Postcard from Tibet

– My train trip to Tibet
– Thoughts on the future of Tibet as part of China.

Dear Mathew,

I am writing to you after the very successful completion of the 10th The Asian Banker Summit, which was held in Beijing. As you know, the Summit was a four day event, starting with the awards ceremony on Sunday May 11, followed by a very intensive two day conference on the Monday and Tuesday and a bank site visitation and various workshops on the Wednesday. We had a very creditable 550 people turning up, including 200 foreigners and everyone gained so much from the dialogues in the midst of the current Asian crisis.

My staff, who had worked so very hard to make the Summit a success, planned and executed a night of wanton debauchery on Wednesday 13 May, while I took the opportunity to slip away on the night train to Tibet. I know that the last thing they needed was to have their boss in their midst as they descended into a competition of belching alcohol and plumes of nicotine to celebrate what was without a doubt the best Asian Banker Summit ever, a world class event that they were responsible for and rightfully proud of.

I only started planning for the train to Tibet on the Thursday before, which technically was somewhat late. But I was not sure until then that I could even make the trip, and that the Summit will be fine. All foreigners have to apply for permission from the Chinese government to travel to Tibet. I heard rumours that foreigners with local employment passes to work in China, as I had, were routinely not allowed to go to Tibet – that you had to be a full blown tourist arriving into China. But in the end the permission did come through the travel agent, maybe because I had planned only a two day stay in Lhasa. I was doing this more for the two day train journey on the highest railway in the world, with little time for Tibet itself.

You know of course that I took the 6-day Trans Siberian Railway trip from Beijing to Moscow, over the Christmas holidays (the experience of which I have to write into my blog sometime soon). Doing it in deep winter, when it was -25C in Siberia was an outstanding experience. Six days and five nights in a winter wonderland. I had the first class cabin to myself. In fact, I had the entire coach to myself, as there were only 14 passengers and 22 crew in the 11 coach train, of whom only three were foreigners in the middle of winter. Much better than a luxury train, hands down! My problem is that I have to do these train trips as quickly as I find a small window of time to do them, because if I don’t, the next opportunity never comes.

In the train

The Tibetan train journey itself was a pleasant and comfortable two-day trip. We left Beijing at 9pm on Wednesday and arrived in Lhasa on Friday at about 7pm, so a good two full days. You don’t really feel the time. The train passed Xian in the center of China on Thursday morning, and then through Gansu province for most of the day before arriving in the town of Xining by about 7pm in the evening. Gansu province is pretty, with its limestone cliffs and hills.

But the part of the journey that is the reason for this trip starts only after Xining. The train climbs up the Tibetan plateau all through the night from here until it reached the city of Golmud, at about 5000m above sea level, at about 2pm on the Friday, before descending into Lhasa at 3600m in the evening.

The most comfortable cabin is the one for four people. It is air-conditioned, with upper and lower bunk beds two astride against the large window, complete with a small TV screen and an oxygen outlet against each bed. Chinese people are generally very polite and considerate to foreigners. A shy guy in our cabin gave me chocolates as a sign of friendship because he did not speak any English and I did not speak enough Chinese. The buffet coach was right next to ours and so we did walk over for a meal or two.

The toilets and the common washing areas at the end of each cabin were however not of the quality we can discuss here. I was quite surprised that the coaches had aged somewhat, given the fact that these specially constructed Bombardier passenger carriages were commissioned only in July 2006.

I was especially impressed by the state-of-the-art 4000hp GE diesel-electric locomotives, called the C38Ache, built specifically for high altitude use. My father, who was a railwayman when he was alive, would have simply stood there and looked at the massive engines in wonder. It took two of these to provide traction at an average speed of 100kmh up the mountains to the 16 or so coaches.

The coaches are supposed to be pressurised – like an aircraft – for the part of the journey through the Tibetan highlands. One of my sealed instant noodles packaging bloated up to proof the point. But the technology is not as rigorous as that of an aeroplane. The toilet windows were open throughout the trip and I am sure there was a lot of leakage in the gangway bellows between coaches.

