Until only a few years ago, the only thing I knew about Tibet was that lots of people who like the Grateful Dead, hugging trees and world peace (according to the many bumper stickers on their car) also wanted Tibet to be free.
The Tibet Autonomous Region is technically a part of China, but it is a world apart.  The people, the language, the religion, the clothes, the culture, the food – well, everything – is different from the rest of China.  It is geographically located in the western part of China, north of India and Nepal.  In Southern Tibet lie the great Himalaya mountains, including Mt. Everest which straddles the border of Tibet and Nepal.  With an average elevation of 15,400 feet, Tibet is known as the “Rooftop of the World”.

The greatest distinguishing characteristic of Tibet is its religion.  Tibetans practice a form of Buddhism that is unique to this area.  To a Westerner’s eye, it is much more ritualistic and colorful than schools of Buddhism you’ll find in other parts of Asia.  When you’ve seen pictures of monks wearing funny-looking hats and chanting “Om” in a deep voice, there’s a good chance they were Tibetan Buddhists.
The leader of the Tibetan Buddhists is the Dalai Lama ((“So I jump ship in Hong Kong and make my way over to Tibet, and I get on as a looper at a course over in the Himalayas. A looper, you know, a caddy, a looper, a jock. So, I tell them I’m a pro jock, and who do you think they give me? The Dalai Lama, himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald… striking. So, I’m on the first tee with him. I give him the driver. He hauls off and whacks one — big hitter, the Lama — long, into a ten-thousand foot crevice, right at the base of this glacier. And do you know what the Lama says? Gunga galunga…gunga — gunga galunga. So we finish the eighteenth and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, “Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.” And he says, “Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.” So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.” – Carl Spackler (aka Bill Murray), from Caddyshack, the movie.  Sorry, folks, but I had to do it.)).  According to Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of a prior Dalai Lama.  He is to Tibetans as the Pope is to Catholics – and then some.  They worship him.   As you may know, the Dalai Lama met President Bush while on a US visit a few weeks ago.  This was major news in Tibet and in China (where the officials expressed their great disappointment on the meeting).  In fact, the government temporarily halted issuing permits for foreigners to visit Tibet ((In order to enter Tibet, foreigners must be part of a “tour group” and be issued a permit, which of course costs money.  I’m assuming the permit is there in order to keep out “Free Tibet” activists, but it’s mainly a farce and an easy way for the Chinese government to make money.  For independent travellers – like us – who avoid tour groups at all costs, with the help of travel agencies you are able to receive a permit as a “tour group” of two – in our case, Shanna and me – and not actually have a guide or set itinerary.))  Luckily, they quickly changed the policy, and we were able to obtain a permit.
Tibet and China have had a long history as neighbors, with Tibet remaining independent from China for most of its history.  This began to change in the past few decades.  In 1950, China invaded Tibet, making Tibet a “national autonomous region” with the Dalai Lama still in charge.  This didn’t go well, and things started getting ugly.  Eventually, it got so bad that the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet in 1959, making India his new home.

The next several years were brutal for Tibet.  Communist China and its anti-religion movement had a field day in Tibet, banning religion, destroying religious buildings (reportedly over 4,000 monasteries were destroyed) and burning religious texts during the Cultural Revolution.  Many Tibetans, including monks and nuns, lost their lives during this time.   The Tibetans refer to this period as the time that the “sky fell to the earth.”
After the ban on religion was removed in 1976, Tibetan Buddhism and culture began to re-emerge.  Calls for independence from China have occurred since then, but have been quickly squashed by the Chinese government.  Therefore, the “Free Tibet” cause has largely occurred outside the borders of Tibet.  Of course, the Chinese are not willing to budge on their stance on Tibet, noting that Tibetans should be thankful to the Chinese for rescuing them from the serfdom that existed before the Chinese arrived and for investing millions of dollars in Tibetan infrastructure and other government services.

The future of Tibet is unclear.  Thousands of Chinese are moving into Tibet because they believe opportunity awaits them, similar to the Go West movement in America in the mid-1800s.  This mass migration, plus the increase of Chinese tourists, has been facilitated by the recent completion of a new railway linking mainland China with Tibet.  Many Tibetans believe this addtional Chinese influence will ultimately lead to the dissolution of the Tibetan culture and an end of Tibet as it is today.  Stay tuned!