Chapter Fifteen

The World's Roof

Few places on earth are as fabled as Tibet. To most foreigners living in China, a visit to Tibet is the ultimate goal, and none who visit Tibet come away unmoved by its grandeur, and its pathos.

Chinese themselves, however, have a very different view of Tibet. With few exceptions, they consider Tibet a place of discomfort, exile, and horror. Tibet has rebuffed or consumed all invaders until the present era, defended as it is by stupendous barriers of mountain and tundra cut only by narrow passes. In the last thousand years or so, Tibet could never resist a concerted invasion from great powers of the East Asian hinterland. But for most of its history, those powers never saw reason to enforce more than a token suzerainty over Tibet, backed by the threat of punitive invasions. Only the rarest of individual Chinese has ever wanted to live in Tibet. China's historical claim to sovereignty over Tibet is contentious. Tibetans, naturally, dispute it.

China's historical claim to Tibet is of about the same strength as its historical claim to sovereignty over Korea or Vietnam - claims which, for obvious reasons, China does not now see fit to pursue.

The reality today is that Tibet has no chance of independence in any foreseeable future, short of a complete disintegration of the Chinese nation. Its isolation has been eroded by modern technology, with three motor road links (there was no vehicle access at all prior to 1950), air links, and the promise even of a railway from inland China by the end of the century. Satellite electronic communications between Lhasa and Beijing are already in place.

For nearly thirty years from 1950, the only foreigners to visit Tibet were those trusted by Beijing, and their reports told little beyond propaganda. In the late seventies, a few independent Western journalists and scholars gained admission, and by 1980 Tibet was receiving a regular foreign package-tourist trade, under the auspices of the China International Travel Service.

It was my own good fortune to visit Tibet twice, in 1979 and again in 1982 - spanning a period of quite radical revisions in Beijing's policies on the management of Tibet.

It's early evening, after the meal, and the local Han guides have retired to their rooms, to discuss oxygen-deficiency, the inedibility of Tibetan food, and their plans to return inland. I have walked out of the walled compound with a friend and strolled down Peoples Road, past the shuttered Chinese shops of the new town, to Old Lhasa, a kilometre away. There is still sunlight gleaming on the gold-leafed rooftops of the Potala palace, looming above on its hilltop, though a long dusk has begun in the city at its feet. The great inclined walls of the Potala seem to exaggerate its mass, and they are mirrored in all the buildings of the old Holy City, which also taper as they rise. Chinese roads stopped at the edge of the old town, and motor traffic is rare. Few Han are to be seen in the narrow streets where the sloping, whitewashed walls rise through four stories of tapering windows, lined with painted wooden balconies and peeping faces. Wide passages through these buildings give sudden courtyard vistas, with perhaps a tradesman at work, or chickens and children playing with a brass-bound wooden bucket around a kitchen door. Even in the main streets, family milk-cows stand permanently tethered at the door, munching on hay, dropping their manure. Pony-carts jog by with a jingling of brass bells.

The Jokka Khang, the holiest shrine of Lama Buddhism, is cut off from the Holy Road by a tall iron grill across its forecourt. The Holy Road is a pilgrim's circle through the centre of Lhasa, each circuit contributing towards Buddhist redemption. Only those who are devout to the point of madness seem to have achieved the pilgrimage at this time, and they make their prostrations to the shrine on the flagstones outside the grill. The temple is closed and dark, though golden prayer bells stir softly in the evening breeze on the peaks of its roofs. One old lama looks out a side door, then closes and bolts it again from the inside.

Khampa tribesmen from Eastern Tibet, in high boots and braided hair, stare at the foreigners, and return smiles with honest delight. A man on a bicycle, wearing a mixture of Tibetan and Chinese garments, rides up to us and dismounts with a leap. `Rus, Rus!', he says to us with evident warmth. He thinks we are Russians - possibly the only other Europeans he has ever seen, though no Russians have been in Lhasa for twenty years. He thrusts a note into my hand and hastily rides away into the crowd. The note is in Tibetan.

It was some time before I could get my note translated. It was much as I had guessed:

`To the Visitors from Foreign Nations:

Greetings to you all for having taken the trouble to come to see us and the situation in Tibet. As you all should know, Tibet has been an independent nation for 2,000 years....

We thank you and your governments for support. We request you:

  • To recognise the Democratic Government of Tibet under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
  • To assist in seeing to it that the Tibetans are given the right of self-determination.
  • To help us achieve freedom of religion and worship.
  • To help ensure that the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people are restored to them.

We shall look forward to a definite change in our situation as a result of your visit. We beg you to pass on, to all, this note of ours, written in blood and tears.'

