The closer we get to Tibet, the more prominent religion particularly Buddhism becomes.
But, it is a 21st century Buddhism, where children beg alms from monks who are busy chatting on cell phones. "Hello. Give money."
It is possible that the monastic reliance on alms giving might help perpetuate a begging mentality in other segments of Tibetan society. Just because someone is draped in a crimson robe, doesn't necessarily mean they are a Buddhist monk. Actually, there is a slight chance they may be a Chinese spy!
Lhasa is an amazing city. Despite suffering unbridled desecration at the hands of the Red Guards during the Anti-Renaissance (Cultural Revolution) and the same systemic and systematic Hanization as the rest of China's frontier lands it still retains a tangible charm not found in China. In addition to the chanting monks clapping hands and ringing bells, there is a steady and constant stream of pilgrims muttering mantras, twirling prayer wheels, fingering rosaries, and prostrating themselves along the city's many koras (pilgrimage circuits).
Clouds of choking smoke waft through the air from the massive juniper incense burners, nearly suffocating everyone within lung shot; temples, monasteries and markets (filled with the distinctive aromas of yak meat and yak butter) are everywhere; and the majestic Potala Palace sits vacant, dominating the skyline and watching over the city, waiting for its master to return. Like Cambodias Angkor Wat or India's Taj Mahal, The Potala is a building whose beauty cannot be adored long enough.
In the Tibetan countryside, men dress in leopard skin-fringed cloaks with daggers dangling from their sides. Their hair is braided and plaited with red and black tassels, and their faces are often dominated by large aviator sunglasses as they rumble down dirt roads straddling Honda motorcycles.
The rosy-cheeked women wear long colourful dresses, with their hair wrapped in wool scarves, and at least a kilo of silver jewelry hangs from their necks.
Witnessing a debating courtyard teeming with monks arguing matters of philosophy is fascinating, and amusing. One monk stands and delivers a sermon to a few others seated around him. Dozens of these groups fill the courtyard, which resonates with a din resembling that of a market. The noise is punctuated by the continuous slapping of hands (which the monks use to emphasize the points they are making) while rosaries dangle from their arms and are swung above their audience's heads.
Beijings influence over China and Tibet is manifest in many ways. Chinese flags are omnipresent in Tibet. Milestones along Tibets Friendship Highway mark the distance to Beijing. Even the sun sets according to Beijing time. The government has declared all of China, from the Pacific coast to the Himalayas, to be one time zone. The result is long days in Tibet and western China, with the sun setting well after 8 p.m.
A sad irony is that after years of successfully destroying much of the Tibetan culture, the Chinese government now profits from it. Tibetan monastery and temple admission receipts go directly into the government's pockets, as opposed to remaining in Tibet. In recent years these prices have jumped. This increase has been justified by the inclusion of a souvenir CD-ROM about the monastery. The fact that we dont own a computer, speak Chinese, and simply don't want the disc, of course, is irrelevant. Luckily, every monastery (including the Potala) has an unmanned backdoor.
Apart from filling Tibet with Chinese migrants, Beijing has also filled it with miles of red tape for visitors. A permit is required to enter the "autonomous region". Additional permits are required for pretty much every area within Tibet. Many hotels refuse accommodation to non-Chinese. In addition, it is often nearly impossible for a foreigner to purchase tickets for local transportation bound for an area that does not even require a special permit.
The nature of the Tibetan people, however, redeems this frustration.
A fascinating (at least to us) appliance, which is widely used in Tibet is a parabola, about eight square feet in size, with a reflective coating. A kettle is perched at the focus. Its applied solar power in a very basic, and very practical form. Solar panels for hot water also sit on most rooftops.
Undeniably China has been guilty of playing a major role in the destruction of Tibet over the last 50 years. In this same time, fearing political repercussions, the West has offered little more than lip-service to the Tibetan struggle for freedom and independence.
Our governments should, nonetheless, be careful how vocal they are in suggesting that China leaves the region, lest they be seen as hypocritical. China offers tax breaks and loans to Han migrants willing to help "modernize" the "backward" province of Tibet at the expense of the Tibetan people and culture. A mere century ago, Canada and the U.S. offered free land to European settlers who would undertake taming North America's wild western frontier lands at the expense of the native population and culture.