Tibet: The Destruction Continues

By Nicholas Ribush
Boston, MA USA 1995

Impressions from a visit to Tibet in June 1995, written by Dr. Nicholas Ribush for Mandala Magazine, Boston, 1995.

At a talk to almost 20,000 people in Melbourne, Australia in 1992, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was asked what was the best way to help Tibet. He replied that there were two things you could do. One was to become a member of the Australia Tibet Council. The other was to go to Tibet to see for yourself what was happening there and then come back and tell your friends what you’d seen. I was in the audience, having recently led a tour to Tibet, so I decided to keep going each year, taking others, as a simple way of following His Holiness’s advice.

This year I took a small group of six to the sacred mountain of Mt. Kailash, in Western Tibet, arriving on Saka Dawa, the full moon of the fourth Tibetan month, the holiest day of the Buddhist calendar. Three of the group were FPMT members from Melbourne: George Farley and Mony and Ester Liberman.

The group met in Hong Kong and flew to Lhasa from Chengdu on May 29. We spent four days in the holy city, seeing as much as we could in that short time: the central cathedral, the Jokhang, Tibet’s most important pilgrimage site; the magnificent Potala Palace, home of the Dalai Lamas; the Dalai Lamas’ summer palace, the Norbulingka; two of Lhasa’s three great monasteries, Drepung and Sera, the latter being the spiritual home of our inexpressibly kind teachers, Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, and many of the FPMT center geshes; and several smaller places of interest. (Unfortunately we didn’t have time to go to Ganden, the third great monastery, which is a couple of hours out of town, but a visit there is highly recommended.)

Lhasa changes before your eyes, and its sinicization is one of the architectural crimes of the century. Of course, what the barbarians have done to the people and culture of this beautiful country is worse, but the destruction and building and rebuilding that have gone on over the last thirty years is the public statement of both their arrogance and their ignorance. Everybody now knows that more than 6,000 monasteries were destroyed during the cultural revolution in a futile attempt to eradicate the Dharma from Tibet. Less known, however, is the current replacement of traditional Tibetan buildings with modern Chinese imitations or worse. Even now, around the Barkor, the venerable circumambulation path around the Jokhang, the few remaining houses of Tibet’s oldest families, full of character and history, are being torn down and replaced.

The worst example of this is at the eastern end of the Barkor, where a three-story atrium mall has been built, its balconies faced with faux marble and its shops containing exactly the same cheap rubbish that you can buy in the stalls outside: a totally unnecessary exercise in ugliness. And all over town you now find totally inharmonious edifices with blue reflective windows and garish signs, as if those who fail to get into architecture school in Beijing are sent to Tibet to practice until they get it wrong enough to qualify. The only blessing in all of this is that the construction and materials are so shoddy that these monstrosities tend to crumble after twenty years or less.

But perhaps even worse than the mall is the recent, rushed completion of Lhasa’s own Tiananmen Square, hurriedly prepared for last September’s bogus celebration of thirty years of TAR: a huge wasteland at the foot of the Potala created by razing half the ancient village of Shöl and forcibly relocating the residents to bulk slums a mile away. Of course, this will be used for military parades—tanks, artillery, and all—glorious displays of patriotic strength, proud young protectors of the motherland marching boldly through, heroes warning splittists to beware!

Worse yet may be the vast concrete barracks at the western end of Lhasa, through which you drive for miles as you enter the city from the airport, accommodation for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the People’s Armed Police (PAP), the Public Security Bureau (PSB), and whatever other organizations of oppression the Chinese need to maintain their peaceful liberation of Tibet. Make no mistake—Lhasa is a military town. Soulless shops replicate all over the city selling the same cheap consumer items to the ever-increasing Han Chinese, who have been induced financially to transfer to Tibet. Chinese restaurants, karaoke bars, and prostitutes satisfy the basic desires of the foreign enforcers.

There are few good jobs for the Tibetans. Those who are not prepared to collaborate with the Chinese are forced to labor on the roads or do other dirty work, beg for a living, or, in the case of the educationally disadvantaged young, hang out playing pool or drinking cheap liquor, which is purposely made easily available to them. What is happening in Tibet is an obscenity of which the entire world should be ashamed.

