Tibet in Vogue

Decades of debate and the best efforts of the Dalai Lama haven't done much to make Beijing budge, but young Chinese are totally taken with Tibet. They hunger for Tibetan food, trinkets and, the ultimate badge of bragging honor, tours of the Rooftop of the World.

By Ron Gluckman/ in Beijing


EVEN A DECADE ON, ZHANG JIN STILL BUBBLES when recalling the excitement that swept her campus. Celebrities were coming! Friends buzzed with rumors. The mood was manic.

  Astronauts? Movie stars? Super models? Actually, just Tibet travelers, but to young Chinese of the time, the ultimate.

  "When people went to Tibet, they became legendary," Zhang says. "They were like rock stars. Going to Tibet was an amazing thing. When I was 20, it was the dream of my future."

  Zhangís dream came true. Over and over. Since 1999, she reckons sheís made 10 trips, and has plenty of company. Hordes of young Chinese are trekking around Tibet, which many liken to the countryís Final Frontier. Imbibed with mysticism, exerting a magnetic pull on certain free spirits, Tibet seems a mix of Summer of Love San Francisco and modern Alaska.

  "Tibet is cool, no question," confirms Mei Zheng, a Yunnanese woman who founded Wild China, which mounts high-end tours to Tibet. Most are priced out of the reach of young Chinese, who backpack around Tibet.

  Still, Mei can gauge Tibetís pull from the reaction of her staff. Every year, workers are dispatched on trips to familiarize them with Wild China destinations across China. "Everyone wants the Tibet trips. Even if they are tired, and beg for no more assignments, they all jump at the chance for Tibet.

  "To go to Tibet is a big deal for young people these days. It really demonstrates your independence, your adventure," she adds. "It says that you are cool."

  Nor is the dynamism limited to Tibet Autonomous Region, the province marked as Tibet on maps around the world. "Itís not just Lhasa, Lhasa," Mei adds, referring to Tibetís main city and historical capital. "That has a buzz, but all of the Tibetan areas have this huge pull Ė Yunnan, Sichuan and Gyansu, too."

  And itís not just the place, its scenery and people that are chic. Tibetan jewelry, music, clothing, even food is gaining a foothold in cities across China.

  Slap Tibetan script on a shirt, and it sells. Beijing T-shit company Journey to the Ants is a testimonial to Tibetan vogue. Ma Yi (nickname Ant) sells his T-shirts on the internet and at a shop near Beijingís Workers Stadium. His hottest designs sport Tibetan themes. One features a prayer wheel, the other Tibetan script of its holiest chant. Ma canít read it; nor can most customers.

  I mainly sell to people who have been to Tibet and want a souvenir, or those who are simply interested in Tibet. So many Chinese think Tibetan things are exotic, super cool," points out Ma. Like most customers, he has an intense fascination with a place heís never been. "Not mainstream cool, but alternate cool."

  Yet the masses also have an appetite for Tibet. Beijing has a handful of Tibetan restaurants; in the 1990s, there were none. Makye Ame is one of two Tibetan eateries on a street of bars and restaurants behind the Friendship Store. The dťcor is typical of all in town: flags furl at the entrance, just like along the path to any Tibetan temple. By the door are two big prayer wheels.

  Inside, a wide array of Tibetan chests, cabinets and traditional rugs. Walls are crammed with Tibetan thangkas (religious scrolls), masks and old muskets. At night, there are stage shows of Tibetan music and dance.

  If Beijingers can stomach yak butter tea, they seem to have an insatiable hunger for Tibetan trinkets and textiles. Young Chinese girls drape arms in Tibetan-style bracelets. Nearly a dozen Tibetan boutiques have opened in Beijing in the past three years, and scores of shops mix in Tibetan ware with other trendy stock.

  Even amongst all the chic shops at Beijingís hip Hou Hai Lake, its easy to spot Garum Meijing. The two-story Tibetan shop has the distinctive Earthy colors and trapezoidal shape of any building in Tibet. Downstairs are jewelry and jade, plus loads of trinkets and textiles associated with Tibet; actually, they come from Nepal, like most crafts for sale in Lhasa nowadays.

  But upstairs is a collection of old tsangkas and antiques, from the collection of the owner, a Chinese follower of Tibetan Buddhism.

  At Panjiaoyuan market, the capitalís biggest outdoor market, Tibetan goods used to be confined to a few stalls. Now, row after row is filled with Tibetan prayer wheels, silver earrings and bracelets, ceremonial trumpets, statues, rugs and chests. Amongst native crafts from Chinaís other minority areas, Tibetan goods command the most attention, and the clientele is largely Chinese.

  "A few years ago," says one furniture dealer, "Chinese wouldnít touch this stuff, except a few who were in the trade to profit. But now you see Tibetan furniture in their houses. They are the biggest buyers."

  Contrast this with a decade ago, when all things Tibetan were largely closeted from public view. Tibetan vendors spread blankets on city streets, selling potions and animal horns. Completing this caricature, the tawdry wares were sold by Tibetans in full ethnic costume, usually dirty, as if they had crawled from the Rooftop of the World.

  Now, Beijingís premium shopping street of Wangfujing has no less than two Tibetan boutiques. Music and aromatic incense fills Heavenís Eye, near Oriental Plaza. Goods include knives, masks, earrings and tsangkas. The four-CD set, "Tibet, A Wonderland," includes uplifting tracks "Lhasa, Land of Gods" and "Eastern Tibet, Land as Bright as the Pearl."

