Ni Hao all, Greetings from "Little Tibet".
In response to a flurry of e-mails over the last couple of days and in view of the ongoing situation here, I just wanted to let everyone know what's up in this corner of the world.
As most of you know, I've been working on an extended [documentary] project ( a series of 6 - 1 hour programs on "Change in China") since last fall. We are now in the midst of our final, month-long trip of three, shooting throughout China for the series. For the last several days we have been filming our long scheduled episode on the Tibetan culture. We had our official permission to film in the Lhasa area (present day Tibet) yanked last fall when the Dalai Lama visited the US to receive an award. However, we were given permission to film at the Labrang Monastary in Xiahe, Gansu Province. This area was originally part of Tibet until the 1950s and is still very much Tibetan in nature. Actually, according to some of our local sources, this area at present is perhaps "more Tibetan" culturally than the Lhasa area due to the intense "Chinafication" of present day Tibet.
Upon our arrival on the outskirts of Xiahe (a somewhat scruffy but beautifully situated mountain town—think Sun Valley, Idaho type geography at 10,000 feet above sea level) we were greeted by local "officials", presented with prayer scarves, etc. We had expected to be closely monitored by the local "officials" as is common here, but we were surprised that we were allowed to film some pretty amazing stuff at the Monastery and interact with the monks with little supervision. Over the course of two days we filmed a nonstop hour of chanting and music in a beautifully ornate temple, a traditional theological "debate" in a large outdoor courtyard (with many monks and pilgrims in attendance) scores of pilgrims repeatedly circling the monastery stopping briefly at the ornate prayer wheels and prostrating themselves at the entrance, a traditional Tibetan musical group in one of many small and beautifully decorated courtyards of the monastery (Amazing instruments and sounds!), as well as being allowed into the "Temple of the Buddha of Future Enlightenment". Apparently we were the first western crew ever allowed to shoot in this particular temple since it was built 300 years ago. All of it quite frankly has been just an astounding feast of color, culture, sound and spirituality. All of it somewhat surreal feeling, actually.
We wrapped early in the afternoon on Thursday, and I took the opportunity to wander around the town, which is very colorful and at the moment full of Buddhist pilgrims in town for the spring festivals. On the way back to the hotel, I passed a half dozen local police in riot gear headed towards the Monastery. On their heels were two separate columns of about two dozen Chinese soldiers each also decked out in shielded helmets and night sticks. At dinner we were informed that we would not be allowed to film in the town or at the Monastery the following day as had been originally planned for us. Instead we were told that we could shoot at a "Ben Sect" monastery adjacent to a 2,000-year-old walled city out on the grasslands that was about 40 miles by a very rough mountain road from Xiahe.
When we returned to the hotel the following evening after shooting out of town all day, we were met by yet more officials who promptly informed us that no one was to leave the group, that we would be escorted to dinner and after dinner returned to the hotel, where we would be placed under house arrest! No one in or out of the hotel. We were driven in our bus to a nearby restaurant, taken in through a back door and sequestered in a private dining area where it was a bit strained, but a very polite atmosphere of traditional Chinese dining, plenty of beer and local "officials" outnumbering the crew about two to one. We were told that our "Tibetan Tourist Official" was meeting with other "officials" to determine where we would be allowed to shoot the next day. Meanwhile, I was escorted even to the restroom and no one was allowed to leave the room without an "official"!
Finally, our guy arrived and announced that we would be able to film out of town again the following day, but no one would be allowed to leave the group or the hotel until then. Filming at the old fort was on the schedule anyway, so not the worst news. Back at the hotel we were escorted individually to our respective rooms.
At the end of the hall on our floor was a room full of , well, "goons" is the best way to describe them. They kept the door to their room open, monitoring any activity in the hall, and throughout the night a guy in a cheap leather jacket (no Italian leather here folks, most likely made in China!) who stayed glued to his cell phone paced up and down our floor. Outside the hotel, similar types patrolled the exits.
This was a first for me, and I must say, it's one thing to hear about things like this, but to be unable to leave your room, denied access to email, etc. was indeed a strange feeling. Not to mention the emotions of thinking about and not knowing what was happening to the wonderful monks who had welcomed us so heartily into their incredible world and with whom we had bonded with over the last couple of days.
The next morning as I was gearing up for the day in my room, a half hour prior to the call time, I heard a commotion on the street below and was shocked to look out and see a seemingly endless convoy of Chinese military trucks roaring down Xiahe's one paved street towards the Monastery. All of the trucks were filled with soldiers in riot gear. I truly can't explain the feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach as I watched the trucks go by. By the time I had recovered enough to start counting them, I figured over 400 soldiers were headed to the Monastery. Suddenly there was a pounding on the door and a VERY irate and panicky "Official" started grabbing my gear and hustling me down to the lobby, saying that we had to leave "Immediately".
