Like many last summer my mom was planning a trip to Mount Kailash. At her age, she had to do it sooner than later: The circuit is best done in the year of the horse, which happened to be in 2014. And the lunar horse year comes only once in a twelve-year cycle. So, together with two of her lady friends my mother prepared anxiously for this once-in-a-lifetime, holy trip to maximise on her Karma.
The three ladies are part of a new generation of Tibetan elders: Polyglot, physically fit, socially active and financially well funded too. Active senior citizens ready to explore the world on their own hook. “Grey Panthers” as Westerners call them – Mo trogtro as my partner calls them jokingly. The only unknown in the project: Would our "fancy grannies" receive the green light from China?
As usual it was a lot of waiting and hoping for the China visa and more specifically the Tibet permit to come through. No Tibet permit, no Kailash.
There were ominous signs from the beginning. In May my uncle in Lhasa confided over the phone that they had sealed off the mountain due to the rush of pilgrims and tourists. Several large Indian groups were also cancelled, media reported. Whatever the reasons, we could only wait and see, make calls from time to time and work on alternative plans in case the permit didn't come through. Hope dies last.
By experience from earlier trips, inauspicious signs should never be a reason for discouragement. During my mom's previous visa application two years earlier a gruesome self-immolation had taken place in front of the Jokhang in Lhasa. As a consequence, they sealed off the Autonomous Region even for Tibetans from the outlying areas. I thought, "That's it, Amala, if people from Tibetan areas outside the TAR can't get into Lhasa, you as someone from overseas can definitely forget your Tibet permit."
But miraculously she got it at the very last minute, just a few days before her scheduled departure. The price of her flight ticket had nearly doubled by then. But my mother had learned to remain flexible and detached when dealing with the Chinese. They are experts in teaching people a lesson in patience and anger management.
She was hoping for a similar unexpected green light this time around. China doesn't make it easy on Tibetans. Even on harmless grannies with no political agenda. Last time although my mother had the proper China visa stamp saying "is allowed to enter the Tibet autonomous region", they still stopped her for several hours at Gongkar airport asking for the notorious "Tibet permit". It’s a requirement that is regularly written off and equally regularly makes a comeback most often in spring when everyone gets ready to go Tibet. In the meantime her brother in Lhasa ran from one department to the next to plead for their help with the airport officials.
Getting to Lhasa and Mount Kailash last summer was not only difficult for overseas Tibetans, but also for those living in the Tibetan areas outside the Autonomous Region like my cousins in far east Kham. Beijing-based writer Woeser also discussed the surreal situation in a recent article. If my cousins wanted to accompany my mom on this pilgrimage, they too had to apply for a permit. In their case, issued by the local authorities in Ngari, where Mount Kailash is located. The Chinese overlords are paranoid about Tibetans from outlying areas visiting Lhasa. Each and every one of them is seen as a potential self-immolator.
Meanwhile Lhasans had their passports revoked just so nobody accidentally crossed the border to attend the Kalachakra teachings by the Dalai Lama in Ladakh. The only ones, who are free to enter and exit the Tibetan areas as they please, are Chinese tourists. Pure cynicism.
Finally a confirmation came: Lhasa to be closed until July-end. At least some concrete word despite the disappointment. In addition to being nontransparent, they always wait until the last minute to let the cat out of the bag. We know their tactics however and instinctively prepare for all eventualities. The process to receive a visa for China and Tibet can become surreal for Tibetans living abroad. We only survive the madness because over the years we have come to look at it as some kind of sport taking it with gallows humor. Each time the process is a little bit different. The sporty part is to anticipate as much as possible and prepare a matching reaction from our side. So if Kailash and the Tibet Autonomous Region are closed, we go to another Tibetan place that is open. Even they can’t close down the whole country. With every application we grow more hard-nosed. But you can't win all the time. We learned that too.
An article in the China Daily of 8th December 2014 painted a totally different picture of the Kailash situation. The headline read: "Tibet welcomes tourists to holy mountain, lake", and said the Ngari Prefecture "is opening its arms wide to foreign visitors". – What a travesty! - They reported 470’000 visitors to Kailash, a 50 % increase from the previous year. And the TAR on the whole, the article said, received 12,8 million visitors in 2014. But of these only roughly 2 % or 256’000 were foreigners. That’s an incredibly low number given the official fanfare. The data suggests to me that the tourist welcome is a façade. In practice, foreign visitors are not welcome at all. The most telling figure therefore would be how many applications from foreign passport holders they received and rejected in 2014. But this story remains untold.
Some time back I had a meeting with a lady who does field research on Tibetan medicine in Amdo. We exchanged our experiences of working in Tibetan areas and specifically the challenges faced from authorities and ways to deal with them. Annual renewal of your work permit for example could become a little odyssey as my partner regularly experiences. Totally unexpected, I learned that she, like other academics, were now going to Tibetan areas on tourist visas, working "undercover" so to speak. She said the prospect of receiving a research permit was nil and that even some of the better-known Tibetologists whom the exiles usually view as pro-Chinese, could not obtain it. Well, at least the Chinese give everyone a hard time in obtaining permits and not just Tibetan Molas!