Several foreigners in that year received similar notes, unlike anything received anywhere else in China.

In 1979, Beijing's policy, on a national scale, was to criticise the `excesses' of the Cultural Revolution, without quite throwing out the principles behind it. Thus, in Tibet, we heard admissions that the Red Guards had `gone too far' in their attacks upon the monasteries. But the official line on traditional Tibetan society was uncompromisingly critical. It was summed up in the Museum of Tibetan History.

This hideous side-show was built in Lhasa by the Chinese to make the point, as they saw it, that Tibet, prior to the Chinese take-over, had been barbarous, cruel, and primitive. It had the usual social-realist tableau representations of feudal life.. peasants toiling under the lash of rapacious landlords and so on.. but it went several steps further, as well. Objects of Tibetan religious and mystical practice had been gathered and were presented there for public gaze as evidence of `the barbarism of the old society'. On one wall was pinned the blackened, flayed skin of a human child. Instruments of punishment, some torturous, had been collected from monastic and civil dungeons. Religious vessels fashioned from skulls and other human relics were displayed, the whole designed to create an image of pre-Liberation Tibet as an unmitigated Hell on Earth. The guides were young Tibetan girls, born after that `liberation', and educated entirely in the Chinese schools.

In the labyrinthine splendour of the Potala Palace itself, guides had three points to get across to us in their prepared scripts. The first was to impress on us that the Potala's construction had been achieved by the exploitation of the toiling masses. The second was that we should not miss any artefact, reference, or corner of a historical painting which testified to the long-term links with China. The third was to encourage a picture of a depraved and violent native Tibetan culture, through showing us, without explanation, those religious paintings and figurines celebrating the spiritual dimensions of reproduction and death - i.e. sex and violence. Time and again we were regaled with statistics on the quantities of treasure held in the monasteries, the numbers of serfs, and the sinister influence of any outsiders, other than Chinese, on Tibet's history.

Deep in the belly of the Potala, wicks burn in great vats of yak butter, dimly lighting the base of the gigantic gold- leafed Sakyamuni Buddha. Its head, five stories higher, glints in the natural light filtering through windows far above us. Smoke from the butter-lamps curls slowly up through the pointing fingers of the Buddha, adding to the heavy redolence that pervades every fibre and plank of the huge temple-palace. The interior is a series of vast chambers, lined with thousands of silk and brocade prayer- banners, housing giant Buddhas and the huge memorial stupas of its masters, the 400-year succession of Dalai Lamas. It is also a formidable fortress, testifying to the fierce religious-political warfare endemic to old Tibet. The Red Guards never gained entrance to the Potala.

Unlike the flat, formal symmetry of Chinese palaces, the interior of the Potala is a three-dimensional maze of sloping passageways, narrow wooden staircases, galleries and chambers of every size. A conspirators heaven. In the great outer walls, warrens of small cells were the home of over three thousand lamas, ordered in ranks from child acolytes, through labourers and cooks, up to the spiritual level of Living Buddha's who, like the Dalai Lama himself, could expect perpetual re-incarnation. Now there are no more than forty, and none are young.

On the very top of the palace, right under that golden roof, is a glassed pavilion flooded with sunlight. The glowing reds and yellows of its carpets and decoration suffuse the room with a warmth unique in the Potala. It was a special prayer and meeting room for the Dalai, and in his absence it is used as a briefing room for visitors. The Chinese call the Potala a `museum', as they do the Forbidden City of Beijing. We have asked to meet some practising lamas, and they have been brought to us. The youngest lama moves quietly about, refilling our mugs of Chinese jasmine tea with hot water from a Chinese vacuum-flask, while three senior lamas sit cross-legged on cushions.

They offer no information, but answer our questions. There used to be 110,000 lamas in Tibet, in 2,500 monasteries. Now there are about ten monasteries, maybe two hundred practising lamas. What happened to the others? Some became industrial workers, some went out to work in the fields, and some were sent to `study courses'. Of the monasteries, some suffered `natural destruction', some were destroyed under the influence of the Gang of Four, we are told. If China is following its stated policies on freedom of religion, why are there so few lamas today? The lama pauses. He has not been told what he may say on this. His face adopts a fixed smile, and he stares over our shoulders, looking for guidance. I turn around and see a Han official, a military- looking man to whom we have not been introduced, standing at the back of the room. He is embarrassed to have been noticed by us, but nods to the lama and says a couple of words in Tibetan. The lama, supposedly of high theological rank, then says to us:

`There are less lamas now than before because of the correctness of the Party's policy on religion. As society develops, religion and superstition will surely die out. It's just a question of when. I am an old man, and I still believe in my religion because I am backward.' Is this betrayal? The Han official at the door is introduced as the Deputy Director of the Lhasa Municipal Religious Affairs Bureau. He is the lama's real boss.

