Help in Trouble: Tibet

Report on publicizing the Tibetan situation

Jesse Alan Gordon, 1994

To: Hilfe in Not, Bonn, Germany
Re: Tibet preliminary report
August 1993

This is a preliminary report investigating the political situation in Tibet and the security arrangements at Tibet's borders. This report is based only on first-hand observations during my trip to Tibet plus information from guidebooks and from other persons whom I met in Tibet, Nepal, and India. I'll research some books at home and interview some folks who know about China, and submit another report later. Three other Westerners who will be travelling in eastern Tibet have promised to write me a description of that area, which I did not visit. In addition, I'll also find the Amnesty International report on Tibet, which has lots of documentation of human rights violations, etc. I'll make a collection of the Dalai Lama's press clippings from the US newspapers; the Dalai Lama was in the USA while I was in Tibet (he had a 15-minute meeting with President Clinton).

Introduction to Tibet

Tibet was an independent country from 1912 to 1950, when the People's Republic of China took it over by force. Prior to Beijing's takeover, Tibet expressed its independence by isolationism instead of by making international treaties. Beijing hence claims historical "suzerainty" over Tibet, and considers the 1950 invasion to be an internal affair not subject to international criticism. The International Commission of Jurists, an independent organization of international law experts, found that Tibet was de jure and de facto an independent country, and that the PRC invaded and was guilty of genocide against the Tibetan people. The United Nations General Assembly has made weaker resolutions affirming the same thing (Resolution 1353 of 21 October 1959 and a later addition in 1961, for instance). Tibet's language and culture are unrelated to China's, although Tibet's religion (Buddhism) was common in China before the Communist Revolution there.

The Dalai Lama is the religious and political leader of Tibet (details in next section). Just after the Communist Revolution, in the late 1930s, China partially took over eastern Tibet. During this period the Dalai Lama (then an infant) was discovered in eastern Tibet and had to be ransomed from the Chinese governor. By the 1950s, the PRC had progressively occupied the rest of the country, culminating in the forcible takeover of Lhasa, the capital, in 1959. During the 1959 rebellion, the Dalai Lama escaped the country just before his palace (Norbulingka) was destroyed by the Chinese Army. He has since set up a government-in-exile in Dharmsala, India. Tibet was entirely closed to outsiders until the 1980s; it has been gradually opening since then. One may now travel legally everywhere except Eastern Tibet (more below).

Tibet is ruled from Beijing as an "autonomous republic" of the People's Republic of China. The 1959 agreement by which Tibet is granted autonomy in exchange for Chinese sovereignty, which includes recognition of the Dalai Lama as ruler, is as meaningless as most Communist constitutions. The PRC has reportedly destroyed 7,500 Buddhist temples in Tibet, has moved hundreds of thousands of Chinese into Tibet, and has caused millions of Tibetans to go into exile abroad. The PRC has systematically deprived Tibetans of their culture, their religion, their traditional lifestyles, their language, and their means of subsistence. Because of geopolitical considerations concerning the PRC, world governments have not recognized the Dalai Lama's government nor condemned any PRC actions in Tibet. The Dalai Lama's strategy is apparently to garner as much publicity as possible in order to mobilize public opinion for the cause of Tibetan independence.

The Dalai Lama

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama is revered by Tibetans as a deity on earth. His Holiness is considered a reincarnation in a continuous line since the first Dalai Lama in 1391. Tibetans are deeply religious and the standard gift from travellers to Tibetans is a picture of the Dalai Lama. Recent pictures are hard to come by in Tibet, and Tibetans bow in reverence even to the pictures in my tour book. A good enlargement of the Dalai Lama is a sure means of initiating a conversation with a monk or with any Tibetan. When I told Tibetans that I was an American, they often asked me if I had seen the Dalai Lama (since he has visited America). His Holiness' mystique within Tibet is further enhanced because he is disallowed by the PRC from visiting Tibet and of course Tibetans cannot visit Dharmsala.

I think that the best "letter of introduction" in Tibet would be a picture of oneself with the Dalai Lama. I believe that His Holiness' blessing on whatever mission you choose will ensure the support of as many Tibetans as are needed. With such an endorsement, perhaps you could contact "the Tibetan underground," the rebel army (although no one I spoke to could positively confirm nor deny its actual existence), which would certainly know everything about crossing borders. I met a monk who worked with the Dalai Lama, and when I described the organization, he indicated that an audience with His Holiness could be arranged. His address is [omitted], Dharmsala, Dist. Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, India. (He also agreed to read this report for factual correctness).

I believe there is an important consideration about any long-term effort to assist with Tibetan independence. The subsequent Dalai Lamas are chosen after the current Dalai Lama dies, by seeking spiritual signs which would indicate that the Dalai Lama has been reincarnated in a young boy. This system ensures that an interregnum of 15-18 years exists between each Dalai Lama. During this period, a "Regency" is established, in which a council of regents rules Tibet until the new Dalai Lama reaches his majority. A purely political regency is sufficient for normal times, but in the current situation, where spiritual leadership is more important than political leadership, the regency will be meaningless. To Tibetans, fighting for Tibet and fighting for the Dalai Lama are intertwined concepts which are essentially synonymous. I believe that upon the death of the current Dalai Lama, the cause of Tibetan independence will die as well, since the spiritual impetus will have been removed. I'm sure the Beijing regime anticipates this event as the indicator of ultimate victory in Tibet, since the independence movement will not survive the interregnum. Therefore, I think that any activity aimed at supporting Tibetan independence must be done during the lifetime of the current Dalai Lama. I believe that if his death occurs while Tibet is still under occupation, that it will mark the end of the existence of Tibet forever. The Dalai Lama is currently 58 years old. The average Tibetan life expectancy is about 40 years.

