Published: April 2002
Lewis M. Simons

What was your best experience on this assignment?

I was driving on a dangerous narrow road out of Chengdu, the gateway city to Tibet, when a monstrous landslide stopped me for five hours. While I waited for a military crew to clear out the mess, I happened to meet a young, married couple from southern China who made the time go by faster. They were both engineers on their summer holiday in the most exotic place they could think of: Tibet. As we ate and talked, I found something very interesting about these two. Although they were Chinese through and through and considered Tibet an inalienable part of China, they also believed that Tibetans deserved a bigger say in how their region should be run. And they planned to spread that word when they got home. For me, this offered hope. Maybe their attitude will spread among future generations, which could give Tibet a better level of autonomy if not its independence.

What was your worst experience?

One night I arrived in a town in eastern Tibet and stayed at what was said to be the best hotel in the area. But it was a terrible, grim, concrete block that didn't have any bathrooms or running water, which made for a fairly unpleasant stay. On top of all that, a caravan of men on horseback pulled into the hotel in the middle of the night. They were herding yaks loaded down with bloody animal hides, which filled the whole place with a horrible stench. These men spent the rest of the night gambling, drinking, and letting out blood-curdling yells. The next morning, I couldn't get out of there fast enough.

And the quirkiest?

It's very common for people to spend days prostrating themselves as they circle the great temples and monasteries in Lhasa, the beating heart of Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, it's so common that the stone roads in these areas have been polished to a sheen from the countless bodies that have prostrated across them.