Thursday, April 3, 2008

What a Beautiful Photograph

Between a Crackdown and a Tibetan Welcome
Michael Benanav for The New York Times
Between a Crackdown and a Tibetan Welcome

One writer’s peaceful experience in Western Sichuan during the riots left him yearning to return.

THE ride in the Chinese minivan had taken 11 hours. After enduring multiple delays, the crossing of a treacherous 16,000-foot mountain pass and a seatmate who chain-smoked the entire way, casually flicking the ashes into his lap, I had arrived in Dege. I was in the culturally Tibetan area of western Sichuan Province, practically on the border of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. I had come to Dege to visit the sacred Bakong monastery, which is both the world’s largest library of ancient Tibetan Buddhist texts and a printing house where monks hand-ink thousands of pieces of religious paraphernalia every day.

Michael Benanav for The New York Times

Chinese soldiers in front of the sacred Bakong Monastery in Dege.

Michael Benanav for The New York Times

A Buddhist monk in Dege.

It was Wednesday, March 19.

Moments after I sat down in the lounge of the cheap but comfortable Gesar Guesthouse, two police officers entered. The man, in a blue uniform, sat across from me and never spoke. The woman, who wore a long gray coat and a black sweater that said “Police” where an alligator emblem might have been, did all the talking, through a translator. “We advise that you leave here tomorrow,” she said. “It’s very dangerous.” It was, I confirmed, a polite way of kicking me out of town. The police were always polite. “It’s for your own safety,” she insisted.

All of western Sichuan had been closed to foreigners. According to news reports, thousands of Chinese soldiers were flooding into the area to douse any revolutionary sparks threatening to ignite in Tibetan lands, following the riots in Lhasa a few days earlier. Tourists already in the region were being gently expelled; those heading toward it were stopped at checkpoints and ordered to turn back. For the time being, this travelers’ paradise — with sky-scraping alpine scenery, stunningly beautiful people and a culture that exudes the exotic in everything from its dress to its religion to its architecture — was completely sealed off.

I knew about Lhasa, of course. I’d seen long Army convoys trundling over roads throughout the region, with canopied trucks filled with uniformed young men. Camouflaged troops marched through every major town, with helmets on, riot shields raised, clutching batons and chanting with the intent to intimidate.

On Tuesday, March 18, while I was staying in the town of Ganzi, a small clash erupted; according to residents, a group of some 20 monks and their supporters were vocally but nonviolently protesting the arrest of a Buddhist nun who had phoned India — banned since the events in Lhasa — when they were attacked by soldiers. Local rumors alleged between one and five protesters beaten to death, with no soldiers hurt. (The Tibetan government-in-exile names three killed.) Stores on the usually lively streets were promptly shuttered, many people stayed indoors, and police vehicles cruised around broadcasting messages of Chinese-Tibetan unity from loudspeakers.

Despite all this, I felt perfectly safe. The soldiers ignored me, and the Tibetans were as genuinely, enthusiastically welcoming as any people I had met anywhere on the planet. I understand how one who wasn’t there could question my judgment, could think I’m naïve. But for the hours in Ganzi immediately after the episode of excessive force, there was no real menace in the air, and no sense of a riot or rebellion simmering below the surface. The soldiers generated a temporary tension when they marched by, but townspeople mostly viewed them as an insult or a nuisance, not an imminent threat. In all, everything felt calm.

I have an acute sense of self-preservation, yet the assertion from the two police officers in Dege that I was in danger — particularly from the Tibetans, from whom I was purportedly being protected — struck me as preposterous.

I thanked the police for their concern, and persuaded them to let me stay an extra day, after which I would absolutely have to leave. And, I was told, I had to change hotels. “This one isn’t safe enough,” the policewoman declared, which seemed to me to be a questionable assertion. Though not certified to house foreign guests, my hotel was no less secure than the one that she “recommended,” which was just 100 yards away, had no sink or shower in the entire place, and provided a 10-foot-long tiled trench for a common toilet.

As our conversation progressed, it became clear that the police officers’ version of reality was being molded to fit government orders. Attempting to reason with people employed to sustain that reality was like trying to find out who’s on first.

I finally turned to the translator and asked if she thought all of this was crazy. She wouldn’t say anything, even though the officers spoke no English, but she laughed in the affirmative.

Despite the apparent urgency of getting me out of Dege, I stayed for three days, since the road out was closed because of heavy convoy traffic. I spent many hours among the local people and pilgrims who came to circumambulate the monastery, and was met with unanimous, unmistakable warmth. They were, conclusively, no threat.

I harbored some anxiety about overstaying my welcome. But the police, who were everywhere, paid me no attention. Many soldiers were overtly friendly, waving and saying “Hello” in English. I shouldn’t have been there, but no one cared that I was.

While this was a relief, it was also confusing. I didn’t know if the rules really mattered, what the consequences might be for violating them and how much of that depended on the whimsy of any given person in uniform. Looming behind everything was the shadow cast by China, its human rights record, and its intolerance of lawbreakers. As a result, I succumbed to a few baseless paranoid fantasies, even slashing slits in my backpack straps to stash my photo memory cards, which were my greatest concern.

Over those three days, the scene in Dege, which never felt tense, relaxed even more. Soldiers began marching without helmets, shields or clubs; they looked like a group of students out for some exercise, their faces expressing that their mission was a bore.

When I was able to return to Ganzi, the checkpoint at the edge of town conveyed an altogether more serious situation. Soldiers with machine guns eagerly surrounded the minivan I was in and flung open its doors on both sides. One of them addressed me in hurried, gruff tones; I calmly replied in English, “I don’t speak Chinese.” He stared at me, speechless, then turned his attention to the Tibetans in the vehicle. I wasn’t even asked to show my passport.

Walking openly around town, I wasn’t questioned once by the police positioned at every intersection. Bizarrely, my presence seemed of no concern to anyone. The mood on the streets was as vibrant as when I’d first been there, and local people confirmed that life had returned essentially to normal. I was tempted to stay. Though deep in forbidden territory, I thought I might get away with it. There were still many mountain villages near Ganzi that I wanted to explore.

Hungry to squeeze every last drop out of the trip, I envisioned myself playing out a traveler’s version of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Recalling the movie’s end, however, and noting that those who wanted me out had badges, I decided I had experienced plenty, and left. But regrets linger.

I’m yearning to return — once it’s safe again.

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