A number of persons with whom I spoke predicted political changes within the next couple of years. Specifically, it is hoped that India, England, and France may recognize the government-in-exile, or at least extend stronger diplomatic relations to the Dalai Lama's government. I'm not so sure that this is just over-optimism, but in today's rapidly evolving political climate, anything is possible.

Besides political timing, with the passage of time, Tibetans who knew Tibet as an independent country will become fewer, and Tibetan refugees will become more integrated into their local societies and lose their desire to return home. The strategy of the PRC in Tibet is to move in as many Chinese as possible, as evidenced by the large Chinese settlements (see pictures) and plentitude of Chinese restaurants and other business establishments (often without Tibetan signs). This is not only to get a popular base of support for the army, but also so that Beijing can stage an election, and then declare that Chinese control is desired by the people themselves.

Geography, Climate, and Economy

The word for "Tibet" in Tibetan means "Snow Land." Tibet is on a high plateau behind the Himalaya Mountains ("Himalaya" in Hindi means "Ice Place"). Although the word "plateau" implies flatness, the Tibetan plateau is only flat compared to the Himalaya range. All parts of Tibet which I saw from both land and air are very hilly. Lhasa, the capital, is at an altitude of 3,600 meters, and any overland route requires crossing mountain passes at 5,000 to 6,000 meters (Mt. Everest, on the Tibet-Nepal border, is 8,848 meters). See attached topographical maps for details -- these maps are readily available at "trekking" bookstores in Kathmandu. The maps of the Nepal side are very good (see Nepal section below), but are worse on the Tibetan side. Reportedly the Chinese Army has very good maps of Tibet, which are on display at CITS in Lhasa, but Westerners are not permitted to look at them for long, nor to buy them at all.

Altitude is the most important characteristic of Tibetan geography -- one must acclimate for a substantial period of time before any physical exertion is possible. With the mountainous terrain, physical exertion is a necessity for any activity. I personally was quite ill for four days before I got acclimated, and even then I had trouble climbing. Altitude sickness is not predictable nor preventable -- only six weeks before my trip to Tibet, I was hiking 10 kilometers per day in the US Rocky Mountains, at an altitude of 3,500 meters, with no ill effects whatsoever. In any large group, one must anticipate that some members will become ill, and that all members must be given sufficient time to acclimate to the altitude before any hard work is undertaken.

The climate is rainy in the summer (monsoon season is June through August), and very cold in the winter (December through March). The ideal time for "trekking" is considered to be April through August. During the monsoon season, Tibet itself often does not get so much rain (it's in the "rain shadow" of the Himalaya range), but roads are frequently washed out due to floods and landslides. During my time in the area (July to August), the Lhasa-Kathmandu highway got washed out twice.

The high-altitude vegetation has some trees, but is mostly open grassland. Where the mountains are steep (which is common), half of the mountain is low grass and half is bare rock. Tibetans grow wheat and barley, and raising yaks is the mainstay of the economy. Tibetans are still overwhelmingly rural, living in small villages in the countryside. Most Tibetans outside the cities live in a barter economy, and hence have no measurable income. In Lhasa, a skilled laborer (I asked a wood carver in a temple) earns Y6 RMB per 10-hour day (that's a little under $1 per day).

Tibet is an extraordinarily undeveloped country. I have been to many third-world countries, and Tibet is certainly one of the most "undeveloped" places in the world. Electricity is rare and plumbing is rarer (travellers must use bottled water). The only decent "highway" in the country runs from Lhasa to Gonggar, where the "international airport" is; both were built for the use of the Chinese Army. This road is paved, except where boulders have crashed down the mountain slopes into it, or where potholes are large enough that one must drive around them, or where the lake alongside has spread to include the highway (it's monsoon season now). Most roads, even in Lhasa, are unpaved, and even those that are paved require a hardy constitution to withstand the drive. Tibetans don't use cars, so roads have never been important. The Dalai Lama had initiated some development programs before 1959, and of course the Chinese Army has developed a lot of stuff for their own benefit and for the benefit of Chinese settlers here. Some large Western hotels have come to Lhasa to cater to the tourist trade, and Lhasa is overrun with Westerners at all of the sightseeing places.

Tibet's borders

Please see the "Indian Subcontinent" topographical map, labeled "map #1". Tibet has a long border with the rest of China, which is omitted on this map, but which I think is a bad idea to cross anyway, since one must cross through large distances within the PRC. Going from west to east, Tibet borders Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Assam (I discuss each of these areas below). Along the border of China north and west of Ladakh is a short border with Afghanistan, then a long border with the former Soviet republics of Tadjikistan, Kyrghizia, and Kazakhstan. I will not discuss that border here (it's a long trek through the PRC from those borders, too). Hence the Himalaya Mountains form the entire foreign border of Tibet, as you can see on map #1. You can also see there the high altitude of the Tibetan plateau; the Himalaya range is a natural border between the Tibetan plateau and the (relative) lowlands of the other side. Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, is closest to Bhutan, but the main roads go from Kathmandu and from Sikkim.

