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  Culture Journals - Silk Road Journeys
  Issue No. 5 : Six Days in Tibet

This summer I paid my first visit to the Tibet Autonomous region and the neighbouring Chinese province of Qinghai. Stretching southwest from the gateway city of Lanzhou, this is a different part of the Silk Road to the Gobi desert areas of Xinjiang and Gansu (where I have culture hotels in Turpan and Dunhuang respectively). Besides being amazed by the landscape of the Tibetan-Qinghai plateau, the journey enlightened me in two respects: first, that the culture here is as rich as that found on China's central plains, and secondly that Tibet's famed medicine is based on scientific practices dating back more than a century, not on magic or myth.

Modern Tibetan culture has its roots in the Tang dynasty, 1,300 years ago. At that time the Tibetan king, Soun Jan Ganbu, forged strong links with the Chinese imperial household to the extent of marrying the emperor's daughter. There was serious cultural exchange between China and Tibet during this era, as evidenced by the literature and works of art one can view in Tibet today. Indeed the Tang dynasty treasures of Tibet are richer than anywhere else in China because they were spared the ravages of a century of wars, up to and including the Cultural Revolution. Until visiting Tibet, I had failed to realize the enormity of the destruction to 5,000 years of culture caused by civil war in China.
The Tibetans are scholarly people. Contemporary Chinese professors have been translating the Tibetan encyclopedia into the Han language, but in 30 years they have only managed to complete about 25 per cent of the work: the writings are so learned and detailed. Although Tibet has been cut off from the outside world for so long, I found the people surprisingly knowledgeable about current affairs. They do have CNN, but I believe this is a recent acquisition! We could communicate on every subject: they know Putonghua, of course, and many of them speak very good English. 
The group of Hong Kong businessmen with whom I traveled - on the invitation of the Chinese government to attend the opening of the All Ethnic Peoples' Sports Meeting - was given free access to the region. My impression is that Beijing no longer wishes to isolate Tibet. They are currently building a railway linking Xining, the capital of Qinghai, to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, the first in a number of major infrastructure projects that will improve communications and tourism in the region. They have allowed Italian curators and art restorers into Tibet to preserve the wonderful Tanka paintings and the ornate murals on the monastery walls. In some leading monasteries, visitors are welcomed by foreign monks who are residents there.
One of the highlights of my journey was visiting the Tibetan Medical Research Centre in Lhasa. I was amazed by the detail and sophistication of the techniques, equipment and anatomical drawings that existed 1,300 years ago. Chinese medicine is one area earmarked for business development in Hong Kong. Tibetan medicine has special properties that set in apart from the rest of China. The prescriptions are wonderfully effective. One member of our group suffered from gout; the doctors at the centre gave him some medicine that stopped the problem immediately.
The herbs and powders used in Tibetan medicine are harvested at extremely high altitudes and some of them come from plants and animals that are on the endangered species list. There are business prospects here for international group who can work with the centre to establish farms to cultivate and safely harvest the ingredients. Once this has been achieved, the centre can apply to the World Health Organization for the exemption of its medicines from present bans against importation. 
I was fascinated by the religious devotion of the Tibetan people. They will travel hundreds of miles to pay their respects to the statues of Buddha in the important temples and the lamas at the famous monasteries. They call this pilgrimage "kneel three times, knock nine times". Thus, they make slow progress.- repeatedly kowtowing so their foreheads knock against the ground - as they travel. I was also stunned by the magnificent art. You can see works on display in the new hotels and buildings, but I would urge the local government to build a respected museum of art, where visitors can appreciate the treasures in a fitting environment and local artists can get the recognition that they deserve.
The architecture of the region is interesting in the way local rock is used in the building of homes, with three branches used as rooftops, giving it a distinctive Tibetan look. The area is bursting with ethnic colour; not only are there Tibetan culture and customs to absorb but also the lifestyle of the Mongolian tribesmen who inhabit parts of Qinghai. In the Qinghai Lake area, we got a chance to pitch tents and watch a traditional display of wrestling and dancing. Then we traveled to central Qinghai, to Gaermu, the Salt Lake City of China. During this 18-hour train ride from Xining, we witnessed incredible differences in landscape and weather conditions: from one side of the train we could see brilliant blue sky, on the other a dramatic rainstorm. It was so unlike the monotony of the Gobi desert, though I learnt later our destination was only seven hours from Dunhuang.
The trip to Tibet was tougher, given the higher altitude. As soon as I alighted from the plane, I felt like I was floating. I was advised not to do anything, not to exert myself at all - not even take a bath. It was good advice and we noticed that the older, less active members of the party adapted to the altitude better than the younger ones (sometimes it pays to have age on one's side!) 
The Potala, the famous palace in Lhasa was as remarkable as any of the acknowledged wonders of the world. It towers over the whole area, causing one to wonder how they managed to build it with the primitive tools available 1,200 years ago. With the sky so blue, you really do feel like you are touching heaven.
We traveled four hours by car from Lhasa to Xigaze, the second largest city in Tibet, traveling along the banks of the Yalujanbo, the third largest river in China. Here the landscape was rocky and desolate, unlike the lush country found closer to the border with Nepal. It was awe-inspiring.
Back in Lhasa, we enjoyed being tourists, pottering around the streets laid out in octagonal patterns and seeing the ethnic arts, the weavings and the religious relics. We slept Tibetan style on carpets and cushions and bought air from jars in the market. There are some colourful, tourist-oriented hotels in Lhasa already, but the service is generally poor. It was at this point that the business side of my nature reasserted itself and I now have a team in Lhasa identifying the right site for a culture hotel which, without doubts, is at the foot of the palace.
Tibet has immense promise as a tourist destination, but the season is short - there are only three months in the year when the country is free of ice and snow or wind. Qinghai has greater potential for development. Within a two-and-a-half drive of Xining, you can see all the riches of the region's cultural heritage: the arts, the dances, the villages, and the nomads' tents. You can also indulge in herbal bath treatments that are far better than any now popular with tourists in Taiwan. In this remote part of western China, the herbal baths are amazing. Each individual is checked by a doctor and prescribed and individual potpourri of herbs and potions to add to his own private bath or steam room.
From a businessman's perspective, I am aware of potential repercussions from any international political standoff over Tibet. Americans and Europeans need special visas to enter Tibet and if the political situation should suddenly become more sensitive it could wipe out the whole tourist season. From my journey, I would say that the Western press has exaggerated the Chinese government's heavy-handed treatment of the Tibetan people. By opening the region to tourism which the authorities seem keen to do - such rumours and misconceptions would subside.
By Peter M.K. Wong


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