'On The Train to Lhasa'

An outspoken Tibetan poet describes the experience of entering the region's capital city.
By Tsering Woeser
2012-10-16
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Tibetan writer Woeser in an undated filephoto.
AFP

The Qinghai-Tibet train is packed with tourists from every part of China on their way to Tibet, singing several years' worth of songs, including "On the Train to Lhasa." A train attendant from Hubei asks me anxiously: "What is the security situation like in Lhasa?" "Very safe for you [Han Chinese]," I say, pointedly emphasizing the "you." Some young people sitting nearby with real Beijing accents overhear this, and ask me about it. "There are army, police and plainclothes officers lining the streets," I tell them.

The train attendant is pretty bright, and asks: "Do Tibetans feel very constricted?" Another young person chips in: "Does this have anything to do with those Tibetans who have self-immolated?"

So some people do know about the self-immolations by Tibetans, in spite of the Party's deafening silence on the matter. Party organs at every level prevent people from talking openly about it.

I look at them, as if they were alien beings from another land: "These aren't isolated incidents," I say. "More than 50 Tibetans have self-immolated, from right across the Tibetan region, even some in exile."

Someone follows up with a question: "Why do they want to set fire to themselves?" But others are already drawing away, turning their heads to look out at the scenery.

I am very conscious of the language barrier, even though we are all speaking Chinese. I reflect that self-immolation is hardly a rare tragedy these days, but that while another culture might understand why a person would self-immolate on their own behalf, they can't see why someone would do that on behalf of a whole ethnic group. But I'd like to say a bit more about that, and tell them about the last words uttered by some of the Tibetans who have self-immolated.

Perhaps some people won't want to listen any more. Going to Tibet on holiday is the dream of many Chinese people, and perhaps ... they just want to get on and use the 10 days' vacation they have carefully saved up, and just can't wait to scrawl "So-and-so was here" at every tourist destination they go to. They are mostly concerned with seeing the scenery, and the "Tibetan tourist sites" picked out in advance by their tour company. They don't care about the local people who have nothing to do with the tourist attractions, like Tibetans who set themselves on fire.

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A map detailing the railway route between Beijing and Lhasa. Credit: RFA

Disembarking

The Buddha's enlightenment teaches us that all living things are equal. But in reality, there are a world of differences; particularly between different ethnic groups. When our train, packed full of so many living things, arrives at Lhasa station, the majority of non-Tibetan passengers breeze easily through, so very excited to be heading off to various parts of Lhasa, and looking quite perky; even those who are immediately hit by altitude sickness.

The dozen or so Tibetan passengers, on the other hand, are stopped by armed police and their identity cards checked with a device similar to those used to swipe credit cards. When I hand my card over, I am stopped with the words, "Woeser, stay behind!"

What can the Tibetans who were stopped do about it? We are all taken into the police station next to the railway station. I can't help thinking of all those Tibetans from Lhasa who were sent to "study classes" for brainwashing after they traveled to India at the beginning of the year to attend an initiation presided over by the Dalai Lama. Were they feeling as nervous as I am now, when they were taken from their homes by police, or intercepted on their way home?

Two young Tibetans from the southern part of Qinghai province are to be sent back home the next day, because they didn't have a "permit to enter Tibet." The police dealing with Tibetans pay scant heed to their pleas, repeatedly telling them that a "permit to enter Tibet" must be issued by county level police departments or above. The really funny thing is, one of the young women, who did look a bit Chinese, tells the police that she is actually a fake Tibetan, which surprises them, and they ask her why. She says she changed her nationality from Han to Tibetan in order to take advantage of positive discrimination offered to ethnic minorities in the university admissions process. "This is now a huge pain for me," she says, admitting that she deeply regrets it.

Those Tibetans who do hold a "permit to enter Tibet" have their ID cards photocopied, and are asked to fill out the address where they will be staying in Lhasa, the reason for their trip, and their identity, as well as signing their names and adding their fingerprints in blood-red ink. I have no "permit to enter Tibet," but as a special person required to be outside Beijing for the duration of the 18th Party Congress, I also give them my fingerprints.

When I and the two young people from [Qinghai] are finally allowed to leave the police station and enter Lhasa, they say to each other, amid sobs: "Who'd have thought it would be so hard for Tibetans to get into Lhasa?"

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Tsering Woeser is a Tibetan activist, poet and blogger who lives in Beijing.