In my view, the leakage is good, as it helps passengers to acclimatize faster. To be honest, altitude sickness to about 4000m does not worry me so much. My trips to high places like Lake Titicaca in Peru, Colarado, Zermatt in Switzerland and my famous climb up Mount Fuji (3700m) tells me that my worst problem in that range is headaches, and sure enough that was what I felt on the first night in Lhasa, which was easily cured with Paracentamol. The Chinese people make a big deal about breathing problems in Tibet. They recommend a host of medication, some with suspect origins, to deal with altitude sickness. The best thing to do really is relax and deliberately walk slowly on the first two days while your body acclimatizes.

I was surprised at the number of Americans and Europeans in the train to Tibet, as I thought that the Chinese government would be more circumspect about letting them in – but obviously not. There was this American lady in the train, who was teaching at a university in Xian and who was, what I would call, a legal reform activist trying to get the Chinese government to make the rule of law more transparent, together with her two colleagues who were holidaying from the US prior to a conference.

That whole day, on Friday, as the train pulled across the Tibetan highlands, was simply awesome. The plains were already in the 4500m range. Around the terrain were the snow-capped mountains, several obviously higher than 6000m, with glaciers between them. The plains froze in winter and soaked fully in the spring, as the snow melted in this prelude to summer. I just looked out of the window all the time. The phenomenon of the top soil of permafrost turning into clogged pools of water had to be seen to be understood, and no time better than late spring, as now.

Just think about it. These wet plains are the source of just about all of Asia’s majestic rivers and their unique stories– the mighty Yangtze, the snaking Mekong, the silted Salween, the fertile Irrawaddy, the holy Bramaputra, and even the rushing Indus river in the West towards Pakistan.

Travelling inside a comfortable train completely undermines the rugged majesty of what I was seeing. This is the world’s largest plain. It is also the world’s highest plain. Even in the train, I was traversing a distance of nearly 2000km from Xining to Lhasa – that’s the distance across several countries in Europe or Southeast Asia, where I come from. The entire Tibetan plateau, if you measure it right down south where it meets the Himalaya mountains, is a massive 2.5 million square miles. I could almost cry at what I was looking, silently coming to terms with the sight the train was availing to me as it pulled quietly along on the modern tracks embedded into the permafrost.

I know that many Western commentators complain loudly about the environmental damage that running a train through the permafrost might do. I do not know all the facts. But I am a train buff first and everything else second. The fact that “progress and accessibility will come to the roof of the world is inevitable. It was just a matter of time before someone, anyone, Western or Chinese, would have found the excuse to throw carpets of tarmac or miles of roads on these plains? It may have been for machines of war or machines of peace.

There were announcements in the train about how sensitive they were to migratory patterns of the wild Tibetan antelopes we saw along the way. There were also the wild sheep, wild mules, white-lip deer, birds and various other mammals.

Where they were not on bridges that skipped from one gorge to another, the tracks were built on raised land as high as 15-20m above the ground with fences all around to deter straying animals. The plateau can appear very busy with migratory animals, even without a single human in sight, and a lot of blue skies all around.

My understanding of Tibet and China

As I was doing this trip right after a major conference, I did not have the time to read up on the plateau and the Tibetan people until during and after the trip. But what I tried to learn in a hurry really fascinated me.

The ancient Bonn religion and the subsequent iterations of Tibetan Buddhist religion that goes back to the 7th century, tells me that here is a nomadic people with an incredibly well developed theological and social structures designed to help them function in this inhospitable climate. The Tibetan people are truly the guardians of the roof of the world, and we must respect them as such.

When the train rolled into Lhasa at 7pm, it was still clear daylight. Directly south, Nepal and India on the same longitude, are 2.5 time zones away from Beijing, but Tibet shares the same time as the capital city of its adopted country, China.

I have no problems at all accepting Chinese suzerainty over Tibet for a number of reasons. Firstly, the relationship between the theocracy that Tibet is, and the China, in its various incarnations, goes back firmly to the 11th century, at the very least, and long before that in a loose manner. The history is long and real. The periods of prosperity in Tibet coincided with the periods of prosperity in China, most notably during the Tang and Qing dynasties.

