The ethics of visiting Tibet

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, arrives in Lhasa and wonders whether she should really be there

6 mins

I am always cranky in the mornings.

Plus, I was confused about the morality of tourism in Tibet and annoyed that I was required to pay a minder to keep an eye on me for the next nine days, while 5.8 million Chinese tourists roamed freely. Yes, if I stumbled over a protest, I would definitely take a photo, and yes, I would post it online. But a Chinese backpacker would surely do the same, anonymously, via one of the many holes in the Great Firewall.

Three uniformed airport workers checked my travel permit as I flew out of Chengdu, making a big geographic leap in my year-long trip around the world. A Tibetan guide awaited me at the Lhasa airport.

“Hi, I’m Jack,” he said, his faux-smile betrayed by exhaustion in his eyes as he wrapped a white welcome-scarf around my neck.

I laughed and said: “No, you’re not.” Remember, I am cranky in the mornings, and I’d been up since five.

“No, I’m not. But it’s easier for western tourists to say Jack than my real name.”

He rattled off his real name, which wasn’t hard to pronounce, but in case he accidentally told me something illegal along the way, let’s just keep calling him Jack.

Jack stuck me in a fancy 4x4 with a silent driver, who drove me through a long, new tunnel, a shortcut from the airport to Lhasa. The Beijing government had been pouring money into more-populated regions of Tibet, fixing roads and upgrading infrastructure, even as monks protested a distant government ruling their country.

I sullenly checked into the Yak, which was mid-range and charmingly rundown with a potent loo drain reminding me that I was in the older, historic part of town. I learned quickly that Dunya, the restaurant next door, was outstanding and that if I put my laptop by the window and opened it, I could pick up the restaurant's wifi signal. And once I fired up proxy server software, I could even do my long-distance Kuwaiti job in spite of various servers being mysteriously banned in the region.

The road in front of the hotel was a jangle of bells, as bicycle rickshaws zipped along the straight road between two walls of squat, whitewashed traditional Tibetan buildings.

I was in fabled Tibet, in Lhasa, and was confused about the relationship between tourism and oppression. Was Tibetan culture being commercialised for tourists as I’d read, or were we essential as witnesses, which I firmly believed? Could we simultaneously be both bad and good for Tibet?

In time, I thought, perhaps this would all become clear. Obviously, given the presence of 5.8 million other tourists, my presence here was of negligible importance to anyone except my guide and driver, who could no doubt use the work.

I threw a towel over the offending drain and went to Dunya to have some coffee, in hopes that it would turn me into a more civilised person by the time Jack showed up. He’d had to stay at the airport to see off his group of tourists from the week before.

And then, Hotel California kicked in.

It's a metaphor, you know. You can check out of wanting to hear that song anytime you like, but it will never leave, whether you’re in a restaurant in Lhasa or on Khao San Road in Bangkok.

Like me and morning-grumpy.

Jack was waiting for me in the Yak lobby when I returned. He went over the itinerary with me and then I confused him.

"I like to be alone. Can I just walk around by myself in Lhasa aside from where it's mandated that you go with me?"

"Yes... are you sure?" He was probably relieved on one hand but on the other, worried that he wasn't doing his job, or that he'd misunderstood me.

Of course I was sure. I'm a terrible tourist. I hate being dragged around and shown things. I prefer to wander the back alleys and look at stray dogs, or to sit in a coffee shop and see who comes in. Anyway, I had scheduled four days in Lhasa because I wanted to relax and adjust to the altitude (if I even could, given that Lhasa is at 3,650 metres). There was plenty of time for togetherness once we got going on the Friendship Highway toward the Tibet/Nepal border.

Jack arranged to meet me first thing tomorrow, and I wandered down the block to take a look at the centre of the old town.

