By Edward Wong IHT
Saturday, March 14, 2009
MAQU, China: The paramilitary officer took our passports. It was close to midnight, and he and a half-dozen peers at the checkpoint stood around our car on the snowy mountain road. After five days, our travels in the Tibetan regions of western China had come to an abrupt end.
My colleagues and I waited for the police to arrive. We were to be escorted to the local police station, interrogated and put on a plane back to Beijing.
"This is for your own safety," the paramilitary officer said.
The detention, two weeks ago, was not entirely unexpected: I was reporting on Tibet, one of the most delicate issues in the eyes of the Chinese government. And I was traveling through Tibetan areas of Qinghai and Gansu Provinces as the government was deploying thousands of troops to clamp down on any unrest.
Tibetans widely resent Chinese rule, and Chinese leaders fear that Tibetans could seize on this month, the 50th anniversary of a failed uprising, to carry out a wave of protests, similar to what took place a year ago. Part of the mission of the security forces is to evict foreigners so that whatever occurs will be kept hidden from the world.
That, of course, has always been part of the problem with Tibet. China's lockdown this month is only the latest episode in a long history of both Tibetans and Chinese trying to keep the mountain kingdom closed to the outside world. News of Tibet has always been difficult to obtain because much of the region lies on a remote plateau above 15,000 feet that is ringed by mountains. Information becomes that much harder to get when governments padlock the gate.
Drawing a veil over Tibet has only encouraged outsiders to project their own imaginings and desires onto the hidden land, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
It happened in the 19th century, when Tibetan officials, seeing Britain and Russia jockey for influence in Central Asia during the Great Game, decided to close Tibet to foreigners. The very state of isolation spurred explorers, spies, missionaries, colonial officers and Buddhist devotees into quests to reach Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.
Britain shot its way to Lhasa during a brutal military invasion in 1904, then tried to keep other foreigners out. The Chinese Communist Party, after conquering Tibet in 1951, kept the region closed during decades of repression (and made it into a "hell on earth," the Dalai Lama said on Tuesday).
China gradually opened Tibet to tourists, only to close it during each stirring of civil unrest.
"A large element of Tibet's historical allure grew precisely out of its isolation, that it was untouched by the modern world and did not welcome incursions," Orville Schell, author of "Virtual Tibet," a book about the enduring Western fascination with Tibet, wrote in an e-mail message. "So, there is a certain irony in the fact that China, which had been successful in removing a good deal of the allure of the Tibet mystique to Westerners by making it so accessible, now once again feels obliged to 'close' it."
The history of Western attempts to penetrate into Tibet in the 19th and early 20th centuries is recounted in "Trespassers on the Roof of the World," by Peter Hopkirk. The travelers often braved blizzards, mountain passes and marauding bandits, only to be stopped short of Lhasa by armies of Tibetans led by high-ranking monks. Sometimes they were taken prisoner and tortured. (I didn't have it quite as bad on that mountain road. Not only did the paramilitary officers not draw weapons on us, they offered us hot milk as we sat in our car.)
In 1879, Colonel Nikolai Prejevalsky of the Imperial Russian Army set out with an escort of armed Cossacks for the Tibetan capital, only to be halted within 150 miles of Lhasa by Tibetan officials. He turned back.
Eighteen years later, a British adventurer named A. Henry Savage Landor was captured on his way to Lhasa, brought to a provincial governor and tortured, including being stretched on a rack for 24 hours. After his release, he returned to England and wrote a best-selling book about his captivity.
Those who did make it into Lhasa usually did so in disguise. A handful of Indian spies in the employ of the British Empire posed as holy men. A Japanese Buddhist named Ekai Kawaguchi pretended to be a Chinese physician. And a Frenchwoman fluent in Tibetan language and culture, Alexandra David-Néel, became the first Western woman to set foot in Lhasa when she entered dressed as a pilgrim in 1923.
By then, though, news of Tibet had been seeping out into the world. That began with the British military expedition of 1904, led by Sir Francis Younghusband. With Maxim guns and Enfield rifles, the soldiers killed thousands of Tibetans on their march from India. The Tibetans were forced to sign a treaty with the British, one of the terms being that the British could post trade agents within Tibet. The British then did all they could to keep other foreigners out.
The British had invaded Tibet thinking the Russians already had a foothold there, but they found no significant Russian influence. That was because until then, the 13th Dalai Lama had succeeded in sealing off Tibet. That very success had led the British to fill the void with their imaginings. They dreamed up Tsarist plots and proceeded, with great violence, to pry open Tibet in part because of those delusions.
Decades later, after ending Tibet's self-rule in 1951, then destroying countless temples and persecuting monks and nuns in horrific campaigns, China began modernizing Tibet and opened it to foreign tourists. I first traveled to Tibetan regions of China in 1999, and spent five weeks in Lhasa and central Tibet in 2001, part of the time hiking between monasteries.
But now that I work in China as a journalist, it is much harder to get to Tibet. All foreign journalists need permission from the government to legally enter central Tibet, which is rarely granted. What's more, since the uprising of March 2008, the government has, for months at a time, kept foreigners from entering any Tibetan area.
Chinese can travel to Tibet, but the land is far away. What little they know of Tibet comes from truly Orwellian government propaganda. The official line asserts, for example, that the Dalai Lama is "a jackal clad in Buddhist monk's robes."
One Chinese friend who worked in a Tibetan area of Qinghai Province told me he gets shocked looks from friends when he shows them photographs of himself with red-robed monks. "They get scared," he said. "They say, 'What are you doing? Who are these people?' They don't know how to react."
That sense of confusion was echoed by a Chinese reader engaged in a discussion on Tibet last week on this newspaper's Web site, nytimes.com.
"Even for me, a real Chinese, Tibet is such a remote and mysterious place," wrote the reader, Cao Wei, of Shanghai. "I don't have an idea what all these things are about."