Secondly, and very simply, I do not see how a theocracy that Tibet is can exist as an independent, modern state in its own right except in association with a larger sponsoring state.

If we are asking the 3 million people in Tibet to be functional as a self sustaining economy in the modern world and at the same time be the ancient guardians of the roof of the world by keeping to their deep religious practices that keeps them in harmony with the nature around them, we are asking them to do what no other society in the world has done. Something has to give. So, in one way or another, it will always be a vassal state of one of the three big powers around its borders – China, Russia or India.

Also, what is Tibet’s chances of surviving as an independent state? To become a failed state like Afghanistan or Iraq? To be puppeted around by undercover US CIA agents as pawns in someone else’s myopic agenda? The alternatives are really very dangerous indeed. The issue I have however, is the Chinese government’s bizarre and reprehensive way of dealing with a region they call their own.

The answer to one question I asked a Tibetan guide was pertinent. I asked, “what is the population of Tibet,” to which his answer was “17 million.” It was a gross exaggeration, of course, because the most conservative estimates do not put it anything above 3 million inside Tibet. His intention was obviously to align himself with the larger Tibetan diaspora. But until recently, it was not possible to give a number at all, because Tibet was never one place. There are ancient Tibetan communities in China as far away as Mongolia.

Over the centuries, Tibet’s seven regions were as good as being seven very different cultures and even people. In terms of land mass, each are as large or larger than many countries in Europe today. The northern tribes that thwarted Chinese attempts to dominate them over the centuries, are fundamentally more conservative and perhaps more militant than the southern tribes that were more open to the spice trade and foreign intellectual influences.

In the very beginning, each of the regions were ruled by warlords, masquerading as spiritual leaders. But I think that the really fascinating history of ancient Tibet is how, from the time of Songsan Gampo from about 700AD onwards, there was a unified political structure wrapped around religious beliefs that were continuously modified in many pragmatic ways through the centuries for the people to forge an identity over time.

Apart from the Potala palace, that postcard icon of Lhasa, I was fascinated by the Jokhang temple, because it represents the unity of identity that was forged over centuries. The Jokhang temple is like an ecumenical religious center. If it were Christian, it could well be a shrine for all of Christianity’s different denominations, from the time of St Paul, to St Augustine to the Popes, Martin Luther and right down to the charismatic movement today, all under one roof. The worshipper makes what he wants of his beliefs and chooses if he wants to worship the ancient Buddha or the future Buddha, very literally.

If Tibet did not have this forging of a common identity, it could have well turned out into an Afghanistan. My mind kept going back to Afghanistan, which I visited at the beginning of this year, as a comparison. Like Tibetans, There are more primordial instincts that separate the Pashtuns, the Tajiks, the Hazaras, the Uzbeks, the Turkmans and at least 5 other ethnic groups then the common Islamic identity that is supposed to bind them together.

The four main strains of Tibetan Buddhism, (the Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya -don’t worry about the names, you will come across them again and again everywhere) over centuries came to be under the patronage of the Gelug-ordained Dalai Lama (manipulated in some ways by the Chinese emperors over time, I suspect). Each of these strains have many further sub-sets.

I think that what I saw was the evolution of Tibetan Buddhism in the different parts of the country over different periods. Some of the influences are geographical. Others are genuinely theological, because the Tibetans in the southern regions are more pervious to outside influences, including Christianity, than those from the north.

Tibet today

Fast forwarding to 2009, the first thing that did struck me about Chinese Tibet is the crude way in which the PRC government deals with all the complexities that are Tibet. The massive presence of armed Chinese military personnel all over Lhasa is frankly, intimidating. Lhasa is like an occupied territory. A war zone. It is a visual admission that the Chinese government has not even bothered to use all the nuances of religion, culture and history to find the natural groove from which to rule the Tibetans, which they could have done with a light touch.