There are three sections of Tibet, which are administered as separate entities by Beijing. I'm not too clear on the political distinctions between the three sections, but the fellow who described them indicated that they had Chinese names and different policies for their administration. Western Tibet (Ngari) borders Ladakh and western Nepal. It's sparsely populated, about 1 million people total, and has very little PRC control. Central Tibet (Lhasa Shi and three other prefectures) borders eastern Nepal and Sikkim, and includes Lhasa, the capital. It has 2 million people, and some PRC control: the people "may travel, if they avoid CITS," said a monk. (CITS is the official China International Travel Service). Eastern Tibet (Chamdo) borders Bhutan and Assam. It has 2 million people, and is the most heavily controlled area. The children are schooled in Chinese and speak Chinese, and most cannot read Tibetan. Most of the monasteries which the Chinese Army destroyed are in eastern Tibet, and have been left destroyed. Eastern Tibet is officially "closed" to travellers, but many Western travellers evidently find their way there anyway.

In addition to the 5 million Tibetans in Tibet, there are about 1 million Tibetans abroad. Most are "refugees" in India, and since 1959 have become more or less integrated into Indian society. There are Tibetan centers in all of the areas I discuss below, as well as a large population in southern India. I visited the Tibetan refugee center in Kathmandu and describe it in the Nepal section below. The number of Chinese in Tibet is one of the great secrets of the PRC. I heard estimates ranging everywhere from 100,000 to "more than there are Tibetans," and the number of Chinese Army is equally questionable. I saw a lot of Chinese Army there.

Ladakh to Tibet

Ladakh is an area of India, consisting of the Indian states of Jammul & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and a small piece of Uttar Pradesh (see map #2, "India: A Tourist Road Map"). Ladakh is also known as "Little Tibet," because it is historically part of ancient Tibet, and because many Tibetans reside there. The Dalai Lama's government-in-exile is in Dharmsala, in the state of Himachal Pradesh. To get information on Tibet from the government, write to Tibetan Bureau, Dharmsala, H.P., India (I'll write them when I get home).

The "capital" of Ladakh is the city of Leh. One gets there by flying to Srinigar (the main city of Kashmir) and then taking a bus. See map #3, a trekking map of Ladakh. There's a direct flight Delhi to Leh three times weekly, if the weather is good. There is reportedly a new road from Leh southwest to Dharmsala, but the map shows only the road to Srinigar. Beyond Leh to the east (towards Tibet), there are no roads at all, only trekking trails. The entire area east of Leh is highly militarized, because Kashmir is a politically disputed area (China, India, and Pakistan all make conflicting claims as to where the borders are). The Zanskar Valley, to the south of Leh, reportedly has a number of Tibetan refugee centers. There is also an independence movement by the local Punjabis, which brings yet more military to the area.

Certainly the next "scouting trip" should include a trip to Ladakh and to Dharmsala. I met a fellow in Delhi who sets up trekking trips in Ladakh (he's Kashmiri and subversive): [name and address omitted]. This fellow was happy to set up treks beyond the allowed limits as well, but said that the price would be high (US$5000 to cross the border) because of the large Indian military presence. The Nubra Valley is the end of the officially allowed areas; he says that 2000 to 3000 military vehicles pass through Nubra per day, and that the Indian Army outnumbers the local population 4:1. Once beyond Nubra, he said, there is no army presence until the Chinese border, where the Chinese Army is strong also.

I do not recommend crossing the border from Ladakh because of the large distances involved (the Kashmiri trekker said it's a 15-20 day trek just to get to the border, and the trails are not passable for jeeps, only yaks). While the armies in the area are there for Kashmir and not for Tibet, their presence is just as much a problem. Even after crossing the border, you would be in Western Tibet, which is not the area in most danger.

Nepal to Tibet

The biggest road into Lhasa comes from Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Kathmandu is a popular tourist spot, as the staging area for those who wish to hike around Mt. Everest or the rest of the Himalayas. The Himalaya range forms the Tibetan-Nepali border; for example, the border is defined as the peak of Mt. Everest. Therefore, excellent trekking maps are available for every area up to the border (see map #4, "Latest Trekking Map"). On the Tibet side of the border, the maps are not so good, and on Nepali maps, China is portrayed as a white blank area.

Kathmandu has hundreds of "trekking" outfits to capitalize on tourists who come to hike the Himalaya range. I list three addresses below of some I spoke to. Only the last one, [name omitted], was willing to discuss cross-border treks, since of course they're illegal. Changing money and selling drugs are also illegal in Nepal, but I was offered both continuously on the streets of Kathmandu. I arranged a purchase of dollars from Indian rupees (an unusual transaction) and a purchase of opium (also unusual; the norm is hashish) just to see how these guys would escalate things -- both took less than an hour. There are so many trekking outfits and so many shady operators around that finding a willing cross-border guide here should not be a problem. I detail my recommended cross-border plan, including trekking from Nepal, in a section below.

Nepal is evidently interested in maintaining good relations with the PRC. Nepal declined to allow the Dalai Lama to visit Kathmandu, after having scheduled such a visit, under pressure from Beijing. The government of Nepal, presumably, will therefore not assist at all in case of getting caught (India might; see Sikkim). But I liked dealing with Nepalis much more than dealing with Indians -- I found Nepalis to be more honest, perhaps because they're from a smaller country, with less exposure to Westerners, or perhaps because they're poorer. Tourism is where the money is in Nepal -- it's the second biggest hard currency source (after carpets), and I think that all the wheeler-dealers flock to the tourism industry. The average income in Nepal is NRs.100 to 150 per day for unskilled labor, and NRs.200 (US$4) per day for skilled laborers.