Before the Chinese take-over, the more than two thousand monasteries of Tibet were the centres of learning, education, and medicine of the land, as well as administration and politics. They were the largest land-owners, and also `owned' much of the population as feudal subjects. Families were obliged to send sons to the monasteries as part of their tenancy, though many parents would also do so voluntarily, both for religious reasons and as the only means of advancement open to a child not from one of the ruling families. A bright peasant child could go far, in the monastic world.

It's also clear from contemporary accounts that vetoes of the religious officials surrounding the young Dalai Lama to almost all forms of modernisation were an important reason for Tibet's failure to seek, until too late, international support for its independence. In particular, the state theologians kept maintaining, until the Chinese armies were in Lhasa itself, that such an invasion would represent such sacrilege that divine intervention to prevent it was assured. In a bizarre corollary, some senior advisers maintained that for the Tibetan civil authorities to pre-empt this by taking their own defensive actions would be itself to show a sacrilegious lack of faith.

Demoralised by this conflict of loyalties, even the militantly nationalistic of Tibetan civil officials vacillated, hoping that, by not `annoying' the Chinese with overtures elsewhere, they would somehow reach a compromise that would leave their nationality unviolated. Isolated from the world political climate in which Beijing was making its decisions, the Tibetan leadership did not realise that China at that time, only months after the declaration of the Peoples Republic, was facing the United States in Korea, the Nationalists in Taiwan, and, behind a veil of Communist solidarity, Stalin's efforts to prise off important territories in Manchuria, Mongolia and Xinjiang. Beijing needed to make its territorial claims crystal clear, and it was no time for compromise.

Religion and state were one in traditional Tibet, and remained so even after Chinese Communist armies forced the Tibetan local government to negotiate a condominium arrangement in 1951. Tibet accepted Chinese military occupation, but maintained local self-government rights. The Dalai Lama remained effectively head of state, with a government of civil and religious dignitaries.

This arrangement collapsed in 1958-59, as the Tibetans found the Chinese insisting on Chinese-style socialist reforms in Tibet. A rebellion, led by Tibetan nationalists and conservative abbots, was crushed by the Chinese army. The Dalai Lama, with 100,000 of his followers, fled into exile in India.

Government after that was strict, and dominated by the Chinese military. Promising Tibetans sent for training in Beijing were seldom given full authority on their return, but placed under reliable Chinese mentors, often nominally their `deputies'. The aftermath of the 1959 uprising, and later the Maoist Cultural Revolution, saw systematic destruction not only of hundreds of temples and monasteries, but also of the entire system of integrated religion under which every fourth Tibetan male was a Lama.

The religion of Tibet, Lama Buddhism, is a factor the Chinese communists have drastically underestimated in their programme to integrate Tibet into China's socialist development. They had believed that by suppressing it, while offering a measure of material progress, they would wean the people away from their thousand-year tradition within a generation. That generation has already passed, and as the pilgrims in Lhasa testify, the programme of socialism and atheism has had to be postponed.

The Chinese government, after twenty years of failure to integrate Tibet into China's own social and political system, introduced a series of policy reforms in 1980 which were designed to reduce tension between Han and Tibetan peoples in Tibet, and to improve the standard of living of the local people.

When I first visited Tibet in 1979, it was clear that successive attempts to apply Chinese solutions to Tibetan problems had met with disaster, either because they were un-workable in Tibet's physical conditions, or because they were rejected and passively resisted by the Tibetan people, who want nothing more dearly than to keep their own identity. Virtually the entire educated class of Tibet had either followed the Dalai Lama into exile, or remained in prison, leaving all responsible work in the hands of Chinese or Chinese-trained Tibetans. Other than a few heavily-subsidised show-projects, the economy languished.

Tension between Han and Tibetans was quite visible on the streets. In Lhasa itself, I saw a wall-poster in Chinese pasted up on the wall of the main department store by embittered Han workers complaining of their living conditions, the frustrations of their lives, and the difficulties in arranging the longed-for transfers back to the inland. Han did not like to walk alone, and some foreigners who had been in remote areas of Tibet on scientific business said that their Han guides were plainly terrified of the local Tibetans. They would not accept the hospitality offered in villages, but insisted on setting up camp in secure positions some distance away. Rumour had it that Han, alone or in small groups, were likely to disappear.

