Published: April 2002

Tibetans: Moving Forward, Holding On

By Lewis M. Simons
Photographs by Steve McCurry
Near the spot in Bodh Gaya, India, where the Buddha formulated his religious philosophy, a Tibetan monk meditates at the Mahabodhi Temple. Buddhists believe this is the holiest place on Earth. Trekking across the border by the thousands, Tibetans join Buddhists from around the world to celebrate many festivals throughout the year. Though their global population is less than six million, Tibetans often have the largest presence at the festivals by far.

Watching his daughter on a homemade ladder smoothing varnish over the red-and-yellow trim of their large new log house, Norbu Choden smiled with the satisfaction that even if there was no getting the Chinese out of Tibet, he'd finally figured out how to benefit from their decades-long occupation of his homeland. "Once you understand that they're never going to help us," he said, "you realize that you have to make your own future."

Norbu made his by transforming himself from a herdsman to a middleman. Like many of the five million Tibetans living under China's flag, he'd spent nearly all of his 48 years in eastern Tibet driving shaggy yaks through alpine meadows, eating their meat and butter, living in a tent woven from their coarse black wool, barely getting by from one brutal winter to the next. Now he leaves the hard work to others, while he buys and sells for profit.

The middleman has a long and storied history among Chinese, but his vital economic role has largely eluded the grasp of Tibetans. Before Norbu's metamorphosis, he would look on with envy as Chinese from neighboring Sichuan Province arrived each spring, buying up a wrinkled little fungus that he and other nomads had dug from the ground in their spare time. The Chinese then sold the brown Cordyceps, known as caterpillar fungus, for huge profits to traditional medicine makers.

Gradually the thought took hold: If the Chinese can do it, why couldn't Tibetans? Why couldn't he? The government in Beijing had long since declared that personal wealth was no longer a social evil; indeed, Deng Xiaoping himself had said back in the 1980s that to get rich was "glorious." So, nervous but hopeful, Norbu sold off his animals two years ago and went into the Cordyceps business.

Earning as much as $750 a pound (0.45 kilograms) from medicine makers in Chengdu, the Sichuan capital, Norbu made his risk pay off. Now he is by his own assessment a rich man. He displays the symbols of his new wealth: the coral-and-turquoise-studded jewelry he and his wife wear on their fingers and wrists, around their necks, and in their long, glossy black hair; the copper pots gleaming in the spacious log-walled kitchen; the sunny mountain mural in the main room. His rosy-cheeked wife still wears the chuba, the wraparound woolen robe traditionally favored by both women and men, but Norbu, tall and rugged, has switched to dark trousers and open-collared white shirt—what Tibetans refer to as "Chinese clothes."

Norbu says what satisfies him most is that he's used some of his wealth to help restore the Buddhist shrine, or stupa, across the dust-blown road from his house. For him, as with nearly all Tibetans, Buddhism is a constant, overriding presence, involving never ending rituals to assure good fortune and, ultimately, rebirth. In Tibet, as in all Buddhist countries, the faithful erect stupas and place relics inside them to bring good to their lives. Norbu's shrine was one of thousands of religious structures destroyed by Red Guards during the decade-long Cultural Revolution launched in 1966; by the time it was over, youthful communist zealots had killed millions throughout China—including tens of thousands of Tibetans.

But Norbu represents the stubborn side of Tibetans. He and some of his neighbors recently won permission from the local government to reconstruct the stupa. "They told us that if we were willing to pay for it, we could do as we liked." Now freshly whitewashed and gilt trimmed, it resembles a giant upended ice-cream cone, gleaming in the brilliant sunlight.

For me Norbu's experiences suggested the first tentative emergence of what could become a significant change in Tibet. More than a decade has passed since I was last there, after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and a previous civil uprising in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Martial law was in effect then, and foreigners weren't permitted to travel outside the city, where drab concrete Chinese buildings were already overwhelming traditional earthen and stone Tibetan architecture.

This time, though, I traveled more than 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) throughout the Tibetan Plateau, where 85 percent of the people live as subsistence herdsmen and farmers. I also made side trips to Nepal, a funnel for escapees, and India, where 100,000 Tibetans live. There I spoke with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan god-king who fled Lhasa in March 1959 and established a government-in-exile in northern India. The 130,000 Tibetan exiles around the world still dream of the Dalai Lama marching triumphantly home to a newly independent Tibet.

This unrealistic hope has been weakening ever since 1965 when China separated most of the Tibetan Plateau from the rest of China and designated it the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Parts of the eastern Tibetan states of Kham (where Norbu lives) and Amdo were made into so-called autonomous prefectures and grafted onto the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan. In reality neither the TAR nor the prefectures enjoy autonomy—they are as much under Beijing's thumb as any part of China, with dissent banned and dissenters punished. For this reason I have changed the names of most Tibetans in the story.

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