Yet Tibetans almost invariably also said that China was implementing development solely to help exploit Tibet's natural resources. "Their goal is to extract all our treasures"—timber, wildlife, gold, uranium—"and to make China rich and powerful," said a man in his late 20s in Chamdo, a town on the banks of the Mekong River.
It is in rough-hewn towns like Chamdo that China's colonization is most noticeable. Along streets either ankle deep in putrid mud or swirling with choking red dust, the air foul with sour, eye-burning smoke from yak-dung cooking fires, new Chinese arrivals throw together featureless concrete shops, restaurants, and brothels to serve the needs of the road crews and other transient laborers. The new one- and two-story buildings bear signs in two languages—Tibetan script on top and larger Chinese characters below.
As thankless as I found these towns, dirt-poor Tibetan nomads are as dazzled as the proverbial rubes who see Times Square for the first time. Herdsmen in filthy chubas roam the dirt streets in clusters, gawking into storefronts at Chinese women in short dresses cutting customers' hair or chatting over cans of Coca-Cola. A single tube of pink or purple neon in the window of a brothel can be as exciting as all the lights of Broadway. "I would like to go in," said a man in his 20s with lank, shoulder-length hair, in the little town of Jamdun, a few miles east of the Mekong River. "But I have no money." Few Tibetans do, but that doesn't stop them from aspiring to the pleasures of the towns. And Beijing seems to be counting on that hope to eventually win Tibetan hearts and minds.
One soft evening in the northeastern corner of the TAR, I shared dinner with Huadon and his wife, who—despite having suffered, as he put it, "the full misery of liberation and the Cultural Revolution"—seem to be bearing out that hope.
Both 54, they'd lost family members among the more than a million Tibetans killed since 1950; they'd never been to school; Huadon had been frustrated in his boyhood dream of becoming a monk. After the agricultural commune where they lived during the Maoist era of the 1950s and '60s was disbanded, they began growing barley, the staple of the Tibetan diet. They scrimped and searched for business opportunities. Now Huadon owned a small cement plant and a general store, which his wife ran, and a blue pickup truck. Despite his lasting anger over the past, Huadon didn't hesitate to tell me that "there's no comparison between the way we live and the way our parents did."
Huadon and his family certainly seemed comfortably off. As is the custom each summer throughout rural Tibet, they and about 20 other families were spending three weeks relaxing, camped in a grassy field riotously spread with yellow and lavender wildflowers against a stunning backdrop of snow-streaked mountains. A hacking gas-powered generator, a sure indicator of rural prosperity, provided electric light and pumped Tibetan and Chinese pop tunes over the fancifully embroidered large white tents.
At the open front of their tent, Huadon's wife was cooking on a portable gas stove. She'd loaded a long table with dried yak meat, huge mutton ribs—which we ate with a hunting knife passed from hand to hand—bowls of steaming rice and curry, salted nuts and seeds, cookies, candies, watermelons, bottles of tepid Chinese beer, soda, juice, and water. "This is our time for forgetting everything and to eat and drink and have fun," said Huadon, as we raised unending toasts.
I asked about their three children. The couple had sent their elder son through college, and he was now working as a teacher. Their daughter was a Buddhist nun. And, to Huadon's great joy and satisfaction, their younger son, at 16, was becoming the monk Huadon hadn't been allowed to be. The Chinese government bans monastic education before the age of 18, but devout parents like Huadon quietly ignore the law. "I believe that my son and his generation will save Buddhism and Tibetan culture," he said.
People like Huadon and Norbu, who use their participation in the new economy to help preserve the old ways, represent the leading edge of change in Tibet. I spent my most comfortable night of the trip in a shiny new hotel in the burgeoning town of Jyekundo, a few hours drive from Huadon's camp. Proud of his success, Gama Sera, the owner, was pleased to let me use his real name. "I was working for a state-owned bank and came to realize that because of this town's location at the juncture of six counties, a decent hotel could do well here. So I proposed that the local government lease me the state guesthouse for 20 years. Very quickly, they agreed."
The result was a multistoried, tile-faced structure replete with gilt dragons on red-lacquered pillars, a glass-domed lobby with marble floor and electric-eye doors. Clean rooms, clean beds, clean bathrooms, fresh towels, soap, toilet paper, TV spouting Chinese dramas and advertisements for luxury condominium communities in Beijing, and, most delicious after days of red dust and no showers, the prominently advertised "24-hour hot water."
Gama Sera, too, is contributing to the rejuvenation of Buddhism. With his earnings, he said, "I'm helping support a lama whose teachings I follow."
With religious practice woven so inextricably through the fabric of their lives, and with China having systematically undermined it, the Tibetans' fear of cultural genocide is well-founded. Although individuals are permitted to worship, owners of photos of the Dalai Lama, which are seized from temples and even personal shrines, have been jailed for as long as six years. Monks feel the lash of Chinese control most severely. In the Dalai Lama's day the power of the religious establishment was complete. Nearly a fourth of all Tibetan males took the tonsure and maroon robes of monkhood. The great monasteries counted members in the thousands and owned huge tracts of farming and grazing land. They enjoyed the right to use peasants as laborers and to recruit little boys, some of whom they may have used for sex. Claiming moral outrage, although in reality far more concerned with loosening Buddhism's hold on Tibetans, the Chinese have jailed thousands of monks during their occupation.
In Lhasa, I spoke with 73-year-old Tashi Tsering, who also allowed me to use his real name. He said that at the age of ten he'd been recruited into the Dalai Lama's dance troupe and chose to become a drombo, or passive sex partner, for a senior monk. Tsering, who has written a book about his life, said the drombo practice was widespread, but I was unable to find any other Tibetan willing to acknowledge awareness of this sexual activity in the monasteries.