It was acknowledged that much of the destruction of the monasteries had been carried out systematically by units of the PLA. Fantastic monuments that had endured for centuries were blasted to pieces, their relics burned, buried, or taken away. In 1983, Xinhua reported that over ten thousand bronze statues had been discovered, hundreds of kilometres away, in Gansu province, where they had been trucked out during the Cultural Revolution for melting down. Fortunately, that particular truckload had been saved, possibly at some risk to himself, by an enthusiastic Han archaeologist in Gansu. In 1983, these surviving bronzes were to be returned to Tibet, but they indicate the scale of the pillage and destruction, which appears to have been even more savage than the general rapine of the Cultural Revolution in most of inland China. One should also note that the statistics offered by Han officials in Tibet to indicate the great wealth of the monasteries suggest that the two thousand destroyed monasteries would have owned a joint treasure of at least several hundred tonnes of silver and gold, much of it embodied in priceless arts and crafts. While the ten thousands bronze statues have been returned, where are the silver and gold?

Another item of immense significance was also returned to Tibet in 1983 - a life-size statue of Gautama Buddha at age eight. Its significance, though, is that this was the dowry gift to the founding king of modern Tibet, Srongtsen Ganbo, from the wife who converted him to Buddhism - a princess from Nepal. Why this matters is that China makes great play of the fact that King Srongtsen had a Chinese wife, Princess Wen Cheng, in honour of whom endless articles, and even ballets, are penned in Beijing. The claim is that Princess Wen `civilised' Tibet. A statue of Buddha, taken by her to Lhasa and installed in the Jokka Khang temple, is invariably pointed out to visitors. But the fact, supported even in the more honest Chinese journals, is that Princess Wen entered the king's household as a `treaty wife' when the king was already seventy-six years old, and she was only seventeen. King Srongtsen's Nepalese wife, meanwhile, had been installed as a queen forty years earlier, and the Jokka Khang was actually built to accommodate a Nepalese, not a Chinese, statue. During the Cultural Revolution, this significant Nepalese statue of the boy Buddha was taken from the temple it had graced for centuries, and `lost' in a warehouse in Beijing.

This history-twisting is paralleled in the way guides interpret the chronicle frescoes of the Potala and other Tibetan monuments. On a wall of paintings depicting the diplomatic travels of a great Dalai of the past, one scene showed the retinue being received with great pomp by a ruler of Indian appearance, whose camp was defended by many elephants in royal caparison - obviously from the southern side of the Himalayan passes. When I asked the guide about this, she told me she did not know where it was, and moved hastily to point out a subsequent scene of a Dalai Lama visiting Beijing.

The watershed in China's Tibet policy actually came in 1980. The post-Mao policy had been to encourage the Dalai Lama to accept Chinese sovereignty and to return to Tibet as a member of the Chinese order of things - though of course without formal powers. Most recently, one of the sticking points in discussions between Beijing and the Dalai's representatives has been the request for the borders of Tibet to be adjusted to cover all areas in which the Tibetan people predominate. There are actually more Tibetans living in the four bordering provinces of China (Qinghai, Gansu, Siquan, and Yunnan), as a result of earlier Han empire expansions, than in what is now known as the Tibet Autonomous Region. This concession would double the size and concentration of a Tibetan political zone to a total of between three and four million people, and is unthinkable to Beijing.

As part of these negotiations, several parties of the Dalai's supporters from India had come on reconnaissance visits to Tibet. In June of 1980, one was led by the Dalai Lama's own sister. These parties became the focus for the pent-up complaints of the Tibetans against the Chinese administration. There were embarrassingly large and emotional rallies of his devoted followers in Lhasa and other cities, which broke into chants demanding self-rule and the return of the Dalai to the Potala Palace. However, the advice to the Dalai, even from those Tibetans who had not left Tibet with him, was that he should remain outside until he could be sure that Tibet would enjoy a proper degree of liberty upon his return.

There was also a tour of inspection to Tibet by the Chinese Communist Party Secretary-General, Hu Yaobang. He was reported to be infuriated by the conservatism, lack of progress, and unpopularity of the Chinese regime in Tibet, and ordered immediate changes. These began with the sacking of the long-time Party Secretary of the region, one of the original military `liberators' of Tibet, Ren Rong.

Shortly after this, one of the Han under-secretaries of the Tibet regional communist party committee published a fulsome self-criticism, on behalf of the whole administration, on the front page of the Peoples Daily. This contained the most thorough picture of colonial mismanagement ever made public in China. It admitted that Tibetans had suffered so much from current policies that it would take five years for them to return even to the standard of living they had enjoyed before the complete communist take-over in 1959.