I got a visa to Tibet (from [name omitted]) for a "five-day tour." When I got my visa to Tibet, I paid a little extra (by paying in hard currency) in order to get a visa in one day, and in order to get a visa which was for longer than the trip I had signed up for. That's entirely illegal, since one is supposed to be in Tibet only with a tour group, and one can only get an "extension" from CITS. However, all of the people on my tour had done exactly what I did -- we bought the cheapest tour there was, to get a visa, and bribed someone to extend the visa. Evidently, getting a longer visa is a matter of course -- mine was for 10 days, but my tour-mates' visas were usually for 30 days and one for 60 days.

One fellow from the Netherlands got a visa in Amsterdam which did not require that he be on a tour at all. That's against all the PRC rules, but he obtained the visa anyway. At the border, he had a problem because one must fill in the name of one's tour group, since one must be on a tour. That was how we met, since I saw him groping and let him use my tour information. One may also set up a tour group oneself -- just print up a letterhead which looks like a tour agency, and write yourself a letter saying that you are a group. I found, in general, that bending the rules (at least for white people) was very easy -- the Chinese want our hard currency, they know that we already know all about Tibet, and the people in the army just follow their orders and stamp our papers. If there's a problem, they want a piece of paper explaining your situation -- I recommend printing up a few bogus excuses ahead of time, and that should suffice for all but the worst trouble. The level of English is so low amongst the Chinese Army that unless they are really suspicious, I believe they'll accept any piece of paper written in English as proof of your validity.

Following are addresses of Nepali trekking companies:

Kathmandu Travel & Tours [other names and addresses omitted]
PO Box 459, Ganga Path
Kathmandu, Nepal
tel. 2-22511
(big and no tricks allowed)

I visited the Tibetan refugee camp outside of Kathmandu, in an area called Jawalakhel. It's marked on the map of Kathmandu (map #8), in the city of Patan, to the south of Kathmandu. I took a few pictures so you can see what it's like -- it looks like the rest of Kathmandu, except that the people look Tibetan instead of Nepali. Most of the residents have been there since 1959 or shortly thereafter. The young people were born there and have never been to Tibet, and many speak Nepalese as their native language. The "refugee camp" is so well-established that there is no distinction between it and the rest of the town. In short, the Tibetans here have become entirely integrated into the local economy and way of life. I asked around and could find no one who even knew any recent refugees. I believe that the refugee camps in Darjeeling and elsewhere will be the same. I don't know where the current Tibetan refugees are heading -- everyone tells me one place or another. I will get this information from official sources, for my final report.

Tibetan Bureau
Kazimpat, Kathmandu
(reportedly one in
Mustang Province, too)

Information Office
Kanjin Kishong
Dharmsala, Dist. Kangra
Himachal Pradesh, India

Bureau of H.H. the Dalai Lama
10, Ring Road, Lajpat Nagar-IV
New Delhi 110024 India
Tel.641-4888 or 641-2657

Sikkim to Tibet

Sikkim is a state of India, but the Sikkimese area extends south into the state of West Bengal. Sikkim is controlled directly by the central Indian government (as opposed to being state-run, as in some states), and parts are closed to foreigners. Outside of Darjeeling, a large city in Sikkim, there's reportedly a Tibetan refugee camp. There's a road from Gangtok (the capital of Sikkim) to Lhasa, via Gyangze, but the road is not open at the border. The road is at the widest and lowest pass through the Himalaya range. Hence the Chinese guard this area of the Tibetan border vigorously. This pass is at 4,350 meters -- hikers generally consider special high altitude acclimatization necessary at 4,000 meters, and then more acclimatization at each additional 500 meters above that.

India is, I believe, sympathetic to Tibet based on religious affiliation (although the Indian government has done little politically) and based on dislike of the PRC. Hinduism (the religion of India) considers Buddhism (the religion of Tibet) to be a sub-sect of Hinduism (to Hindus, Buddha was one incarnation of Vishnu, a great god of Hinduism). Buddhism was the popular religion throughout China before the Communist Revolution, but it has survived much more strongly in Tibet than elsewhere in China.

The conventional wisdom is that the Indian Army will allow border crossings with anything which is legal in India. That means, there is no problem on the Indian (Sikkim) side crossing with any quantity of food or medicine. They will not allow crossing with munitions. I asked the FRRO officer (see below for FRRO) in Bombay what would happen if I wanted to cross the border to Tibet, he said, "I cannot grant you permission, but just go the border crossing and ask." Indian political relations with China are bad, so I think that making arrangements with India, legally, to use Sikkim as a staging area is not a good idea. I told the Bombay officer that I intended to investigate the Tibetan refugee situation and he indicated that that would not bar me at all from getting a special visa. While asking about permission to Assam, I showed a guard my map because I couldn't pronounce a name. I had written things like "easy smuggling here" and "lots of Chinese Army here", and he took the map and stared at it for two full minutes, and then gave me the proper form anyway. Evidently he didn't care if I was planning any cross-border activities.

On the special visa: one needs, in addition to the regular visa to enter India, special permission to visit certain areas of Sikkim. Those areas are the cities of Gangtok, Rumtek, Phodang, Pemayangtse, and Zongri. To Zongri, one may only visit in groups of more than four persons, with a certified tourist agency as sponsor. To the others, one needs only to fill out an "Application for Special Permit" from the Foreign Registration Office (copy enclosed). Darjeeling requires no special permit, according to the FRRO, but the official Indian tourist information agency said that all of Sikkim was open, and even provided me with a glossy brochure (enclosed). The tourist information office also said that Arunachal Pradesh was all closed (i.e., required a special permit), but the FRRO officer insisted that it is all open. As usual in non-industrialized countries, if you don't like the answer you receive on questions of official rules, asking someone else usually gets you the answer that you do want. I recommend doing whatever you want to do, and then citing some appropriate agency as having said that it was allowed.

