Tibet has several nicknames “The Roof of the World” is one, “Land of Snow” is another. For a long time, Tibet has fascinated, attracted and captivated travelers who wanted to visit the country beyond the Himalayas. The dream of meeting a new dimension in life leads people here.
Many of us are seized by the fate of the Tibetan people after the Chinese invasion and many of us are supporting them in their struggle for freedom and the right to govern their own country. Living conditions for Tibetans have always been difficult. Life on the desolate plains, the harsh climate, the high altitudes or the great distances have left their mark on the people and their living conditions. They are used to living in difficult circumstances. Before the arrival of the Chinese, however, they ruled over their own destinies.
What we now call Tibet is almost three times larger in area than Sweden, about 1.2 million km2, and makes up about one-eighth of China’s total area. According to cheeroutdoor.com, historic Tibet consisted of three provinces; U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo. Amdo and large parts of Kham have been integrated into neighboring Chinese provinces. Today’s Tibet Autonomous Region, TAR, formally established on September 9, 1965 for administrative reasons, consists of U-Tsang and parts of Kham, which make up only half of the country’s original 2.5 million km2 area.
Tibet is the earth’s highest situated, inhabited highland area, 4 – 5,000 m above sea level, and is for the most part a mountain desert, located at the same latitude as the Sahara. The country is very sparsely populated and the Tibetans belong to the Mongolian ethnic group. The Tibetan language is related to, among other things, Burmese.
This is one of the toughest trips I have made, both physically and mentally!
I was part of a small group of seven people who migrated into western Tibet via the ancient pilgrimage route from the mountain village of Simikot, located in the Bumblebee District of Nepal. A hike that very few westerners had the opportunity to do.
In Tibet, two four-wheel drive jeeps were waiting for us. With these, our group was driven to Darchen, which is located at the foot of the Himalayas’ holiest mountain, Kailash. Here we participated in the Saga Dawa festival and would then go Kailash choir with the pilgrims, a walk to get forgiveness of sins.
The journey then continued east, the destination was the Tibetan capital Lhasa, with the jeeps and a truck driving tent equipment and food for us. On the way to Lhasa, we stopped at the sacred lake Manosaravar, in the holy cities of Shigatse and Gyantse. On the high plateau we met nomads who in the summer let their cattle herds graze on the mountain beds. In Rongbuk is the world’s highest monastery and here I walked to the foot of the northern side of Mount Everest. Via the holy lake Yamdrok we came to Lhasa where I went the khoran, the prayer walk, together with Tibetan pilgrims and I visited the holy Sera monastery where the monks predicted the downfall of Tibet.
From the Lamar La mountain pass, 5,662 masl, I saw four of the world’s highest mountains; Mount Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyo.
I have never frozen so much and never been as hungry as during this trip. The experiences outweighed the tribulations.
Tibetan history in brief
Little is known about Tibet’s first inhabitants. Researchers believe that they are descendants of the nomadic and warlike tribes that advanced across the steppes as early as the 200s BC.
The first Chinese documentation on the history of Tibet dates back to 127 BC.
The Tibetans themselves claim that their history begins in the 8th century AD, when King Namri Sogtsen, 570 – 619, took the first initiative to unite several small kingdoms in the Yarlung Valley into one larger kingdom. His son Songtsen Gampo, 618-649, fulfilled his father’s plans and under his leadership the empire expanded greatly. At this time, the Tibetans were so strong that they even posed a threat to the Chinese Tang Dynasty.
The expansion of the Tibetans continued and by the end of the eighth century they had influence over an area that also included Turkestan, northern Pakistan, Nepal and parts of India. Under the leadership of King Trisong Detsen, 755 – 797, the Tibetans conquered the Chinese capital Chang´an, now Xian in 783. The king also founded the monastery in Samye, thus introducing Buddhism to the region. This created contradictions with the prayer religion which was then dominant.
The religious contradictions culminated during the so-called “The Great Debate in Samye” when King Tritsug Detsen Ralpachen was murdered by a Buddhist monk disguised as a dancer in 842. The initiator of this act was Detsen’s brother Langdharma. After this, the Tibetan Empire quickly collapsed and stopped their further expansion in Asia. However, Buddhism continued to gain ground, not only in Tibet but also in other parts of Asia. The Tibetans became big supporters of this religion and many of them traveled to India to study the doctrine. For hundreds of years to come, Buddhism developed in Tibet, though not entirely without problems. Occasionally there were still power struggles but adherents of the old prayer religion. Tibetan Buddhism, Lamaism, is a separate branch developed from the original doctrine, however, won the most followers.
