A massive man shaved bald with a swastika tattooed on his hand motioned for me to come inside. There was a picture of his leader hanging above the tent door, a man considered an extremist and separatist with terrorist inclinations. Those of his kind are relocated, silenced and stifled. They’d better not create larger groups and organizations.
We waited through the Himalayan thunder storm in a tent with Buddhist monks over cups of hot tea, munching tsampa, roasted barley flour, and listening to a speech given by this well-known extremist: Dalai Lama, in China a persona particularly non grata.
It’s possible to see Tibet without paying millions of pretty pennies for an organized tour and without having a Chinese guide watching over your shoulder. All you need to do is to choose an area outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region as your destination. However, keep in mind that all of the Tibetan plateau is a sensitive area that sometimes gets closed down for foreign visitors with no prior notice and is very often subject to intense police supervision.
Every 50 km our passports were checked. It was not unusual for the officers to hold the documents upside down while analyzing the apparently crucial Azeri visas and taking pictures of each suspiciously looking page. One time after another we would explain that our only reason for travel was mountain hiking, since getting to know Tibetans and their culture is severely frowned upon. Red Chinese flags cover the symbols of Tibet, the exquisite Tibetan characters go hidden behind Chinese neon signs more and more often. Police stations are located more densely than restaurants and the tourists arriving at a bus station are escorted to a Chinese, non-inspiring hotel by the police, who will also negotiate a price according to the tourists’ budget.
Hang on, what bus station? Does this mean that our dear hitchhikers got spoilt and started using public transport instead? Well, yes, temporarily. We observed China from train windows to save time and Tibet from bus windows to save… the Tibetans. They’re allowed to host foreign visitors neither at their homes/ guesthouses nor in their cars. On their own land they receive second-class treatment. By accepting their hospitality it’s not so much us, but them who we can get into trouble. Let’s hitchhike responsibly.
Luckily, the buses gave us a good enough opportunity to get familiar with Tibetan history, thanks to the movies with English subtitles played on board. My absolute favourite was “The love song of Kangding”, a heartbreaking love story of a Han soldier and a Tibetan slave with the voice of an angel, intertwined with songs, in which the Tibetans expressed their gratitude. “Thank you for the roads, thank you for civilization! Thank you for education and your help! Tibet is grateful to the Communist Party!”