To submit an application to the FRRO, send (all in duplicate) a copy of your passport identification page and your passport's India visa page, plus a photo, the filled-in permit form, and a written statement. The statement should say your name, home, date of arrival and departure, and purpose of visit (which I think you may state honestly here). Send it to "FRRO Bombay." That's all the address they would give me, and they insisted that it was sufficient. The FRRO in Sikkim is in Gangtok and Darjeeling and may be addressed analogously. I might address it as "Foreign Registration Office, FRRO Chief Secretary, Government of Sikkim, IG of Police, Gangtok India" just to make it look better. The permit is valid for a 15-day period maximum. For this permit, however, I think you can negotiate with the FRRO office to allow for a longer stay legally.

By the way, I do not think the Indian government nor army will be sympathetic in Ladakh. Punjab and Kashmir are internal Indian "problem areas," and are heavily patrolled by Indian army, for reasons having nothing to do with Tibet. In Sikkim, there aren't any internal Indian problems, so the army there cares less about external activities. Arunachal Pradesh has the same status as Sikkim.

Bhutan to Tibet

Bhutan is the closest neighboring country to Lhasa. It takes three weeks to obtain a visa to Bhutan, (application form enclosed), and hence I did not have an opportunity to obtain a visa. The Bhutan information office was remarkably unforthcoming in providing information about Bhutan (I got one glossy brochure, enclosed, but no maps, even). Hence I have nothing else to add about Bhutan, except that a trip should be made there to get further information. A look at the Tibet map (Map #6, "Latest Map of Kathmandu to Tibet", and #7, "Tibet: Specially for Tourist") indicate that there are only some rough trails into Tibet across the same sort of high mountain passes that predominate the rest of the border. Also, Thimphu (the capital) is not on most international air routes (you can fly there from Delhi and Kathmandu).

Assam to Tibet

Assam is the area of India east of Bhutan and Bangladesh. The state bordering Tibet is Arunachal Pradesh. No special permit is required for this state, according to the FRRO, although the official Indian tourist information office says that a permit is required. Once again, I did not visit here, so I have nothing to add other than what the maps say: better roads than Bhutan and a lower altitude.

All of the states east and south of Arunachal Pradesh are entirely ethnically Assami, and have a strong independence movement. Hence they are closed to foreigners, with the same FRRO permit restrictions as for north Sikkim. None of the states beyond Arunachal Pradesh border China, but I report this here because they do border Myanmar, your other target country. The conventional wisdom is that these states are very dangerous for foreigners because India's relations with Myanmar are poor and because the Assamis are pretty violent. The Indian army will not be sympathetic to border crossings here, and neither will the Myanmar army. In approaching Myanmar from the west, I recommend transiting Bangladesh in preference to India. Bangladesh has no Assami problems, and hence has less of an army presence on its Myanmar border, and I heard that that is the only means of entering Myanmar. I have heard that the Thailand and Laos borders with Myanmar are also heavily militarized, and sites of heavy fighting in Myanmar.

Security Conditions in Tibet

Here I can only describe what I saw first-hand, since the PRC is extraordinarily secretive about its military population. Attached are pictures of Chinese Army installations, with descriptions about where each one is. There are too many army sites in Lhasa to have pictures of them all. On the streets of Lhasa, one cannot walk anywhere without seeing a member of the Chinese Army. I'm not certain if there's any distinction made between army and police -- the uniforms are evidently the same, except for police insignias on the patches. I got some nice photos of a guy in Chinese Army uniform so you can see what they look like.

There are a lot of Chinese Army members in Lhasa -- I saw two or three on every block of every street. Outside Jokhang temple, there were two guards posted in the square. Outside other monasteries, I did not notice any guards. There are about 10 or 12 army bases along the highway from Lhasa to the airport, getting denser and bigger as I approached Lhasa. I may have mistaken some Chinese settlement areas for army bases -- the Chinese settlements, I think, had walls and Chinese Army guards and the PRC flag, which made them look like army bases. The airport has an over-abundance of Chinese Army. There are hundreds of army members there, more than there are passengers (especially because they receive only one plane per hour or so). The army members in the airport did nothing but fill out our paperwork, and since we were all tourists, they checked for very little. I think that any white-skinned traveller on a normal tourist-laden commercial plane can expect the same light security treatment. As far as I could tell, almost all of the army members were unarmed. The only time I saw a gun was on the Chinese Army guard posted at a bank. I assume that normally they do not carry guns.

Electronic security at Lhasa airport was light. They had a metal detector but it was turned off. They X-rayed my hand-carry bag on the way out and found a metal knife. I had bought a Chinese Army cap in Lhasa and I carried it openly at the airport without being questioned (it was a fake cap that I bought in the market, but no one checked that). At Lhasa airport, they seem to be concerned only with metal objects. At Kathmandu airport, the X-ray machine is arranged in such a way that you can bypass it and still get on the plane (or perhaps they just forgot to mark my bag as checked; in any case, I bypassed the X-ray).

In Lhasa, I believe that all of the Chinese Army is there to keep Tibetans in line, and therefore they do not even notice what foreigners do. There are, however, "regulations" posted in conspicuous public places to remind us what we are supposed to do. In case you get caught doing anything wrong, you may cite this one: "Regulation of the People's Republic of China on Administrative Penaltes for public Security: Chapter III Article 19: ... 200 Yuan or maximum 15 days imprisonment for..." (section 2) "disturbing the public order of government ... [or of] medical care." (section 7) "or obstructing state personnel who are carrying out their functions according to the law, without resort to threat or violence." That covers most of the activities you'd be doing; write up a paper that cites the regulation, and perhaps they'll be impressed enough to let you off with a fine (it's US$28).

