#3: Tibet

Day 19 (76%)

⊙ Concluding Tibet Thoughts
(in order of fundamentality) ⊙

Going to Tibet has always been one of the things on my bucket list ever since the 8-year-old me knew about the railway to heaven, AKA Qinghai-Tibet railway in 2006. I had my expectations of the place and in many ways, those expectations were met. However, one thing I did not expect was my reaction to the tourism industry. I was saddened to learn over our 6 days in Lhasa how lives of the Tibetans have changed due to tourism. For example, the natural cave in Potala palace underwent renovation so that it could better withstand the stress of the tourism. However, that meant that the original cave formation is now covered under layers of cement. Other impacts include tensions between the locals and the Han tourists, where the locals feel looked down upon by the Han tourists as being less developed.

These incidents have made me wonder about the impact of tourism. While travelling opens up our world and is a personal journey, we are often blind to the impact it has on the local community as the impacts are often out of sight. For example, locals face a water crisis in Bali as most of the water is diverted to tourism. This is a fact I learnt not on my trips to Bali but through my Geography textbook. Therefore, I would like to request everyone reading the post to have some awareness of tourism on the local community and to have the will to act in a manner that reduces negative benefits on the community.

– Zi Gi

TIBET – In between high altitude headaches and breathing difficulties, and in between the glaring sun and chilling winds, were temples and monasteries both elaborate yet humble; breathtaking views of mountains and lakes; and most impressive of all, the constant reminder of the strength and resilience of the human spirit.

It is one thing to hear or watch documentaries about religious pilgrimages, it is another to witness firsthand the resolution and wholeheartedness of the extremely religious: their determination in making the kora and performing full body prostrations every three steps; their single-mindedness in praying to every deity in every chapel of the temple; their willingness to donate even just a small amount into each donation box in the temple despite sometimes struggling to make ends meet themselves. Many of what I’ve seen in Tibet is due to the united strength of their belief: towering tomb stupas made of up to more than 4000kg of gold made possible only with accumulated donations from the common folk, the colourful amalgamation of prayer flags on hillsides as a result of many individual climbs up those hills, the large number of monks because it is a tradition for each family to send at least one child to the monastery, the “kampung spirit” displayed among Tibetans who readily show kindness to one another. All these have manifested despite the political suppression that the Tibetans face. While I feel personally unable and unwilling to subscribe to any religion, and have always pondered religion’s rationale and practicality in the world today, the Tibetans have shown me what a strong belief and faith can do for a community of individuals – together, they silently defy the Chinese government’s overwhelming power in hopes of a better future. This has humbled me immensely.

At Dujiangyan (near Chengdu), a local who was bringing us around, upon knowing that we had just been to Tibet, commented that the Tibetans were very foolish to give up so much money to the temples; otherwise, the people and place would actually be quite rich. Perhaps that is true- maybe the money could have been better spent on education or healthcare, rather than on the seemingly superfluous gold tomb stupas. But, I think, we shouldn’t be too quick to criticize and should instead take a moment first to appreciate this awe-inspiring manifestation of the strength of humanity’s unity and resilience. This strength, I believe, is capable of manifesting not just through religion but through any strong united belief. If we could recognise and realise the beauty and power of this strength, perhaps we could eventually learn to take a step back from the practicalities that often divide us and instead embrace our common humanity.

I’d like to end off with this quote from Amy Harmon, which I find incredibly parallels the beauty of Tibet: “True beauty, the kind that doesn’t fade or wash off, takes time. It takes the pressure. It takes incredible endurance. It is the slow drip that makes the stalactite, the shaking of the Earth that creates mountains, the constant pounding of the waves that break up the rocks and smooths the rough edges.
And from the violence, the furor, the raging of the winds, the roaring of the waters, something better emerges, something that would otherwise never exist.
And so we endure. We have faith that there is purpose. We hope for the things we can’t see. We believe that there are lessons in loss, power in love, and that we have within us the potential for a beauty so magnificent that our bodies can’t contain it.”

– Rui Qi

Tibet has impressed upon us two things – the beauty of man & nature. Man – the grand constructs of Tibetan Buddhism, both the physical (palaces, monasteries, tomb stones, statues) & the social (rituals of pilgrimage and worship, funeral rites, supernatural realm). Nature – the stupendous constructs of geography (hills, valleys, cliffs, rivers, and the Himalayas range).

