Tibet has always seemed a magical, mystical place to me. I saw the Dalai Lama speak in Sydney when I was about sixteen, I have seen films like Kundun and read books like Seven Years in Tibet. But I have never been to Tibet, or indeed anywhere in the Himalayas.
It seems that plenty of others have. Tibet has been hammered by high-impact tourism for several years now and in 2007 for the first time, the annual number of visitors has exceeded the total population of Tibet. Even in the best of times it would be hard for Tibetan culture to survive, let alone thrive under these circumstances. Sadly, Tibetans don’t live in the best of times.
Since 1950 when the Chinese seized control of Tibet, there has been a steady exodus of Tibetans and an equally inexorable influx of Han Chinese into this tiny Himalayan kingdom. The population of Tibet is only 2.8 million, while the population of China is close to one billion, so outnumbering the Tibetans is not a difficult task. The rule is oppressive, according to both Tibetans themselves and outside observers, and many Tibetans feel compelled to make the terrible, risky journey across the Himalayas to live in exile in Dharamsala in northern India.
Yet China has been promoting Tibet as a tourist destination. There are new air and rail links bringing in more tourists than ever before. Most of the tourist industry in Tibet is run by Chinese and the Tibetans see little benefit. The earthly paradise of Shangri-La is no longer a myth but a marketing ploy (a few years ago the Chinese authorities renamed an existing Tibetan city as Shangri-La and it’s now full of resorts and shopping malls).
As far as I can see, there’s no real way to visit Tibet as a tourist and be part of the solution, not the problem. It would make me far too sad and I don’t want to be complicit in the Chinese occupation. I would rather go to Nepal or Bhutan for the Himalayan experience, and Dharamsala for the Tibetan cultural experience. My friend Vanessa Walker has spent time in Dharamsala and wrote a rather wonderful book called Mantras and Misdemeanours, which has inspired me to make the trip one day.
If I ever do go to Tibet, I hope it will be in happier times, or to make a genuine difference to people’s lives, whether by reporting on the situation as a journalist, or with immediate, practical assistance.
Speaking of the Himalayas and making a difference to people’s lives, Antonia at Perceptive Travel has posted about the death of Sir Edmund Hillary, reminding us that he should be remembered as much for the work he did to help the people of Nepal as for the fact that he climbed Mount Everest.