As I'm sitting on top of a hill, the cold wind sending shivers down my spine, painting the monasteries of one particularly gorgeous Tibetan town, I feel a tap on my shoulder. As I turn around, a young Buddhist monk beams at me: "Hi! Where are you from?" he asks in his perfect English. Many cups of tea later, Ben and I had made a new friend. This was one of the many interactions with the Tibetan world and people we had the privilege to experience this past month. They proved at times inspiring, at times fun, and at other times saddening.
Following the advice of other cyclists, we decided to head straight to the Tibetan plateau from the Chinese/Kazakh border. At an average of 3500m above sea level, cycling on the plateau ensured awesome landscape, cooler climates and shortness of breath. It was also a fascinating peek into Tibetan nomadic and Buddhist culture.
Over his steaming cup of butter tea, Lobsang, the monk who quickly became our new friend, filled us in on Buddhist compassion, his own addiction to Prison Break and Chinese occupation. The picture he painted of Tibet's future was not the brightest: as the Chinese government have captured the Panchen-lama (the monk in charge of choosing the next Dalai Lama) and encourage evermore Han (the ethnic Chinese) immigration and tourism to Tibet, Lobsang wondered if Tibetan Buddhist culture will survive. It was hard to be sitting there helplessly while listening to his voice gradually filling with anger and sadness. He later admitted that Chinese authorities are indeed his biggest challenge to his compassion practice.
Cycling in what was previously Tibet and is now part of China, we had a (minuscule) glimpse of the reality of this transformation. With the surge in tourism, some places bear witness of the 'disneyfication' of Tibetan culture. Chinese tour buses come by hundreds to designated 'nomadic tent villages' so that its passengers can dress in traditional costume, ride lazy poneys around, play archery, and more importantly, take an average of 2.6 millions photos per person. We actually saw a guy screaming at the fore mentioned pony because the poor fellow wasn't looking the right way (straight at its camera).
But it's not all doom and gloom.
As we cycled past Tibetan villages and town in the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan, it felt like the nomadic, Buddhist culture was still very much alive. At least from an outsider's point of view.
In the monastic town of Tongren, we saw monks in yellow hats debating while clapping hands like it has been done for hundreds of years (Lobsang was unable or unwilling to explain what the clapping means- the mystery is yet to be uncovered!). Tibetan pilgrims came from near and far to Xiahe, which is considered holy. We even met three women from Songpan who were walking the three hundred and fifty kilometres to secure a good rebirth for themselves-and probably to share a good time between friends.
At such high altitudes, Tibetans have had to survive mainly on livestock - hence the nomadic lifestyle. This has remained a reality, despite the 'disneyfication' and Tibet's increasing connectedness to China. We cycled past thousands of yak herders, getting the hairy cows back home before nightfall. We were lucky enough to stumble upon a horse racing festival where its participants would go flying on bare back horses. One morning, we woke up to what was actually the horse training ground of three Tibetan guys. We watched them as they attempted to climb on the not-so-long-ago wild horse. When they eventually succeeded, they sang a beautiful victory song and rode off.
From what we hear and read, it does sound like Tibetan culture is largely compromised. But from a short month riding through it, it also feels like a millenium lifestyle won't just simply disappear, despite the Chinese government's best effort.