On day five we headed west, on our over-1,000 kilometer journey to Kailash. After four hours we reached the Kamba-la pass, almost 4,800 meters above sea level. From the top there’s an absolutely spectacular view of the holy turquoise lake, Yamdrok Tso. This beautiful body of deep blue-green water winds in and out of the mountains that contain it such that from the air (you can see it when you fly in from Kathmandu) it looks like some giant, deformed scorpion. It takes more than a week to trek around it. Revered by Tibetans for centuries, the Chinese have almost completed drilling through the mountains to the south-east as part of a plan to drain the lake for hydro-electricity. Since this is a “dead” lake, with water neither draining into nor out of it, this project is a particularly unmitigated disaster that has had environmentalists and others protesting against it, so far unsuccessfully. Naturally enough, the Chinese have found greedy Western collaborators all too willing to join in the gang-rape of Tibet, in this case principally the Austrians.

That evening we reached Gyantse, home of the Kumbum, one of the architectural wonders of the world. The old town of Gyantse nestles in a crescent of hills topped by the ruins of ancient fortifications with the remains of the castle at their southern end. Most of the hills beneath the walls are bare, but once there stood a complex of eighteen monasteries of various sects, all but two destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. At the foot of the hills are the Pelkor Chöde assembly hall and the glorious Kumbum.

This four-story, gold-capped stupa contains 112 chapels, each with a different buddha or deity as its central figure. Most of these are open and many have been restored, although there is still much evidence of the damage wrought by the Chinese. The old town appears to be as original as you’ll find in Tibet today, but as you drive into it you pass through a rapidly growing Chinese section, as typically ugly as any other in Tibet or beyond.

The next day we went to Shigatse and stayed at the Shigatse Hotel, which has to be one of the world’s worst. On previous trips it had become a benchmark of sorts: “Well, at least it’s not as bad as the Shigatse.” It was June 3, and the furor over His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s recognition of the Eleventh Panchen Lama had recently hit town. When asked, the monks at his home monastery of Tashilhunpo professed ignorance of the subject, glancing furtively at each other when asked, toeing the agreed-upon party line. Fair enough, especially in view of the recent closing of Shigatse to tourists, arrests of monks from that monastery, the detention of the abbot, and the abduction, presumably to Beijing, of the little lama himself. What we did see was the occasional, intimidatingly slow passage of truck loads of teenage riot police—all Robocop face-masked black, automatic weapons across their chests—driving at a snail’s pace through the streets of Shigatse in order to terrify the people. It felt good to leave town, but what about the Tibetans?

The drive to Mt. Kailash generally begins at Shigatse. There are southern and northern routes; we took the latter, slightly longer one. My group of six was divided between two LandCruisers and pursued by The Truck, a highly unreliable Chinese creation that carried our two cooks (one for us and one for the Tibetans), our food and camping equipment, and enough fuel for the three vehicles for the entire trip. The truck and one of the jeeps nearly fell through a rotten bridge just outside of Lhatse, a few short hours after we’d set off, setting the tone for the whole trip, and from this point on, hindered further by road works and other unnatural hazards, we remained behind schedule until we got to Ali.

Our plan was to leave by 9:00 each morning and reach the day’s destination —wherever there was decent water—by about 6:00 pm. It stays light until at least 9:30 because all of China (and therefore Tibet as well)— despite being several time zones in breadth—is on Beijing time. This means that Lhasa, not to mention points west, dawns and dusks much later than it should. However, because the jeeps would have to wait for the truck to catch up, and because the truck was a very sick puppy, for the first few days we would waste hours kicking our heels by the side of the road, anxiously scanning the horizon for the cloud of dust that was the harbinger of its arrival. The drivers would then spend more time fiddling beneath the hood, intransigently ignoring the sage advice of our four male tourists, who simply wanted them to check the spark plugs. Finally, and out of sight, we think they must have done it, because the truck made a miraculous recovery and we finally caught up. Anyway, this meant that for the first few days on the road we were putting up tents in the dark, tempers frayed by the unnecessary delays.

The drive to Senge Karpo (Shiquanhe, or Ali, which is how Chinese pronounce Ngari, “Western Tibet”), at Tibet’s southwestern extremity, just this side of Ladakh, took five days. The scenery was barren but spectacular. We drove through empty plains of gravel and rock, along valleys lined by mountains of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and by huge lakes of incredible blueness and clarity. It is basically desert, and the drive to Kailash must be one of the dustiest you can undertake. In fact, most of central Tibet is dusty and dry, and you are constantly inhaling this fine, floury powder, former mountainside ground down by the incessant winds that blow across Tibet. Dust masks are a big help. So, too, are car games, like the one George taught us or counting the discarded green beer bottles that litter every kilometer of Tibet’s highways (and smashed, pave the village streets), prompting Western travelers to propose one unlikely recycling plan after another.