During the 13th century, the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, became rulers of much of Asia and their empire became the largest ever created. Tibet was subjected to heavy attacks in 1239 and the Mongol troops reached almost all the way to Lhasa before retreating. According to the Tibetans, this was because the Mongols felt the strong religious charisma from the city. The Mongols made the Tibetan Sakya Lama a religious leader in their own country and introduced Tibetan Buddhism as the state religion. Thus began a strong religious cooperation between these peoples.
Buddhism became increasingly important to the Tibetans who founded several large monasteries during the 14th and 15th centuries; In 1374 Ganden was founded, in 1445 Tashiluhunpo, in 1416 Drepung and in 1419 Sera.
The Mongols again showed great interest in the Tibetan variant of Buddhism, and in 1578 Sonam Gyatso, the third incarnated leader of the Gelug Pact, was invited by Altyn Khan to attend a religious meeting. During this meeting, Sonam was given the title “Dalai”, which means Ocean. The title was extended to “Ocean of Wisdom” which referred to Sonam’s incarnations. Thus, he became the 3rd Dalai Lama.
The ties between the Mongols and Gelugpa led the sect into uncertain political commitments that were not taken lightly by all. Ties were further strengthened between the peoples when, after Sonam’s death in 1588, a relative of Altay Khan was appointed to become the new incarnated Dalai Lama. This led to kings in Tsang province attacking the Drepung and Sera monasteries, resulting in the 4th Dalai Lama fleeing Tibet and dying at the age of only 25, probably poisoned.
The 5th Dalai Lama, perhaps the largest of them all, was installed with the help of Mongols. Under his leadership, Tibet was united and the empire came to geographically encompass the area from Kailash in the west to the province of Kham in the east. During the 5th Dalai Lama’s tenure, several large buildings were erected, including the Potala Palace. His death in 1682 was kept secret until 1695, despite the fact that a successor had been appointed much earlier. When the secret that the 5th Dala Lama died was leaked, the 6th Dalai Laman was quickly appointed, considered by many to be a bad choice.
The Mongols again attacked Tibet in 1705, killing the regent and capturing the 6th Dalai Lama, with the intention of taking him to Emperor Kang Xi in Beijing. The Dalai Lama died on the way to Beijing, in all probability he was murdered.
In 1717, a group of Mongols again attacked Lhasa. They killed the prince and deposed the 7th Dalai Lama, appointed by the Tibetans themselves. He served in the Kumbum Monastery under Chinese protection. Emperor Kang Xi sent troops to Tibet to expel the Mongols in 1720, which also succeeded. The Chinese met as liberators of the Tibetan people. With them during their triumphal procession, they had the 7th Dalai Lama. Emperor Kang Xi declared Tibet a Chinese protectorate, which was cited as the reason why Tibet had already belonged to China during the communist invasion in 1950. The 7th Dalai Lama was a successful leader until his death in 1757.
At the beginning of the 20th century, new political unrest broke out in Tibet, now with Britons and Russians involved. In 1903, it was discovered that the then Dalai Lama had fled to Mongolia. A British-Tibetan treaty was signed after negotiations with Tri Rinpoche, who was appointed spiritual leader by the Dalai Lama during his absence. However, the Chinese refused to sign the treaty, which is why a new one was signed in 1906. This treaty gave China sovereignty over Tibet.
1910 was a shaky period in the Qing Dynasty in Manchuria, which led to a new attack on Tibet. This time, too, the Dalai Lama fled, now to the British in India. During the revolution in China in 1911, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown. The success of the opposition in China spread to the Tibetans who rose up against the Manchurian occupation. They succeeded in defeating the Manchurians completely at the end of 1912. In 1913, the 13th Dalai Lama returned to Tibet, which enjoyed a period of peace for 30 years and gained its independence.
