As with other Westerners, what I anticipated finding in Tibet today was heavily conditioned by the exile government's well-organized information machinery. The exiles admit almost no progress back in their homeland, and I expected a people and culture in deep decay. Finding Norbu and others like him, therefore, came as a great surprise. They are by any standard middle class, a breed of Tibetans that barely existed historically and is all but unknown to the outside world today.
Beyond these individuals I was also surprised to find signs of the modern world spreading across Tibet: robed monks wearing sunglasses and riding motorcycles; nomads' tents powered by solar panels; slope-walled adobe houses sprouting TV dishes. At Gonsar monastery on the eastern plateau, 20,000 people massed for a week in a sea of white tents to pay homage to a five-story-tall golden Buddha statue newly installed in a hilltop shrine. While some came on horseback, more drove in trucks, vans, SUVs, and wagons pulled by coughing tractors.
The greatest shift taking place everywhere in China is that with economic freedom now a reality, people are becoming increasingly independent minded. Tibetans are beginning to follow, but slowly and fearfully. Initiative does not come easily to Tibetans, conditioned by Buddhism to be content with their lot—overwhelmingly as impoverished serfs and nomads—and to await happiness in the next life. Added to this, Beijing's spending on agriculture, transportation, and other infrastructure has helped foster a culture of dependence.
Even given their first signs of economic initiative, Tibetans are nowhere near achieving political self-determination. Although many are loathe to accept it, the reality is that China is there to stay. Just as most Americans believe they are the legitimate owners of land once occupied by Native Americans, most Chinese say Tibet is a legitimate, historic part of the motherland. They'd no sooner return Tibet to the Tibetans than the United States would return South Dakota to the Sioux. And unlike the U.S., which had no prior claim on Indian territory, China does at least have an arguable historic claim on Tibet: Chinese emperors dominated Tibet during most of the 18th and 19th centuries. For more than 1,000 years before that, China and Tibet made war on one another repeatedly. Fortunes reversed again and again, at times leaving Tibet with the upper hand. China lost control early in the 20th century before the communists took over Tibet once and for all in 1959.
During the Cultural Revolution China tried to commit cultural genocide by destroying almost all the holy places of Tibetan Buddhism, though it has since pursued a less aggressive policy. As a result the number of active monasteries has been cut from 2,500 before "liberation" to 1,800, and the number of monks is down from 120,000 to 46,000. Now the Chinese government is betting that as Tibetans continue to join the money race, they'll become more pliant and less committed to the Dalai Lama and to what Beijing alleges is his scheme to split China by inciting rebellion in Tibet.
While Norbu is a devout Buddhist, rebellion is the furthest thing from his mind. He believes that he and others like him have the ability to improve their own lives and the welfare of Tibet. "We are taking our fate into our own hands," he said. "By growing rich we're able to support our religion and our language so that our children will be able to remain Tibetans."
In fact, everywhere I went in Tibet, the faithful were still in evidence: pilgrims in dust-coated chubas and Mao-style padded blue jackets packed into open-bed trucks, heading for temples; worshipers carrying out the repetitive drills of Tibetan Buddhism—circumambulating shrines and temples, always clockwise; passing loops of prayer beads through their fingers, keeping careful tally as they strive for millions of repetitions; twirling little prayer wheels around, around, around.
Once, driving at 14,000 feet (4,300 meters) in the eastern TAR, I nearly ran over two monks sprawled in the middle of a narrow dirt road. They were prostrating their way across the country to Lhasa, a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers) and two years distant. This is perhaps the most extreme expression of religious fervor in a society that honors extremes—but it isn't unusual. The monks, protected only by rawhide knee pads and wooden blocks strapped to their hands, lowered and extended themselves from toe to nose, scrambled to their feet, took two steps forward, then repeated the whole routine. After swerving hard and screeching to a halt, I got out and asked the men the obvious question. "For His Holiness the Dalai Lama," one replied after a moment's thought.
Everywhere, too, were the silent but dynamic signs of Buddhism and its affiliated animist culture. Hardly an hour would go by that I didn't pass outcroppings of rock with the Buddhist mantra chiseled in bas-relief: Om Mani Padme Hum . . . Om Mani Padme Hum . . ."Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus," again and again. Prayer flags—red, green, white, blue, yellow—strung from posts and trees like pennants on a sailing ship fluttered their appeals heavenward. At high passes and across table-flat pastures, rocks the size of bread loaves were stacked meticulously into squared-off cairns—more modest versions of stupas. Chinese authorities, despite their paranoia about religion, evidently don't consider these symbols dangerous.
While religion is crucial to Tibetan culture, the language—incomprehensible to Chinese, almost none of whom bother to learn it—is the second pillar of Tibetan identity. In this as well the new entrepreneurs are helping, financing schools and colleges to teach Tibetan to young Tibetans, who are in danger of losing their language as they become proficient in Chinese, the language they must use if they're to get ahead.