Columns 2008


It was sometime in the early or mid nineties. My sister and I were in a Tibetan monastery outside of Lhasa.  We were there only because the Chinese government realized it could not subsidize this region forever. Tibet needed to contribute to the national coffers.  So China allowed some monasteries to reopen as a draw for tourists.

We sat in front of a shrine of Buddha.  Tucked in every nook and crevice in the wall behind the Buddha were pictures of the Dalai Lama.  A very old monk brought us each a cup of yak butter tea. Maybe it was the tea. Maybe it was the altitude sickness Judy had been experiencing ever since we’d landed in Lhasa, 12001 feet above sea level. Maybe it was just the whole ambience of the monastery. Whatever it was, Judy took one look at the monk, one look at the tea, burst into tears and sobbed for reasons she found impossible to express.

The monks that heard her crying came running and gently led her out to the courtyard.  I followed, not sobbing, but definitely feeling somewhat unnerved. Maybe the altitude was bothering me too, or maybe it was the almost unearthly sense of peace that overwhelmed us when we first entered the monastery.  We never did figure it out. Eventually, she stopped crying and we went on with our tour.

The Chinese government, ever mindful of its image as an occupier in Tibet, made us take a Chinese government guide with us to Lhasa despite the fact we had hired a Tibetan guide and driver for our time there. No amount of effort by the Chinese government, though, could hide what was blatantly evident to even the most naïve of tourists. Having traveled throughout the world for over twenty years, my sister and I had seen just about every form of government, life and civilization this earth has to offer. But only in Tibet were we aware from the get go that we were in an occupied country. Trucks full of soldiers filled the streets. Ethnic Chinese faces were much more prevalent than indigenous Tibetan faces because the Tibetan people had been dis-invited from their capital and sent into the countryside to live.

As I read about the recent unrest in Tibet, I remembered our young guide and the way he would sidle up to us so that the Chinese nationalist guide couldn’t hear him. Then he would talk to us in his broken English, begging us to not forget Tibet and its people, asking if we had one more picture of the Dalai Lama we’d maybe forgotten to give him. 

Our Chinese national guide was a lady named Mary. She wanted to be a doctor. But the government told her that she had to be a guide first while she waited to get into school.  She’d never been to Tibet before. She had altitude sickness as bad as my sister. She could have cared less what our Tibetan guide and driver said to us in those whispered conversations so long as the Tibetans didn’t care what she said to us in her whispered conversations. What she said was that she would love it if we could send her books about America, books in English that would help her language skills, books that had nothing to do with the drabness of the life she faced.

Almost fifteen years later, I wonder if Mary ever made it to medical school. I wonder if our Tibetan guide and driver are out on the streets of Lhasa protesting or in a prison somewhere. I wonder what happened to the old monk who was so grateful for the picture we brought. Was he allowed to stay in his beloved monastery? Or was he made to leave when the tourist dollars didn’t justify his keep? 

But mostly I wonder how any free government in this world can possibly go to Beijing for the Olympics while China holds Tibet in its iron grip.  I know the Olympics are ultimately just games, but it seems to me that in going there and celebrating them, we are giving credibility to a government that does not deserve it.

My sister and I will never forget that moment in the monastery when we felt a sense of peace and tranquility that no foreign occupation could dispel and that no other place we’ve ever traveled to could engender. We remember and our hearts break for Tibet.