We were led out of town again towards the old fort via back roads, picking up additional "officials" along the way. Meanwhile we were getting news reports via blackberry of how the situation in Lhasa was intensifying. At that point I received a cell phone call from a friend in the States who had seen a news report on the unfolding protest in Xiahe. This was apparently what the "officials" wanted to keep us away from. We had been instructed to not even discuss the situation around the "officials" many of whom speak English. Luckily three of us on the crew speak good Spanish, so we blithely kept up a smiling conversation en español regarding the situation and incoming news reports.
We spent the afternoon shooting in the 2,000-year-old fort/walled city made of mud, adobe and yak dung, which is now a (mostly Tibetan) farming village where life has changed little in the last few hundred years. The location would be somewhat surreal under any circumstances, but midway through the day we received a call that said we would not be able to return to Xiahe at all! All of our things, other than our daily production gear, were of course there at the hotel, including a couple of people's passports! Bizarre news, but apparently the protests had spread through the whole town and our hotel (State run of course) had been targeted, all of the windows smashed out and fires burning on the street. The word was that under no circumstances would western media be allowed anywhere near the town and that all of our things had been removed from our rooms and put in a central place in the hotel. This news was more than a bit disconcerting. There was really nothing we could do but finish our planned day of filming, wait for updates on what we could and couldn't do and try to make contingency plans.
Finally, we were told that our Chinese fixer, only, would be allowed into the town and the hotel to collect our stuff. Huang, our fixer, took a van and driver back into town, had a hell of a time getting through the road blocks, but managed (amazingly enough) to get into the hotel, and get our things. Which, as you can imagine, for a team of 8 (that travels with 20+ cases of equipment plus personal bags) is no small feat.
At dusk we left the remote Ben Monastery near the old fort where we had finished our day and traveled in the dark over the very rough road through the grasslands and across a mountain pass to a bizarre "right out of the movies" meeting (think Miller's Crossing, Chinese Style) at a remote wooded crossroads. Our bus was met by 2 carloads of "Officials", including our "Uncle Tom Tibetan Tourist Official" and thankfully Huang with the van full of our gear. We were led by the official's car on a series of dirt back roads through the woods until we reached the main road well away from the town. We continued to follow him, flashers on no less, down the mountain pass through a couple of checkpoints.
At the final gated checkpoint, our Tibetan "Tourism Official" had the balls to smile ever so politely as he bade us farewell and asked if we would send him a copy of the show when it was finished! By now my inner Sicilian had had just about enough of this bullshit and especially of the reason for our treatment, which was clearly to keep excessive human rights abuses and the violence against the monks from the world. I heard myself piping up that we'd send him half a DVD for the half of the show that we were allowed to film!
As if on cue as we were allowed to pass through the gate, our way was blocked by a FAST moving military convoy of about 20 trucks headed for Xiahe. Most of them were loaded with Chinese soldiers, but I couldn't help noticing that about half of the trucks were empty. All I could think of was that they would soon be filled with the amazing, wonderful, kind and happy monks who would most likely be taken away to who knows where.
It was a five-hour drive down the Sang Chu River Valley on twisty mountain roads to the nearest city, Lanzhou, where we had flown into last week. We were checking into a nice hotel and were sorting through our gear by 2 AM—amazingly enough, all of which was accounted for.
I must say, it was so bizarre to wake up this morning in my 4 star suite as if nothing had happened at all! I'm still processing what for me has been quite a strange, surreal and emotional experience on many levels. I wanted to share it with everyone while I'm still feeling the brunt of the emotional impact. I know this has been a long e-mail and I know that many of you haven't heard from me in a while, but considering China's treatment of the Tibetans in general, the Buddhist monks specifically and considering the "Happy Face" this government is putting on for the upcoming 2008 games, I feel like it's important for as many people as possible to get an understanding of how things really work here. I also feel extremely fortunate to have experienced the compassionate spirituality and hospitality of the Monks of Labrang, but also to havewitnessed the pathetic, deceitful, desperate and violent oppression of this incredible culture and the suppression of those of us who would tell this story to the world.
I hope you are all well, and please: NEVER take for granted the fact that we can come and go, say and do as we please. The Tibetans should be so lucky.
Namaste and Ciao for now,
[Photos by Spence Palermo]