High anxiety

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 April, 2008, 12:00am

Thubten lives near Barkhor Square in the heart of old Lhasa. Last month, before Tibet erupted with the most intense anti-Chinese riots in a decade, she led the way into a dark courtyard of residences where chunks of yak flesh festered with flies and women washed clothes in murky water.

The stairwell reeks of vomit and faeces but this doesn't seem to bother the residents, who say they live on a spiritual level above material squalor.

'These are prayer flags,' Thubten says, pointing to colourful swathes of fabric adorning the rooftops. 'They collect the prayers blowing in the wind and make peace for everyone.'

In Thubten's flat her grandmother is huddled in a corner. She is waiting for death and a sky burial, when vultures will consume her flesh and drop it on mountain tops. Thubten's parents offer me a soothing stew of carrots, potatoes and fungus.

Except for her eyes and ruddy cheeks, Thubten looks nothing like her parents. Her leather jacket and baggy jeans make her seem more like a New York hip-hopper than a farm girl originally from a 4,500-metre-high village three days' drive from Lhasa. Small and spunky, she was raised among herders and nomads to be direct, tough and mobile. Instead of marrying at 15 as her mother did, she studied in Dharamsala, India, home to 'His Holiness' the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. When asked about the crusty cake of fuel in a stove warming a pot of yak butter tea, she replies in fluent English, 'It's yak s**t.'

Her father, with hair in disarray from Himalayan winds, seems more relaxed than her stern mother. Wearing the traditional vest and apron of a married woman, Thubten's mother is 40 but looks like a 70 year old. 'My mother is short-tempered,' says Thubten. 'She is not happy with me because I cut my hair. A Tibetan woman should have long hair.'

Their lifestyles are worlds apart. While Thubten spends her days online with her diaspora of exile classmates, her parents murmur mantras. While Thubten sleeps till noon, her parents join hundreds of pilgrims on morning Buddhist kora walks around the nearby Jokhang Temple, a 1,400-year-old World Heritage site. Her parents' hands clutch prayer beads and spinning prayer wheels; Thubten's hands never let go of her mobile phone. After eating, Thubten and her family relax in a room decorated like a chapel, with paintings, relics and photos of celebrated monks. Old pots containing yak butter and dried yak meat emit pungent odours from where they stand on a table surrounded by lush carpets and pillows that cover two benches. 'This is where we sleep,' Thubten says. 'I sleep here, between my siblings or parents, especially when it's cold.'

Thubten's phone plays Tibetan folk tunes, Nepali rap and Lhasa rock. One song features a wild guitar solo and the Buddhist mantra 'om mani padme hum'.

Like her cousins and most graduates of state schools in Tibet, Thubten speaks Putonghua better than her local dialect. Holding down jobs in Han-owned hotels or shopping malls and carrying mobile phones from China Mobile, Thubten's generation is more Chinese than any before. They eat junk food, buy knock-off western fashion and DVDs, and dance all night at discos with youths from Beijing and Shanghai.

Perhaps this level of cultural integration is what the government in Beijing intended when they quelled uprisings in 1959 and 1989, going on to build mainland-style schools, hospitals and a television network. The wealth of eastern China has spread into the far west through tourists and migrant workers who arrive via a spectacular railway. Thanks to lower infant mortality rates and much higher life expectancy, Thubten's generation is as healthy and ambitious as their contemporaries elsewhere in China.

But Beijing's efforts to turn Tibetan youths into zesty Chinese citizens had unexpected results on March 14, when widespread riots brought Lhasa to a standstill. Filled with the kind of communist-era fervour taught in mainland history books, hundreds of young Tibetans, agitated by the arrest of monks, took over the streets of the capital. Dancing through tear gas and making hip-hop gestures, young men and women forced police to retreat behind shields, pelted black government cars with rocks and beat Han Chinese and Hui Muslims with fists, sticks and shoes. As anarchy spread across the city and the greater Tibetan region, rioters exorcised years of tension by burning buildings and even trashing their own Buddhist holy land around Barkhor Square - until Beijing responded with a massive mobilisation of troops across five western provinces.

While mainland authorities have outwardly blamed the exiled Dalai Lama for inciting rebellion, inwardly they must be concerned that the fighting spirit will spread from the Tibetan highland to the Han majority in lowland cities. The Lhasa riots were not simply about racism and demands for autonomy, as portrayed in state media. They also expressed the frustration shared by the many on the mainland who want less spying and brutality and more justice and personal freedom to match their modern China Mobile lifestyles.

Like the great rivers of Asia, the source of these social currents can be found atop the Tibetan plateau. The world's highest railway transports thousands of migrant workers, Tibetan monks and students here. The invisible cargo accompanying them is a greater awareness of the gap between the relatively freewheeling life of Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing and the repression in Lhasa.