The secretary, Guo Xilian, sad that almost all Tibet's current problems of poverty and a severely unbalanced economy could be blamed on the Communist Party Committee insisting on trying to force Tibet to follow the Chinese ideological pattern, without regard to local customs or conditions. Chinese cadres had insisted, for instance, on the planting of lowland wheat crops, instead of the traditional highland barley. The crops failed consistently. Inefficient and unnecessary industries had been set up, draining the budget, while local handcrafts which supplied the necessities of Tibetan customary life had been stifled. They had interfered disastrously with the traditional yak-herding practices which were the basis of the natural economy in Tibet.

All these errors had been compounded, said the self- criticism, by an over-emphasis on collectivisation which had further disrupted production and caused great resentment against the Chinese cadres among the Tibetan people.

Beijing decreed that all such policies were to be reversed, and there would be a period of several years, with a complete tax holiday, devoted solely to the recuperation of the natural economy, in which farming and herding would be organised according to individual family groups tending their own flocks.

Many changes for the better were visible in Lhasa when I returned in 1982. The first was that far fewer Chinese were to be seen. This was evidence, welcome to the Tibetans, of the withdrawal of more than eleven thousand Chinese officials from Tibet over the preceding two years, together with another twenty thousand of their dependants. Many of these Han had been stationed unwillingly in Tibet for twenty years, and were doing low-level jobs which could easily be handled by Tibetans. Their presence was nothing but an irritant to Chinese-Tibetan relations, and a drain on the economy, since they all received special allowances and subsidies to compensate for the conditions they regarded as unpleasant and dangerous to health.

More such people were leaving on each plane to depart from Lhasa, an irregular event due to dangerous flying conditions through treacherous mountain ranges. Those who left on my own plane were joking with those who saw them off about how glad they were to be leaving Tibet. Some foreign critics say these departing cadres are being replaced by equal numbers of Chinese soldiers coming into Tibet by truck, but even if this were true the fact is that the soldiers keep more to their own affairs, and generally cause less friction than unwanted officials.

Tibetan officials have now been placed in many of the leadership posts of the regional government. Obviously, they are picked carefully, and are never without Han advisors. However, certain changes do make the Tibetan's themselves feel better about the situation.

Tibetan language has been restored as the official language of the region, and precedes the Chinese script on official documents. It is taught in all primary schools, and is an optional language of entrance examinations for the regional tertiary college. Chinese language remains an essential pre- requisite as well, and entrance examinations for colleges other than the agricultural and teachers colleges of Tibet must be taken in Chinese. The reduction in numbers of Han students, however, as their families return to China proper, means more places are available for Tibetans.

Large numbers of the former monastery-educated class, many of them lamas, have been released from prisons, and some are now engaged in teaching Tibetan language and culture. With the previous emphasis on Chinese, many young Tibetans had grown up illiterate in their own language.

A social science research institute has been set up in Lhasa, in which some fifty scholars, including former lamas of high spiritual degree, are beginning to work on selected religious and historical materials from the vast monastic libraries. This historical study is potentially risky, as a leader of the academy admitted to me that Tibetan manuscripts, not surprisingly, often disagree with the authorised Chinese histories, especially on the political aspects of China's relations with Tibet.

Large teams of craftsmen, some also lamas released from prisons, some young apprentices to ancient skills, are at work restoring those few of the major monasteries which have been designated for preservation. They will be described officially as `museums', but to the Tibetans they remain religious shrines, central to their Tibetan life and identity.

The Panchen Lama, second only to the Dalai in religious standing, has been firmly identified with the Chinese regime ever since the Dalai's exile in 1959. None the less, Chinese authorities kept him in Beijing and prevented him visiting Tibet for more than twenty years. His return to Tibet in 1982 drew crowds of ninety thousand pilgrims in three days to receive his blessing. To the purely faithful, he remains a living Buddha who can do no wrong. Other Tibetans boycotted his return, knowing he has a Chinese wife and son in Beijing, and deriding him as an apostate who abandoned his sacred vows of chastity.

Thousands of hand-held prayer wheels now turn constantly in Lhasa again, a prayer for the soul of the faithful ascending to heaven with each turn of the wheel. Pilgrims make their way hundreds of kilometres, on foot if necessary, sometimes selling their herds and belongings, for the privilege of prostrating themselves before Lhasa's holy shrines. The most devout make a complete circuit of the inner city prostrating at every step. Some starve happily to death, confident they will be reincarnated in a better life, if they die in the act of pilgrimage. Chinese authorities no longer interfere, so long as civil laws are not broken. Thirty years of anti-religious propaganda from China appears to have impressed only a few, while the majority of Tibetans remain intensely loyal to their religious beliefs, and to the person of the Dalai Lama, praying for his return to Tibet.

