The railway service between Qinghai (western China) and Lhasa that started in 2006 could be just what the Tibetan people were hoping to avoid.
Sim Kwan Wah, a Singaporean back from a return trip to Lhasa, is saddened by what he sees there.
"Around 3,000 people are now pouring into Lhasa every day as members of Chinese tour groups," he says. "You have to wonder whether the local culture will be able to cope with those numbers without being completely swamped."
|Tagong's Muya Golden Pagoda. Photo: Graham Simmons
Nearly 1,000km of the pioneering railway line are over 4,000m above sea level, with the highest point reaching 5,072m above sea level, at Tanggula Shan station. Even with sealed carriages and oxygen tubes on demand, passengers face major health threats, with deaths from altitude sickness already occurring.
Nevertheless, the demand for tickets seems insatiable - according to the China Tibet Tourism Bureau, Tibet will host up to 10 million tourists a year by 2020.
But despite the potential cultural mayhem in Tibet proper, Tibetan culture is still hugely alive and well in the neighbouring Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Ganzi, now a part of China's Sichuan province.
Until 1949, this region was a part of Tibet; but it was then absorbed into China. Surprisingly, the authorities have treated Ganzi with a remarkable lack of paranoia. The atmosphere here is totally relaxed - hardly a Chinese soldier is to be seen, the visitor can wander freely without having to worry about permits, and images of the Dalai Lama are found in the most surprising places.
Ganzi is the homeland of the Khampa people - wild-looking, fierce warriors who still carry knives and are ready to use them if excessively provoked. The nomads of the Kham region have for centuries resisted rule from either Beijing or Lhasa, and have rarely hesitated to fight for their freedoms; consequently, the Chinese have usually been either scared or otherwise reluctant to intervene too heavily in local affairs.
An exception is the period following the Khampa uprising of 1956. Khampa resistance to the Chinese occupation lasted from 1956 to 1974. Eventually, the Khampa guerillas' supplies ran out after the CIA withdrew its support in the 1960s.
The last battle fight between the Khampas and the Chinese occurred in 1974, near the Nepalese border. This was the final blow for the organised Khampa resistance movement; but as I was to find out, the spirit of the Khampa lives on.
Arriving from Chengdu, I knew when I'd reached the border of Ganzi Tibetan Prefecture. Many of the signs are in both Tibetan and Chinese languages, and the toll booth is adorned with a colourful frieze depicting a Buddhist wheel of life. From here, the Erlang Tunnel worms its way more than four kilometres through the high Erlangshan Mountains.
And then, after another 10km or so, the road reaches Luding - and this is where Tibet REALLY begins.
A suspension bridge over the Dadu River marks the ancient border between China and Tibet. To the Chinese, Luding also marks the site of the legendary Dadu Bridge battle, the most important incident of the Long March of 1934-35. But some of Mao's biographers tell it rather differently. Jung Chang (the author of Wild Swans), for example, says that there was no Dadu Bridge battle at all. However, that hasn't stopped the construction of a big new concrete bridge at this very spot; maybe the legend itself is irresistible.
You soon know you're in Tibet. The kindness of people, the sheer exuberance and joyfulness of everyday life, and the total laid-back attitude quickly become totally infectious. The visitor starts out feeling like an outsider, but soon becomes accepted at pure face value.
The city of Kangding is the capital of Ganzi prefecture. Kangding enjoys an impossible but scenically unrivalled location in a narrow valley, sprawling along both sides of the super-turbulent Zheduo River.
Just walking the streets of Kangding is a buzz, with its fascinating multicultural mix (Tibetans, ethnic Chinese, Mongolians and others) making for pure street theatre. Every night at seven, seemingly the whole town population gathers in the main square to dance. The dancers are a mixture of Tibetans and Chinese, but it's the Tibetans who call the tune.
|An Apso puppy in loving arms. Photo: The Star
In Kangding, I was also privileged to meet up with Janice Ju, who together with Australian Linda Margrie is helping some Khampa from the highland town of Tagong to set up the Khampa Cultural Centre. She kindly offered to show me the Centre, which sells handicrafts and runs horse-riding tours of the nomadic settlements and the remote monasteries of the grasslands.
Kangding's two main monasteries - An Jue and Kangding Dorjedra - are equally intriguing. The monasteries were built by different sects of Buddhism (Gelukpa and Kagyupa); but here in Ganzi prefecture, such sectarian differences are of minimal importance. Ganzi was in the 19th century the birthplace of the Rime movement, which brings together all the different threads of Tibetan Buddhism in a finely-woven tapestry.
