Mondo79 via Flickr CC.
Edited by Franziska Eberlein & Kesia Evans.