  Up the block, Wangfujingís newest Tibetan boutique, Dian Jiang, is easy to spot. Above is a billboard of the Potala Palace, sprawling Lhasa castle that was home to the Dalai Lama. Such displays would have been unthinkable half a decade ago. Now, the Potala is a popular icon, even pictured on the back of Chinaís new 50-yuan bills.

  Tibetan chic is all the more remarkable when weighed against the dim view of the place most Chinese grew up with. For decades, official propaganda painted Tibet as a land of savagery, where monks enslaved the masses. Tibetan religion was derided as superstition, or worse.

  Some books and films suggested orgies of blood drinking and cannibalism. Even today, broach the topic of Tibet with older Chinese, and they cringe. "The older generation still thinks of Tibet as dirty, as primitive," concedes Mei.

  Not so the new generation. "Young people have an explorer spirit," says Zhang, now editor in chief for Ringier, a publisher that produces the Chiru guidebooks on various Chinese destinations. Tibet is among the best sellers, with 30,000 sold each year.

  Tibetís rehabilitation from Realm of Fools to Land of Cool can be traced to the mid-1990s, when singer Zheng Jun, in leather jacket, ponytail flapping in a free-wheeling breeze, rode a motorbike across a wide plain in the video for his hit song, "Hui Dao Lasa."

  Soon, kids across China were repeating the refrain, those three words from the title, like a Tibetan mantra: "Back to Lhasa, Back to Lhasa."

  Then Dadawa took Tibetan music to new heights. With its Tibetan-influenced, spiritual sound, "Sister Drum," became an international success. Dadawa is the assumed name of Zhu Zheqin, a Hunan woman who grew up in Guangzhou.

  "I chose the name Dadawa in 1995, after the famous artist Dada as well as from the Tibetan for moon, dawa," she explains. "At that time, I had a new kind of music, so I thought I should have a new name to express it."

  There was plenty of controversy, on all sides. Some Tibetans bridled at the Chinese appropriation of their culture, while Beijing at first enthusiastically greeted a domestic release with international reach, but later recoiled at some lyrics, like praise for Dalai Lama.

  By and large, though, the record and Dadawaís subsequent "Voices From the Sky" achieved the same within China as overseas, bringing the spirit and sound of Tibet to a wider audience. "Tibetans at home were attracted to the music," says Dadawa, who now resides in Taiwan.

  "Many liked the fact that I had taken some of what was important to them and tried to popularize it around the world.

  "At first, Chinese people were a bit surprised and even suspicious about music inspired by Tibet. At the time, Tibet was no as popular as it is today." Dadawa has visited Tibet repeatedly, spending a total of about a year there.

  She finds it no surprise that Chinese youth are turning to Tibet for inspiration, since much of the world, herself included, has done so for years. "Unlike in the past, people in China today are more interested in other cultures, including Tibetan cultures."

  Part of this is the natural result of opening up, and the opportunity to travel. "I really notice Chinese in Tibetan areas, and not just from the mainland. Also from Taiwan and Hong Kong, and overseas," says Mei Zheng. "All of this has really been happening in the last two or three years. Tibet is really big now."

  A decade ago, though, Chinese tourists stood out; there were so few of them. Access was limited and travel was rugged, mostly by battered long-distance buses that did not always complete the steep climb to the Rooftop of the World.

  Most Chinese came not for recreation, but to work in Tibet. Official statistics for 1994 didnít even mention domestic visitors. Foreign tourists topped 28,000.

  "Even in 1998, when I went to Tibet, you saw hardly any Chinese tourists," says Peter Hessler, who spent two years teaching in Sichuan Province, recounted in an exquisitely-crafted memoir, "River Town, Two Years on the Yangtze."

  Afterwards, several of his students went to Tibet, and Hessler did the same, describing in a long article the unique Chinese view of Tibet. "My students didnít go to Tibet because it was cool. They went to make money, because of patriotism, or for the adventure."

  By the end of the decade, rising incomes and increased passion for travel and nature among Chinese began altering the picture. Last year, Tibet hosted 928,639 tourists, all but a trickle Chinese. This is more than double the figure for two years before, and Tibetan tourism officials project a 30 percent increase to over 1.2 million visitors this year.

  By 2007, when the worldís highest-altitude train is expected to run from Qinghai to Lhasa, the number is projected to rise by another half million.

  Tibetans take a cautious view. "I doubt if we can call it an embrace of Tibetan culture. Itís a very superficial trend," notes Yeshi Gyetsa, a Tibetan partner in Khampa Caravan of Yunnanís northern Zhongdian, a city that was itself recently rebranded as Shangrila, to cash in on the notion of this mythical mountainous paradise.

  "I think the Chinese who come here are indeed treating it as an Alaska so they can go back and say they have been here." He says they mainly come on group tours for a day or two, and never venture far from the Chinese hotels and karaoke to really experience Tibetan life.

  "I think, overall, this interest in Tibet is good," says Hessler. "I think it is a good step for the Chinese. It makes people more aware of Tibet." This may facilitate a more open-minded, mature view of Tibet. "But whether they take that step is hard to say," he adds. "There is so much historical propaganda in the way."

  Indeed, even Mei, a Harvard University graduation who worked for international corporations before founding Wild China, concedes that Tibet is as much a special case as special place for Chinese. She should know. Her husband, a western reporter, wonít even discuss Tibet with her anymore. "He says Iím too emotional," she chuckles.

  Which all goes to prove, as cool as it is to Chinese youth, Tibet remains a hot topic.


Ron Gluckman is an American reporter based in Beijing, who roams around Asia for a number of publications, such as Morning Calm, the in-flight magazine of Korean Airlines, which ran a shortened version of this story in August 2004. This is the original story.


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