The backpacker myth of Tibet and the reality of the 21st century.
Back in 2004, I sat around playing cards with other backpackers in the northern Indian town of Darjeeling. It was and is a beautiful place, nestled in the hills of West Bengal, a day’s drive from either Sikkim or Nepal. Around the card table, talks sprang about the ethics of traveling into Tibet. Some didn’t want to see an oppressed culture and thought it was better to see thriving pockets of Tibetans in India. Others thought you should visit any place to see what is actually happening on the ground and how that compares to what you are being told in the media. Everyone agreed on one point and that was to get to Tibet before the railway was completed, because by then it would be too late.
The generation I started backpacking with was one brought up on the ‘Free Tibet’ campaign. My first exposure to it came during a Beastie Boys concert on MTV I watched with friends. The hip-hop trio even organized a festival where famous artists performed in front of a large Tibetan flag. Between acts Tibetan monks would tell of torture or engage in traditional chanting. It seemed a just and righteous cause. Tibet, in all its holiness, deserved to be free from the ruthless dictatorship that invaded their land.
In my travels throughout northern India that year, the talk of Tibet and getting there before it was gone seemed to be on the lips of every adventurous explorer I met. Two cyclists were planning to sneak through on the long Xinjiang-Tibetan highway. An Australian woman was going to try her luck to bribe Nepali border guards to avoid having to purchase a group visa and go on (gasp!) a tour. The urgency was real, once the Beijing-Lhasa railway was complete then it would be the end. Tibet, as romanticized, would be dead.
Fast forward a decade and if the completion of the Beijing-Lhasa railway spelled the death of Tibet, then the Chinese state is having quite a funeral procession. According to The Economist China, not satisfied with completing one of the engineering wonders of the century, has big plans for railway expansion. By the year 2020 plans are to extend the railway to the neighboring provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Xinjiang. The cost of the Lhasa to Chengdu line alone will come to over $20 billion. There is also plans to build a 400 km line linking Lhasa with Nyingtri, which rests on the border of the disputed Indian state of Arunchal Pradesh.
For its part India has declared to fortify its border post in Arunchal Pradesh, along with promises of further economic development. Betting on whether India has the tenacity to match the relentless juggernaut of China’s economic might is something a Vegas casino might even back away from.
Where does this growth leave the ‘Free Tibet’ idea? While China would surely enjoy having Tibet and Xinjiang fully integrated into the economic fold, the reality is that the railway is going to generate a lot of revenue for the government and create access to vasts reserves of energy. Whether this treasure house trickles down to average citizen remains to be seen.
In a region rife with ethnic groups and people seeking self-determination, how will China’s growing economic clout influence and coerce the aims and realities of these people? With a new Silk Road emerging and a trade alliance promising to match NATO’s influence, it is clear that China is in the area to stay.
Since the halcyon days of my early travels I’ve been to China three times, with the last time in 2014. While I never made it Tibet proper I have been in the parts of Xinjiang and Qinghai which are historically parts of Tibet. I found both the Uighers and Tibetans friendly, gracious, and deeply suspicious of Chinese motives. As for travellers, I met gaggles of Americans with tickets to Lhasa at the Beijing Railway station and quite a few more travellers wanting to take the trip. Mentioning ‘Free Tibet’ seemed like teaching a millennial how to use a rotary phone. For romanticizers, the Tibet of Alexandra David-Neel may be gone. To China, Tibet is not dead, just simply reborn. How painful the rebirth is will cast a wide shadow over the whole region.