4 mins

Will tourism save Tibet?

Wander Woman Marie Javins explores Tibet and ponders whether tourism is its saviour - or destroyer

Tibetan tourist (Marie Javin)



Are hiccups a symptom of altitude sickness, I wondered.

Or were they just a symptom of being crabby? Tibet itself was charming my socks off while simultaneously breaking my heart with the overwhelming numbers of tourists and the heavy Chinese military presence, but I was still feeling crabby. From the altitude? From my government-mandated organised tour?

But yesterday, I'd learned that my guide was actually paying attention when I'd complained about the price of the taxi and he'd smoothly switched us to the public bus for the return trip through Lhasa. Maybe being on a leash in Tibet after roaming freely across West Africa, Madagascar, Thailand, and Sichuan would work out all right.


I'd wanted to switch hotels. The Yak was in a good location but the sewer smell in my room's bathroom was toxic. I had an ongoing battle of wills with an unseen housekeeper about the towel I placed over the vent in the mornings, which would be neatly folded atop the basin by mid-afternoon. I'd asked my Tibetan guide where else I could stay – he hadn't been helpful on this front, but he had been right.

"You'll have a hard time finding anywhere right now." He'd shrugged. "It's high season, when all the Chinese tourists come to Tibet. You should have come in October."

8.4 million tourists – more than the number of ethnic Tibetans living in Tibet – went to Tibet in 2011, and in the first five months of 2012, only 2% of tourists were from countries other than China. I was a meaningless gnat, spending my puny money locally among the swarm.

Coming at high season wasn’t my only mistake. And I should have searched harder for other western tourists to share the tour costs, and educated myself more about how to patronise independent Tibetan businesses. But those weren't the only things I'd done wrong. And I'd already realised one reason why.

I'd had the old guidebook. The new guidebook had come out five months ago, when I was in Nigeria or Congo, and I’d been busily sorting out my day-to-day transportation, and hadn't noticed. If I had, I'd have known which hotels to book, which agencies in Tibet could get me in easiest and best without going through that chaotic hostel in Chengdu...or I could have found this blog sooner.

I downloaded the new guidebook now with a little help from some firewall-work-around software. My grumpiness, I realised, was probably altitude-based and things would be okay. At least we knew my guide was good, and in a few days we'd find out about the car and driver.

I’d read that the guidebook I downloaded was sometimes confiscated in paper form by the border guards when people came in via the Nepal border. Perhaps because there was an introduction by the Dalai Lama, though he told us to go to Tibet, to interact with Tibetans and mindfully witness the events of the country, not to boycott. But my guidebook was on my Kindle and I carried it without fear, feeling a little sneaky even as I knew this workaround would not last as border guards became more aware of e-books.

I had the morning to myself to sip tea and fight my hiccups, and then met my guide to walk to Potala Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage museum and former residence of the Dalai Lama, which is so popular that all sightseeing trips are pre-booked and tightly scheduled. We went in the group entrance, because I was officially a group, and bypassed a long line of individual Chinese tourists travelling without guides.There were some definite advantages to travelling on an official tour.

Once we got inside, we had to walk up and up and up – no wonder all those monks are in such good shape. As we walked, we went inside courtyards, temples, living quarters, and large rooms full of Tibetan books wrapped in cloth, each identified by a cloth label that looked like a tag. Potala Palace existed today due to the intervention of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai during the Cultural Revolution, when cultural and religious sites were ransacked across China.

We were only allowed an hour in the palace, and any time over would be penalised, so we rushed. That was fine with me... the Potala Palace is fascinating, but it’s an ordeal – congested, overcrowded, and utterly packed.

Still beautiful, though.

The following morning, I showered fearlessly. I'd been mocking the official tourist handouts all week, which suggested that washing my hands and showering might cause me to catch a cold at altitude. This advice was, of course, to be treated with great respect due to its entertainment value.

Then today I'd realised that the advice could be based on most people outside the city having no hot water. So yes, washing in glacial-meltwater could potentially be unpleasant.

But the Yak, though it had a stinky bathroom, did have hot water.

My guide met me to escort me to Jokhang Temple, which is at the centre of Lhasa's old town and is one of the holiest, most sacred sites in Tibet. Pilgrims used to hike for weeks to reach it, but now they could just take the bus – thanks to the new Chinese roads, part of Tibet’s vastly improved infrastructure and yet another aspect of the contradictory ethical situation in Tibet – and boy, do they. In droves. Pilgrims were everywhere, along with thousands of Chinese tourists.

Jokhang was packed, as packed as Potala Palace had been. Pilgrims prostrated themselves in front of the entrance while others walked around the clockwise circuit. Anyone who could get in, went in. Surfaces inside Jokhang were worn down from touches, and people caressed corners, edges, touched any part of the holy temple within reach.

The crowds add to the claustrophobic feel of the dark, smoke-scented interior. But this made the Lhasa’s blue, open skies all the better when we got to the roof, where there is a grand view of the square and the city beyond.

After Jokhang, my guide left me when I asked to be alone for the afternoon. We were beginning our five-day journey from Lhasa to the Nepal border tomorrow. I'd be seeing quite enough of the guide and driver.

I prowled the back alleys of Lhasa’s old town for a while, looking at yak-butter shops and kiosks selling photos of pretty much everyone but the Dalai Lama – were these forbidden items downloaded online and secretly kept at home? Or too risky to own? I wanted to see as much as I could in my attempt to understand the relationship between China and Tibet, and to see how actual Chinese people were relating to actual Tibetan people against the backdrop of one being the alien force but also bringing in so much infrastructure. And the Chinese tourists I’d seen were fascinated with Tibetan culture, not here to tear it down, but so many tourists (including me) from different, more modern, secular cultures were putting at risk the very things they came to see.

And yet, an idea was forming in my head. The large groups were alienating and robotic, probably as damaging as a new species set loose in the Galapagos, and there’s no way the planned Tibetan theme park I’d read about was good for anyone except writers who’d been pointing out that Tibet was being turned into a theme park for tourists. But these independent Chinese travellers I’d spotted, and the young backpackers at the hostel near my hotel... they were actively patronising local businesses, interacting with Tibetans... could there be something here to think about? Was a kid with an open mind and a rucksack learning more than a hive mind in a steel can? What about the Chinese backpacker I’d met in Thailand who'd drolly laughed and said "Our government would just shoot us if we protested." He'd been joking... right? Well, sort of. The protests of Tiananmen Square had been a long time ago.

I wouldn't solve this puzzle today. I walked back to Potala Palace to wait outside for sunset.

But the sun falls late in Tibet, which is officially on the same timezone as Beijing. Eventually, I gave up and went back to the Yak to pack up.

Tomorrow the journey to the border would begin.

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