The Sera monastery is open again, and the faithful are always present. Offerings to the manifestations of Buddha are poor but frequent. A few fen of Chinese paper money pinned to the idol's sleeve, coins scattered at its feet, and in the glass screw-top jar serving as an incense-burner, someone has offered the Buddha a precious gift - ration coupons for two metres of cotton cloth, redeemable in the Peoples Republic of China. Behind the towering idols at the back of the main prayer-hall, a series of small, dark shrines are cut into the mountain-side. Approaching them, the odour of burning yak-butter grows stronger, and the hum of incantations grows louder and more confused. I crouch to step through a low doorway, and am in a dark shrine not more than four metres square. It is the reliquary of a Living Buddha said to have powers of healing. The room swirls and hums with a continual procession of pilgrims, anti-clockwise around the chorten, a human prayer-wheel. Over time, their feet have worn a deep channel in the flagstones, their pressing bodies have polished the corners off the square stone base. Each mutters his own prayer, each hastens with his own urgency. One young man, not twenty-five, is close to a frenzy, ducking round and round the outside of the throng at twice the speed of the procession. His is not the faith of a simple peasant. His nylon wind-cheater identifies him as an émigré, probably returned from Nepal. He overtakes the wooden-sandalled lamas, his own feet shod in striped, Western jogging shoes.

The free market in the old city of Lhasa is flourishing again, with a specially brisk demand for traditional Tibetan products: yak butter, the portable wooden churns used to make it, and the many items used in the practice of religion. Peddlers from Nepal do very well, bringing prayer wheels, incense burners, small portable shrines, and the lama's prayer bells, from the large community of Tibetan exiles in Nepal. Religious texts are sold in large wads, like books of tickets, to be pasted on walls or hung from cairns and trees as miniature prayer flags. It's worth a prayer every time the wind moves the paper. Lines of prayer flags hang once again across roads, between houses, anywhere they can catch the wind. A small boy squats in the market on the Holy Road, chanting aloud from the Sutras. Pilgrims have little to give him but a blessing, but even the tiny trickle of coins is better than nothing.

The new tolerance extends to other aspects of Tibetan tradition, such as the local ballad operas. Based on the oral legends of the Tibetan peasantry, the operas also celebrate the glorious deeds of historical Tibetan nationalist heroes. Directly anti-Chinese stories are not permitted, but none the less the preservation of the distinct Tibetan cultural tradition is treasured by the people. I had the good fortune to be in Lhasa for a harvest festival, and came across a village opera group in the midst of a long local opera performance under a giant fly- tent in a glade by a small river. The form is simple: the opera characters, and chorus, dressed in costumes of fixed symbolic meaning, spend most of their time dancing slowly round in a large circle as the story narrative proceeds to clamorous musical accompaniment, stopping from time to time for a solo aria from a leading performer. Tibetan music is honest, rhythmic, and strong of voice - stirring even when incomprehensible.

The same day I attended a picnic `rodeo' - where the young Tibetans from the high grasslands put their ponies through a variety of competitive sports, including horseback archery. The rural Tibetans are sturdy, tough and open-hearted, always keen to press a bowl of yak-buttered tea or milky barley-beer on a visitor. Under present policies, their rural way of life should remain largely undisturbed for a good many years yet, while, hopefully, steadily improving their material circumstances.

There was one particularly curious note in that sports meeting, that show of skills unchanged since the Mongol alliances of several hundred years ago. The picnic took place about thirty kilometres down the valley from Lhasa, but right next to it was a very large, roofed concrete building in a walled compound. On first enquiry, I gathered it was a military storehouse of some kind - on second enquiry that it was none other than the Lhasa Railway Station. This had been built by ambitious local Han officials at a time, the early sixties, when all progressive municipal governments in China were building new railway stations. The design flaw here was that the building was not close to Lhasa, for a start, but more importantly, there is no railway within a thousand kilometres of Lhasa, nor is likely to be one before the end of the century.

A visit to the Cultural Institute in Lhasa, however, was a serious disappointment. The Chinese `folkloric' establishment have extremely stilted, Russianized notions of `folk singing' and `folk dancing', which result in any native talent that comes under their tutelage being homogenised into approximately similar and empty styles. Exaggerated high-kicking enthusiasm and banal choreography had tragically divorced a generation of keen young Tibetan dancers from their real, more subtle cultural tradition, which had clearly gone right over the heads of their Han or sinicised teachers. I clearly remember the disappointment of one senior teacher, a middle-aged Tibetan who had spent ten years in the Minorities Cultural Institute of Shanghai, when I insisted that, for recording purposes, I did not want the Tibetan folk songs done to the thumpingly inappropriate piano accompaniment he had so laboriously contrived for it.

