I had no idea of how much of an adventure our month-long trip to Asia would be when sitting safely and comfortably back home in Indiana. After a harrowing trip along narrow mountain roads, landslides, and three inspections by Chinese officials, we weren't able to get to our destination on our first night. Therefore, we stayed in the border town in an overcrowded, rundown, and non-rated hotel. My wife and I had three female roommates. I thought to myself, this isn't my idea of traveling in the land of Shangri-La. But, it would be just for one night.
The next morning dawned, and we awaited clearance through customs. They probably thought that we were smuggling in arms for the Tibetan people. There we waited for several hours dreading customs scrutiny when our Tibetan guide informed us that we wouldn't be cleared through customs that day. At the time, I didn't hear the reason but instantly assumed that it was because of my pro-Tibetan writing. Much to my relief, it was because of a festival.
All official Chinese offices were closed. I wanted to know what festival it was; I hadn't seen anything scheduled in the tour books. The explanation finally got out via our guide mentioning something to some of the Germans college kids on our tour, and they in turn told some students from Holland, after which the two Malaysians students (with whom we spent the night) finally to us about the cause for the delay. That day was a military holiday celebrating the liberation of the Tibetan people fifty years ago by the Chinese from who knows who.
There I was, after a lifetime of wanting to travel in Tibet, sitting in our hotel prison not being able to begin. Finally, through bribing an official, we were given access to our luggage and the ability without passports to look around the town of Zhang Mu. The Chinese were celebrating their liberation of the Tibetans, and they wanted us to enjoy the party. It is interesting to note that all the Tibetans that I saw were busy working like coolies on this their Independence Day. I wonder whether any of the Chinese liberators took note that only they were celebrating. After work, the Tibetans would have the opportunity to celebrate. Then they could reflect upon the central question: from whom were they liberated-themselves? Although, it has been a half century now, and still they don't know the answer to that question.
Many in the West including us in America hardly even know of the Tibetan plight for the past fifty years. Back in '51 when the Chinese invaded Tibet, the world did precious little to help that defenseless and diminutive Himalayan nation. Why weren't we outraged by the massive invasion of the Chinese against a pacifist nation that didn't provoke the war? The reason is both simple and sad: Tibet didn't fall under the scope of our national security interests. Had Tibet been an exporter of oil to the U.S. or if there had been a large and influential Tibetan lobby in Washington, things might have been different back then. Because nothing was done a half-century ago, the Tibetan people that hadn't been killed remain either under the control of the Chinese or in exile communities primarily India and Nepal. In addition, a few small enclaves of exiles are scattered throughout the rest of the world including America. All of them are awaiting their return to a free Tibet. When the Tibetan people's long nightmare will finally be over, no one really knows, but it won't be because of the moral compass of America or the West.
As I have stated before, I believe that freedom will return to Tibet and the exiles will return including the Dalai Lama in the wake of the preparations for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. With limited exposure to the Chinese military, I'm most amazed at their cartoon-like behavior and demeanor. Granted that all that I have seen has been from attempting to get into Tibet, but they aren't the super intelligent and determined soldiers that the media portrays them as. They possess one major military advantage-numbers. However, they dress their soldiers in uniforms that look like 4-H sewing projects cut from an extra large pattern. One comes away from China, seeing her as a paper tiger, a large one, but it is still a paper tiger.
However, as they have bluffed the West before with the size of the paper, there I sat in Zhang Mu, Tibet near the border with Nepal waiting to clear customs twenty-four hours after I should have been well on my way on the adventure of my lifetime. The paper tiger might be paper but it functions-for a while. The next time that I return to Tibet, the paper tiger will have blown away in the winds of freedom. Those same winds of freedom will gently blow the exiles home. Then and only then will there be a reason for having a celebration-this time all Tibetans will know from whom they were liberated.
This article appeared in the Dixon Telegraph on 10/31/01.