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China´s best kept secret

After two and a half months, our time in China came to an end. We stayed longer than we originally planned in this massively huge country. To put it bluntly, at the end, we were ready and quite relieved to cross the border to another country. Different people, different culture, different food, different everything. China is culturally so dissimilar to Europe, that at some point it becomes increasingly exhausting and frustrating to move around and engage with people. Also communication is utterly difficult since hardly anyone speaks even three words of English. That being said, our time in China was despite all difficulties very rewarding and the experiences and encounters we had unquestionably gave us a new perspective and better understanding on many assumptions and prejudices we brought with us when we crossed the border. Our time in China can basically be divided into three parts. City life. Farm life. And China´s Wild West. You might have read the first two reports. If not, feel free to check out our previous blog-posts. This one is about our last chapter in China, the Wild West.

After having spent one great month at Waldenfarm, an eco-farm in the Sichuan province, we were quite excited to get back on the road again. Our original plan was to cross Tibet to reach Nepal. But since the Tibet Autonomous Region is under strict surveillance and tourists are only allowed to enter the region with a special permit and in the context of a privately organized tour, we decided to find a way around Tibet. Also we researched about the history of Tibet, how the Chinese captured the country 70 years ago and how the situation is today, which affirmed us in our decision to find another route. We´ll get more into detail about that further down.

Considering that we only aim to travel overland, we had two options: Either leaving China via Laos, then crossing over to Myanmar, entering India in the problematic north eastern part close to Bangladesh and then making our way to Nepal; or crossing China all the way to west via the old Silk Road and then leaving the country via the famous Karakorum highway over the highest paved border crossing in the world into Pakistan. Then cross the border to its archenemy India and eventually reach Nepal. While being disappointed at first that we wouldn´t be able to travel through Tibet, we were increasingly excited about the second option. We looked up visa restrictions for Pakistan and found out that the country had just loosened their visa policy at the beginning of this year for 50 countries in order to draw more tourists to the country. And Germany luckily was one of those countries; meaning that we would get a visa on arrival. The thought of travelling through Pakistan was exciting; a country, which was a prime backpacker destination back in the 80s and 90s and that after the tragic events of 9/11 18 years ago saw all tourism ended from one day to another and is just beginning to experience a new spring. It would not only be an adventure but a life enriching experience.

Pakistan. We made up our mind. Now we just had to decide which route to take. We had 5000 km of overland travel in front of us! During our research we came across Tibet again. On our route we would cross traditional Tibetan villages and towns that originally belonged to the state of Tibet. This information was astounding and confusing at the same time. Looking at the map, you only see the current borders of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Yet, the original circumference of Tibet entailed almost twice the land it is now! This is probably one of China´s best kept secrets! (Thanks to for very detailed and accurate information about traveling through Tibet as well as Anusha, an inspiring Indian girl who was also volunteering on the eco-farm we stayed at in China and who shared her planned route through Tibet with us.) When we arrived in China, one of the first questions we were asked was why so many tourists seem to think that Tibet is not a part of China. At the time, we didn´t have enough historical knowledge to provide a good answer to that question. We only knew that Tibet was illegally occupied by China many decades ago and that most countries haven´t accepted its integration into the “motherland”, to use the words of the Chinese government. Because the Tibet issue has somehow disappeared in public perception over the past decades and because accurate information about Tibet’s history has consistently been swept under the rug by the Chinese government, we´ll try to provide a rough picture and a short overview about the country´s history, without going too much into detail.

Tibet´s history

The Tibet question we were asked when arriving in China was representative for the situation in the country. Disinformation. From a very early age on, children are taught that in its more than one thousand yearlong history, Tibet has always been a part of China, except for a couple small time periods. If you tell a lie often and long enough, it becomes reality. This is what happened in China. Looking at many of our western so-called leaders, they seem to have understood this concept as well. Tibet has always been geographically isolated. At the beginning of the 13thcentury, Tibet surrendered to the Mongol leader Genghis Khan who was beginning his invasion on China. When the Chinese Ming dynasty defeated the Mongols in the 14thcentury, Tibet began a long period of independence. From the 14thto the 17thcentury, the country was ruled by successive families, before the Dalai Lama started ruling in the 17thand 18thcentury. At the beginning of the 18thcentury the Chinese Qing dynasty ruled over Tibet until its fall in 1912. In the 19thcentury, Tibet increasingly isolated itself due to the fear of Russian expansion in the north and British expansion in the south. Only three years after the British left the Indian sub-continent in 1947, the Chinese invaded Tibet and declared their intention to “liberate the oppressed and exploited Tibetans and reunite them with the great motherland”. What an honorable and humble cause. Preempting the growing Russian and Indian influence from the north and the south, might likely have been the prime reason. In 1951, being put under significant pressure, Tibet signed a 17-point agreement for the “peaceful integration of Tibet” into China.