Inaugurated in 2006, the Qinghai-Tibet railway showcases the highest and lowest levels of Chinese culture. Chinese ingenuity, renowned for building roads and rails in places ranging from Canada to Tanzania, brings into view, without spilling a cup of tea at 100km/h, wild horses and antelope roaming an icy landscape. Outside, a nomad with droopy sleeves shelters from freezing winds with his yak. Inside, we could be in a rave club in Xiamen.

Three youths from Fujian province blare techno music from a ghetto-blaster, spit sunflower seeds onto the carpet and blather in their noisy dialect. Instead of smuggling contraband into more commonplace targets such as Vancouver, Canada, these gangsters are going to carve out turf in Lhasa. Pointing their feet at senior monks, they appear to know nothing of Buddhist etiquette. The 5,000-metre altitude, which used to either kill or drive back invaders coming from sea level, means little to them as they pop pills and get high on oxygen pumped into their nostrils. Against regulations, they light up cigarettes in the second-class cabin, where windows are sealed shut to keep out the thin air. A People's Liberation Army officer in a crisp uniform seems offended by their frat-boy manners. Yet they claim to love Tibet, especially Tibetan women. 'We like Lhasa,' they say. 'We can do good business there. We've done this train trip many times.'

That's precisely the problem, according to many who live in Tibet. 'It's too easy. Anybody can come to Tibet now,' says Tenzin, a tourism worker in Lhasa who becomes my friend and guide. 'We like the tourists but not the migrant workers. They were having troubles at home, so they run away and come to Tibet, and bring their problems with them. We want the government to restrict the kind of people who come from the rest of China into Tibet. This way we can integrate into China, while preserving our culture.'

The train, and about 10 daily flights into Lhasa, have helped funnel mainland investment into dozens of new hotels, karaoke joints, massage parlours and discos. To demonstrate Lhasa's newfound night-life, Tenzin and his friends take me clubbing on a Saturday night. On Beijing Street, near the Potala Palace, Tibetan girls wait outside JJ's wearing high boots, leather pants and black surgical masks that accentuate their flirtatious eyes.

Inside, the crowd is 90 per cent female. Pictures of women in ancient Tibetan headdresses peer down upon their descendents. Instead of bouncers or security, a portrait of the 10th Panchen Lama, whose mysterious death in Shigatse may have sparked the 1989 uprising, observes the action. Girls sit around candlelit tables drinking Budweiser beer, watching others in costumes perform folk dances. Some jump on stage to dance to songs with lyrics in Putonghua as well as Tibetan tongues. 'This is boring,' say my friends, raised in Lhasa and exposed to Beijing clubbing. 'Let's go to Queen.'

On a street in the mainly Han area of west Lhasa, Queen resembles a Shanghai disco, only better, with no cover charge and cheap beer. Behind the bar, a pole dancer with a tattoo performs alongside a bartender who juggles bottles of fire, catching them on the back of his hand. Despite the weapons sensor at the door, there's a friendly, pan-ethnic vibe inside. Well-mannered Tibetan women groove alongside girls with streaked hair and hipsters from all over the mainland. A French-speaker claims to be the only black man in Tibet. An American talks of setting up a tourism business in town. Everybody seems willing to exchange phone numbers and dance with each other, regardless of race. A stoned artist from Tianjin, near Beijing, takes us into a corner to rant about the mainland. 'I hate Beijing, except for the music scene and the May Day rock festival,' he says. 'At least Beijing is better than Shanghai. Shanghai sucks.'

Is Lhasa better?

'Lhasa is too much about business now. Too many Chinese here in the summer. You have to buy tickets for the Potala Palace on the black market. I hate Chinese. I like Tibet much better.'

With pride, he unveils an amulet, hidden under his shirt, of a young Dalai Lama in black glasses. The Tibetans beam. Then he unfurls a radiant flag. 'Have you ever seen this before? It's a Tibetan flag,' he says, stuffing it back into his pocket. 'It's dangerous to show this in Lhasa. In Beijing, it's no problem; they don't care. But here, there are spies. They could pull me off the street and take me in for questioning. I could get three years in jail.'

This worries the Tibetans. Afraid to talk about politics, Tenzin turns the conversation to women. 'Women here are better than in Beijing,' he says. 'When I go out to a club in Beijing, the girls are after money. The Tibetan women don't care about money. They want love and friendship. They are very honest. Their heart is pure and true.'

Whether rappers or ravers, youths in Lhasa identify themselves, first and foremost, as Buddhists. A Chinese- or English-language education and the wearing of western clothes are merely window dressing. If practised in western countries, their devotion to the religion would seem fanatical. In Lhasa, it's normal.

