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Roads into Tibet July 7, 2013

Posted by Jenny in history, travel.
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The Kanchenjunga massif as seen from Darjeeling.

The Kanchenjunga massif as seen from Darjeeling.

I’ve been reading a book* by the travel writer Robert Byron about a journey he made to Tibet in 1933. His theme is the unbridgeable distance that existed at that time between Tibet and the rest of the world.

Byron is best known for The Road to Oxiana, an account of a trip to Persia and Afghanistan in 1937. It has been described as a “sacred text,” and it’s generally regarded as a great work of 20th century travel writing.  What made Byron so special, you might ask? I think it had to do with insights that reached way, way  down to the level of primary experience, the sort of ideas that come to us in dreams rather than conversations.

Byron lived a short life. He was born 1905 and educated at Eton and Oxford, but he was expelled from Oxford for misbehavior. He traveled to the Near East, India, Russia, China, and Tibet. He was killed at the age of 35 in 1941 when his ship, bound for Egypt, was torpedoed by a U-boat off Cape Wrath in Scotland.

Robert Byron

Robert Byron

His trip to Tibet started with a week-long journey to Bombay aboard a series of planes on the newly established British Air Mail service. The length of each hop was extraordinarily short. For instance, after taking off from an aerodrome near London, the first leg took the plane only to Le Bourget airport in Paris, where the passengers landed and had omelettes for lunch. The next hop took them to Switzerland. Byron bounced over Italy, Greece, Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, and Persia before arriving in India. He then made his way overland to Calcutta and met the two friends who’d travel with him to Tibet.

I go into the detail about this first phase of his trip just to point out the contrast with today’s style of air travel. I will say no more!

Byron and his pals had wanted to go to Lhasa and meet with the Dalai Lama, but it proved impossible to obtain permission. By bad luck, they’d been recently preceded by the unsuccessful Hugh Ruttledge expedition to Everest, and the Dalai Lama had been offended by photographs taken by the expedition that depicted Tibetans in a humorous light, for instance a photo of an old hag labelled as “A Tibetan Beauty.”

So their trip ended in Gyantse instead, at that time one of the largest towns in Tibet. They started in Darjeeling and journeyed north through Sikkim, riding undependable ponies on narrow, precipitous paths over desolate mountain passes.

Byron’s description of his first view of Tibet, from the snow-speckled Jelep La Pass, captures the idea of otherness that intrigues me so much.

Here was no gradual transition, no uneventful frontier, but translation, in a single glance, from the world we know to a world that I did not know…. Here was a land where natural coloration, as we understand it, does not apply… From my feet the mountain fell away, sheer down, till the path hid itself underneath, and only reappeared a thousand feet below by the side of a lake, a cold tarn, dark green like a slab of inlaid ice.

He was interested not only in the hallucinatory landscape but in the people, the buildings, the customs. Here is part of a description of what the servants wore in Gyantse:

Each of the women wore the Gyantse headdress—a stiffened arc of red serge, eighteen inches across and fourteen high, heavily studded with corals and speckled turquoises, and bound, from a centre strut, with ribbons of seed-pearls three inches wide…. Round the waist hung a row of large knobs, possibly of wood, strung on thick cord…. One wrist was encircled by a most curious ornament, a huge sea-shell….

Kumbum Gyantse, a building of many colors.

Kumbum Gyantse, a building of fabulous colors.

We have entered a magical kingdom that borrows very little from the outside world.

At the end of the book, a high-ranking Tibetan woman says to Byron, “I love Tibet. If only it had trains or motors, I think it would be the nicest country in the world.” He answers, “But the monks don’t like that sort of thing.” “No,” she sighs. “Some people don’t want to be civilized.”

I tried to sympathize with that sigh. The hardships of travel in Tibet can hardly be expected to appeal to those whose lifelong fate they are. But I could not. For once trains or motors have been introduced, the Tibet that Mary loves will be Tibet no longer. [Mary is the name the English call her by.]

By chance, just as I finished the book, I read an article concerning Tibet in the current issue of The New Yorker (July 8 & 15, 2013). It is about the recent wave of self-immolations by monks and other individuals protesting the subjugation of their country by China. The subject is tragic.

After reviewing the history of China’s interference with Tibet, the author, Jeffrey Bartholet, describes how the Chinese government has adopted a policy of assimilating the Tibetans rather than separating them within their so-called autonomous region. “To promote integration, Beijing has invested heavily in infrastructure, building roads and railways across the Tibetan plateau.”

But it is not the Tibetans who benefit from the infrastructure, Bartholet points out, it is the majority Han Chinese, who will eventually flood Tibet and drown all but a few touristic traces of Tibetan culture. And so the magical kingdom will fade into the past.

* First Russia, Then Tibet. Tauris Parke Paperbacks, New York, 2011. First published 1933.

Passport of Robert Byron from his student days.

Passport of Robert Byron from his student days.



1. Brian R - July 14, 2013

I spent the most eventful month of my life sneaking into Tibet by bicycle from Yunnan. Every day in that extraordinary country is still burned in my memory ten years later. Tibetans are some of the most instantly likeable people I’ve ever met and it’s depressing to think of their culture being crushed under the heel of a budding superpower.

Oddly, Chinese people share the same fascination with Tibet that Westerners have had for generations. Many dream of getting the money and time to visit. A woman who had met the Chinese governor told me how he proudly showed her the beautiful photographs he had taken of Tibetan people and cultural sites. But it is impossible to convince a Chinese Tibetophile that they are occupying or destroying the culture of the place. In fact they’re proud of what they have done there. It’s true they brought far more progress in living standards than the Tibetans could ever have afforded to. You could view it as a vast Chinese money pit. Chinese are taught that prior to their arrival 95% of the people lived in grinding, illiterate poverty in something resembling European serfdom to a few hundred wealthy families. Life expectancy was 30 years. Not entirely untrue, but the same could be said for, say, Peru and Peruvians don’t wish they were a Chinese province. You bring up the destruction of the Cultural Revolution and they argue the “Bad Political Time” was bad for everyone else in China too!

You are right the biggest threat to Tibet is not political persecution but immigration. The towns are Chinese, not Tibetan. Chinese business acumen and drive are legendary and they run circles around Tibetans. They will own and run everything. The kids may dislike the Chinese but have more mixed feelings than their parents and don’t remember when they were blowing up monasteries. They want to speak Chinese, go to college in Beijing, listen to Chinese music. Just like a Navajo kid wants to do the same thing with American culture.

Jenny - July 15, 2013

Not many Americans have the particular experience needed to write anything like the response you just contributed, and certainly very few (if any) people have done what you did in your travels. Thank you very much. I’d never even thought about the perspective of a “Chinese Tibetophile.”
I can believe that in certain respects China has raised living standards for Tibetans. But you are clearly not speaking as an apologist for the Chinese.
In the past, I’d thought of the China – Tibet problem mainly in political terms, the occupation of a one nation by another. But Byron’s book led me to think of it also in terms of Tibet’s former splendid isolation from the rest of the world, its nearly complete separation, which led to the development of a culture so “other” than anything non-Tibetans had experienced. Now unfortunately we can see it as an example of the homogenization of the whole world that has been going on for quite a while now, in which small isolated cultures are largely dissolved into the dominant ones.

2. Brian R - July 16, 2013

“Small isolated cultures are largely dissolved into the dominant ones”. I have a theory that in ten generations the world will consist of only two really distinct cultures. The inhabitants of North Sentinel island in the Indian Ocean and everyone else.


Jenny - July 17, 2013

A brave response to the outside world—but even they have had enough contact to know they don’t want any more of it.

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