In the first ten years after the invasion, China seemed to have good and peaceful intentions to modernize the country and leave its autonomy intact. Up until then there was no electricity in Tibet, an almost non-existent education system and a very poor infrastructure. In 1959, Tibetans rebelled against Chinese rule in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama fled to northern India, where he remains until this day, and the rebellion was brutally suppressed within a few days. What follows is a tragic account of Tibetan history. 87,000 people were killed by the Chinese in the following 18 months. The military force moved in, Tibetan institutions were replaced by Chinese bureaucracy, temples and monasteries were destroyed. Chinese agricultural policies lead to a major wave of starvation. An estimated 10% of Tibetans starved. In 1959 there were 2700 monasteries and temples in Tibet. Due to a mass eradication of religious monuments and practices, its number had been reduced to eight by 1978. After Mao´s death in 1976, there was a short period of peace where monasteries were rebuilt and tourism introduced. Riots in Lhasa in 1988/89 were followed again by a strong authoritarian approach by the Chinese government. However, by the end of the millennium, it seemed like the Chinese government would be more liberal in their conduct with China, also because they wanted to exploit its potential for tourism. The Olympic games 2008 however, mark the final death of hope. Riots and protests focused the international attention on the conflicts in Tibet instead of on the games. The Chinese government was humiliated and furious, reintroduced all-but martial law and ever since thousands have been arrested and discussions and dissent is being rigorously suppressed.

(Main source: The Rough Guide to China, 2017)

Breathtaking nature, welcoming people and Tibetan culture

Ok. Lets take a short breath. Back to our travels. Without taking away too much, the “Old-Tibetan” regions and villages in Mainland China were the most beautiful and authentic areas we´ve seen in this huge country. And if we weren´t pressured by time to move on (due to the Khunjerab-Pass Marathon in Pakistan), we would have definitely spent more time in this area. From Chengdu, capital of the Sichuan province, we took a bus to Kangding, often referred to as the gateway to Tibet. We are not exaggerating, if we are saying that we felt like entering an entirely new country. People looked different, behaved different, some even knew some English and most of them were smiling! Everything seemed more relaxed. No Chinese hustle anymore. And suddenly it was much easier to find vegetarian dishes. Only the ubiquitous public cameras, flashing every few seconds, reminded us that we were still in China. With their hats, Tibetans almost look like Native American cowboys. What a discrepancy! They are quite tall, strong, look determined yet friendly and calm. In two weeks, we travelled from one village to another either by bus or we hitchhiked. We stopped at the villages of Tagong, Garze and Manigange Since there was only one main road connecting each village with one another, hitchhiking was fairly easy. And we just love hitchhiking. You meet the most random people and you save a considerable amount of money. If we should ever go back though, we would definitely rent a 4x4 or motorbikes in order to get to even more remote places and having the possibility to stop wherever we feel like.