Conspicuously absent from our trip, however, was Tibet’s famous wildlife. These plains, once roamed by vast herds of wild deer, yak, antelope, and ass, were virtually devoid of life. All we saw were the occasional nomad settlements with their flocks of sheep and a few yak. Rarely, a wild hare or a tiny group of deer would scurry by. Years ago, we heard, a bored PLA had machine-gunned most of Tibet’s beautiful wild animals into oblivion for fun. More recently, of course, the Chinese have turned their attention to decimating Tibet’s beautiful forests in the east for building in their own country. The catastrophic environmental effects of this recklessness are now being felt all the way down to the Bay of Bengal.

We also passed through several Tibetan villages, some with military check posts, invariably depressing places, dusty and dry, of course, but also squalid, littered with garbage, pervaded by pessimism. Stray dogs roam hither and thither, occasionally biting the unwary tourist; local monasteries and temples are run down, often locked up and devoid of monks. And everywhere lies that broken glass, green and glinting in the sun: one fears for the feet of the ubiquitous unshod urchins, but more than that, it symbolizes the hopelessness of the villagers, their lack of pride in a home that is no longer their own, their almost having given up on life itself. They have been robbed of their country, their religion, their culture, their future, of any opportunity. Controlled and oppressed by others who see them as vermin, some may have even come to believe the party line on their own backwardness, their lack of civilization. This is cultural genocide approaching its terminal stages, protracted ethnic cleansing as evil as the world has seen.

Ali, to call it by its politically incorrect name, is as soulless a Tibetan Chinese town as you’ll find and even more depressing than the villages just described. Its hotel is worse than the Shigatse. We were there during some kind of conference of military types, a room-full of mean-looking chain smokers, no doubt plotting to maintain their illegal and totally exploitative occupation of Tibet while lining their own personal pockets. Much larger than any town we’d seen since Shigatse, it seemed that half the buildings were in a state of decay, while the other half were either new or still being built; a strange exercise in pointlessness. Again, we were not sorry to leave town but were sorry to leave the Tibetans in the hands of the Chinese. But what else could we do?

You can’t encourage the Tibetans to rise up. They try that constantly—especially the monks and nuns—and it only gets them imprisoned, tortured, and killed. You can’t even get too friendly with them—spies are everywhere, and who knows what the authorities will do after you’ve gone. You can try to smuggle out their letters, messages, and lists of political prisoners, but lately, tourists who’ve been seen to have contact with Tibetans have been strip-searched at the airport, their letters, tapes, and photographs confiscated, and their Tibetan friends jailed. You can’t stage your own demonstration, call out for Tibetan independence, hold a placard demanding freedom, visit Tibetans in prison, or even, in some places, distribute pictures of the Dalai Lama. The Chinese will detain you, interrogate you, and throw you out, which may not be so difficult for you, but is nothing compared to what they’ll do to any Tibetan with whom you’ve been involved.

And so, on our twelfth day in Tibet, we set off from Ali on our way to Tsaparang and Thöling, the former capital of the ancient kingdom of Gugé, whose king Lha Lama Yeshe Öd had first invited Atisha to Tibet about a thousand years ago. As we drove through the canyons that lead to Thöling, I recalled Lama Govinda’s description in his wonderful book, The Way of the White Clouds.

The mountain scenery is more than merely a landscape. It is architecture in the highest sense. It is of awe-inspiring monumentality, for which the word “beautiful” would be far too weak…. Whole mountain ranges have been transformed into rows of gigantic temples with minutely sculpted cornices, recesses, pillared galleries, bundles of bulging cones, intersected by delicate ledges, crowned with spires, domes, pinnacles, and many other architectural forms…. How the wonders of this Tibetan canyon country, covering hundreds of square miles, could have remained unknown to the world is almost as surprising as seeing them with one’s own eyes. (Quoted by Victor Chan in Tibet Handbook, Moon Publications.)

Lama Govinda waxes almost as eloquent about Tsaparang, which was an incredible complex of temples and residential quarters “carved out of the solid rock of an isolated, monolithic mountain peak.” While the Chinese have been unable to destroy the canyons, all but four temples of the citadel of Tsaparang are in ruins, and the insides of those have been very badly damaged indeed. Today, Thöling itself is fairly nondescript, but even in its present sorry state, Tsaparang gives you a glimpse of what once must have been, allowing you to stretch your imagination in awe-struck wonder at people’s faith, devotion, and ingenuity.

