Vol. 5, No. 1116W - The American Reporter - July 17, 1999

by Richard S. Ehrlich American Reporter Correspondent Bangkok, Thailand

ON THE FRIENDSHIP HIGHWAY, China -- The filth-encrusted Tibetan mother repeatedly slaps her baby's forehead, trying to smash a fly. Failing to squash the bug, the mother pinches her wrinkled breast and shoves it into the baby's mouth, as they speed along on a public bus through central Tibet.

The Chinese-built, double-lane, paved Friendship Highway takes them across dramatic flatlands two miles high, wedged between gigantic, upthrusted mountains of geological trauma, along the turbulent Brahmaputra River.

The mother checks her infant's blackened t-shirt for lice, and scratches away tiny, hardened clusters of dirt from his nose, until a nostril bleeds.

Most of the bus passengers are also idling away the eight hours or so it takes to travel from Tibet's second-biggest city, Xigatse (Shigatse), to the capital, Lhasa.

Passengers' conversations are split according to race: the handful of Chinese men and women speak Mandarin Chinese among themselves or when they talk to a Tibetan, such as to the bus driver, because most of China's migrants to this "roof of the world" speak no Tibetan.

Tibetans, who overwhelmingly pack the bus, merrily chat in Tibetan language. Occasionally, they burst into soft devotional singing -- vaguely reminiscent of American-Indian Navajo chants.

When the bus crosses a bridge over the river, near the journey's mid-point, they gasp the famous Buddhist prayer, "Om mani padme hum."

Some Tibetans fling pieces of colored, square tissue paper adorned with woodblock-printed prayers out of the bus windows, so the wind can spiral their pleas down the steep stone gorge and into the river, and beyond.

Those passengers were the ones who bought inch-thick stacks of the colored tissue paper -- in large squares or small, depending on budget -- from a Tibetan woman covered in sweaters who sold the prayers that morning along with popcorn, soft drinks and other treats for the long bus journey.

Traffic, meanwhile, is light on The Friendship Highway.

A rumbling convoy of about a dozen, Chinese Peoples' Liberation Army vehicles pass in the opposite direction every once in a while, mostly big dull-green trucks covered with tarpaulin, and followed by a couple of fuel tankers.

The highway's pit stops include small, rectangular, military garrisons where uniformed Chinese troops do calisthenics in front of bleak buildings topped by a satellite dish and China's red flag.

At the start of the bus journey, hotels in Xigatse bore posters in English warning "independent" foreign travellers not to travel by public bus, otherwise they would suffer a huge fine and expulsion from Tibet -- and cause severe punishment to bus drivers who disobeyed the ban.

As a result, many foreigners apply for a "permit" to cruise Tibet in an official "group," inside expensive, hired Landrovers driven by Tibetans from travel agencies. Some foreigners do try their luck on public busses, hitch rides on trucks, or bravely set out on bicycles or on foot.

The bus charges about five US dollars for the 250-kilometer, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. ride northeast from Xigatse to Lhasa.

The driver of this bus, worried when he saw a taboo foreigner climb aboard in Xigatse, blurted, "No, no! Police."

When his warning was ignored, however, he simply shifted into gear.

His apparent lack of real worry was similar to the security forces who never closely scrutinized the bus or its passengers during the trip.

Chinese security forces, who allegedly killed one million Tibetans during the past 40 years, instead appear extremely confident about their control over Tibet, reflecting their ever-stregthening position since crushing a bloody 1959 anti-Chinese uprising.

Today the only visible weapons displayed in Xigatse and Lhasa are a scattering of Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifles -- some fitted with a bayonet blade -- which are held by young, green-uniformed soldiers who guard military bases, bridges, banks and other key installations.

On a bridge near Lhasa, some Chinese troops appear bored by the lack of threat, so they giggle and goosestep in bright sunshine while crossing the road, for their own amusement.

The only potential violence on the bus erupts when one loud, uniformed Chinese soldier threatens to kick his camouflaged tennis shoe into the face of the Tibetan bus conductor, apparently because of a missed stop.

Many Tibetans in the cities and countryside, however, are armed with knives.

The rugged, extroverted Khampa tribe's men, who appear to average six feet tall, are especially keen on carrying a traditional dagger or machete, often stashed in an ornately hammered silver sheath, worn on their belt or sash.

Khampas are infamous for their drunken knife fights, sometimes as a result of bad gambling, and were the tribe of choice during the 1960s when the US Central Intelligence Agency brought Tibetans to Colorado, trained them as anti-Chinese rebels, gave them weapons and other equipment, and inserted them back into Tibet.

That secret, multi-million dollar, US-backed guerrilla war sputtered along with minimal success and scattered bloodshed, until it was canceled by US President Richard Nixon who met Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong in 1972 in Beijing to improve US-Chinese relations.

All through those years, however, China continued to destroy Tibet.

The passing countryside still reveals the rubble of priceless monasteries obliterated by the Chinese, especially during their disastrous 1965 to 1976 Cultural Revolution.

Many of Tibet's enormous, white-washed, fortress-like, stone monasteries are now little more than stubby piles of deteriorating brown bricks, stubbornly clinging to craggy mountaintops or along the river.

Other monasteries are being painstakingly reconstructed, and rise from the rubble as reborn outposts of Tibetan Buddhism.

Impoverished Tibetans who survived China's purges, crackdowns and communist experiments, now struggle just to survive.

Many of the Tibetan villages along this route are protected by walls covered with hand-pressed yak manure, which is dried to be burned as fuel for cooking and warmth, because firewood is scarce.

One fierce-eyed Tibetan woman on the bus has brought with her a stack of the valuable dish-sized dung disks in a big woolen bag.

All of the passengers are delighted when the bus stops for lunch. Some Tibetans use their right hand to scoop up moistened "tsampa" barley flour, and gnaw big chunks of dried yak meat.

Chinese passengers prefer fried vegetables, meat and rice.

In the afternoon, the bus finally barrels into Lhasa's valley.

The huge, 1,000-room Potala Palace suddenly appears in the distance, rising on an isolated, prehistoric plateau above the surrounding flatland. No longer home to the Dalai Lama, the Potala Palace is now a museum run by the Chinese government.

But the palace's approaching silhouette awes passengers who point and feel thankful that their journey will soon safely end.

The Friendship Highway ribbons about 725 kilometers, linking Lhasa with Tibet's southern neighbor, Nepal, where a Friendship Bridge allows further travel to and from Kathmandu.

After the bus eventually arrives in Lhasa, at the main station alongside the Kyi Chu River, some Tibetan passengers decide to pilgrimage to the Potala Palace to kowtow in prayer.

Both Tibetan and Chinese might also pose for snapshots in front of the Potala Palace, where the Chinese have built a tacky, smaller version of Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

While the Potala Palace provides a magnificent backdrop, the square in front is bordered by shops selling Kodak and Fuji film, Coca-Cola and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. A big neon-lit discotheque, "JJ's," dominates the square in the evening.

For many of the bus passengers, Lhasa is bright lights, big city.

Richard Erlich is a veteran Asia correspondent for the Washington Times
and other publications.

WTN World Tibet Network News JULY 99