Tibet (Bod to Tibetans), the “Roof of the World”, has exerted a magnetic pull over travellers for centuries. The scenery is awe-inspiring, the religious devotion overwhelming, and the Tibetan people welcoming and wonderful. Below the surface, however, it is all too apparent that Tibet’s past has been tragic, its present painful and the future bleak: today Tibet is a subjugated colony of China. While foreign visitors are perhaps more worldly than to expect a romantic Shangri-La, there is no doubt that many are shocked by the heavy military presence and authoritarian restrictions, both reinforced following pre-Olympic protests in 2007–08 and an ongoing campaign of self-immolations. The growing presence of Chinese immigrants and snap-happy tourists, construction of apartments and factories alongside traditional Tibetan rural homes and monasteries, and a programme of resettling nomads en masse to permanent new towns, are further causes of disquiet, but don’t stay away: many people, the Dalai Lama included, believe travellers should visit Tibet to learn all they can of the country.

One of the most isolated parts of the world, the massive Tibetan plateau sits at an average height of 4500m above sea level, guarded on all sides by towering mountain ranges. To the south, the Himalayas separate Tibet from India, Nepal and Bhutan; to the west lie the peaks of the Karakoram and Pakistan; while to the north the Kunlun range forms a barrier to Xinjiang. Eastwards, dividing Tibet from Sichuan and Yunnan, a further series of ranges stretches for a thousand kilometres. Some of Asia’s greatest rivers are born up on the plateau, including the Yangzi, Mekong, Yellow, Salween, Indus and Brahmaputra.

Today’s Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), while still a massive 1.2 million square kilometres, is but a shadow of the former “Greater Tibet” carved up by China in the 1950s, when the Amdo and Kham regions were absorbed into Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces. The current TAR comprisies only the former West and Central regions of Greater Tibet, and is itself divisible into four distinct geographical areas. The northern and largest portion is the almost uninhabited Chang Tang, a rocky desert at an average altitude of 4000m, where winter temperatures can fall to – 44°C. South of this is the mountainous grazing area, inhabited by wide-ranging nomads tending herds of yaks, sheep and goats. Eastern Tibet, occupying around a quarter of the TAR, is heavily forested. The relatively temperate southern valleys, sandwiched between the nomad areas and the Himalayas along the southern border, is the most hospitable and populated area, and where most visitors spend the majority of their time.

Tourist-friendly Lhasa, Shigatse and Gyantse offer the most accessible monasteries and temples – the Jokhang, Tashilunpo and Kumbum, respectively. The Potala Palace in Lhasa remains an enduring image of Tibet in the Western mind and should on no account be missed. Farther afield, the Yarlung and Chongye valleys to the southeast boast temples and ancient monuments, with a visit to the ancient walled monastery of Samye easily combined with these. The route along the “Friendship Highway” between Zhangmu on the Nepalese border and Lhasa is well established, with stops at the Mongolian-style monastery at Sakya and Everest Base Camp along the way. Further west lie the sacred peak of Mount Kailash, its nearby, and similarly holy, neighbour Lake Manasarovar, and the mysterious cave dwellings of the Guge Kingdom, burrowed into the walls of an enormous, crumbling canyon.

Brief history

According to legend, the earliest Tibetans came from the union of the ogress, Sinmo, and a monkey, reincarnation of the god Chenresi, on the mountain of Gangpo Ri near Tsetang. Ethnographers, however, think it more likely that Tibetans are descended from the nomadic Qiang, who roamed eastern Central Asia several thousand years ago. The first Tibetan king, Nyatri Tsenpo, who legend has it came to earth via a magical “sky-cord”, was the first of 27 kings who ruled in the pre-Buddhist era when the indigenous, shamanistic Bon religion held sway. Each of the early kings held power over a small area, the geographical isolation of Tibet making outside contact difficult. While pens, ink, silk, jewels and probably tea reached Tibet from China in the seventh century, for many centuries Tibet looked to India for religious teaching.

Arrival of Buddhism

It was in the time of King Songtsen Gampo, born in 617 AD, that expansion began. Songtsen Gampo’s twenty-year rule saw the unification of the country and the aggressive spread of his empire from northern India to China. China and Nepal each offered Songtsen Gampo a wife: in 632, he married Princess Bhrikuti (also known as Tritsun) of Nepal, and in 641 Princess Wencheng arrived from the Tang court, sent by her father, Emperor Taizong. They both brought their Buddhist faith and magnificent statues of the Buddha, which are now the centrepieces of Ramoche temple and the Jokhang in Lhasa. Songtsen Gampo himself embraced Buddhism and established temples throughout the country, although the indigenous Bon faith remained the religion of the ordinary people. Following his death in 650, his descendants strengthened the kingdom politically, and in 763 Tibetan armies even took the Chinese capital Chang’an (modern Xi’an).

