Tibet: Not Just for Olympic-Themed Protests

Getty Images
Getty Images

Activity in the Barkhor, a vibrant and bustling area in Lhasa, courses steady and strong like blood running through veins. I, on the other hand, needed red blood cells, any red blood cells, during my travels there. At 12,000 feet above sea level, the decreased oxygen in the air left me feeling car sick, hung over, jet lagged and pregnant all at once. Every morning I said a prayer before putting my feet on the floor, for God, Buddha, Somebody, Anybody, to remove the headache, nausea and chronic fatigue that left my heart dribbling after climbing just half a flight of stairs. That same fatigue and sickness dogged me every day, like a school bully. But perhaps the energy of the place was meant to compensate for my weakness.


Tibet has been a hot topic over the past several weeks, as American eyes have gazed eastward for the Olympics. Talk of Tibet has been primarily political, as activists have seized the moment to trumpet the cause of greater Tibetan autonomy from its political rulers in Beijing. From appeals by top-tier athletes to Facebook groups organizing candlelight vigils, the Olympic platform is increasing interest in all things Tibet. African Americans should not miss out on this call to explore the region—be it intellectually from afar, or physically and spiritually from its streets, markets and temples.

As black travelers increasingly look to Asia for work, study and play, Tibet is not to be missed. The Central Asian plateau (the highest in the world), surrounded by India, Nepal, Burma, Bhutan and China's southwest provinces, offers an intoxicating array of cultural experiences, that may in many ways, feel surprisingly welcoming and familiar. An ideal place to begin to soak in the culture is Lhasa, Tibet's capital, which is considered sacred by Tibetan Buddhists. Once in Lhasa, the Barkhor beckons.

Both a thriving market and a holy pilgrimage circuit, the Barkhor brings together the essential elements of Tibetan culture. The market forms a web over the nearby Jokhang temple. Pilgrims flow counterclockwise.

As I watched a family of four in matching burgundy robes stride by, I wondered how many times the four little legs that belonged to the two small children would circle Jokhang temple before conquering the next. An old woman marched alone, chanting softly and spinning a handheld prayer wheel—a metal cylindrical object about the size and shape of a pop can, held up with a spindle. The spinning motion released her prayers. Nearby, a handful of temple goers dropped to the ground, prostrating themselves in total reverence. Sporadically, they stood up, just to fall again.

In a less congested part of the Barkhor, a group of middle-aged men played what must be the Tibetan equivalent to dominoes. They cackled upon slapping the pieces on the ground. Pow!

"It should go without saying, that in my travels around Tibet, I did not encounter any women who looked like me. Many long-term expatriates seek a sort of China-cred by exploring Tibet, but I never planned to visit the region. The buzz generated by the installation of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, which made direct travel between Beijing and Lhasa possible, ultimately convinced me to add it to my itinerary last year. I came to love long train rides through China, so the 48-hour journey each way felt inviting. I booked my ticket and added a week-long Tibetan excursion last November to my travels."


Given Tibet's remoteness, I expected the same sort of gawking curiosity I often experienced when traveling through mainland China—a combination of giddiness and trepidation that one might feel upon encountering an oddity like a bearded lady or a lion-boy. But in Tibet, the faces of pedestrians who encountered me brightened warmly, as though I was an unexpected, but welcomed gift.

What surprised me most about Tibet is the visible connection ethnic Tibetans have with their culture. It seeps out onto the streets of Lhasa in their clothing, language and religion. I stopped counting people wearing traditional clothing or walking the streets praying and spinning prayer wheels or the men who weave red thread through the braid spread on top of their heads. Many women wear their hair in "African" style braids. That same cultural exuberance and yearning glimpsed in people's actions and appearance on the streets was apparent in the taxi driver's voice when he asked, upon learning that I was American, if I had ever met the Dalai Lama. I could taste it in every mouthful of yak dumplings, yak noodle soup and yak butter tea.


After living in Beijing for over five years, where evidence of such deep cultural bonds have, too often, been swept away in waves of economic progress—the cultural reverence of the Tibetans was especially glaring.

The western province, once a sovereign nation, has battled China's attempts to dominate it for centuries. Still, the Tibetan desire for self-determination feels as strong as ever. Frustrations erupted in a series of riots and protests this spring in Lhasa and around the Tibetan Diaspora. In many instances Han Chinese (China's ethnic majority) and their businesses were the targets of attacks.


Increasing economic development in Tibet, even tourism, does not necessarily trickle down to ethnic Tibetans. Experts estimate that over 70 percent of Tibetan handicrafts purchased in places like the Barkhor are not made by Tibetan craftsmen, but by manufacturers in India, Nepal and mainland China. With their ability to mass produce, these outsiders can flood the Tibetan market with their cheaper, often poorer quality goods.

In response, some local artisans have decided to work with international organizations and entrepreneurs, such as the Tibet Artisan Initiative, the Shambhala Foundation or Torana Galleries, to increase the quality and value of their work. I made a point to seek out traditional artisans in authentic shops during my stay, and I was able to watch local craftspeople tailoring patchwork aprons for traditionally clad dolls or weaving intricately patterned scarves on a loom. But the artisans know that no matter how beautiful or innovative their creations are, they run the risk of being copied.


The Shambhala Foundation discovered this the hard way. Their artisans reproduced antique-style doors to decorate the walls of the House of Shambhala in Lhasa. Guests began inquiring how to take these pieces of their rooms home with them. In response, Shambhala began selling them in its shop. Soon, copycat versions started popping up. The doors became so ubiquitous that it was no longer profitable to sell them. The Shambhala Foundation credits itself for reviving a lost art form, but the Tibetan artisans they empowered got wiped off the market by the very trend that they started.

The experience of creating and shaping a cultural expression only to have it appropriated by the dominant culture is a storyline all too familiar to many African Americans. There is much about the ethnic Tibetan milieu, the struggle to maintain its rich cultural heritage while expanding economic opportunity and political influence for its people, which should make Tibet a high-priority stop on the intrepid black traveler's itinerary.


Ashleigh Braggs is a writer who lived in Beijing for over five years.