The Tibetan visa officer at the Chinese embassy instructed us to get in touch with the nelenkhang in my dad's Tibetan hometown for help with the Tibet permit. There was nothing else he could do to speed up the process from his end, he said.
This term for the office that handles entry permits for Tibetan expats has a misleadingly warm and welcoming flavour in Tibetan - which is actually the greatest hoax in all this: Your friendly "reception office" is the very unit known in Chinese as the Tongzhanbu and has an unmistakably martial taste to it. It literally means the "together-fight-office". The English "United Front" sounds equally belligerent. If you look for warm hospitality, look some place else. My experience of the Nelenkhang is that they do anything in their might to ward you off rather than “receiving” you with open arms. But what can you do? They have all the power. You have none.
My mom’s Tibet permit still wasn’t out when the departure date arrived. So she pragmatically took the regular China visa and headed straight into the lion's den: First Shanghai, then Suzhou and third Hong Kong. Then she made a pilgrimage to Mount Emei near Chengdu in Sichuan. It is associated with Shantideva aka Shiwa-lha in Tibetan and is one of four famous Buddhist peaks in China. Pilgrimage at my mom's age is always a good idea, is it not? And getting to know China better, although not a top priority, is a good use of time until the Tibet permit is processed.
Next she toured Wutai Shan in Shanxi, another famous Buddhist peak. Known in Tibetan as rgyanag riwo tsenga, the mountain is associated with Manjushri and even our ageing Dalai Lama in India repeatedly expresses his wish to visit the peak. But unlike my mom he has not been let in and it doesn’t look like he will be allowed to enter any time soon. Sometimes it pays off to be just an untitled average soul.
Last but not least, when the permit still hadn’t come through, my mom went to Jizu Shan, yet another holy Buddhist peak located in Yunnan. The Chicken Foot Mountain, riwo jakang in Tibetan, famous site where Kashyapa, one of the Buddha's disciples, meditated and eventually gained enlightenment.
That was a whole lot of mountain touring my mom did in China. But still no news on the Tibet permit. Without it there was no way of getting to Kailash. Being patient my mother then turned her attention to Labrang and Kumbum, the two largest Tibetan monasteries of Amdo. She was not impressed with the local food. The “pulled noodles soup” Thenthuk served everywhere, which is usually popular among all Tibetans, was an indefinable Gulash with everything thrown in the cook could get his hands on. But she was full of praise of how neat and well run the monasteries were and how the monks seemed so disciplined and devoted – unlike in some areas in Kham she knew well.
Although you do not need an additional permit for the Tibetan areas of Qinghai and Gansu, the region displays the inevitable signs of anomaly that have become so typical of the Tibetan areas under China. My cousin from Kham, who acted as their guide, had to separate from my mom and her friends and stay at a different hotel. The official explanation was that foreign guests had to be given better quality accommodation. The unofficial explanation was Tibetans could suddenly self-immolate and they don’t want people from overseas creating a fuss.
Eventually September came and went. My brave mother had been holding out patiently for three long months outside the gates of the Tibet Autonomous Region. When the bureaucrats in Lhasa finally told us over the phone that “the permit will definitely come out next month", my mom had grown tired of all the waiting and empty promises. So in the end Kailash for her didn't materialise. It was the year of the horse, considered most auspicious for a circumambulation, and her own Tibetan sign also happens to be the horse. Maybe it was just too good to be true?
My Amala’s disappointment faded quickly. She experienced Amdo culture and was able to visit Labrang and Kumbum. Would she have had the opportunity had she gone to Lhasa instead? Most expat Tibetans, if they get to visit, are on a tight schedule and focus on their hometown. They are unlikely to experience other parts of the highlands.
She also got to do pilgrimages to famous Buddhist peaks in China, that's precious too. Of course the irony is not lost on her. While she is free to tour the mountains in China as much as she likes and until her feet hurt, she cannot set a single foot to a mountain in Tibet. That’s the bizarre situation.
With the right mindset, however, her pilgrimage tours in China can become as meritorious as circumambulating Kailash. My mother knows that. And she also knows it won’t be her last trip. As long as the doctor doesn’t advise her to avoid travelling in high altitude, she will make another attempt to get to Kailash, that's for sure. Let’s see who wins the next round.
It looks like the Tibetans’ fate that those who live outside have trouble getting in and those who live inside have trouble getting out. More recently, internal mobility for Tibetans has been throttled further. People are now doomed to stay put, doomed to immobility or forced to find other ways and means. This year my little family is planning a trip to Tibet. I get stomach cramps when I think of the visa work ahead. Still we end up making the attempt because the reward is worth the effort.
When I saw my mother emerging from the airport gate, she was as light-footed as a young girl pulling a set of brand-new fancy wheeled suitcases. She didn't buy them in Shanghai as I suspected but had someone in my dad’s hometown order them for her on Taobao, the Chinese E-Bay.
"Much cheaper, everyone orders online," she announced triumphantly.
That's my old lady, such a bragger. I love every piece of normalcy coming out of Tibet even if it's as trivial as online shopping or fancy air-travel gear. And I love cheeky Tibetan Molas who surprise you with their wits.
Mountain Phoenix Over Tibet