South China Morning Post, Aug 7, 2006

Tibet's old mysteries lure a new generation of pilgrims


Tibet fever, which started spreading throughout the west more than a decade ago, is finally catching on across the mainland, where people are embracing just about everything Tibetan.

Walk anywhere in Beijing and you will be confronted with the phenomenon. On Saturday afternoon, half a dozen Tibetans squat on a street in the Rear Lake area of Beijing, multicoloured Tibetan bracelets, necklaces and earrings lined up neatly on brightly coloured pieces of cloth on the ground.

Just around the corner, shoppers wander around a small Tibetan boutique stocked with Tibetan thangkas, statues, clothing, jewellery and even battery-operated prayer wheels. In the back room, various products are available, including Lhasa Beer, yak butter tea, barley wine and dried yak beef.

Across the street, a tattoo artist pulls out his digital camera and displays a photo of a Chinese customer sporting a large tattoo of Tara, the most popular Tibetan Buddhist deity, on his shoulder. He says Tibetan script is also popular with some young people.

At the Sanlian Bookstore, half a dozen books with Tibetan titles are piled on tables near the entrance, with names, such as Tibet and the Tibetan People and Riding the Rails to Tibet. In a DVD shop a few doors away, a number of DVDs produced over the past few years with Tibetan themes are on sale.

If you want a seat at the Makye Ame Restaurant in Beijing, where you will be greeted by coloured prayer flags flapping in the wind, and a large brass prayer wheel, you had better make a reservation. The restaurant, popular for its nightly shows of Tibetan karaoke and folk dancing, is booked solid on most days.

This is all a big change from a decade ago, when most mainlanders looked at Tibet and its culture with a mixture of fear and suspicion. Today, it is this same sense of mystery that is attracting a new generation of mainlanders.

Travel writer Yi Zhi says his father's generation felt Tibet was backward with a poor standard of living, and so there was no appreciation of Tibetan culture. 'Younger people today have a broader view,' he says. 'The media is more developed, and people have many more channels for understanding Tibet and its culture. As a result, Tibet is something mysterious, lofty and desirable.'

Yi's The Cowhide Tibetan Area Book was published in 2001. Packed with 422 pages of text, photographs, sketches and hand-drawn maps, the book sold 115,000 copies.

'Many Chinese used to feel that the Tibetans were uncivilised and the place was not clean,' says Zhao Jia, who worked in Tibet for two years in the tourism business before becoming a photographer. 'But a lot of people have gone there and now they understand it a lot more.' He has already completed two books, and one photo book on Tibet, and is working on two new ones due out at the end of the year.

The new Qinghai-Tibet Railway to Lhasa opened on July 1, providing cheaper transport that will open the area wider to tourism. The city has since been flooded with tourists from the mainland, with some critics saying the influx is a threat to the survival of Tibetan culture. Visitors must now line up for hours, and at least a day in advance, to get a ticket to see the Potala Palace.

Albert Ng, of upmarket travel company Wild China based in Beijing, says people are desperate to get a train seat to 'the roof of the world'. He says: 'Tibet is the cool place to go. If you've been there, you've got bragging rights.'

Julie Zhu, a 20-something media expert, says she's been interested in Tibet since middle school, when Chinese singer Zhu Zheqin, also known by the Tibetan name Dadawa, came out with her Sister Drum album, which incorporated traditional and religious music from Tibet.

Ms Zhu is also a fan of contemporary Tibetan musicians, whose repertoire includes everything from traditional Tibetan folk music to hip hop and rock.

The fascination with Tibetan culture has also given rise to a small, but growing, interest in Vajrayana, which is practised in Tibet. The crowd doing the 3km circuit around the Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, Gansu province, one afternoon in July is mainly Tibetan nomads, but there is also a sprinkling of Chinese spinning the several hundred prayer wheels lined up along the path.

Photographer Zhao Jia says there is a general need among Chinese to believe in something. 'The economy is expanding quite rapidly and people need religion to provide some balance in their lives,' he says. For some, Tibetan Buddhism provides that balance.

A traveller from Nanjing , who gave his name only as Mr Guo, visited Lhasa with several friends, all new adherents to Tibetan Buddhism. They had just arrived from Qinghai province , where they visited another monastery, and in a few days planned to head to the Lamusi Monastery, four hours down the road in Sichuan province .

Mr Guo said he was intrigued by the mysterious aspects of the religion. 'I'm really attracted by mizong,' he says, referring to the esoteric doctrine - unique to Tibetan Buddhism - in which students learn basic secret tenets from a teacher and cannot disclose them to the uninitiated.

Chan Koon-chung, a writer and commentator from Hong Kong, also points to the colourful rituals, mysticism, and magic surrounding Tibetan Buddhism. 'Many people love this part of Buddhism,' Mr Chan said, adding that Tibetan Buddhism enjoyed popularity because it was considered 'one of the more complete Buddhist traditions'.

'If you really get into it, you'll see that Tibetan Buddhism has the most complete culture,' says Mr Chan, who has been a Buddhist since the late 1980s, and who has studied with a well known lama from Bhutan. While Buddhism was often suppressed on the mainland over the centuries, and during the early communist period, the Tibetans maintained their traditions.

Also important, he says, is that Tibetan monks maintained their lineage. 'Chinese Buddhist monks can't tell you who their [original] teacher was,' says Mr Chan, 'but Tibetan monks can trace their teachers back to the Indian origins, and this lineage gives them a sense of authenticity'.

Globalisation is also having an impact on the new fascination with Tibet. 'Tibetans are beginning to come into contact with the outside world, our world,' says Lei Lei , a Beijing woman who studies with a lama in Sichuan province, and who has several pieces of Tibetan art adorning her apartment. She explains that there are more huofo, or living Buddhas, in Han areas than in Tibetan areas, as they left their monasteries to be closer to their wealthy benefactors and students living in big cities.

Ms Zhu says all her friends are obsessed with Tibet.