However, the peace period was not completely frictionless. Therefore, the Dalai Lama accepted supplies of modern weapons from the British to prepare the country for possible future attacks. However, the archaic religious structure, which created power struggles among various groups, was not modernized. During an uprising by the monks of Drepung Monastery, the Dalai Lama chose to deploy the new weapons against them. Many monks were imprisoned and thrown into prison or even killed. Tibet’s period of freedom was also marked by disagreements between the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama over how independent the Tashilhunpo Monastery and its estates would be.
After the death of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1933, the country was ruled by the government in Reting. The 14th Dalai Lama, now living, was discovered in a small village called Pari Takster near Xining in the province of Amdo. He was installed in 1940, just four and a half years old, as the highest religious leader in Tibet. In 1947, Lhasa was subjected to a coup attempt by leaders from Reting.
the Communists took power in China with Mao Tsetung as leader. Thus began the blackest period in the history of Tibet.
In the same year, the Chinese invasion of Tibet began, culminating on October 7, 1950, when about 40,000 Chinese soldiers entered the country in eight different places. The Tibetans responded by deposing the 15-year-old Dalai Lama, which aroused cheers in some quarters but did little to help the advancing Chinese troops. An appeal for support from the UN sounded incredible. The only nation that sided with the Tibetans was El Salvador, which wanted the Chinese attack condemned. Britain and India managed to persuade the UN not to debate the Chinese invasion for fear of clashing with China. The Chinese presented Tibet’s leaders with two options, to sign a treaty that gave them supremacy in China or for the Tibetans to endure more violence. The power game with the Dalai Lama as the religious leader and symbol of the Tibetan people began immediately. Thus also began the Chinese’s massive invasion of Tibet without the outside world reacting to any great extent
In connection with the celebration of the Tibetan New Year in March, the Chinese planned to kidnap the Dalai Lama. When this became known, many people gathered around the summer palace Norbulinka and promised to protect him with their lives. To prevent the Chinese’s alleged crackdown on the Tibetans, the Dalai Lama suggested that he voluntarily surrender to the Chinese. Their response was two-bomb explosions outside Norbulinka. The Dalai Lama and his advisers then concluded that the only option left for them was to leave Tibet. On March 17, 1959, he left Norbulinka disguised as a Chinese soldier and fled Lhasa. Two weeks later he reached India, where he still lives today.
On the morning of March 20, fighting broke out between Tibetans and Chinese in Lhasa, which after three days of fighting resulted in the killing of 10-15,000 Tibetans.
After this, the Tibetans were subjected to severe pressure. Monks were forced into a more secularized life, including marriage. They were thrown into prison, killed or put in labor camps. Nuns were raped and persecuted. The Tibetans were forced to introduce new crops into agriculture, which the Tibetans objected to, as they could not grow in the country, according to their experience. Their assumptions proved correct, and by the end of 1961, some 70,000 Tibetans had died of starvation.
The Panchen Lama, who has traditionally always been more Chinese-oriented than the Dalai Lama, began to change his mind about the Chinese’s brutal treatment of the Tibetan people. He sent a letter to Mao Tsetung requesting changes as well as religious freedom in Tibet. Four years later he was imprisoned and imprisoned for 10 years. This opened up the possibility for the Chinese to form the TAR, the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
In September, it was officially announced that TAR had been formed, which meant that Tibet was returned to China, where it was considered to belong. The Chinese showed pictures of Tibetans in tears of joy that they had “returned home”.
The power struggle of the Chinese leaders led to the “Cultural Revolution” which began in August 1966. This had dramatic consequences in China and devastating for Tibet and the Tibetan people.
The first “Red Guards” arrived in Lhasa in July, 1966 and immediately began the destruction of cultural and religious monuments. During the “Cultural Revolution”, which lasted between 1966 – 1976, more than 6,200 monasteries and nuns were destroyed, many old religious objects, of great value to the Tibetans, were taken out of Tibet, or destroyed.
After Mao’s death in 1976, Hua Guofeng took over as leader. He promised relief in Tibet and that the Dalai Lama and other Tibetans in exile would be allowed to return, and released the Panchen Lama from prison.
Before accepting the Chinese offer, the Dalai Lama sent an investigation team to Tibet to determine the country’s situation. The group was then able to establish that about 1.2 million Tibetans had been killed, that 6,254 monasteries had been destroyed, that 2/3 of the country’s area had been transferred to China, that 100,000 Tibetans were in labor camps and that extensive deforestation had taken place. This for only 30 years of Chinese “rule”!