In 838, having assassinated his brother, Langdarma came to the throne. A fervent supporter of the by-then marginalized Bon faith, he set about annihilating Buddhism. Temples and monasteries were destroyed, monks fled, and Tibet broke up into a number of small principalities. A century later, the arrival of Atisha (982–1054), the most famous Indian scholar of his time, sparked a Buddhist revival involving monastery construction, the translation of scriptures into Tibetan and the establishment of several of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Politically, the country was divided, with the various independent principalities having little contact with China.

Mongol period

Absorbed in domestic events, the Tibetans were largely unaware of the Muslim surge across India in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which destroyed the great Buddhist centres of teaching. Meanwhile, to the north and east, Mongol leader Genghis Khan was beginning his assault on China. In 1207, he sent envoys to Tibet demanding submission, which was given without a fight, and the territory was largely ignored until his grandson, Godan Khan, sent raiding parties to explore the country. Hearing from his troops about the spirituality of the Tibetan lamas, Godan invited the head of the Sakya order, Sakya Pandita, to his court. In exchange for peace, Sakya Pandita again offered Tibetan submission and was created regent of Tibet at the Mongolian court, effectively making the Sakya lamas rulers of the country. This lasted through the generations, with Godan’s son Kublai Khan deeply impressed by Sakya Pandita’s nephew, Phagpa.

When the Chinese Ming dynasty overcame the Mongols in the fourteenth century, Tibet began a long period of independence, which ended in 1642 with the Mongols intervening directly in support of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso (1617–82), of the Gelugpa order. Often referred to as “the Great Fifth”, he united the country under Gelugpa rule and within fifteen years established authority from Kham to Kailash – the first time that one religious and political leader had ruled the country. He invited scholars to Tibet, expanded religious institutions and began work on the Potala Palace.

Regency period

One disadvantage of the reincarnation system of succession (in which a newborn child is identified as a new manifestation of the dead lama) is that an unstable regency period of fifteen or twenty years inevitably follows the death of a Lama while his latest incarnation grows up. For two centuries after the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1682 the most influential figures in Tibet were these regents, and the representatives of China’s Manchu rulers, whose influence – despite Tibet’s official continuing status as a Chinese protectorate until 1912 – waned to the extent that Tibet became, to all intents and purposes, self-governing.

British invasion

During the nineteenth century, Tibet became increasingly isolationist, fearing Russian plans to expand their empire south and British plans to expand theirs north. But Indian and Tibetan traders continued to do business along the borders: in 1904, British patience with this one-sided arrangement ran out, and a force under Colonel Francis Younghusband was dispatched to extract favourable trading terms.

Younghusband advanced into the country, slaughtering Tibet’s poorly armed peasant soldiers – largely reliant on invulnerability charms for protection – along the way. Having cut their way through to Lhasa (where they were expecting, but failed, to find evidence of Russian influence), the British faced disappointment, one accompanying journalist writing:

If one approached within a league of Lhasa, saw the glittering domes of the Potala and turned back without entering the precincts one might still imagine an enchanted city. It was in fact an unsanitary slum. In the pitted streets pools of rainwater and piles of refuse were everywhere: the houses were mean and filthy, the stench pervasive. Pigs and ravens competed for nameless delicacies in open sewers.

The invaders forced a treaty on the Tibetans which the Dalai Lama – who had fled their advance – did not ratify, and which was rejected too by China’s representative. Britain then washed its hands of the whole affair, principally because of the public outcry against the first battle of the campaign, in which 700 Tibetans were machine-gunned as they walked away from the battlefield.

Chinese Invasion

The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Tubten Gyatso (1876–1933), realized that Tibet’s political position needed urgent clarification. But he had a difficult rule, fleeing into exile twice, and was much occupied with border fighting against the Chinese and tensions with conservatives inside the country. Following his death, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama was identified in Amdo in 1938 and was still a young man when world events began to close in on Tibet. The British left India in 1947, withdrawing their representative from Lhasa. In 1950, the Chinese government declared their intention “to liberate the oppressed and exploited Tibetans and reunite them with the great motherland”. The venture, however, probably had more to do with pre-empting growing Indian and Russian influence in the region, than with any high-minded ideals of emancipation. In October 1950, the People’s Liberation Army took the Kham region of eastern Tibet before proceeding to Lhasa the following year. Under considerable duress, Tibet signed a seventeen-point treaty in 1951, allowing for the “peaceful integration of Tibet” into China.