We next visited Tirthapuri, after Mt. Kailash and Lake Manasarovar, the area’s third most sacred pilgrimage site, just a few hours west of the holy mountain and lake. The site is associated with Guru Rinpoche and his consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, and famous for its medicinal hot springs. Pilgrims circumambulate the monastery along a variety of paths, sometimes stopping to collect sindura, the red sacred earth that also has medicinal properties. The area around the monastery is replete with rocks and cliffs and man-made objects of religious significance, and if you’re lucky, the monk in charge of the monastery will explain to you the most important.

We arrived at Darchen, the village at the foot of Mt. Kailash and the starting point of the circumambulation, on June 12, the day before Saka Dawa. Darchen is your typical ecologically incorrect Tibetan town, with garbage clogging the streams and broken glass everywhere, its broken-down guesthouse surrounded by even more broken-down houses. At this time each year hundreds of pilgrims set up a tent city across the brook that issues from the south side of the mountain and was once holy but is now a sewer.

Our first sight of the sacred mountain came late in the afternoon, as it peeped from behind the clouds that had obscured it up till then, a gigantic cone of snow-capped rock, majestic yet reclusive. Somehow I’d thought that the circumambulation path hugged its foot, but in fact, Kailash is protected by a ring of mountains, and as you walk around you get only the occasional glimpse. Down the east side you don’t see it at all. Far from being disappointing, this only adds to its mystique.

On the morning of the full moon day there was the big annual prayer-flag raising ceremony a couple of hours west of the village. We set out to catch that and then continued on to our first days’ destination, Drirapuk Monastery, opposite the north face of Kailash, some eight more hours away. One of our party decided not to make the two-and-a-half day trek around the mountain (many Tibetans scoot around in about fifteen hours), but the rest of us did, accompanied by our Tibetan guide and cook, a horse for stragglers to ride if necessary, five yaks to carry most of our stuff, and about a thousand Tibetans spread out around the circumambulation path and sixty other Westerners.

The night before we left, George and I lit the Saka Dawa candle that had been blessed by Lama Zopa Rinpoche at the CPMT in Italy a month or so before, just like the ones that had gone to all FPMT centers as part of the plan to get the Repaying the Kindness at Saka Dawa fund going. George then carried it around the mountain, lighting it each night, and since there was still some left when we had to leave, I placed it in a beautiful little mani temple in Darchen, where it remained to burn itself out.

Mt. Kailash is an amazing place and I wish I had more room here to describe it. However, Lama Zopa Rinpoche has translated some key sections from Lama Chöying Dorje’s definitive Tibetan book on the area, and perhaps that can appear in a subsequent issue of Mandala. I would love to go back and spend a month exploring the many holy sites that abound in this area.

We got around the mountain in the allotted two days and a half and spent that third night beside the holy lake of Manasarovar, a couple of hours away. This, too, is a beautiful and sacred place, the highest body of fresh water in the world, and the source of some of the world’s greatest rivers. We then drove steadily for three days along the southern route, peeling off at Saga to head for Khasa (Zhangmu) on the Nepalese border. Our last night in Tibet was spent at Nyelam, near Nyelam Pelgye Ling, one of Jetsun Milarepa’s many meditation caves. The next day we negotiated a landslide between here and the border, and passing through incredible gorges dripping with water—most unusual after the barren lands of the previous few weeks—finally entered the tropical realm of Nepal.

I’ve been to Tibet four out of the last five years. Each year I have watched the plight of the Tibetans getting steadily worse with little obvious sign of its getting better any time soon. Nevertheless, remarkable political change is possible, and there is a strong feeling that if we who believe in Tibet’s just cause for freedom expend enough energy in helping our Tibetan friends, independence before the year 2000 is a realistic goal.

When on pilgrimage in this beautiful and holy land, it is sometimes hard to remember the dreadful sufferings the local people have undergone. But we must not only remember, we must work hard to force the Chinese out. Join the International Campaign for Tibet, the Australia Tibet Council, The Tibet Support Group (UK), or some other local organization. And help fulfill the wishes of His Holiness the Dalai Lama: go to Tibet; see for yourself; come back and tell the world.

Nicholas Ribush