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Monks on mobiles

Posted on 17th September 2007. No Comment

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ChloĆ« Fussell spends a week getting to know the people of one of the most remote regions on earth…

As the Chinese shoved and rushed to get to their already reserved seats on the aeroplane, five placid passengers remained in their seats and waited their turn. The women amongst the five were dressed in long skirts, colourful aprons, with long plaited hair and dangling earrings. These, the first Tibetans I encountered, were equally as inquisitive about us Westerners as I was about them. But whilst I tried to hide my curious stares, the women pointed to my face to find out if the piercings went all the way through my lip. One tugged at my friend’s beard, evidently wondering if it would fall off in her hand.

The Jokhang Temple in Lhasa is the centre of Tibetan Buddhism. Pilgrims from the distant reaches of the country circumnavigate the temple in one colourful mass. A tiny, smiley old lady in a traditional, practical dress and sunhat walked alongside a group of tough-looking men dressed in red and black, with red wool attached to the end of their long braids and wrapped around their heads.

A mother carried her baby strapped to her back with a length of cloth, its sunburnt cheeks facing up into the blazing mountain sun, whilst other mothers sat with their dirt-covered offspring and asked visitors for money.

Pilgrims, monks and nuns

Skinny old men and young girls in tight jeans brushed dust off their makeshift aprons and thick gloves and continued their circuit of prostration. Hands clasped together pointed at the sky, the forehead, the chest, then kneeling, lying on the ground, touching the forehead to the ground, and standing to begin again a few steps ahead. We picked our way through the prostrating pilgrims, and past those lying and bowing to the entrance to the temple and to its blank, white walls.

Amongst all these people hundreds of monks amble along dressed in burgundy and bright yellow-gold. They are everywhere in Lhasa – monks riding in pedicabs, monks chatting on mobile phones, monks having their shoes shined and monks tugging on Western beards to see if they will come off in their hands.

Rarer are the nuns, dressed as the monks but, with their shaved heads, surprisingly beautiful. One ran up to me, her face alight, and asked me to open my mouth. She remembered how I had showed an inquisitive child the bar through my tongue the previous day.

Uneasy relations
In one monastery in Shigatse, Tibet’s second town, elderly pilgrims took a rest in a dusty courtyard. When a group of middle-aged Chinese men came across them, they immediately whipped out their cameras and began snapping from all angles, despite the Tibetans’ protests and covering their faces.

In character, the Tibetans’ compatriots could not be more different. Far from the calm and quiet demeanour of the locals, the Chinese congregate in huge groups, led by loud and irreverent guides. In China itself the people’s love of noise and bustle, combined with a practical and unsentimental nature, is fascinating. But in Tibet these characteristics clash with locals already sensitive to Chinese domination of the region and, in particular, its deeply-seated religion. Years of atheism mean that many seem to not understand the sanctity of places of worship, and their behaviour often comes across as sheer disrespect.

Nomads and Chinese
The differences are understandable. Even the Tibetans in Lhasa are mostly pilgrims who live a nomadic or agricultural life a long, difficult journey away from the capital. Fewer than three million people inhabit this vast area known for its remoteness, averaging just over two per square kilometre compared with China’s crowded 140. The Chinese are accused of encouraging ethnic Chinese to move to the area, to reinforce their control and way of life, and in Lhasa there are certainly many Chinese-run shops, canteens and even companies selling life insurance on the streets, much to the bewilderment of the rural Tibetans.

But even after more than 50 years of Chinese control and notorious accusations of repression, Tibetan travel organisers still mutter complicitly with Western tourists about the irritating Chinese tour groups. Restaurants are clearly divided into Tibetan and Chinese haunts, and even many teenaged Tibetan girls renounce the neon, high-heeled fashion of the Chinese girls in favour of traditional long skirts and long hair. For now, at least, it seems as if the ordinary Tibetans are far from disappearing or merging into the Chinese billion.

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