Early Communist era

Initially, the Chinese offered goodwill and modernization. Tibet had made little headway into the twentieth century; there were few roads, no electricity or lay education, and glass windows, steel girders and concrete were all recent introductions. While some Tibetans viewed modernization as necessary, the opposition was stiff, with the religious hierarchy seeing changes within the country as a threat to their own power. In March 1959, underground resistance to Chinese rule flared into a public confrontation. Refugees from eastern Tibet fled to Lhasa complaining of the brutality of Chinese rule, including the sexual humiliation of monks and nuns, arbitrary executions and even crucifixions. In Lhasa, the Chinese invited the Dalai Lama to a theatrical performance at the Chinese military HQ. It was popularly perceived as a ploy to kidnap him, and huge numbers of Tibetans mounted demonstrations and surrounded the Norbulingka where the Dalai Lama was staying. On the night of March 17, the Dalai Lama and his entourage fled into exile in India where they have since been joined by tens of thousands of refugees.

Crushing of the rebellion

The uprising in Lhasa was ferociously suppressed within a couple of days, the Tibetan rebels massively out-gunned by Chinese troops. Recriminations and further consolidation of Chinese power, however, were to continue: between March 1959 and September 1960 the Chinese killed an estimated 87,000 people. All pretence of goodwill vanished, and a huge military force moved in, with a Chinese bureaucracy replacing Tibetan institutions. Temples and monasteries were destroyed, and Chinese agricultural policies proved particularly disastrous. During the years of the Great Leap Forward (1959–60), it is estimated that ten percent of Tibetans starved – harrowing accounts tell of parents mixing their own blood with hot water and tsampa to feed their children.

Cultural Revolution and aftermath

In September 1965, the U-Tsang and western areas of Tibet officially became the Xizang Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China, but more significant was the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), during which mass eradication of religious monuments and practices took place. In 1959, there were 2700 monasteries and temples in Tibet; by 1978, there were just eight. Liberalization followed Mao’s death in 1976, leading to a period of relative openness and peace in the early 1980s when monasteries were rebuilt, religion revived and tourism introduced. However, by the end of the decade, martial law was again in place – thanks to Hu Jintao, later China’s president – following riots in Lhasa in 1988–89. In the early 1990s, foreigners were allowed back into the region, and as the decade progressed it appeared the Chinese government was loosening their heavy-handed authoritarian approach to Tibet, and were keen to exploit Tibet’s potential for international tourism.

Olympic recriminations

All this fell apart during the build-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics: pre-Games riots and protests in Tibet, Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai focused international attention on underlying tensions in Tibet; the Chinese government, embarrassed and angry, re-sealed borders and introduced all-but martial law. Since then, thousands have been arrested and any open dissent – or even discussion – has been almost entirely stifled, arguably resulting in an ongoing campaign of self-immolation by Tibetan monks which began in 2009.

A Chinese future

The Tibetan Government in Exile, meanwhile, based at Dharamsala in northern India, represents some 130,000 refugees. Its leader, the Dalai Lama – known to the Tibetans as Gyalwa Rinpoche and regarded as the earthly incarnation of the god Chenresi – has never faltered from advocating a peaceful solution for Tibet, a stance that led to his being awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. The Chinese government, however, has consistently denounced the Dalai Lama as being responsible for dissent, branding him “a devil with the face of a human but the heart of a beast”. His increasing age and frailty, the certainty of his death and the challenge of finding a successor pose serious questions for both China and the Tibetan authorities in exile.

In the meantime, several thousand Tibetans every year make the month-long trek to India, an arduous and dangerous journey over the mountains. Pilgrims have been picked off by Chinese snipers as they crossed the Himalayas, though increasingly those who escape stay only for a few years before heading back home. For the Tibetans who remain, life in Tibet is harsh. Per capita annual income in rural areas is pitiful and the rate of adult literacy has been describe by the UN as “horrendous”. It is estimated that China subsidized the TAR between 1952 and 1998 to the tune of ¥40 billion – yet Tibetans are among the poorest people in China, with some of the lowest life expectancies. As Tibet provides the Chinese with land for their exploding population along with a wealth of natural resources, the influx of more educated and better-skilled Chinese settlers, with considerable financial resources, threatens to swamp the Tibetan population, culture and economy.

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