Sunday, July 1, 2012

The "Visard" Of Oz

It’s that time of the year again when Tibetans run into each other at the Chinese embassy. Not proudly in front of the building in order to demonstrate but embarrassingly inside the building to apply for a visa to Tibet. - Welcome to hell. For a Tibetan born free this is probably one of the more humiliating tasks to go through in life: Dealing with the brutal reality that we lost control of our country and others now pull the strings. Not my hour of glory.

If you don't go to Tibet then that's that. But if you do then there is no way to avoid the ordeal. 

I thought I could spare myself the humiliating trip to the Chinese embassy this year because we decided to spend our summer family vacation elsewhere. But when my mom declared all of a sudden that she had to see Lhasa one last time before she would be too old to travel, that’s when I knew I had to make the cursed trip into the lion’s den.

Time to dig out the invisible armour.

It helps protect your mental sanity because when you wear it nothing will get to you and when you take it off, you are again at peace with yourself. The invisible armour is built from nerves of steel, Buddhist “egolessness”, and the single-minded focus of an archer. Wearing the armour you are less prone to become impatient, take things personally or forget your goal in a dash of anger.

Where can one find such an invisible armour?

I saw people in Tibet wear it. It seems they are keenly aware that each time they have to deal with the authorities they are in a disadvantaged position by default and so they always stay focused on what they actually want to achieve from an interaction. Whether it is obtaining an ID, a driver’s licence, a marriage certificate, just any kind of credentials: They try their best to skillfully manoeuver around corrupt officials and the bureaucratic cliffs and whirls because that is the only way they can hope to come closer to their goal.

It took a while until I could recognise it. But after I caught a glimpse of the invisible armour, I tried to put it on when the situation required it. Applying for a visa to Tibet at the Chinese embassy was such a situation. It was one of the biggest challenges. The armour wouldn’t fit from the start. After a while though, it felt less awkward.

Humor helps too.

If Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”, which I loved watching as a child, had her pair of sparkling red shoes that would carry her home to Kansas, I had the invisible armour that would help me get to Tibet. And while Dorothy had to battle a mean, green-faced witch, I had to overcome miserable bureaucrats and weird procedures. It was “Mountain Phoenix in the Visard of Oz" :--)

Chinese consulates and embassies in areas with a larger Tibetan population sometimes have a special officer attached to the visa section who specifically deals with applications from people of Tibetan descent. This officer is usually not part of the foreign relations department but from an internal office called “United Front” or Tongzhanbu. They are in charge of “overseas Tibetans” even when the latter are bona fide citizens of a third country. 

This time, when the clerk finally showed up, a young Asian man leapfrogged me. I clearly heard him say in Tibetan: “Gen-la, I brought a gift.” Then the clerk noticed me standing behind the youngster and so he waved both of us to the back door.

While we were made to wait again in another room, I said I hoped to receive a visa for Lhasa. The youngster said he wanted to go to Dege and visit his parents. Then he fumbled in his pocket, which made me offer him a pen. I thought he wanted to fill in the empty visa form before him. But to my surprise the Degewa said: “I can’t write. I have to ask him to fill in the form for me.”

Poor fellow!

Maybe he already made a trip here and was sent back to get a gift for the extra work? The travel document I saw lying on the table when we both entered the room, was it his? Uneducated, nyamchung Tibetans were at a higher risk to be exploited by corrupt officials.

With his hair dyed pitch-black and styled in Kunga manner, the Degewa reminded me a lot of the lads back in my hometown. Some tried to obtain identity cards which they needed to buy domestic flight tickets. The police told them to come the next day since they were busy. They marched miles back to their village. On the second day, they were told that the machine producing the ID cards was broken and they didn’t know when the person to fix it would get in. On the third day, when they brought fresh butter, cheese and eggs, the machine was miraculously working again.

My only comforting thought with regard to the young man was that he probably was “street-smart” and experienced in dealing with corrupt officials from back in Dege. He would certainly manage to get his permit even if he couldn't read or write and didn’t have proper papers.

Make sure you have your relatives’ contact details down, best of all in Chinese or Pinyin. Their names and address, their profession, their work place - add it even when they are retired – and list a telephone number so the local office at the other end can contact them to verify the information you hand in over here. Use an extra sheet if the form provides insufficient space.