In general, the situation for Tibetans in Lhasa has improved since the area has opened up to outsiders. Prior to 1980, Tibetans were taught only in Chinese, and now they are taught in Tibetan again. The biggest restrictions on daily life, I'd say, are in housing -- see the attached picture of the Tibetan area of Lhasa versus the Chinese area. I have heard that Tibetans are required to grow crops for export to the rest of the PRC and then must import their own food, and that generally Tibet has been made entirely dependent on the PRC for everything.

Medical Situation in Tibet

The medical situation is Lhasa is not a big trouble spot for Tibetans. I visited the "Tibetan Medical Center" (pictures enclosed) which is a large out-patient hospital in the center of town. There is also a 250-bed in-patient hospital in Lhasa, at which surgery is performed. There are separate medical facilities for the Chinese Army. The latest available statistics for the out-patient center are that it has 75 doctors and a budget from the state of 1,500,000. There are also many clinics in town, which serve less critical medical needs.

The biggest problem with providing medicine to Tibet is that Tibetans do not use Western-style medicine at all. Their medical system is based on what we would call "holistic medicine." A doctor first uses behavior modification (e.g., stop smoking), then tries diet to solve ills, then uses herbal medicine, and finally uses non-invasive techniques such as acupuncture. Surgery is not used at all in traditional Tibetan medicine, due to a surgical mishap involving a king a few centuries ago. Tibetan medical practices are fairly sophisticated, as the current practices have been progressively developed for many centuries. Tibetans practice dissection as a means of disposing of corpses (called "sky burial"), and hence Tibetan medicine has a much better understanding of anatomy than one would expect in a traditional system. The traditional herbal remedies have been encoded for centuries on "medical tapestries" (called "tangkas" in Tibetan), which list the common medicinal herbs pictorially. The tangka for herbs is evidently in common use throughout Tibet.

Please see the pictures labeled "Clinic in Lhasa." This is a typical small clinic; it has a large room in front with a collection of herbal medications, and a small room in back with a bed. At first I thought this was a first-aid station of some sort, but it had a sign on the entryway which said the Tibetan word for "hospital." A Tibetan doctor informed me that these type of clinics are in outlying villages as well, but of course the medical centers are only in the city. There are no Western-style medications at all, nor any probing instruments. At other clinics, there were some Western-looking instruments, but still the collection of herbal medications only. Even at the Tibetan Medical Center, the most sophisticated instrument is an electric acupuncture machine. I do not believe, however, that there is a lack of opportunity to obtain more sophisticated equipment -- I believe it is from a lack of need. Access to more Western-style medical supplies would merely create a surplus, since the typical Tibetan does not want it.

Tibet's climate makes for unusual medical needs also. At Tibet's altitude, many micro-organisms and insects cannot survive; for example, there are no mosquitoes, so there is no chance of catching malaria. This means that Tibetans have no need for many vaccines until they leave the country. The harsh climatic conditions, which keep the micro-organism count low, make up for the poor hygienic practices common in Tibet.

I asked the doctor (an acupuncturist) who conducted the tour in the Tibetan Medical Center what was needed in terms of medicine, and he said, "things are okay; we supply ourselves with what we need." Self-reliance means that regardless of what the Chinese Army does, they cannot stop a village from collecting up herbs. I asked others as well, who said, "getting more medicine would be useful." In other words, there's a mixed response. I assume the need for medical supplies in greater in Eastern Tibet, but even there, I think self-reliance is the rule.

I also interviewed a Western-educated Indian doctor about what to look for as signs of medical needs. He said that signs of vitamin deficiencies would be bloodshot eyes, lumpy fingernails, non-shiny hair, etc. I did not observe those characteristics on any Tibetans, even in the villages. The only exception was beggars in Lhasa. In conclusion, I do not believe that there is a problem with Tibetans obtaining medical care, at least within Lhasa and the surrounding villages.

Recommended Means of Border Crossing

Here is how I would smuggle goods into Tibet if I were doing it myself. (1) Arrive in Kathmandu and go to a high mountain to acclimate to the altitude. (2) Book a Himalaya "trekking" tour for three weeks, and also book an "overland" tour (including a bus ride from Kathmandu to Lhasa, and including a valid Tibet visa) for two weeks after the Himalaya trek. (3) Go on the scheduled Himalaya trek, cross the border with a guide or with maps, and walk to a pre-arranged point along the Kathmandu-Lhasa highway. (4) Forge a Chinese visa which indicates that you crossed the border on the highway (I will find a color copy of one), and stamp your valid Tibetan visa. (5) Meet the tour bus at the pre-arranged highway point, and ride with them to Lhasa.

The plan is to have an excuse for being where you are at every point. Trekking along the Nepali-Tibetan border is normal, and I'm sure that people inadvertently cross the border sometimes. That's your excuse while you're within a few kilometers of the border. When you go inland, stamp your visa with the forged stamp (and then destroy the stamping device), and then your excuse is that you took the bus from Kathmandu, and then decided to go trekking on the Tibet side, which is illegal, but plausible and commonly done. After meeting the tour bus, you are just tourists who stayed overnight in a village and caught the next bus.

