Roads into Tibet July 7, 2013Posted by Jenny in history, travel.
Tags: Dalai Lama, First Russia and Then Tibet, Road to Oxiana, Robert Byron, self-immolation, Tibetan clothing, Tibetan independence, Tibetan landscape
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.
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….
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.