In parallel with the exile Tibetans’ investigation, the Chinese conducted their own, which of course did not show the same frightening picture, but resulted in some relief to the Tibetan people.
In the early 1980s, some relief was also introduced with regard to the practice of religion. Some monasteries, which were not turned into stone mounds during the Cultural Revolution, were allowed to reopen and some religious objects taken out of the country were returned. Images of the Dalai Lama were also allowed to a limited extent.
In 1983, negotiations on the return of the Dalai Lama stalled and the Chinese decided that he was not wanted in Tibet. During this period, a decision was also made on a large immigration of Han Chinese and in 1984 more than 100,000 Chinese came to Tibet to “modernize” the country.
In September 1987, 30 monks from the Sera Monastery marched around Jokhang shouting “Freedom to Tibet” and “Long Live the Dalai Lama”, they were arrested. Four days later, another group of monks repeated the same thing. They were beaten and arrested. Foreign visitors who witnessed this were expelled. Through their pictures, the outside world found out about the abuse.
Even today, human rights are severely restricted for Tibetans and most of them live in very poor conditions, but their struggle continues, despite very little support from the outside world. The Tibetans have regained some of their religious rights, but monks and nuns are often under strong surveillance and quotas for the monasteries. The monks in the Drepung monastery have been forced to sign a decree in which they distance themselves from the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama has since his forced exile fought for a free Tibet and won great respect for his struggle around the world. He has always advocated anti-violence and in 1989 his fight was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Today, the Dalai Lama and a large number of Tibetans live in exile. In the northern Indian city of Dharamsala in the state of Himachal Pradesh, they have been given refuge. Here they have erected administrative buildings for their government in exile, several temples and monasteries. A visit to Dharamsal feels very Tibetan.
On January 28, 1989, the 10th Panchen Lama passed away. According to tradition, a successor of the Dalai Lama and a number of prominent monks are elected. They found a little boy who met all the criteria to be the incarnated Panchen Lama. He was therefore chosen to become the 11th Panchen Lama. An election that was not approved by the Chinese, who kidnapped the boy and his family and abducted them.
Of course, the Tibetans do not approve of the successor appointed by the Chinese, which is why the situation is locked and infected.
When I was in Lhasa, the Chinese-chosen boy came to visit the city. His visit to the Jokhang Temple took place at night and at the same time Barkhor was blocked off. No people were allowed to stay outside as long as the Panchen Lama remained in Barkhor. The fear is apparently great among the Chinese supporters.
Since 2002, five talks have been held between the Dalai Lama and Chinese officials in Switzerland to agree on the Tibet issue. The most recent negotiation took place in 2005, without leading to any opening.
In 2006, the 1,100-kilometer railway from Qinghai province to the capital, Lhasa, was completed, which, according to critical voices, opens up even more for the economic exploitation of Tibet.
In mid-March 2008, Tibetan exile organizations reported that monks in Tibet were protesting against the Chinese regime in connection with the anniversary of the 1959 uprising. Official Chinese sources said on March 17 that 13 people had been killed by protesters in Lhasa. people killed by Chinese soldiers. As a concession to the pressure of the outside world, China’s leaders announced on March 28 that some 20 foreign diplomats, from the United States, France and Britain, among others, would be allowed to visit Tibet.
In early May 2008, Chinese government officials and representatives of the Dalai Lama met for talks. The Beijing government claimed that the Dalai Lama had incited protests earlier in the spring, which was denied by the Dalai Lama, who accused Beijing of human rights abuses. After the talks, the positions were locked, but it was agreed that the dialogue would continue
Highest points during the trip
The hike from Everest Base Camp towards the Rongbuk Glacier where I reached about 5,300 masl.
The highest pass we drove over was Lamar La, 5,662 masl, on the road between Tingri and Rongbuk. The view from the pass is called “The Roof of the World”. From here you can see four of the world’s highest mountains; Mount Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyo.
The trip to Tibet was filled with very strong experiences, both physical and mental, and has forever influenced my image of the country and the Tibetans, who deserve all the support they can get for their fight for justice and independence. This was one of my strongest trips!