If you have a Tibetan or a Nepali with you, explaining his presence will be considerably more difficult. Certainly no guide is necessary for the Nepali trekking, since the maps are very good, and anyone with hiking experience can readily follow them (see Map #4; the green circles mark one day's hiking). A guide is necessary for the Tibetan side unless better maps can be obtained (I could not get any better than Map #5, "Map of South-Central Tibet", which is inadequate for self-guiding). However, with a Tibetan speaker or a phrase book, one could trek on one's own by asking directions of villagers to each subsequent village. Refer to the enclosed book, "Tibet: A Trekking Guide to Southern Tibet" for more on self-guiding in this area. A Tibetan translator is an absolute necessity for doing any activities in Tibet anyway. You will have a lot of trouble finding English speakers (and I cannot say at all on German speakers).

The total distance on foot within Tibet can be as little as a few dozen kilometers if you choose the route carefully. I think that the right approach is minimizing the distance in which you are carrying contraband while on your own. Note that getting to your starting point in Nepal can be difficult: on map #4 (trekking Everest), the first green circle (Jiri) can be reached by bus, and is the only point that can be reached by bus. A later green circle (Lukla) can be reached only by air, and not by bus. In my opinion, avoiding air travel is a good idea since it avoids one more potential checkpoint. But within Nepal, your contraband may not be contraband, so getting caught there is no problem.

As far as setting up a meeting point, there are a number of popular tourist sites along the highway quite near the border. Every tour bus stops at Milarepa's Cave, for instance, at Km.682 (kilometers from Lhasa). I think that the next trip to Tibet should include an overland tour in both directions on the Kathmandu-Lhasa highway, since I cannot speak from first-hand experience on the conditions there.

Recommended Course of Action

I believe that bringing in medical supplies is not a very valuable course of action, as detailed in the medical section above. Please refer to the attached articles regarding the recent Jokhang riots (summarized below) -- one Tibetan described the situation as "stones against guns," [references omitted]. There will be other Jokhang riots, because the repression which triggered the riots has not lessened, and there are now a lot of monks in jail as a result of the most recent riots. They will never be released (the Tibetan I discussed this with predicted 15 years in prison for them), but their imprisonment stirs up resentment.

Here is a summary of the Jokhang riots; refer to pictures of Jokhang temple. The Jokhang temple is the center of Tibetan Buddhist religion. When Tibetan Buddhists make a pilgrimage, they go to Lhasa, complete a circuit of 8 kilometers around the Jokhang three times, then complete an inner circuit of 1 kilometer three times, and then finally enter the temple after lengthy prostrations. There is a large courtyard in front of the temple, which includes a police station with a camera aimed at the entrance to the temple. The recent Jokhang riots began with the monks in Jokhang temple demonstrating for more rights for Tibetans. Many lay-persons in Lhasa joined the demonstration, and a large crowd gathered in the courtyard in front of Jokhang. After a few days, the Chinese Army came in with rifles; the lay-people dispersed, but the monks remained. They threw stones at the army members, who shot back, killing a few monks and arresting many. Reportedly, 20 monks from Jokhang are still in prison as a result of the riots, and 60 monks from other monasteries are in prison as well.

I think that monks occupy a special position in Tibetan politics -- the Chinese Army has regularly arrested them, shot at them, destroyed their temples, and so on, and yet the monks I met were always the most willing to say, "Down with China!" or "Free Tibet!" or whatever phrase they could express in limited English. I had a very difficult time getting regular Tibetans to talk about politics. In fact, after another Westerner observed me pressing one Tibetan for an opinion, he said, "you shouldn't do that, because you put him on the spot to answer, and then he gets arrested after you've left the scene." I believe that that correctly describes the reluctance to discuss politics amongst Tibetans.

But that reluctance is not shared by the monks. They open conversations with politics, and readily answered whatever I asked of them. They are the most subject to Chinese Army persecution (I think all of the Jokhang riot victims and arrestees were monks), and therefore I believe they feel free to speak because their situation won't get any worse as a result. In addition, all of the monasteries are relatively free of Chinese Army, so it actually is somewhat safer to speak there than on the streets, where the Army abounds. Certainly the monks have indicated a willingness to fight the Chinese Army both with words and physically.

[paragraph omitted] "Publicity" is what the Tibetan government claims it needs most, and a number of Tibetans said the same thing to me.

In addition, I recommend bringing in a television camera and a satellite uplink. Beijing will close off Lhasa as soon as the next riots start, so the equipment must be smuggled in, and stashed away beforehand. This is another reason I recommend Nepal instead of India as the staging point: India has very strict rules regarding electronic equipment, and will check that the camera leaves India with you. I found this out because I brought a laptop computer into India, and then exited India to Nepal without it, and was almost disallowed from leaving (I convinced them I would return and wrote a "letter of explanation.") Having televised scenes of the next Jokhang riot will serve the cause of Tibet more than the riot itself.

[paragraphs omitted] Every person whom I asked directly, "What can Westerners do for Tibet?" answered the same way: "Publicize it, write articles about it, tell people about it." That's a good answer, I think, because many people are willing to do that who would be unwilling to do anything else. But serious publicity, meaning international television, requires a big story. The Jokhang riots did not make it into the public consciousness of the world because it [did not get onto international] TV.

With regard to the religious beliefs of Tibetan monks, there are no restrictions against fighting. Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes peace and harmony, but does not enforce pacifism. The Dalai Lama, during his escape from Lhasa, recommended that the people fight only defensively, but he recognized that they would fight. With regard to television equipment, having only one camera makes it subject to being damaged in a riot. Many small videocameras would achieve the same purpose, although instant images would be delayed. Even if smuggling in [] television cameras is rejected, I recommend bringing in videocameras. They are legal to bring in, of course, and one need only adjust one's paperwork to hide that one has left it there. Having film footage of the next riots will significantly affect world opinion, I believe.