It is also a good idea to ensure the family members you are hoping to visit, can be reached by phone on the day you are in the embassy. In case the bureaucrat asks you a question about them you’re unable to answer, you can ring them up right then and there in his very presence and get the required information first-hand. I sometimes also get asked irrelevant stuff in the style of: "What's your relative’s uncle’s friend’s daughter’s second child’s name? One phone call and I can tell him: "Dolma Yangkyi!” – A waltz! Et voilĂ  jack-in-office, eat this!

Relief: There were no formal issues with my mom’s application. It was graciously deemed “complete”. Now started the real anxiety: Will she get a visa for Lhasa or not? When will they let us know? 

Since the visa procedure for Tibetans can be intransparent, it is up to you to try and figure out where your application stands. Pull out all the stops you have. I learned the hard way. Once I didn’t get a permit on time because the dork never forwarded my application. Laziness? Oversight? Evil intention? Just acting important at my cost? Maybe a hint to bring a “gift” and I didn’t get it?  I’ll never know but here’s the lesson learned:

When you don’t hear back from the embassy within two weeks, ring your relatives in Tibet and ask whether they were contacted by the local United Front. If they have, the process is on its way. If they haven’t, ring the clerk without delay and ask in a friendly manner where your application stands, adding an innocent “it seems like the local office hasn’t received the request”. Remind him of the planned departure date. It’s advisable to give him an earlier date than planned. Don’t give in to your impulse to complain about how slow the process is. Keep up the farce.

For people who aren’t used to this kind of culture this is probably the hardest part: To play along and jump through hoops. Often it took me a month and longer, multiple calls and at least three trips to get a permit. That's if I was lucky. If I was unlucky, it took even longer, more calls and I still wouldn’t get it. Don't forget you wear the armour.

On my way out from the embassy I crossed a group of Tibetans. They looked like they just recently came from Tibet. We waved a friendly “hello” to each other. There was no time to exchange a few words as I was already on the phone with my mom’s relatives in Lhasa. They said things were especially dampo as a consequence of the Kalachakra in India last winter and that they believe I’d better not “insist” (udzugs ma brgyab) if they wouldn’t give me the permit. – What a funny thought! As if there was a way to insist!

Leaving a bad impression could backfire on your relatives and result in rejection of future visa requests so it would never occur to me to insist :--) The internal area-specific procedure may vary from place to place, but it's important to be aware that it's likely your relatives are made to stand bail for you. They have to fill in forms and get up to five stamps from different administrative levels before they can receive you. Some are also required to give a hand-written guarantee that their visitors aren’t up to creating political trouble.

Once you have your tourist visa for Lhasa in your pocket though, the visual difference to a regular Chinese visa is minimal. There is a line “special remarks” at the bottom left of your China visa. In the normal case, that line is empty. The line is also empty if you go to Tibetan areas outside the TAR. But if you want go to Lhasa or the TAR the visa must contain a specific remark as marked red:

"The holder of this visa is entitled to enter/exit via the ports of Lhasa and Zhangmu".

If you made it to a Tibetan place outside the TAR on a regular Chinese visa - which can also be a challenge to obtain for expat Tibetans - and now want to go to Lhasa, as guowai zangpao or Tibetan from abroad, you still must obtain a “special permit” to enter the TAR which is issued by the United Front office of the Tibet Autonomous Region. It could look as follows:

Issued by the TAR Commission of the United Front, the title of the form is "Oversea's Tibetans Permit to Enter Tibetan Areas". It lists the number of entries, your passport number, your name, and the duration of your stay. The seal is from the same Commission and carries the date. 

Every now and again you can read in the news that the Tibet permit is going to be abolished. But there are people in offices in Chengdu and other entry points acting important and making money on these anachronistic scraps of paper, so that even when they make big announcements up in Beijing, down on the local level they can act as if that doesn’t apply to them. Sometimes you can’t tell whether it’s vested interest or big politics that gives you trouble and, ironically, once you're through with all the hassle and made it to Lhasa, nobody asks to see the piece of bumph.

In my experience, it’s not a good idea to try and “sneak” into the TAR overland in case some are contemplating this alternative. Once I made a trip to Lhasa with Tibetan pilgrims on the back of a truck. It was “don’t ask, don’t tell”: There was no need to identify myself since the driver and the other passengers seemed to assume I was a local. I must say I made every effort. I even wore an ugly Chinese army dayi green coat which could be bought in every market plus a Mao cap to bring my local look to perfection. It was also my luck that the pilgrims camped outdoors for the night in order to save money during the journey so I never had to book into a hotel where I would have had to show my papers.