Tagong, about two hours by road from Kangding, is not just the 'Wild East' of Tibet. Its blow-in characters from the grasslands look like extras in a John Wayne movie - except that the guys in addition to swords and knives sport Alice Cooper-style hairdos, blood-red hair braids and fearsome scars. Both men and women, especially those from Derge in the far northwest, wear big wooden earrings, while the ladies dress in particularly attractive gold-filigree headpieces.
Litang, in the far west of Sichuan, has a population still over 80% Tibetan, in marked contrast to Chinese-heavy ethnic makeup of present-day Lhasa. Litang has, for centuries, been a staging post on the Chengdu-Lhasa horse-caravan tea-trading route.
En route from Tagong to Litang, the road climbs to a 4,718m pass - that's nearly 4,724m above sea level. The air is so rarefied that my chest seems to be collapsing in upon itself. Fortunately, I had stocked up on a plentiful supply of Tibetan Plateau Ginseng (Rhodiola crenulata) in Kangding; this preparation works wonders in cases of altitude sickness.
At over 4,100m above sea level, Litang is said to be the world's highest major city, with a population of around 50,000 permanent residents.
This number is swollen by hordes of immigrant nomads from the plains - buying and selling horses in the main street, bartering for cloth and jewellery, or just strutting their stuff in local costume and cowboy hats - the latter an absolute necessity against the fierce stratospheric sunshine.
Litang's Chode Monastery is currently in the final stages of a big facelift. This extensive monastery was savagely bombed by the Chinese in 1956, in retaliation for a Khampa rebellion.
In the Cultural Revolution a decade later, most of its shrines were again destroyed. Tibetans still call that era 'the time when the sky fell to earth'.
Today's Litang is a far cry from those days of mass terror. The city's marketplaces are thriving, and are a great place to buy handicrafts and other souvenirs. A silver-handled dagger with a scabbard engraved with fierce Naga designs - enough to ward off any potential assailant - costs around 150 Yuan. Other great buys include copper kettles, jewellery, colourful fabrics, broad-rimmed hats etc.
Out of town, some 20km south on the Daocheng road, I paid a visit to the new Zharge Nyenri Monastery. Towering over the monastery is Drakar Ritro, a pair of rocky crags said to be a sacred abode of the Tibetan Buddhist saint Guru Padmasambhava.
Making a kora (circular walk) around the rocks was a group of pilgrims. I fear that I committed an act of sheer desecration, in climbing up between the two rocks instead of making the kora.
But karmic retribution came quickly. I had looked forward to attending the Litang Horse Festival, but found myself cruelly financially challenged.
I was unable to find an ATM anywhere in town, and had no cash or travellers cheques left. No-one would take so much as a sniff of a credit card. Penniless, I was forced to beat a retreat to Chengdu.
So be warned - when you visit East Tibet, take along plenty of cash!
Several airlines, including Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Thai International, fly regularly to Chengdu, Western China. Comfortable buses from Chengdu, leaving from the city?s southwest bus terminal, service Kangding, Tagong and Litang.
ACCOMMODATION In Chengdu, Sim's Cozy Guesthouse (42, XiZhuShi Jie, Chengdu, tel +86 28 8691 4422, e-mail: email@example.com) is an upmarket backpacker place, inexpensive and highly recommended.
Singles and doubles with ensuite bathrooms are available, some with in-room broadband access. A restful garden and bar, plus live Chinese classical music some nights, make this place a real treat.
In Kangding, Hotel La Da Si, in a little lane next to Hotel Gesar, is a family-run Tibetan-style hotel, inexpensive. On the other side of the Zheduo River, near the bus station, there are several comfortable, mid-range, Chinese-operated hotels.
In Tagong, the Tagong Garden Hotel is clean, with ornately-decorated Tibetan-style rooms. In Litang, the Safe and Life International Hotel (opposite the bus terminal, tel +86 836 532 3861) is inexpensive, with English-speaking staff. It is also one of the few places in town with hot showers.
EVENT The next Litang Horse Festival will be from Aug 1- Aug 7.
WEBSITES For more information on Khampa culture, visit http://www.khamaid.org, http://www.maid.org/about_kham/map.htm or http://www.khamaid.org/about_kham/gaosmap.htm