There is nothing autonomous about the way China rules Tibet. The Chinese government appears to be operating on the principles of avoidance of all the mistakes previously made in history – the most important of which I suspect were the humiliating Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1906, and the impact of the Cultural Revolution in sacking the monasteries in Tibet in the hopeless attempt to make this a secular state – but inadvertently adding to them instead.

I think that the different inflexion points in the modern history of Tibet, for example the revolt against Chinese annexation in 1950, that led to the exile of the present Dalai Lama, were driven by limitations in China’s misreading of the circumstances. We forget that no other nation state wanted to sponsor Tibet to be an independent state on its own. There were mistakes all around. Even in the way the CIA got involved in causing the revolt in the first place is shrouded in a lack of a reason why the US wanted Tibet to be involved. The wounds from that period are still festering, and seen in the way in which the official Chinese response to Tibet is being framed today.

Because of this turbulent history, nobody wants to make the modern day decision of what is actually in Tibet’s best interest, and the Chinese, even with the upper hand, are not helping their own cause in the matter.

The difficulty I have in appreciating the Western-inspired position on Tibet is that even as they try to define the issues in the context of human rights and self determination, the modern realities of technology, information, wealth, diseases and others are tearing into this region just as they are any other regions of the world. I could not see anyone – Western or Chinese – who care enough about Tibet to help them cope with the evolution of their own young people in the modern world.

In any case, I asked a guide, “assuming that there is no debate that Tibet is an integral part of China, what would Tibetans really want from the Chinese government?” His answer, very interestingly enough was, “firstly, the Dalai Lama is our leader, and 100% of all Tibetans in Tibet agree with that. Secondly, we need jobs.”

The first remark put in stark perspective the Tibetan tragedy for me. It is a matter of identity that has been taken away from them. The Chinese government is being consistent in that it abhors alternative leaders whether it is the Pope (the Chinese catholic church has its own state-appointed head) or the Falungong(banned).

This curious way in which governments validate religions simply by over-reacting to them is not unique to China. Christianity would have been forgotten as the belief of a small band of parochial fishermen in Galilee if the Roman empire did not crack down on them. Ditto Martin Luther and the Catholic Church. The Iranian revolution would not have gained momentum if the Shah at that time did not over-react against the minority Baai sect in 1955, A long list of examples to prove the point.

But it is a reflex reaction that is becoming increasingly difficult to defend in modern times. The Chinese government tries to provide synthetic alternatives that only makes things more complicated.

Two years ago, I had met Princess Yabshi Pan Rinzinwangmo, the pretty 22 year old daughter of the late 10th Panchen Lama and his Chinese wife, at a Standard Chartered Bank dinner in Beijing. She had come back from the US as the Chinese government’s rendition of the “Princess of Tibet”, a symbol they hoped will bridge the Tibetans with China. But even if she refers to the president of China as “Uncle Jintao” (who incidentally was the Communist party chief in Tibet before), I wondered how enormous this struggle in identity would be for her, and even more so, given the dubious role she has been given in Beijing.

The Chinese government’s attempt to discredit the Dalai Lama obviously cannot go on forever. There has to be an enlightened rapprochement of this issue at some point. This is a DNA of the Tibetan people that is simply non-negotiable. Several of my Chinese friends think that the Dalai Lama is an evil man, and so public opinion inside China has been skewered to a point of non-negotiation. This fractured arm of the discourse does not help the Chinese government or its people in their desire to win the hearts of the Tibetan people.

As a modern nation-state, the central planning that is the Chinese model is inadequate in dealing with the issues facing Tibet. Not many realise that because Tibetans are by and large only just coming out of the nomadic lifestyles that kept them in the vast savannahs outside the cities, the reach of language education – both English and Chinese – is woefully inadequate.

My Chinese friends, drunk with state propaganda, tell me that “oh, Tibetans have free education, why, there is even a school in Beijing for Tibetan people. China does everything for them.” My new Tibetan friend tells me not enough young Tibetans even speak adequate Chinese to be functional in the modern economy.

Little do they realise the enormity of the task. These are peoples who have no bearings on how to cope with the huge modernisation that China is bringing on to them through the railway and the roads and the airports, unless someone went to them to help them cope with these monstrosities.