Everything went well until we drove through the forests of Kongpo. I knew very well this was a restricted area for foreigners. All of a sudden two armed men in uniforms appeared in the middle of the narrow, bumpy road and made us stop. They began to search the truck, which made me extremely nervous. What would I do if I were discovered?

The next moment our blue Dongfeng was beginning to move again. They were not looking for illegal foreigners as I feared; they were hunting down fugitive prisoners who sometimes hid in those trucks. I had heard of Chinese prisons in Kongpo. Now I knew.

I don’t recommend travelling to Lhasa this way. The risk of getting caught is real and the consequences could be serious and furthermore, the driver could also be punished for taking you along.

Actually there never really is a good time to visit Tibet: From January to March they routinely restrict travel due to the Tibetan New Year and the 10th March people’s uprising of 1959. During the second quarter, travel is restricted again due to Saka Dawa and the Dalai Lama’s birthday. And whenever there is political unrest in an area, it’s soon off limit too. The whole country is closed on and off throughout the year which makes it really cumbersome for a visitor, especially if you are from the West.

But if you are determined to go, you can't take "bad timing" into account nor will any "visa attrition policy" deter you because you wear the invisible armour. 

Give it a shot: News reports about travel restrictions can sometimes be misleading. Travel restrictions for foreigners are usually delivered orally to tourism industry leaders, so local tour companies and hotel operators may tell you the authorities imposed a ban on travel permits for foreign tourists in groups or individually. But it’s also possible that while one area has such a travel ban, another Tibetan area may not. And to confuse prospective visitors further, state media and the Tibet Tourism Bureau may at the same time say foreign tourists are welcome even though there are de facto travel restrictions in some areas.

It’s also possible that the travel ban does not fully apply to people of Tibetan descent even when they are foreign passport holders because their applications may not go through the usual consular channel under foreign relations as with regular Western tourists but via the internal United Front office, which is the decision-maker in this case.

In my latest visa quest, the United Front man said my mom could only hope to receive the permit for Lhasa if she had relatives there. - Did he cook this up? Did he receive orders from wherever? I have no clue. It's outrageous. Lhasa is the capital city of all Tibetans, not just the ones who have relatives there. But in addition to all the written and unwritten visa rules, in my mom’s case there now was rule which said “travel restriction for people of Tibetan descent with no relatives in Lhasa”.

What these uncoordinated and sometimes arbitrary regulations, interpretations, announcements and implementations show is that visa handling is in a state of flux, and so the only way to find out for sure is by applying. That's the bottom line.

Outside the embassy gate I ran into yet another Tibetan who gave me a friendly smile. Whether I had seen a group of Tibetans going into the embassy?

I said: “Yes, where are they from?”

“Nangchen“, the man replied, whether I got my permit? 

“Nomads,” I thought and hoped the Drogpas would do okay in there. Imagine the clerk’s face if they came with rancid butter and moldy cheese as gifts - and Khatas to really overdo the ridiculous situation, ha, ha! Humor does help.

What a drag, this permit.

“What is it with these Chinese?” I complained to my partner over Skype in the evening. “So far every person they’ve sent to handle visa requests was a strange guy. Doesn’t famous China bring forth any better officials than that? What inefficiency and what a public relations disaster!”

“It’s like that wherever you go over here as well,” my partner replied. He was in Tibet as usual during this time of the year. "I have to go to the police tomorrow to extend my work permit. It’s people like that wherever you go, what to do?” - He basically said what I already knew: That it was the reality and that we had to deal with it if we wanted to be in Tibet and do work there or visit relatives as in my mom’s case.

He was right. I always felt better after talking to him. He was to me what the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion were to Dorothy: A reliable companion when times got rough, someone who helped me get a perspective when things started to become blurred.

We Tibetans are hopeless romantics. “Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high” as Dorothy sings in the musical, there really is such a special land. They can pile up hurdles as high as the sky. People will still try to overcome them if that’s what’s required.

Good luck to everyone who has to make the trip to the Chinese embassy. Make sure your application is airtight. If you feel revulsion, remind yourself that your urge to be in Tibet is stronger than your antipathy towards China, put on the invisible armour and then go and do what needs to be done.

Mountain Phoenix

Related Essays

All written content on this blog is copyrighted. Please do not repost without seeking my prior written consent.