Sharp eyes look over at me from under an olive green helmet. I see fingers momentarily tighten around the but of a tear gas gun. Our guide had said “no photos of soldiers”. I hesitate then slide my camera back into the case. I was aiming at a shop across the street, but don’t want my camera confiscated at the very start of my trip.
Am I giving in to the oppresive nature of Chinese government in Tibet? Well, yes I am. But what would it do any good to snap away and get chucked out? This is a difficult post to write and it’s taken me some time to gather my thoughts. Is it wrong to visit somewhere with an oppressive government, somewhere the locals consider as occupied territory?
In terms of scenery, the wider in picture in Tibet is certainly beautiful. Breathtaking mountains, endless plains, the deepest gorges in the world, everything is on a grand scale. Close up – particularly in Lhasa – you’re as likely to see soldiers marching watchfully down the streets or black-clad para-military police toting sunglasses and shotguns, SWAT emblazoned across their caps.
Round these still soldiers the locals flow like a river around a rock. The odd sidelong glance aside, it’s like they’re inhabiting somewhere else, some other city. And in many ways they are. Except when those realities come clashing horribly together in flames and violence.
This train of thought was kicked off by an exchange I had on twitter over whether you should visit the country and whether tourism is helping the Chinese oppress the Tibetans or not. Despite the strong views on either side of the argument, I think it is anything but clear cut.
And this is an issue that isn’t confined to Tibet, it’s been argued bitterly over visiting Burma too. And what should we do about travelling to places like Laos, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia? For that matter what about Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Sri Lanka? All of those places can claim to be occupied by foreign powers, or run by oppressive governments.
Does travelling to those countries as a tourist support the powers that be, or shine a light on the country, making it harder to hide abuses? The answer, as with so much, is something between the two. The money you spend will undoubtedly go into government coffers as well as local pockets. Is the visibility worth that? I’m not sure, but I don’t believe that not visiting a place, not taking photographs of it, not talking and not writing about it helps. That way forgetfulness and apathy lie.
Visiting Tibet, feeling its beauty, seeing its people, makes the country more real for me. It makes the abuse and the violence more than just another depressing story on the news. One among so many. This is partly why I ravel. I don’t want become jaded as report after grim report come piling in from around the globe.
This isn’t the only reason I travel of course, it would be disingenuous in the extreme to claim this. I like to see amazing countryside, meet people, experience new places and new ways of living. It may be a cliche, but travel does broaden your horizons, it does help put things in perspective. It also opens your eyes to the way people live, the conditions under which they exist. And that’s important too.
So yes, I think that the more people visit places, the harder abuses become to hide, especially in this age of digital and mobile technology. The more contact there is between locals and outsiders, the harder it is to oppress people. Knowledge really is power. If there are no visitors, it becomes too easy for the outside world to forget what’s happening.
That doesn’t make it any easier when you see the tensions, hear about the abuse and with a little reading – or listening – between the lines, realise the fear locals have of authority in somewhere like Tibet. But, for me, seeing it, being there, does count for something.