Tibet Foundation

The Changing Face of Tibet: Modernity and Tradition in the Himalayas

Aug 5, 2013

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A personal observation by Phuntsog Wangyal

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I travelled for one month with Madhu and Tsekyi through Tibet - from the rolling grasslands of Kandze in Sichuan province in the east to the soaring peaks of Ngari (Ali) in the Tibet Autonomous Region in the west. It sounds like a long journey, but the Tibetan Plateau is both remote and vast. Going through this enormous area one cannot help but feel a sense, an experience, of change; a transformation from old to new, from moderation to modernity. The people are certainly going through a period of anxiety – from losing the old but to not yet getting enough of the new, unable to fulfil the high expectations they were inspired to achieve.

Tibetans by and large still have strong faith in religion and their lamas, especially His Holiness the Dalai Lama. They would like to follow their traditions as they have done for countless ages. But the transition from the rule of religion to the rule of the secular state, from a simple way of life in their isolated communities to a fast advancing economy on the global stage, has brought a lot of unexpected changes in their life. However much one wishes to preserve the old, it is inevitable that the new will replace the traditional. 

All the changes were not necessarily imposed by the state but many were caused by circumstances and practical realities. A good example is education. There has been an improvement in the standard of education, although mostly in a secular way.  Yet this, too, has an impact on how people choose to direct their way of life. A very large number of children from traditional homes in nomad and farming communities have received education and are exposed to other ways of life in the rest of the world. A farmer told me, “Some educated young people get jobs in the government but many do not. Those left out would not like to go back to the hard life of farming but choose other alternatives – sadly very often ending up working in towns and cities as labourers. Tibet, largely a community of nomads and farmers, will soon face a shortage of such people.”  I myself came from a farming community and I observed many I knew who no longer cultivated their farms, whose children preferred eating rice and noodles rather than tsampa and butter tea. I often found that the expectations of modernity overtook what could actually be achieved.

Changes and developments are by no means the same in all areas. There is a great disparity between urban and rural areas and the gap between rich and poor seems to be growing. It is not uncommon for a large number of city dwellers, like those in Lhasa, to own large houses in two or three different towns and have the luxury of driving expensive cars, using costly mobile phones and having servants at home. It is mainly in towns and cities where most of the development projects take place. Apart from introducing new skills in cottage industries such as growing fruit and vegetables, opening guesthouses and restaurants, setting up small factories producing Tibetan incense and tsampa, as well as providing Tibetan cultural souvenirs for tourists, there is not much one can do to develop any kind of industry in rural areas in Tibet.

This trip also witnessed my first journey by train to Lhasa – an exceptional experience and truly a symbol of modernisation in a remote area such as Tibet’s mountainous terrain on the roof of the world. The train to Lhasa was popular with the passengers who were mostly tourists from Mainland China, joined by only a couple of Westerners and Tibetans including myself.  Compartments were clean and comfortable on the smooth and inspiring journey onto the roof of the world, with standards of travel parallel to those of any highly developed nation. I particularly enjoyed details such as the instructions written in three languages -Tibetan, Chinese and English - throughout the train, and the availability of additional oxygen should anyone need it at high altitude on the journey. I was particularly impressed by improvements made in transport facilities all over the country right up to the Indian border region of Ladakh in the west, and with the overall communication network. Since my last visit two years ago much progress has been made with the economic situation. The standard of living and education have greatly improved.

All of the people we met, both monastic and lay, acknowledged that they receive “massive” economic support from the government – free education and food for all students in the state-run schools up to the middle school in Kandze and Yushu prefectures, and up to high school level in the Tibet Autonomous Region, as well as “massive financial benefits” for monasteries including free medical care for all resident monks and renovation of their temples and libraries.  But one gets the impression that something is distinctly missing which modernity cannot offer. Perhaps that ‘something’ is much more of a spiritual or psychological dissatisfaction, a feeling of humiliation and loss of self-esteem on the one hand and a fear of losing control on the other. The psychological and emotional impact of ‘revolutionary’ change is very often ignored or even dismissed as a harmful distraction from the cherished goals of those who are in power. What is needed to ease the tension and frustration existing today is a really open, sincere discussion to settle differences.

It does seem that in the last twenty years the governments, both central and local, have invested a lot of money and brought modernisation into Tibetan areas. Many people have benefited and become wealthier, but more and more people in rural areas are dependent on government support. Unless an effort is made to invest money in such a way that the people become self-reliant, at some point there is every danger that they will become permanently dependent on the state.

In a fast changing world lots of misunderstandings occur between planning at the higher level and the management and execution of the plans on the ground. Some examples of this are the building of new houses for nomads in the wrong places and planting thorny bushes in barley fields for the farmers. We were told that construction companies received contracts to build houses for the nomads and local governments to plant trees for the farming communities.  They then built houses in such places where it is easy to build with minimum cost and maximum profit and easy to show results to local inspectors. How the nomads are going to use the houses or how barley fields are being destroyed is not a concern for the companies. With more consultation with the local population and better understanding of the needs of the people many of the existing problems could be resolved and the people would be much happier. I raised these questions with the authorities in my meetings both in Lhasa and Beijing during the visit.

