When Beijing invites a bunch of Indian journalists to visit Tibet, the words 'Dalai Lama' are carefully tucked away in the travellers' minds. But in case we had forgotten about the Dharmasala-Lhasa connection, the authorities themselves wouldn't let us forget.
At Gongga Airport, where we landed in Tibet, a customs x-ray machine with the special function of finding books inside bags, caught fellow traveller Siddarth Vardarajan carrying diabolical contraband: a Lonely Planet Tibet guidebook. The customs lady explained the book had to be confiscated as it "wasn't true".
The offending bit: a line where the Dalai Lama says "Tibet is my country". While I wondered whether the line merely meant the Dalai Lama was stating he was Tibetan, rather than wresting propriety of Tibet from Beijing, Siddarth unsuccessfully urged the stern lady making frantic calls on her pink cellphone to tear out the offending page and return the book.
I kept as quiet as a collaborating mouse, fearing for the books I was carrying: The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet since 1947 by Tsering Shakya and Tintin in Tibet. Far more dangerous than Lonely Planet, I would have thought.
The first thing that hits you as you enter Lhasa is how modern and different it is from our mental image of Lhasa gleaned from movies and books. The disconnect is natural, considering the Chinese have been cagey about letting outsiders visit. So it's the Tibet of sepia-toned photos of the 40-50s and Tibetans manning momo stalls in Dilli Haat that we carry in our heads.
Ba Yi Road has rows of shops, restaurants and bars on either side. I could have easily been in Manhattan if it wasn't for the signs — Tibetan on top and, in larger typeface, Mandarin below. The roads are clean, wide and, barring a few vans and cars, rather empty. Anyone who talks about Beijing destroying local culture simply by bringing modernity to Lhasa may be suffering from Richard Gereitis, that ailment which makes people want Tibet to be a quaint museum populated by monks turning prayer wheels.
At the square in front of Jokhang monastery, one of Tibetan Buddhism's most sacred sites, I find a very different place from the one in March 2008, when authorities carried out the bloodiest crackdown in decades in unrest that left a reported 80 dead.
Today, a Tibetan stall owner helpfully lights my cigarette while tourists and worshippers throng this intersection of modernity and tradition. I look at a young Tibetan boy on his way inside.
He's wearing an NYPD cap and a T-shirt with a Ferrari logo. Can't see Richard Gereitis sufferers approving this. But who says the 'Gucci monk' in faraway Dharmashala wouldn't approve of modern life coming to his old Tibet?
I stumble on to a picnic behind Junba village after breaking away and following a dirt road between mud and brick houses and used as a jogging track by resident chickens. On the meadow, the dudes are sitting under trees playing cho, a dice game, with each guy shouting 'Thut' loudly with each throw, while another lot are chugging Lhasa beer and playing cards.
The women sit on the other side wearing their best — Tibetan traditional gear for the ladies and T-shirt 'n' jeans for the girls — gossiping and bitching ("You really think these suckers are falling for all this?").
It does look a bit set up (sorry Beijing, but there is a lot of counter-propaganda doing the rounds). But even as a set-up — they do this with British delegations visiting Dalit households too, you know — it's nice to see the happy people of Junba (population: 681) doing their bit to make me want to come back to rural Tibet.
Some 15 minutes later, I'm back in the van. We cross some wet grasslands and get down again, this time at a field that looks suspiciously like the picnic ground I just came from. Yup, it's the same place. Our hosts have brought us for a 'cultural programme' while we sit at a low table, have Lhasa beer, and watch traditional dances. I see one girl a few feet away, chewing bubble gum and wearing cartoon monkey patches, the word 'Angel' and 'RD&G' on the seat of her jeans, titter away.
Smoke for Safety
I had been told China was a "paradise" for smokers. And it is. Not only is smoking not seen as a dangerous, subversive activity in Tibet, it is encouraged.
For starters, you can smoke anywhere and everywhere — hotel lobbies, restaurants, even, barring the inner sanctums, monasteries. It turns out that in Lhasa's rarefied air (this time of year oxygen levels are at a 70 per cent high) smokers have an advantage over non-smokers in that their bodies are suited to using depleted air.
That, anyway, is the standard excuse for every second person I see chugging up. The tourist brochures may advice you not to smoke (or drink or take a shower) during your first few days in Tibet, but the belief here is that smoking protects against altitude sickness. Or so I've come to believe. In glorious Tibet, smokers are free!