Something that I saw in Kabul, Afghanistan a lot, but that I did not see in Lhasa at all, were commercial schools teaching practical adult skills. Despite the threat of war, there were schools in Kabul streets shamelessly publicising “English and Computer Skills” boldly on the facade of their buildings. In the banks I visited there, I saw earnest young people eager to learn English and computer skills.

I asked my Lhasa tour guide where he got his English. He said he learnt it as an adult from another Tibetan who had come from India. Not from a Chinese. Not from a Tibetan who had come from Beijing.

The development of aboriginal peoples everywhere, whether in Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and even in the US is such an instructive science. In western countries where white people have come to dominate and obliterate the natives with their economy and their diseases, the lessons to be learnt have been all but lost. They say “sorry” many generations later, but scarcely can be expected to mean it after they have ravaged and subjugated the natives.

But in the countries where the natives subsequently reformed and found their footing, as in New Zealand or Malaysia, the role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in reaching out to these people in helping them cope in a way that governments can never do is vitally instructive.

Self funding NGOs operating with the same zeal as the missionaries of old, teaching natives everything from personal hygiene to language skills so that they can interact better with the larger immigrant population have achieved more than governments ever could. Just giving free education and hoping that aboriginal people can cope is a grossly patronising assumption that governments make.

China does not have the mechanisms for its own people to reach other to segments of the population in informal ways. So, all its policies on Tibet are focused on huge infrastructure and armies of colonizers. The building of ground level human capacity is woeful. NGOs are disallowed and distrusted in China, even if they were formed by Chinese people themselves.

Secondly, there are no role models. I asked several Tibetans I met this question: Who are the top 10 wealthiest people in Tibet? Of those how many are Tibetans, and what businesses are they in? The answers I got were anecdotal, of course. But they essentially told me that that most of the wealthiest people in Tibet are Chinese. The only Tibetans who would even make that list are those in the traditional medicine business (the Chinese buy millions of dollars of traditional medicine from Tibet). The second are those in the agri-trade, wholesalers of farm products. But neither

Modern businesses like road works, transportation companies that move goods thousands of miles on the modern highways that traverse the plains, computer companies and tour agencies are all run by ethnic Chinese in Tibet. I was especially galled by the fact that ethnic Chinese petty traders jostle with ethnic Tibetans in the ancient Bakhor street (it was for the longest time, a street for circumnavigating the Jokhang temple) to sell traditional Tibetan artefacts.

Why should I, as a tourist, buy anything Tibetan from an unskilled ethnic Chinese migrant competing with a native – go away, I said to them! Would you go to Italy and buy Italian artefacts from an Indian trader in Milan? No. That is how crude the Chinese have made tourism in Tibet.

Thirdly, there are no modern Tibetan institutions, and in my trade, no Tibetan banks, where the boss is Tibetan whom young aspiring Tibetans can at least see that it is useful to aspire to a trade.

So, the young Tibetans stay their minds on religion a lot – I was fascinated to listen to Tibetan contemporary music, modern but still religious. But even there, apparently, the Chinese government restricts the entry of young people into the monkhood.

China calls Tibet an autonomous region, but it is anything but autonomous. I may be misinformed, but the mayor of Lhasa apparently is Chinese, not Tibetan. There are hardly any Tibetan in high office within the Chinese administrative infrastructure for younger Tibetans to look up to.

Tibet may be the roof of the world, with towering mountains that inspire. But for Tibetan young person, they may just as well be living in the dungeons of the world, with very little to aspire to. I gather that about 20 percent of all young Tibetan people under 30 years of age, are unemployable in the modern sectors.

Curiously, when I asked the same question of who the top 10 wealthiest people were to several Afghan bankers whom I met earlier in the year in Kabul, I got a different and not surprising answer. All the seriously wealthiest Afghans are in the $70 billion a year drug trade.

The jostling that goes on in the formal US-sponsored government contracts sector in Kabul is almost a joke. The American fear of causing corruption results in a government system where the local contractors can only vie for small projects while a large chunk of aid money goes out of the country to the European (many Dutch for some strange reason) contractors on the same planes they came in. Is it any wonder then that what is called terrorism in Afghanistan has a lot to do with economics masquerading as religion.

