Any trip to Tibet faces obstacles. Following the centuries of self-imposed isolation which ended with Tibet being forcibly annexed by China in 1950, Tibet has become increasingly accessible, with approaches eased by plane links, paved roads and the Qinghai–Lhasa railway. Each new route has accelerated heavy, government-sponsored migration into the region, and although it is impossible to know how many Han Chinese actually live here it is likely that, at least in urban areas, they now outnumber ethnic Tibetans and have become economically dominant.

There are, of course, two sides to every story. The pre-Chinese Tibetan administration was a xenophobic religious dictatorship that tolerated slavery; when the Chinese arrived, the monied and the ruling classes escaped to India, leaving behind an uneducated working class. China has spent billions bringing modern infrastructure to the region, giving Tibetan people the chance to make a better life for themselves and, ironically, strengthen their culture. Meanwhile, the Chinese migrating into Tibet are not demons. Most are people simply trying to make a life for themselves and their families, with little understanding of the implications of their presence. As with Taiwan and Xinjiang, all Chinese are taught almost from birth that Tibet is an “inalienable part of China”, and to suggest otherwise is heresy.

As part of their Beijing Olympic bid, the Chinese government promised increased freedom for Tibetans, but a confluence of events – the unfurling of a Tibetan flag at Everest Base Camp by some American students in 2007, mass protests and rioting by Tibetans in spring 2008 – ended those dreams. Since 2008 an ongoing campaign in Tibet, Sichuan and even across the border in Nepal, has seen scores of Tibetan protesters set themselves ablaze. Extremely strict travel regulations are in place, and temporary bans on all foreign travellers from visiting the region are regularly imposed. Any visit to Tibet will be expensive, with transport and accommodation options for foreigners limited, on the whole, to the higher end of the market, though Tibetan organizations abroad ask visitors to try, wherever possible, to buy from Tibetans and to hire Tibetan guides. At all times, you should avoid putting Tibetans – and yourself – at risk by bringing up politically sensitive issues: you can go home, Tibetans have to live here. The Chinese authorities monitor internet activity here more strictly than in the rest of the Republic so, again, avoid sensitive topics and mentioning people by name in your emails.

 

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