Only two artists in that institute had retained their Tibetan integrity - an old man, a local troubadour, who was on staff as a `consultant' on folk songs, and a teenage girl, a mountain singer, who had come from a remote village only two weeks before we met her. I took them to a wide open space outside the Institute to make my recordings, in view of the mountains. The mountain songs, done well, are spine-tingling in their keening power and beauty, as, like their musicological cousins the Alpine yodels, they use, reflect, and so possess, the reverberant grandeur of their native mountain landscape.

In the evening, at high altitude, sounds seems to hang in the air, and the cold grips the throat, even in summer. I had heard the sound of prayer, amplified, coming from the direction of the Potala's precipitous walls, but the monks who lived there had denied knowledge of it. I walk with a friend into the maze of traditional dwellings at the foot of the Potala, willing to get lost for a while. Laneways lead us on until there is nowhere to go but up a steep and crumbling flight of stairs to what looks like the top of an old city wall. To our surprise, there is a door, out of sight, at the top of the stairs. It opens, and an old Tibetan, beaming, invites us in for a cup of tea. Like almost every household, one wall is dominated by ikons of the Dalai Lama. I point to a portrait of Chairman Mao on another wall, and he scoffs, indicating by sign language that this is a form of insurance against neighbourhood tell- tales. His wife makes tea, as he tells us yet again, in minimal Chinese, that his people live in hope of the Dalai's return, but only when conditions are right. In the meantime - he indicates his radio, and points out times on an old alarm clock. We have found the source of the prayers. The voice of the Dalai Lama in prayer is broadcast twice a day across the Himalayas, from Dharamsala, his headquarters in India. In his physical absence from Lhasa, his voice is distributed across his city by the faithful, with their mantle radios turned up loud enough to bounce it off the towering walls of the empty Potala.

To most of the world, Tibet, the idea, will always be more important than Tibet, the reality. Can the spiritual defiance of a mere two million people ever count against the incessant pressure of a thousand million on either side, Chinese and Indian? As a possible omen of the future, consider Lama Thubten Yeshe.

Catching my final flight into Lhasa that day in 1982, I noticed, in the foreigners' section of the waiting room at Chengdu airport, a somewhat odd-looking fellow traveller. Around fifty years old, oriental in appearance but not Han, wearing dark glasses, an orange shirt, and acrylic trousers of a brilliant sky blue, he carried an expensive-looking leather attaché case. From his large jug-ears, I guessed him to be a Tibetan by race, but as I had never known a Westernised Tibetan, I reserved judgement.

It happened that my colleague on that trip, the CBC's Don Murray, sat next to him on the flight, and discovered that the man was in fact an émigré lama, returning to visit his homeland for the first time since fleeing with the Dalai in 1959. Lama Thubten had lived for many years in Kathmandu where, being a very sociable character, he had built up a following among the many Western Seekers after Truth who arrived there along what was then the Hippy Trail. Lama Thubten, homeless refugee, became a well- supported guru. He had Australian citizenship and a meditation centre on a large farm near Bendigo, in Victoria, Australia which belonged to one of his wealthy disciples. He had meditation centres and groups in Amsterdam, London, Paris, New York... wherever the Hippy Trails had started and finished for the Seekers After Truth.

Lama Thubten was nervous as he arrived in Lhasa - uncertain of the welcome he would receive from the authorities. He need not have worried. The policy by then was to do everything possible to help such people gain a favourable impression of conditions in modern Tibet. We were billeted in adjoining, but separate hotels, and the next time I saw Lama Thubten he was striding down to the Old City, still in his luminous blue trousers, still carrying his attaché case, but now surrounded on all sides by a motley collection of gushing Western admirers. That summer was a record one for Western pilgrimages to Lhasa, and the means used by those unorthodox foreign travellers would be a book in themselves. Suffice to say most of their routes demanded more than a little cajoling of officials, local police, and truck drivers, and that the Public Security Bureau has since stamped them out.

Two days later, we visited Lama Thubten in his hotel room. There had been a spectacular transformation. He was wearing maroon lama's robes, and squatted cross-legged on the bed, giving audience, as usual, to a gaggle of disciples. More interesting than those assorted French, Italian and American Seekers after Truth were two Tibetans of Thubten's age, looking shy and out of place. They were Thubten's brother, a country herdsman dressed in his best, and Thubten's `dharma brother', a lama who had gone through the novitiate with him. The true brother had been imprisoned only for a few years after Thubten's defection. The `dharma brother' had emerged only recently from twenty years of imprisonment. He was emaciated and appeared to be in a state of some shock. Though he considered himself to be still a lama, and dressed in ragged lama's robes, he was not one of those selected by the Han to continue as lama-caretakers of the few remaining monasteries. The Manpower Bureau had sent him back, on his release, to join the farmers of his home district.

