Following a recommendation from a friend, one book I took to China and Tibet was Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster; by train through China. I deliberately didn’t read any of it before setting off, but I read it, chapter by chapter, as we travelled. I saved the Tibet chapter until I was in Shanghai, after our Tibet leg. I’m glad I did. At the time the book was published (1988), there was no train to Lhasa, and Theroux got there by way of a very scary and dangerous road journey. (We often saw the road from the train, and the traffic seemed to consist mostly of huge trucks and pedestrians prostrating themselves on pilgrimage).
I share his enthusiasm for the wonders of Tibet, and for its people – I found them to be warm, friendly, extremely curious, intensely religious and happy. But here’s what he says in his final chapter:
“But the main reason Tibet is so undeveloped and un-Chinese – and so thoroughly old-fashioned and pleasant – is that it is the one great place in China that the railway has not yet reached. The Kun Lun Range [actually the Tanggula Shan Range Paul] is a guarantee that the railway will never get to Lhasa. That is probably a good thing.”
Well, the railway has been built – it opened in 2006 – and the 28-hour journey from Xining was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Lhasa is now to a large degree a modern Chinese city, with new housing and public buildings, a good road system, and 10% of its population now being Han Chinese. (Apart from Tibetans, there are also Bhutanese, Nepalese, Hui, Mongolian and other ethnic minorities, especially during pilgrimage season). But, ignoring the fakery of the floor show at the Mad Yak Cafe (and that may become the title of my next book, so don’t nick it), the distinctiveness of the Tibetan people and their culture will, I hope and trust, ensure that it remains a truly Autonomous Region. If Scotland can remain distinctive after 300 years of integration within the UK, so too can Tibet. It’s wonderful – go if you can.