Camping overnight at 5000m by the frigid Yamdrok holy lake, we wander into the teashop of the local village (White Lands Hamlet) called “Business Teahouse”, where I peek at a local girl watching a popular Chinese children’s animation. I wondered, does she wish to live in the city where the animation is set in? It seemed likely to me, just as how we may wish to live in urban Japan after watching anime. This brought up the larger question of why urban folk romanticize nature, while rural folk may look in the other direction. What is it we are all really looking for? Are we doomed to loop in an eternal ballade between the rural and urban?

The sight of the cloud-capped mountains behind Yamdrok Lake inspired an answer – perhaps, we are all looking to personally participate in this thing I call “aesthetic complexity”. Here, ultimate aesthetic complexity is loosely defined as a world state where each and every physical particle is orientated for a beautiful, greater purpose, which it seems to me, many of us do inherently desire for. Mankind is still far from this as our technologies are only starting to blossom. Back to the main question, it is clear that, to the rural farmers, their work is simple in form – tilling the fields and rearing the livestock harnesses simple processes. This in contrast to the idealized vision of the distant urban area – surely with all the skyscrapers, money, and technology, a more complex life is to be found! But then, why do urbanites yearn for the rural nature? Because it turns out, mankind’s urbanity is, at this age, still strikingly simple and sparse, compared to the complexity of nature.

Think of the urban concrete forest. A building is a dead, barren, monotonous slab of agglomerated concrete. Each building or room has a singular function, is often underutilised, polluting, and unaesthetic. A car is a surprisingly simple construct almost like a bicycle powered by explosions. Now think of the forest. Each tree is a complex, living, self-generating organism of countless cells, organelles, biological processes – a wondrous specimen of the tree of life. Each tree is host to countless other species, is constantly alive and functional as are all living things, is environmentally friendly, and is most pleasing to the eye. Each animal is a near mystical, highly elaborate synergy of biological organs. Side by side, the city as a designed system is like an ancient, clunky, horrendously inefficient & lowly pixellised world compared to the HD of nature! Thus, the technology and systems of man have a long way to go to match the advanced systems of nature.

And so, the farmers wish to personally engage in aesthetic complexity greater than farming, while the urban dwellers, whose lives aren’t much more complex either (for now), wish to be re-inspired by the aesthetic complexity of nature’s landscape. The day when mankind’s technologies and urban landscapes can match the aesthetic complexity of nature will be a beautiful day indeed.

– Ng Yi Ming

The snow-capped mountains are always distant and shrouded in mist. There is an ethereal, otherworldly quality about them, suggesting that they can only be appreciated from afar.

Yet I felt an urge to conquer the unconquerable – to climb to the top, feet in the snow, head in the clouds, howling wind at my back. This, I think, is an undeniably human urge.

So I headed out from our camp near Baidi Village and kept on walking for over three hours until the faraway snow-capped peak was right in front of me. Obviously, I had underestimated the distance. You see, mountains are quite big and therefore look closer than they actually are.

I excitedly began to climb the mountain. Then I soon realized the mountain was also much higher than I expected. Step by step, I began to tire. The sun gradually disappeared beneath the mountains. Meanwhile, it started to rain. The ensuing climb was painful, to say the least, but I persevered and eventually made it to the top.

From start to finish, my journey lasted around six hours. According to the driver who was kind enough to bring me back to Baidi Village (without whom I would have been utterly screwed), I had walked almost 20 km that day. Why had I even bothered, and when it became difficult, why did I continue? After all, how stupid to subject oneself to so much pointless suffering! Was it for the view at the top? The sense of achievement?

I think it is an undeniably human urge – the spirit of daring and ambition, in defiance of the odds, even without regard for safety or reason. Nobility lies in the endeavour, in the act of striving.

Recall again Yi Ming’s favourite anthem, “The Dream of Flight” by Christopher Tin:

“Man will be lifted by his own creation,
Just like birds, towards the sky…
Filling the universe with wonder and glory.”

Like Icarus, let us see how high we can fly before the sun melts the wax in our wings!

– Joe Han

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