Recommended Future Research

A proper survey to do the research for this report would require 4 or 5 weeks. I only had two weeks, so I did not get to visit a number of places which I should have. Here is my recommended list of activities which are necessary to properly research Tibet.

1) Take an overland tour on the highway from Kathmandu to Lhasa. The tours take anywhere from 3 to 10 days; take the longer one so you can see more. The highway itself is about 1000 kilometers and passes through many villages. The Chinese Army checkpoints are marked on maps, but first-hand confirmation would be more up-to-date. On the return route, one may travel "independently" in order to have more freedom. At the Yak Hotel in Lhasa, the backpackers' headquarters, there are numerous signs posted offering or requesting independent rides to Kathmandu. One may hire a car with driver, or hitchhike with trucks, and both are commonly done despite their illegality.

2) Travel independently to Eastern Tibet. This requires a lot of time, because of the primitive conditions of roads, but evidently getting there is not a problem despite its official closed status. I hope to get a report from some travellers in Eastern Tibet next month.

3) Visit Dharmsala and request an audience with the Dalai Lama. As discussed above, I think that Ladakh is a poor staging area because of the large distance from trouble areas in Tibet. But having pictures of an audience with the Dalai Lama is an invaluable introduction. Also in Dharmsala is the Tibetan Bureau and other offices of the government-in-exile, and presumably good information is available through them. If you choose to cross the border from Ladakh, first take a trekking tour from Leh in order to assess the military situation on the Indian side of the border.

4) Visit Sikkim and Bhutan. Both of these require advance visas, which I had no opportunity to get. The areas of Sikkim along the border with Tibet require a special Indian visa as discussed above -- it takes a few days to get. Bhutan requires three weeks to supply a visa. Both Sikkim and Bhutan reportedly have large Tibetan refugee camps, although I think they are the same as the Kathmandu refugee camp (established in the 1960s, and the residents have incorporated into local society).

5) Visit Assam, especially the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. This area borders Eastern Tibet, which suffers the worst repression. Assam also borders Myanmar, by the way, if you'd like to simultaneously do research there. Assam requires a special permit as well, the same as Sikkim. Arunachal Pradesh itself requires no special permit at the present, but the other states in the area do.

Follow-up Reports
Newspaper coverage of Jokhang riots

After returning home, I electronically searched all major US newspapers for May and June for stories on the Jokhang riots. All contained the same story, the same factually as my summary above. Most importantly, the source of the story was consistently reported as "three Western tourists who spoke some Tibetan." They all had their film confiscated by the Chinese Army during the riots and at the airport out. They all were eye-witnesses to the Jokhang Temple standoff, but not when the army stormed it. They were all surprised that the newspapers had not covered the story, and called newspapers, from which came the stories.

That means that newspapers had no reporters in Lhasa at all (which is why they had to rely on tourists), and did not get any reporters there during the standoff (because the Chinese Army carefully contained the story). No newspapers had any pictures, which means that the Chinese Army was successful in confiscating all film.

I therefore recommend that hand-held movie cameras and still photograph cameras be brought in, as described above, and secreted in temples, for use by monks during the next riot. A satellite uplink would be preferable, I still think, because it would provide live coverage. But the additional difficulty in getting it in, and that the Chinese Army would target it for destruction as soon as they discovered its use, makes me think that many smaller cameras would serve better.

The Chinese Army will treat the smuggling out of films of a riot as a capital crime. That is, getting the film and cameras inis much less risky than getting them out. My recommendation for getting the film out is twofold: 1) Spread the risk by using many sources of film (multiple cameras, so when some are captured by the Chinese Army, others will survive) and many carriers out of the country (multiple smugglers across the border to Nepal, so some will survive). 2) Have monks act as the smugglers. The monks will also be the cameramen, and will already be at risk for having secreted the camera equipment. Video film is small (the cameras need never be carried out of Tibet), so it is relatively easy to smuggle out of Tibet, although the border would be "tightened" after a riot. However, waiting for the border to re-loosen would not diminish the effectiveness nor newsworthiness of riot films. (If some film of the Jokhang riots came to the Western press even today, it would still make the news). Let the monks decide when the risk of smuggling the film out is reasonable enough, compared to the risk of the film being discovered if not smuggled out.

There will be considerable risks to the monks who do the filming and who smuggle out the film. The risk to those hiding cameras is smaller, but still probably viewable as a crime by the Chinese Army. It is my impression that the monks would welcome this risk as worth the benefits of the publicity that would result. This sort of non-violent "bearing witness" is likely to meet with the approval of the Dalai Lama, and hence makes an audience and official approval more likely. (The riots themselves violate the Dalai Lama's non-violent preferences, but cameras only record it after the fact of the violence).

In conclusion, I alter my original recommendations to omit live-camera and other equipment mentioned above. Arrange with monks in Jokhang and Potala to receive and hide (and be trained in the use of) videocamera and photographic camera equipment. During the next riots, the monks will film and photograph as much as possible, and afterwards will smuggle the film (undeveloped) out of Tibet. You should arrange a stable contact in advance; the Tibetan Bureau in Kathmandu or Dharmsala are the obvious choices.

All material copyright 1994 by "Hilfe in Not" and Jesse Gordon.
Reprinting by permission only.


Jesse Gordon, 1770 Mass Ave., #630
Cambridge, MA 02140
Voice mail: (617) 354-2805

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