Lama Thubten was no longer nervous about his reception by the Chinese authorities - they had helped him to locate the two people dear to him, and would allow him, later, to go out to his home village as well. Lama Thubten was outspoken in his devotion to the Dalai Lama :

`The Dalai Lama is my god.. I would break my own body rather than betray him'.

This was during the time of the Panchen Lama's return to Tibet - the controversial figure, close to Dalai in ecclesiastical rank, but committed to the Beijing regime. As we spoke to Lama Thubten, Panchen was in Xigatze, the headquarters of his own sect of Lamaism. I mentioned to Lama Thubten the facts that were known about Panchen's somewhat chequered history as a monk - the wife and child, for instance - and asked what Thubten though of him.

He told me that his brother and his dharma brother both respected Panchen, because, regardless of what he might have done in this present incarnation, he was and irrevocably would always be a Living Buddha - a being of a different order to mere mortals.

`There are some people in Lhasa', he conceded, `who don't like some things that Panchen has done. But they are mostly Tibetans who no longer believe fully in the old religion.

`As for me...'

He thought a while and sized us up as Seekers after Truth.

`I don't get any negative vibrations from Panchen Lama'.

He put his smooth hand on the stubbled head of his dharma brother, whose private spiritual agonies were clearly of greater importance than the trick questions of cynical Western reporters.

We left Lama Thubten blessing more of his Western disciples, squatting cross-legged on that bed in a Chinese government hostel in Lhasa. Propped firmly against the wall behind him, for safety, was the shiny attaché case containing US dollar travellers cheques, an Australian passport, and his international airline tickets.

Before leaving China's colonial problems, a footnote is required on Mongolia. A few centuries ago, Mongol power was a force to be reckoned with, when the horse was the ultimate in sophisticated military equipment. Armies led by the Mongols conquered the world, and ruled China. Since the collapse of that empire, however, the Mongols have lived more or less as clients of the Chinese state, though with their very distinctive nomadic culture and their religion of Lama Buddhism shared with the Tibetans.

Particularly in the last imperial dynasty, the Manchu, the feudal princes and chieftains of Mongolia played a dangerous game of flirtation with the Chinese court. The Manchus, themselves from a background not unlike the Mongols, flattered and encouraged the Mongol princes, who, in the end, were the staunchest defenders of that dying dynasty against southern Han modernisers.

But the borders of Inner Mongolia are only a few days easy ride from Beijing, and Han traders and money-lenders quickly monopolised the economy of Mongolia, for which they are hated, openly in Outer Mongolia, to this day. As a last fling, the Japanese empire of the 1930s planned to re-create a puppet Mongol state, as they had done in Manchuria, as part of their dismemberment of China. A Soviet-backed movement had carved off Outer Mongolia from the collapsing Chinese Republic in 1921, and Moscow supports the Peoples Republic of Mongolia to this day.

But the bottom line on Mongolia is that by the time the Peoples Republic of China was declared, there was already no credible claim for an independent Mongol state in Inner Mongolia, and with the degree of Han penetration in trade and settlement, no prospect of China allowing Inner and Outer Mongolia to re- unite as an independent state. This situation has solidified with increasing Han immigration to Inner Mongolia over the past thirty years. The Mongol people live on more or less as an aboriginal population, though with certain political positions ear-marked for their representatives as a token gesture. During the Cultural Revolution, misguided attempts to stamp out Mongol culture led to a serious uprising that left over ten thousand dead. Such days are over now.

There is one curious piece of evidence, however, that Beijing is not wholly complacent over the future of Mongolia. It concerns Jingghis Khan (Genghis Khan), the Mongol who conquered half the world, including China. Not surprisingly, he is Mongolia's National Hero. The Russians however, don't like him at all, which makes life difficult for Outer Mongolian historians. And the Chinese official historians have recently changed their mind. For a long time, Jingghis Khan was classified as an aggressive imperialist who conquered China by force. Then it was noted that Jingghis Khan's home was in fact in Inner Mongolia... making him, in Beijing's retrospective view of such things, clearly a Chinese citizen. So Jingghis Khan's classification has now been changed, in China, from 'Foreign Imperialist', to 'Builder of National Unity'.