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03:30 Sep 30 2011

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My visit to Tibet
10:40, August 05, 2010  

Like so many other people in the West, for a long time I have had a very romantic idea of Tibet as a mystical fantasy land. When, before the Beijing Olympics, somebody asked me what I thought about the riots in Lhasa, I realized I didn't really know anything about the past or the present reality in Tibet! This made me decide to start learning about the history and the current reality in Tibet.

Contrary to the romantic idea prevalent in the West, I learned that before 1959 Tibet had been a feudal, almost medieval society, where serfs were bound to their masters' land and to their accumulating, hereditary debts to the landowners; slaves could be bought and sold and their hands could be lopped off or eyes gauged out for almost any offence against their masters from the small nobility class. There were no schools besides religious teachings in the monasteries and very few people could read or write.

I also learned how Tibet had been used as a geopolitical pawn by foreign powers, especially the United Kingdom, and for destabilization efforts by the CIA during the Cold War.

This summer I finally had a chance to go to Tibet and see the reality with my own eyes.

My first impressions, arriving on the comfortable Qinghai-Tibet train, was that the scenery was very much like Bolivia, a country also at some 3-4.000 meters above the sea level, and which I have known well for over 30 years. Profoundly blue skies, searing sunshine and the solemn emptiness of the high plateau!

But after arriving in Lhasa, I started to see the differences. In Bolivia, from the development point of view, everything is almost as it was when I first arrived there 30 years ago very little has changed in terms of cityscape or the overwhelming poverty of peoples' lives. However, when I arrived at the train station in Lhasa, I was impressed by the new infrastructure that is now linking Tibet to the rest of the world with very modern means of transportation the high-altitude train, and four modern airports in different parts of Tibet.

I was of course in awe to see all the pilgrims in front of the Jokhang Temple prostrate themselves in pilgrimage, and by the imposing Potala Palace that has housed the Dalai Lamas and their secular governments since the 7th century. You could feel the importance of religion to the Tibetan people in so many ways, and in ways I have not seen elsewhere in the world.

I had a chance to talk to some educators in Tibet. I asked them about the language used in primary education, weary of the alleged loss of the Tibetan language in the formal education system. I was told the kids learn three languages: Tibetan, Chinese and English! I had thought my own children were something of a special case, as they have been learning French, Spanish and Finnish since they started schooling, but I realize these Tibetan kids will be as internationally literate as my children are, with all the same opportunities that will provide them in life.

Finally, during our trip to the countryside outside of Lhasa, I had a chance to see many of the new housing programs, sponsored and subsidized by the government. I had to remind myself that in the past many Tibetans did not have a house of their own. Most of the old dwellings included the domestic animals in the same quarters as the family. In one point I could see the old and the new house being built for a family; they were just about to move into the new quarters. What a difference in terms of space, quality of materials and commodities (including separate toilets, sometimes using water to flush)!

Then there was a family of herdsmen; being summer, they were living in their tent (and beside the tent there was a small solar panel for generating electricity enough for hot water, TV, and the lights in the evening), however they told us they already had a fix house in the village, where they would stay during the winter. And best of all: the government is subsidizing 30% of the new housing, which has been built in collaborative efforts by the villagers, and display the characteristics of the traditional Tibetan culture, both in terms of the materials used and the colorful decorations in the main rooms inside.

These houses are very bright, spacious and beautifully decorated. I saw several generations living there together. What I hadn't realized before is that the life expectancy of a Tibetan used to be a mere 35 years – couldn't see so many generations there together in the past – whereas now the life expectancy has doubled to 67 years. This is not only an impressive testament of the improvement of the human rights in Tibet during the past 50 years, but it also provides the old folks the opportunity to tell their grandchildren what life was like in the past. They will pass on the best of the Tibetan culture to their grandchildren, and they will also be able to tell how much life has improved since 1959!

The author is the former United Nations Ambassador to Bolivia.

Source: Global Times


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