A couple of decades ago, I was camping in Alaska at the foot of Mount Denali (a.k.a, Mount McKinley), when I discovered a notice that Lowell Thomas Jr. offered to fly tourists in his small plane around the mountain to show it from above.
I jumped at the chance. His dad was one of the best newsmen of the day, and I had just seen a TV movie of the father and son making a visit to Tibet in the mid-1950s. I was planning on leading a trip to Tibet and China, and wanted to talk with Lowell Jr. about his famous trip.
He was very generous and took some time to answer my questions. He thought that the Dalai Lama had invited his father so that the world might know that the Chinese were really occupying the country and denying its independent sovereignty.
Junior told me that since there were no roads, automobiles or carts, just mules used as pack animals, he and his dad had to enter Tibet with horses and mules. Riding out, his dad was thrown off and broke his leg and could no longer ride. So they made radio contact and requested a helicopter fly his dad to the nearest hospital in India.
When I visited Tibet, it had roads and automobiles, but was still occupied by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. In 1959, the Dalai Lama had fled in the cover of a dark night out of Tibet to exile in northern India, which is still his home.
The Chinese closed most of the 4,000 monasteries after they got control of Tibet. But they left open two in Lhasa and a few elsewhere so that the Tibetans, who are extremely strong in their Buddhist faith, would accept the military occupation. The main function of these monasteries is to continue training a few young men to become Buddhist monks.
The Chinese have strongly encouraged migration of ethnic Han Chinese into Tibet. In that region, Tibetans are now outnumbered in their own homeland.
I saw students playing ball outside at the University of Lhasa. All the students looked to be Chinese. Chinese soldiers were everywhere. One new building had this sign: "Built by members of the People’s Liberation Army." It was printed in Tibetan script and English.
In the center of Lhasa is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It is more than a block wide, about 14 stories tall, painted white, yellow or maroon depending on which function was within. Called the Potala, it served three purposes. It was the center of Tibetan Buddhism and the home of the Dalai Llama and about 1,000 monks. It was the seat of the theocratic government of Tibet, which combined church and state. It was also a jail for criminals who got caught breaking the law.
None of these functions remain. Only a few monks stay to take care of the Potala while the tourists visit. It no longer has any religious functions.
Right across the street from the front of the Potala, the Chinese have opened a disco so local young people can dance and drink and forget any religious inclination they might still have.
The Chinese argue that Tibet has been Chinese property since the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368.) The Mongols under Genghis Khan conquered China and Tibet. When the Ming Emperors who were Chinese replaced the Mongols, they inherited Tibet they believe.
Not so, argue the Tibetans. They feel that they are not Chinese but an ancient kingdom with centuries of warfare against invading neighboring troops of Arab, Turk and Chinese nationalities. The British military leader Sir Francis Younghusband obtained trading posts for the British and thus treated Tibet as a sovereign state, independent of Chinese rule, Tibetans argue.
Because of the March protests stirred up by the travels of the Olympic torch, the Chinese have agreed to meet with representatives of the Dalai Lama (meetings were scheduled for Sunday). Perhaps some type of compromise can be arranged, but negotiations will be most difficult. In 1965, China formally established the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but the name implies freedom, and that does not exist.
Tibet has great value for the Chinese because of its location on the border with other Asian states, and its rich mineral and water resources. If Tibet were to be granted sovereignty, would not other minorities inside China along the border want to separate also from the Chinese? Then would China break apart like the former Soviet Union?
Tibet today is like a bird in a cage with wings but unable to fly. How sad.
Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears frequently and on gainesvilletimes.com.