Rows of plastic flags fluttered across the main street of short, white buildings accented in red-brown edges. I looked closer. The plastic flags were of the kind you'd see over a used-car lot at home, and their presence here marked the 60th year of China’s presence in Tibet. Hmmm, I thought, then ignored the flags as I ignored the young soldiers standing at attention on the corners. I was more interested in the prayer flags that adorned the tall poles down a walk-street along a central square, and in watching Buddhist pilgrims as they circum-ambulated – walked around – Jokhang, the most sacred temple in Tibet. I wandered the old city for the day, got hopelessly lost in the city’s Muslim section, sipped coffee, and retired early from altitude exhaustion and a terrific headache.

I hoped to be better at this altitude thing within a few days.

The next morning, Jack was waiting for me in the lobby at nine, to take me to Drepung Monastery. This is a 600-year-old compound, which was in the news in 2008 for being home to the monks the led the protests in spring of that year.

"Today we will take a taxi to Drepung," explained Jack as he hailed a cab.

Uh-oh, I thought. I have to pay for this, don't I? I vaguely recalled something about how I had paid only for the guide, driver for the days outside of Lhasa, and the car outside of Lhasa. Everything else was on top of that – admissions, hotels, food... taxi, right? How did I end up in this taxi? Isn't there a bus? How much would this set me back?

We drove 10km out of town towards Drepung, as I watched the meter and tried to remember how much money was in my wallet. Then, at the gate, the driver said something to the guide, who turned around to speak to me.

"He wants more money to drive us past his checkpoint to the gate, okay?"

I lost my temper.

"What do you mean I have to pay more? Haven't I already paid enough? You can't keep charging me for things. It's not right."

Worried, the guide backtracked.

"No... what I mean is that there is a fee to drive past here, to go up to the actual gate. It's a long hill but I guess we could walk. The taxi driver wants you to pay the fee."

Oh. Well, now I felt a little silly. But still...

"Look, Jack. I don't like surprises about money. I've paid a lot for this trip and always there is moremoremore. Please inform me in advance when I have to spend money. And we should have taken the bus."

I felt like kind of a jerk but I was also annoyed. I like knowing the costs.

But I calmed down once I realised I was overreacting, and only sulked a little when we got to the entrance to the monastery. I headed up the stairs, past a cheerful woman burning incense offerings, and alongside colorful Buddha murals painted high on the mountain stone faces.

Once we passed prayer wheels and were inside the temples (there are various shrines and stupas within the compound), I wasn’t allowed to take photos anymore (what I took are here). Or sometimes I could for a fee, but they were crowded anyway and too dark for non-flash shots.

This monastery held thousands of monks at its height and now only had about 300, because of official restrictions. An exile institution exists in India, with 5,000 monks across two campuses.

As we walked through the temples, we saw murals everywhere – many of them identical. Religious art in Tibetan-Buddhist artwork follows certain rules and there are limits to how many liberties the artist can take. So I started to notice themes and images repeating themselves. Of course there were the Buddhas – but there were also tigers, lions, dogs, the goddess Tara, a blue god of power, and something called The Wheel of Life, its sections visually diagramming Buddhist philosophy as simply as possible.

We also saw lots and lots of tourists on packaged bus tours. They were rushing through, usually led by one overwhelmed guide. But there were a few independent Chinese backpackers as well, taking their time, absorbing the culture, and seeing Tibet on their own terms.

We finally emerged into the daylight on the other side of the compound, to hear some thumping and singing.

"What's that?" I asked.

"What... that? They're just working." I could see men and women on a nearby building.

"They sing when they work?"

"Yes, they are building a roof."

I stopped and watched for a minute as my bored guide kept walking. He'd seen people working plenty of times.

But I'd never seen people singing and thumping while they worked.

Jack had been giving some thought to my inner cheapskate while we'd been seeing the sights, and now he walked us down the hill rather than getting a taxi. He treated me to a local specialty tea I could barely stand to smell, much less drink, which I profusely thanked him for before gulping it down with a smile, then took me down the hill to the bus stop.

We boarded a brand-new bus from Drepung to the Dalai Lama's Summer Palace. Two women hopped on – one took one yuan for each of us (Jack gallantly covered me) and the other drove the bus. About 20 minutes later, we disembarked at the Summer Palace.

Jack smiled.

"That's the first time I've taken that bus."

Yeah, Jack and I were going to get along.

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