This summer I went to a place called with many names. Some call it Tibet, some China. But this leaves us geographically uncertain, and with political allegiances. Some refer to it broadly as the Tibetan cultural zone or as historical Tibet. But this precision makes for quite a mouthful.
Whatever you care to call it, this summer I went with nothing more than a backpack, a notebook, and change of clothes. I traveled with Tibetan poets and discussed modern literature, witnessed an angry monk tear down posters of Mao Ze Dong in a bookstore, observed scriptures being block printed in Derge, slept in a tent with nomads, held an audience with Khenpo Sodargay of Serta, and returned home with a suitcase full of texts as if I were a lotsawa of old.
Now, this isn’t because I’m an important somebody or in any way special. Instead, it is because this land and its people are. What I would like to share here is that, if you consider yourself a Tibetologist and/or a student of Tibetan Buddhism and its culture, then time spent inside Tibet itself is all but indispensible. Otherwise, the Tibet you think you are studying is nothing more than your own fantasy. My advice then to my fellow classmates is to go there and see how it compares to what you imagined.
What they say about language acquisition is that environment is key. And while our environment in Nepal is quite exceptional with a large Tibetan population, it pales in comparison to Tibet’s. In most of the towns I visited, Tibetan writing was ubiquitous with shop signs, road signs, menus, etc. all being written in Tibetan. There is always a new word to be learned just around the corner!
Given the political situation, not many foreigners (especially tall blonde ones) were wandering around. Hence, folks are particularly curious of you and, once they find out you
can speak a bit of the language, all the more eager to chat your ear off. There is always a language partner waiting around the corner!
What I say here may or may not hold true for the entirety of the Tibetan cultural region as I have yet to venture into the Tibetan Autonomous Region. One of my particular interest lies in modern literature and the current renaissance occurring in Amdo, hence my travels occurred mainly in the Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan provinces. Similarly, we have a friend who is presently pilgrimage-ing his way through the Kham side of these provinces to visit living masters and holy sites. These above mentioned provinces are Chinese provinces and therefore do not require any more papers or efforts than going to Beijing. That means no special permits, no hired vehicle, no guides – just a Chinese visa is enough. Despite all these hindrances, I still wish to visit the T.A.R. one day and strongly encourage folks to go if possible. Throughout these regions, it was clear to me that the flame of language, culture, and religion has not died out but still lies burning deep within the people. I encourage fellow classmates, budding Tibetologists, all aspiring practitioners to go to Tibet. The only thing stopping us is ourselves!
~Lowell from USA