Yet even Thubten's family's faith seems tame compared with that of the pilgrims pushing to get into the Sera Monastery, a major centre of the Yellow Hat Buddhist sect. Nomads and farmers from Amdo, in northeastern Tibet, force their way forward, shoving aside women who've come to have their babies blessed. 'These people have never formed a line before,' Thubten says, wincing in the crush. 'They don't have to, in their villages.'

After escaping the hordes, Thubten is desperate to contact her far-flung friends. 'We gather in cyberspace every day at this time,' she says. Fingering the keys of her mobile as though they are prayer beads, she's a fanatic of a different kind, devoted to a new religion of borderless communication.

Among the colourful Tibetans, we spot a few solitary Han Chinese. Trying to keep a low profile, they pray to the same gods but with names from a different language. In a prayer hall, the goddess Guanyin watches over them with 1,000 eyes embedded in her 1,000 hands. Outside, under a burning blue sky, the visitors seem enchanted by the wonders of Tibet - snow-caked mountains under cirrus clouds - and its spellbinding form of Buddhism.

But instead of admiring them, Thubten looks down in disgust. 'I hate Chinese,' she says as she heads off for more text time with her friends.

Seeing me alone, a number of monks come to practise their English. They talk about official attempts to control them - how they have to bribe officials in order to become monks, how they must pledge allegiance to Beijing and denounce the Dalai Lama. Yet they are still regarded as the elite intellectuals of Tibetan society. With scriptures on their laps, they chant mantras that preserve the language and stories of their culture. Their monastery is not only a religious centre; it's their national library and art gallery.

The monks debate among themselves. Using martial arts techniques, elders shout out questions about Buddhism to juniors who cower under crimson robes. While underlings pause to think, elders thrust at them as if with swords, mock whip them with prayer beads and smack hands to shock them into enlightenment. The monks laugh, showing no hint of the protest movement about to erupt.

The biggest uprising in two decades was sparked by the arrest of monks in two incidents on Monday, March 10. That night, Tibetan tourism workers told us that police in Barkhor Square had detained a few monks who were commemorating the 49th anniversary of the failed uprising in 1959.

'Lhasa is not a free place like Beijing,' said a tourist guide. 'It is a police state. Spies are following you everywhere here, on the street, on the phone, on the internet. They can take you away and nobody knows when you'll come back. Sometimes people come back after 10 years. They can't even talk or think any more.' Other residents spread unconfirmed rumours that a Chinese man had killed a foreign tourist at Drepung Monastery, just northwest of Lhasa.

An internet search that night found Steve Dubois and Ulrike Lakiere, Belgian tourists in Lhasa, claiming in their blog that they saw police arrest six or seven monks in Barkhor Square after hundreds of Tibetans formed 'a strong, silent, peaceful circle around police'. They also quoted a Portuguese friend who described police breaking up a march heading from Drepung towards Potala Palace. 'When they walk together with lots of monks towards Lhasa to join the manifestation, they are blocked by armed police and military,' their friend said. Dubois and Lakiere added that the Portuguese man returned to the Drepung area to find ambulances and army trucks going back and forth, after which police questioned him and drove him back to his hotel.

A separate report on Radio Free Asia claimed police detained more than 50 of 300 monks who marched from Drepung to demand the release of those who were jailed in October after celebrating the award of a Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama in Washington, in the US.

On Tuesday night, uniformed policewomen were seen taking equipment from a hotel's internet cafe. Irate taxi drivers were shouting at policemen of Han and Tibetan descent. Tibetans warned us to hide indoors.

A European traveller, gasping for breath, came running into the hotel. 'There's a big protest going on on the road to the Sera Monastery,' he said. 'There are hundreds of people on the street, howling like wolves. They're angry because the police have arrested some monks. The police chased some of them into small alleys to arrest them. They picked us up and questioned us. Then they drove us back here, in unmarked cars, and told us to stay off the streets.'

That's what the few dozen low-season tourists in Lhasa did. They sent out eyewitness accounts on the internet, even as men believed to be spies watched over them. As protests later transformed into riots and during the massive crackdown that followed, a small group of backpackers, known as Yakpackers, would become the eyes of the world, foiling the government's attempt at a media blackout.

Lhasa, known as the sunniest city in China, became a war-zone of fires and black smoke. Troops hunkered down in ripped-up streets of the old city, confining tourists to hotels without internet access, stopping people at checkpoints, demanding rioters turn themselves in, and allegedly conducting house-to-house searches.

My Tibetan friends such as Thubten and Tenzin no longer answered phone calls or e-mails. Tibet's grand opening, to China and the world, had been suspended, at least for now.

Identities have been altered to protect sources.