One of these young people—Sonam—traveled with me as guide and interpreter; he was fluent in Tibetan, Mandarin, and English. We met in Chengdu in Sichuan Province, but before starting out, Sonam wanted to receive a blessing from a friend, a lama, who was in town. This senior monk, in his early 60s, told me he'd sat out 30 years of "liberation," Cultural Revolution, and other Chinese-inflicted horrors as a hermit, meditating in a cave. Five years ago, having reached the level of spiritual growth he was seeking, he rejoined the world and found that Chinese were fascinated by his story. He was now on the lecture circuit, spreading Tibetan Buddhism to born-again former communists.
The lama received us in his room in a bare-bones hotel where he and a large party of aides—monks, nuns, and laypeople—occupied two entire floors. As he sat cross-legged on his bed, wrapped in a maroon robe, his young assistants flowed silently in and out with an endless stream of plastic trays bearing foam cups of instant noodles, hard candies, apples, bananas, cheese, buttered tea, and Coca-Cola. All had been paid for by the lama's followers—including some wealthy Chinese women.
Tibetan Buddhism, said the holy man, was becoming fashionable among sophisticated Chinese. "Some of it is due to their awareness that Buddhism is popular with famous American movie stars," he said, "and part is because their lives are empty and they feel a need to fill that emptiness with spirituality." In addition, he said with a vague smile, some are attracted by a misunderstanding of tantric practice, an esoteric element of Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism, which they associate with a more erotic sex life.
After taking our leave, Sonam and I headed west toward Tibet. An hour or so out of town, the four-lane superhighway gave way to lesser roads, some newly paved, some barely there, some holed deep enough to swallow our car, others terrifyingly narrow enough to drop it, and us, into bottomless ravines. Accommodations, too, deteriorated: Within a couple of days in Tibet, we slipped from hot water to cold to none; from indoor toilet to outdoor privy to a squat in the bushes; from clean linen to questionable to probably-never-washed to bare mattress.
Along the way I encountered my most enduring image from anywhere in Tibet: thousands of men and women—Chinese and Mongols as well as Tibetans—digging, hammering, blasting, pouring concrete, cooking tar, and meticulously assembling rough stone into towering retaining walls as they pushed an expanding web of roads mile after mile westward through the mountains and across the great Tibetan Plateau.
Like the long knives Tibetan nomads hang from their belts, new roads into Tibet can cut deeply, slicing away millennial layers of isolation and ignorance, clearing access to the world and to almost anything money can buy. But the roads can also cut into a rich—and fragile—culture. Still, although I found no shortage of Tibetans who damned the Chinese, few criticized the roads. "We have to admit that only China could accomplish this," a farmer with a brown walnut of a face, astride a wheezing one-lung motor tricycle, told me as we waited more than four hours for a pick-and-shovel gang to clear a rock slide. "Our own government never did and never could."
This mammoth construction project is key to Beijing's "Develop the West" program, intended to modernize the lagging economy of western China, which includes the Tibetan Plateau. The eventual objective is to fill this open territory—as vast as Western Europe—with millions of Chinese now living in economically deprived parts of China. Just as Horace Greeley advised an earlier generation of ambitious young Americans to go West, the authorities are urging Chinese to move in the same direction. So far results have been mixed, because lowland Chinese find the altitude, the dry, cold climate—and the Tibetans themselves—unwelcoming. Beijing's statistics, widely considered extremely low on this point, show that 122,000 Chinese are now living in Tibet. Those who do migrate generally stay no more than a couple of years, just long enough to save some money, before returning home.
Mutual animosity runs high: Chinese despise Tibetans as ignorant, lazy, superstitious, and dirty. Tibetans hate and fear the Chinese as cruel and moneygrubbing. The resident Chinese seem genuinely puzzled by the antagonism. "We're bringing them the benefits of a superior culture," a couple running a tiny Chinese restaurant in the Wild West town of Dari, near Sichuan Province's boundary with the TAR, told me, with what sounded like utter sincerity. "We don't understand why they don't welcome us with open arms." They didn't understand either how numbing it must be for people with an ancient culture to realize that their country is permanently occupied by what they consider to be a foreign government, or how disquieting it is when a convoy of olive-drab trucks loaded with grim-faced armed Chinese troops rumbles past a village. I passed these convoys on several occasions, and each time I noticed that the Tibetans on the roadside would glance up, then quickly look away, fearful of making eye contact with a Chinese soldier.
A sign of why Tibetans resent the Chinese can be seen, at a distance, in the form of brick-and-stone-walled compounds sprinkled across the Tibetan Plateau—the laogai, "reform through labor" camps. Statistics on the prisoners in these camps are almost meaningless: Beijing claims that in 1995 there were 685 camps holding 1.2 million prisoners throughout China. Harry Wu, a former inmate now living in the U.S. and known around the world for his indefatigable struggle against the Chinese authorities, insists there are nearly twice as many camps and up to eight million prisoners across the country. Perhaps 10 percent of them are held for their political activities. According to Wu, camps in the TAR hold some 4,000 Tibetans, and countless thousands more are imprisoned in neighboring provinces. He says the Tibetans, along with other prisoners, are tortured and forced to work at hard labor and produce cheap goods for international trade; officially they are spared another indignity: the government's harvesting of bodily organs for sale.
Tibetans I met acknowledged that along with oppression China has brought a standard of living far higher than that of their parents under the Dalai Lama's rule. The Chinese have built hundreds of schools, where until the 1950s there had been just a handful of nonreligious schools. They've built hospitals. Everywhere I traveled, they'd halted deforestation and are replanting trees, having learned through bitter experience in the summer of 1998 that the denuding of Tibet caused the Yangtze to flood, drowning 4,000 people. They've built airports and are beginning the first Tibetan railroad. They've also installed a telecommunications network, one that enabled me to dial directly to the U.S. Despite having a phone line to India, the best the Dalai Lama could do to send word across Lhasa from the dim recesses of the Potala Palace was to dispatch a runner.