Matthew, I digress. I am sorry for writing down these observations instead of the tourist things you had asked me to find out for you.

You had asked about restaurants in Lhasa. The first and most important one is Makye Ame. Ask anyone in Lhasa and they will tell you the story of the name of this restaurant, which means “Lovely Mother” or “Holy Mother”, essentially in reference to a mysteriously beautiful woman that the 6th Panchen Lama had met there and never met again.

The truth about Makye Ame is that it is owned by a Chinese couple, who interestingly also run the same restaurant as a chain in Beijing – which I happily frequent. In as much as there is much to say that is negative about the overwhelming number of Chinese in Tibet, there are still those who are in Tibet because they respect and promote the people of this land, and the owners of Makye Ame are one of them. I wished there were more such Chinese people in Tibet.

There are other restaurants as you walk around Bakhor street, and anyone of them perched on the second floor of the buildings there, with a vantage view of the street below is fair game.

The other thing to do in Lhasa is to attend a really local “cultural show”, where you have Tibetan peasant dancers belting out several local songs and dances. There are two versions to choose from. One is the one meant for Western tourists (very boring) and the other version meant for the Chinese tourists (vey boisterous). I can’t decide. The one meant for Chinese tourists features better paid and therefore more talented Tibetan young people. The one for the Western tourists is pathetic. But you will need the help of a Tibetan tour guide to get permission to go to one of the shows for Chinese tourists.

The tour guide did take us to Nam-tso lake on the second day. I do apologise if I am short on the tourist side of the story. I spent only two full days in Lhasa, the main purpose of the trip was to squeeze in that all important train ride.

As I flew back to Beijing, I asked myself what kind of school would I set up in Lhasa if I were a Chinese entrepreneur who wanted to also be useful to his countrymen from Tibet. Schools teaching English or Chinese are a first choice. But unlike Kabul, I would not say that computer schools are a must – Tibetans are not that fascinated by computers. But an art school would do wonders in Tibet.

The Tibetan people are incredibly talented and artistic. The boys are handsome and virile. The girls are of good stature (at least when they are young, before the milk tea gets to them) and beautiful. Yet, there is very little contemporary Tibetan art – or at least I did not see any and my tour guide brushed me aside when I asked. Chinese contemporary art, although superfluous in parts, is taking shape boldly, in various cities around the country.

I do look out for contemporary local art when I travel, but found none in Tibet. An art school will do magic for the young people in this country – I am sure. Their music is already almost there. At least in art, they have a place to dream their dreams and become the people they want to be. At least in art, they can be truly free.

Your friend

A note to interested readers: Could you do me a favour and link with me through LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter. Whichever you prefer. The links are on this site in a page called “Subscribe to me”. It links you to “The Banking Conversation”, and not to me directly, but it is the one consolidated site from where I want to keep you informed of my postings and other thoughts as I travel. I hope you will find the link useful. Thank you. ED


  1. Dear ED – Many thanks for the great exposition on Tibet. I guess there is no question that the Tibetans are materially better off for the suzerainty of China. Will be interested to compare notes after my own visit. I plan to go early July.This is a great primer for that trip – thanks again, Mathew

  2. it is always a great pleasure to read your article.
    you have traveller's eyes so that you can see this country more than i do.

  3. beijing-lhasa by rail for a weekend – a true trainiac!

    never been to tibet but spent two weeks in dharamsala in 1996. two vivid impressions remain
    – 1. lovely, naive, people, but can't cook to save their lives
    – 2. emerged from my hotel room after a bout of dysentery to encounter a procession of Richard Gere and the Dalai Lama in town.

    one trip i'm keen to make is ali-kashgar. the travelling season is short due to altitude and the provincial police jumps on the slightest excuse to turn foreigners back at the xinjiang-tibet border. something usually gets in the way – either tibet or xinjiang going up in flames or the wife gets pregnant or work/stockmarket needs extra attention. but one day…'ll happen

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