Tibet is known as the Land of Snows, the roof of the world. For centuries this mysterious Buddhist kingdom, locked away in its mountain fastness of the Himalaya, has exercised a unique hold on the imagination of the West. For explorers, imperialists and traders it was a forbidden land of treasure and riches. Dreamers on a spiritual quest have long whispered of a lost Shangri-la, steeped in magic and mystery. When the doors were finally flung open in the mid-1980s, Tibet lay in ruins. Between 1950 and 1970, the Chinese wrested control of the plateau, drove the Tibetans’ spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and some 100,000 of Tibet’s finest into exile and systematically dismantled most of the Tibetan cultural and historical heritage, all in the name of revolution. For a while images of the Buddha were replaced by icons of Chairman Mao. Today, Tibetan pilgrims across the country are once again mumbling mantras and swinging their prayer wheels in temples that are heavy with the thick intoxicating aroma of juniper incense and yak butter. Monasteries have been restored across the country, along with limited religious freedoms. For this leg of I am reading “A Year in Tibet” by Sun Shuyun, an account of a year spent in the remote town of Gyantse filming for a BBC television series…
On a remote plain in the mountains of Tibet, an extraordinary ritual unfolds. A team of men are cutting up the body of the local blacksmith and feeding the bits to the gathering vultures. This is known as a “sky burial” and it is being observed, through binoculars, by a Chinese filmmaker and writer, Sun Shuyun. When the men began to sing as they worked, she feels horrified. Then she realises that “for them death is not the point… they are charged now with helping the soul on its journey”.
This is just one of the arresting vignettes in a fascinating account of the year that the author and a film crew spent in a village in a remote corner of Tibet. The book is far more than a thin spin-off of the television series which aired on BBC4 (the sky burial, for instance, was not filmed). Sun Shuyun, who studied Tibetan at Oxford, uses it to chart a much more personal and sometimes painful journey.
When she was a child, she was told by her father, an ardent Maoist, that “Tibet was a barbarous land where men drank blood”. She preferred to imagine it as a Shangri-La. The reality was that a gentle and ancient culture, founded on Buddhism, was being systematically destroyed by the great god Communism. The legacy of that struggle is all too familiar. In a poignant scene, Sun Shuyun is upset – but not surprised – when the owner of a pizza parlour shouts at her to “get lost” and go back to China.
Her book focuses on a less familiar story: despite oppression (mere mention of the Dalai Lama is an imprisonable offence), ancient ways are surviving and superstition, in a range of deities, persists. Polyandrous marriages (several husbands to one wife) are common and the local shaman, who works “as an intermediary between the known and the unknown”, is called “hailstone lama” because he is believed to have the power to stop the hail falling and ruining the harvest. (The Chinese pooh-pooh such primitivism and fire an anti-aircraft gun to disperse the hail clouds.)
Shuyun admits that her book allows her to be much more nuanced and detailed than films can. Presumably she is freer to speak her mind in print now that she is out of Tibet, so she does discuss the Panchen Lama in greater detail than in the programme, as well as broader concerns such as poverty and the appalling standard of healthcare available to Tibetan communities; prohibitively expensive for the majority who are subsistence farmers, wrenching a living from the high-altitude arable land that makes up less than 1 per cent of Tibet's territory.
Precisely because of her anthropological bent, Shuyun only discusses these things in as much as they are relevant to the families she spent the year following: a shaman and his family, monks at Gyantse monastery, a very poor rickshaw driver, a Communist party worker, a builder, a doctor and a hotel manager. When the shaman is asked to assess a couple's suitability for marriage, Shuyun learns that the bride will only be told she is getting married on her wedding day and that she will probably have to marry the groom's school-age younger brother because traditionally most Tibetan brothers share their wives in a very literal fashion. So it is only then that she writes about the paradoxical status of women in Tibet, as both revered and as chattels.
All this takes place in a beautiful but implacable environment. Seeing a group of villagers as specks in the vast landscape of mountain and plain, the author asks herself: “Is it any wonder they have so many gods?” No, Tibet is not Shangri-la – too much poverty, tension and oppression for that. “But it is extraordinary, it is spectacular and it is unique.”
From Tibet I move into the heartland of China, travelling to the small (population 200,000) city of Fuling in the Chongqing province. The vastness of China becomes apparent in this trip which takes over three days on various trains.
The first leg of the journey involves a five hour road journey from Gyantse to Lhasa, the main city of Tibet with a hired driver. I alight at Lhasa rail station ready to board the 9.40am train to Chongqing. I should note that the Chinese state-owned train station does not sell its tickets on the Internet and, as it is virtually impossible to purchase train tickets in local train ticket office in peak travel season, it is wise to book your train ticket with a reputable travel agencies in advance.
As the train to Chongqing will be my home for the next three days I decide to fork out the extra cash for a ‘soft sleeper’ at 11658 yen (around $195 US). The ‘soft sleepers’ provide a little more privacy with carriage of four bunks with reasonably comfortable beds, and a lockable door – as opposed to the ‘hard sleepers’ which carry eighteen people.
Whilst there is a pleasant enough restaurant car on the train for forty to fifty passengers where one can enjoy the beautiful scenery along Qinghai Tibet Railway whilst having lunch or breakfast or dinner; other amenities are more basic.
There is no private bath room on the train, and the passengers share two bathrooms with a sink on each carriage, though these are cleaned regularly (be warned – toilet paper is not provided!). There are also no showers.
It is therefore with some relief that I alight three days later in Chogqing at 8.33 in the morning. There is little respite however as the onward train from Chogqing North Railway station leaves for Fuling at 10.25am, though mercifully it is only a forty minute journey and I arrive at my next destination of Fuling, courtesy of “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze” by Peter Hessler, at 11.06 in the morning.