Everywhere we went people seemed to be happy enough and busy with their normal activities.  Yet there is substantial surveillance and presence of security personnel everywhere in the Tibet Autonomous Region, particularly in Lhasa. Lots of travel restrictions were put on local people going from one place to another which, given the circumstances, were quite unnecessary. I was pleased to hear that at the final meeting in Lhasa on 28th June, Mr Sonam Rinzin, the Deputy Chairman of the Political Consultative Committee of the TAR and the head of the government delegation responded to my observations during our farewell reception by saying that some of the restrictions would be removed from the 1st of July.

Just before leaving we had a meeting in Beijing with Mr Sithar, head of the 7th Bureau (Tibetan affairs) of the United Front Work Department and his colleagues when I had the opportunity to both thank him for his warm reception and support given to us at all levels and to express my personal observations during my one-month visit to Tibetan areas. In his comments Mr Sithar said, “China is a big country and there are always areas where improvement is needed. In the past thirty years the aim was for development with high production. We achieved that. We are now making every effort to pursue our government’s current policy of development that is scientific, environmentally friendly and beneficial to the people. We welcome you and those Tibetans who live abroad to visit Tibet.”

During a journey to Mount Kailash, Sean Jones, a long standing supporter and an advisor to Tibet Foundation, kindly donated on behalf of the Foundation some money to renovate a Buddhist stupa at the gateway to Mount Kailash.  Sean wrote, “When I was there with Brian Beresford in 1986 it was a pile of rubble. It is a gateway stupa, pilgrims walk through the gate to enter the western valley and Tibetans said it was the beginning of the Korra. John Snelling in ‘The Sacred Mountain’ mentioned it as having been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but there was a photo of it in his book before this had happened. When Brian and I were leaving I had some spare money so we gave it to Choying Dorje to rebuild this stupa and he did it, with more elaboration on the top than before. Before, it had a flat top.”

In June 2013 the same stupa is still standing in good shape and beautifully framed in front of the sacred mountain high on the Himalayan expanse. It is now covered with prayer flags and pilgrims are no longer able to walk through the gate but go round it to continue their pilgrimage. It was my great pleasure to see the stupa in such good condition, well looked after by the local people to this day. We put up some Foundation prayer flags to mark its 27th anniversary.

In the same area at Dharchen in Ngari, late Tulku Tenzin Wangduck set up the first Tibetan medical school in Ngari. That was the first Aid to Tibet project in the Tibet Autonomous Region which the Foundation had carried out, giving seed money during its construction in early 1993.  The medical school was later supported by a Tibetan charity in Switzerland.

It was my first visit to Western Tibet; and I enjoyed the majestic scenery of Mount Kailash and Manasarovar Lake, and felt inspired by the richness of the traditional art on the walls of the ancient temples as well as the impermanence of existence reflected in the ruins of the castles in the Guge Kingdom. I’d never thought that I would see them. It was like a dream come true – auspicious and giving a sense of profound satisfaction.

The main purpose of my visit was to see the Tibet Foundation projects in Kandze and Sershul in Sichuan province and Yushu in Qinghai province. The Gyalten School in Kandze that started in the early 1990s with just 80 students accommodated in simple houses has become a large school with 423 pupils in modern buildings and dormitories for both girls and boys. Many of the students from the Gyalten School have achieved excellence in university and become professionals in the government, and some have been working very successfully for the public and private sectors. During our visit students staged a colourful folk performance, wearing some of the dance costumes donated by the Foundation.

The Sershul County Hospital that received support from Tibet Foundation after the snow disaster in 1995 has now become a model Tibetan hospital providing excellent health services to the local people. Many of those who received medical training from the Foundation with EU funding have now become good local doctors and health professionals. Many of the nomads and elderly people who received support with yaks from the Foundation have become self-supporting.

The rebuilding of the Yushu Tibetan Hospital after the earthquake in 2010 is almost complete and is operational. We met some of the students who had received further medical training in the past two years and those who’d just returned from specialist technical training in Xining. They have benefited from the training and are happy serving their own local communities. A third medical training course for 36 doctors and health workers is scheduled to start in September this year with support from the Foundation. Tsewang Gyatso, the head of the hospital, presented a banner to the Foundation with thanks from the Yushu Tibetan hospital and the people of Yushu for the help given by the Foundation.

We visited the Kyegudo monastery that is presently being rebuilt. Once completed this monastery of the Sakya tradition will become one of the main monasteries in Yushu. Apart from the hospital and the monastery we could see thousands of new houses for both public and private residents rebuilt largely with help from the government.

I also met some of the students supported by individual donors of Tibet Foundation. One of them is a young girl from a poor family who started her education in the Gyalten School and is now studying in the Northwest University for Nationalities in Lanzhou in Gansu province to become a Tibetan language teacher in her local community. In the coming year we would like to be able to sponsor two more students to study in universities in China. It costs just £1,500 per student per year - good value for money compared with what it costs here in the UK.

I was very pleased to see the progress made and the good results achieved in our projects. Credit goes to the dedicated members of the Foundation for their generosity and those in the field who gave their full cooperation to getting the job done well. Our contribution is very small compared to what the people need and to what the government is giving. But I assure you that local people are very grateful and highly appreciative of the effort being made by those of us living abroad.

There will be more information about this visit in the forthcoming Tibet Foundation Newsletter. I hope you enjoy the photos from our visit presented in the gallery below.

Phuntsog Wangyal

Photos were taken by Madhu Modha and Lobsang Tsekyi for Tibet Foundation