I went on a lot of bus rides in Tibet. My first bus ride was along the Golok-Xiling route. It was an uncomfortable experience. The bus made a stop at 11 o’clock at a small Tibetan settlement along the road that looked exactly like the western town in High Noon. Dust, horses, leathery men, fat women, filthy restaurants, motorbikes. My friends said the bus would stop in the afternoon for lunch so I bought some plums and got back into my seat. Afternoon came and passed and the bus made no signs of stopping. I ate my plums and finally descended from the bus in late evening tired and hungry. Xiling, or as the Chinese call it, Xining, has no tourists. It is a small city bounded by mountains and looks like a small version of Beijing transplanted to Tibetan soil. But I didn’t mean to stay in Xiling; my destination was Labrang — a Tibetan town another long bus ride away.
We started out early the next morning. The six-hour bus ride took nine hours because the bus kept breaking down. The driver and the conductor were both Tibetan. They stopped the bus outside Xiling and picked up about 10 passengers without tickets, all of them Tibetans. I learned later that most of them were from the town of Labrang. They sat on the floor or on the raised engine platform. Every so often, we would stop and the extra passengers would get off and be bundled into passing cars. We would then drive cheerfully past a checkpoint. Once we were safely past, the bus would wait at the roadside for the other passengers to get on board. The driver and the conductor were smuggling Tibetans between Xiling and Labrang. It wasn’t a political statement. At first I thought it simple kindness and then I saw the conductor collecting money from them — he was just making some extra money on the side. Did he take less than the ticketed amount, since no tickets were involved? I wanted him to have done so. He was a young man and acted as repairman for the bus as well. Because the bus kept breaking down, the Chinese tourists kept asking him, “When will we get there?” He was snappish to them and gave monosyllabic answers. When a Tibetan asked him the same question, he answered quite patiently. Was that a political statement? Later when he found out I was Tibetan and a tourist, he began pointing out places to me. We passed through Rebkong, small villages with large fields, green rolling pastures and barren mountains, and my entire being thrilled. The Chinese tourists on the bus did not know, and would not have cared, that this was the birthplace of Gedun Choephel.
There is awe but no reverence. There is attention without respect. Monasteries have become museums. Chinese tour guides talk in loud voices and banish sacredness from these hallowed places of worship. Is there such a thing as sustainable tourism? Especially in such a place as Tibet where the factory line is staffed mostly with Chinese?
Later I went on another bus from the Chinese city of Chengdu to Lithang through Dhartsedo, that ancient trading town on the old border. Everyone on the bus was Chinese. Most of them seemed to be going to Bathang for work. I immediately stood out because I didn’t speak Chinese. At a stop I asked the Tibetan woman guarding the public bathroom how much farther it was to Lithang. When I climbed into the bus, many of the other passengers looked at me in surprise and puzzlement. The middle-aged man across the aisle, who had taken off his shirt as we left Chengdu and sat in a comfortable sheen of sweaty nudity — to be covered only as we began climbing mountain after mountain, began speaking to me in unintelligible Sichuanese. Who were all these people going off into places about which they knew nothing?
There were other differences, perhaps minute to others but insurmountable to me. Tibetans, when they travel, slide their windows open so the warm sun and the cold air fall upon their faces. The Chinese tourists shy away from the wind and zip up their jackets to their chins. But they shy away from the sun also — the young women prop up umbrellas inside the bus to keep their skin fair and untanned. Tibet is a place of scorching sun and savage wind. I wondered why, if the Tibetan wind and the sun bothered them so much, they were there. But of course I knew really.
This is a piece I wrote in October 2006. A friend of mine, Thupten, who was interning at Tibet Justice Center, asked me to submit a piece for their newsletter Trin-Gyi-Pho-Nya. He knew that I had just spent the summer in Tibet. I had a hard time thinking about what to write — I wasn’t sure that I would be able to write what they were probably hoping for. I ended up writing this. And of course they couldn’t use it. I have shared it with a couple of friends, and thought that I might share it here as well. Especially as I have not updated in a long while.