LHASA, China (Reuters) – I had barely stepped off the plane, gasping slightly in the thin Tibetan air, when our government minder wandered over to tell me plans for an evening of rest and adaptation to the high altitude had been canceled.

Instead a dash to see Tibet’s most sacred temple, and a news conference that dragged late into the night, set the gruelling pace for a reporting trip around China’s most sensitive region.

The one-year anniversary of deadly riots and 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile are looming in early March. Both are potential triggers for unrest and key tests of China’s control of the closed-off Himalayan plateau.

While China has promised the foreign media unfettered access to most parts of the country since hosting the Olympics, Tibet is an exception. Foreign tourists are also banned at present, except for a lucky few given special permission.

So being one of a dozen journalists taken on the first media visit to the region in months was a rare but daunting opportunity.

Readers outside China are eager for news not filtered by China’s state media, while officials escorting us were equally keen to ensure we saw the region and its troubles from Beijing’s perspective.

Our stamina was strained by an agenda kept largely secret from us but packed from morning until late at night, busy enough to keep us from slipping out to meet ordinary Tibetans.

The area is strategically vital to China for its potentially rich mineral reserves and its snow-fed highlands which are the source of many of Asia’s rivers. Beijing’s rule of the region has also become a sensitive diplomatic issue after a globe-trotting campaign by the Dalai Lama raised Tibet’s profile.

So I was curious to see if the government had relaxed or tightened its control on volatile Lhasa, what ordinary people thought about the upcoming anniversary and whether any of the ethnic tension generated by the riots had dissipated.

Getting a handle on what was really going on in Tibet turned out to be difficult in a hectic, stage-managed four-day visit.

I spent what seemed like half my time arguing against visits to model villages and tourist sites such as palaces, where there was little chance to catch even a controlled glimpse of ordinary life.

I tapped my feet in frustration through trips to a walnut oil processing factory and local astrologers, and simply skipped a meeting with the woman who carried the Olympic torch up Everest.

We were only taken to a second Lhasa monastery after I harassed our unlucky minders and threatened to boycott an unwanted trip to a traditional medicine hospital.

But I was surprised and grateful that officials whose careers could be put on the line by our reporting were willing to show some flexibility. They even let me slip off to a Tibetan market instead of touring the Dalai Lama’s summer residence.

TRUSTING YOUR EYES

Tibet was often breathtakingly beautiful despite the stress and I had a few moments of the unexpected interaction that can make reporting such fun, like when a grinning old pilgrim gave me a slap on the bottom for taking a photo of her devotions.

But we were stalked by disconcerting reminders that in Tibet even our own eyes could not always be trusted.

Locals told us that for our visit, officials had hidden hundreds of paramilitary police who had been keeping order in Lhasa for months. It was the type of large-scale stage-management of reality I thought had been abandoned along with Maoism.

“It’s amazing. The day before you arrived, Lhasa became suddenly peaceful again,” quipped one taxi driver.

When we were taken to a provincial town, police lined many of the villages along our route, their backs to the road so they could keep a close eye on clusters of locals. Officials would not explain why they were there.

And as we were hurried through the halls of Lhasa’s monasteries I asked to meet some rank-and-file monks, the originators of many recent protests in Tibet, but their red-robed superiors said they were locked away in study or otherwise unavailable. A colleague then stumbled across a group of them cooking nearby, but was hurriedly ushered away.

The message Beijing seemed keen to convey was that Tibet was stable and prospering. Yet the careful attempts at managing our perceptions served only to create the opposite impression.

The watchful police, disappearing soldiers, sequestered monks, and days packed with irrelevant visits left me convinced that China thinks Tibet is dangerously volatile, and worries about both its grip on the place and international opinion.

The one thing I am still unsure about, despite my best efforts, is the opinions of ordinary Tibetans outside the government apparatus that showed us around.

Beyond a raised eyebrow or an unhappy grimace, none wanted to open up.

“It’s difficult here. We don’t dare talk” was the best I could get.

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