An encounter with a holy person

One of the highlights of our short Tibet adventure was probably our walk through the villages around the Dargye monastery, which ended with a dinner with a Tibetan monk. We were walking through the wheat and cornfields, the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains in our back and the sunrays of the early September sun warming our cheeks. Farmers were plowing their fields and everyone was waving, greeting and smiling at us. After two months in China with very little casual interaction with locals, this was quite heartwarming. While walking through one of the small villages, an elder woman was pointing us in the direction of a nunnery. We followed her directions and bumped right into what seemed like the daily ritual of the nuns. They were all dressed in traditional red robes; their heads equally shaved to a few millimeters. One nun was sitting on the floor while the other ones were standing around her, chanting some phrases followed by a collective clap. While we were still contemplating whether we were intruding somehow, one of the nuns was already waving at us, inviting us to come closer. The clapping ritual ended and the nuns formed a circle and they started chanting some monotonous yet very infiltrating songs. We were just sitting there, listening, watching, enjoying and being grateful for witnessing this special ritual. After a while we silently moved on. During the rest of our walk we received many more smiles, we walked across a green pasture, the foothills of the Himalayas now in front of us, relishing the unsullied beauty around us. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, we felt a strong breeze coming right at us. We looked westwards where the wind seemed to come from and spotted a huge water curtain forcing its way through a distant valley with enormous speed. It almost seemed out of this world. We were watching this stunning natural spectacle for a few moments, when we suddenly realized that in a few moments the heavy rain would just mercilessly lash down on us. We just had enough time to put on our raincoats and secure our phones and wallets before we were right in the middle of the storm. The monk´s guesthouse was still a 15-minute walk away. At the beginning we tried to hurry, then we just accepted that we were already soaking wet all the way to our underpants and started enjoying the warm rain on our skin. The monk was already waiting for us. He started a fire, put our clothes to dry and prepared us a delicious meal. The encounter with him was quite special. Have you ever met someone who expressed pure peace and contentment with himself and the world? Who’s pure presence warmed your heart and you couldn’t really explain why? He knew a few words in English, but communication happened on another level. His aura was magical and the room was filled with positive energy and love. We came back the next day and had lunch with him. When saying goodbye he took our hands and said ‘later’. It wasn’t quite clear if he meant this life or another. We left joyful, grateful and sad at the same time. After a few hundred meters we looked back. He was still standing there, watching us going our way.

The following days we were hitchhiking from one Tibetan village to the next, embracing this special culture and the cordiality of the Tibetan people. We camped at the stunning Yilhun Latso lake, situated in a beautiful remote location at 4000 m above sea level, counting shooting stars on a cloudless sky. We were just enjoying every single day.

Tibetan culture and traditions hanging by a thread

Traveling through the old Tibetan region in China made us experience an entirely different taste of the country. It showed us the diversity that this huge country has to offer. However, having travelled through China for almost 3 months, having talked to many people, locals and foreigners alike, and having researched about the countries latest history, we noticed that China doesn´t seem to celebrate its cultural diversity at all. To the contrary. Over the past decades, China seemed to have done everything in their power to bring the so-called minorities in line, or assimilate them, and settle countless Han Chinese to the Tibetan regions in the mid-west and the Uyghur region of Xinjiang in the far west and by that transforming the local population to a minority. Model example is Inner Mongolia, a province in northern China, where the Mongol minority has been assimilated over the past decades and their culture and traditions have largely been absorbed by an oppressive Chinese culture. Understandably, Tibetans and Uighurs fear the same will happen to them. (There´s more examples of other minorities in China, which we left out as we did not travel through those regions and therefore do not have first-hand experiences.)

The implications of Chinese politics will be subject of a different article. Only this much needs to be said. In China´s effort to diminish the significance of local cultures and traditions and therefore the country´s diversity, many people have lost their lives; many religious and cultural symbols have been destroyed and ethnic minorities experience governmental repression as well as a considerable disadvantage in the participation of everyday life.

We heard that travel restrictions in the old-Tibetan regions might soon be raised. And there´s a realistic chance that free individual travel will not be possible anymore in the near future. Why? Well, China doesn´t seem to be a fan of cultural diversity, and seems to tolerate it only to the extend to which absolute control is given and where just enough cultural diversity is left to exploit it for tourism. This might come across rough or even cynical, but we are talking about an authoritarian regime, which has learnt from its long history that in order to uphold power in such a big and diverse country, you need to be in control of the minority regions to prevent a possible rebellion that might endanger the ruling regime. This doesn´t justify the lines of action of the Chinese government towards the country´s minorities, but it might make it a little bit more comprehensible. That being said, we can only hope and wish for the Tibetan people that they have a chance to preserve and cultivate their traditions, rituals and not at least their values, despite China´s effort to wipe out just those.

For us, our trip through the old-Tibetan villages left a lasting impression and should we ever decide to visit China again, Old-Tibet would most certainly be the prime reason for our return. Hopefully we will be able to travel as freely then, as we were now – not for our sake but for the sake of the Tibetan people and the preservation of their rich culture and traditions.

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