March wasn´t a great month for Julius Caesar, and historically it hasn't been an easy one for Tibet either. For the third consecutive year, the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) is currently closed to foreign (i.e. non-Chinese) travellers, and will remain so for the next four weeks at least.
The month-long lockout is a preventive, some might say superstitious, move by the Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB), connected to various troubled Marches in the TAR´s history. In 1959, the first major uprising against the occupying Chinese began on 10 March. In 2008, small protests began in monasteries on the same date, quickly escalating into riots and violence until late in the month. The region was closed to outsiders that year until late June, in part to prevent them from influencing internal policies.
Some see the strict stance as necessary. “With 56 ethnic minorities in a country with a quarter of the world population, Chinese authorities have to minimize risk,” explains Serge Koenig, a French mountaineer who has visited Tibet for 31 years and co-founded a school training Tibetan mountain guides in Lhasa. “They know exactly what is at stake if they do not.” That “what” is retaining a delicate political balance that few outsiders completely comprehend.
The suspension of permits also means that foreign visitors will sadly miss Tibet at its finest: the colourful two-week Tibetan New Year festival started on 5 March. With the 60th anniversary of the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet coming up on 23 May which many Tibetans and sympathetic westerners feel less enchanted about celebrating tension and restricted travel may also continue through the spring.
Travel to Tibet has always been difficult. The region opened to foreign travel in 1986 under Deng Xiaopeng’s liberal reforms, but always required extra permits for non-Chinese, even when the train line connecting Lhasa to major Chinese cities opened in July 2006. Since 2008, requirements have been expanded to generally include a pre-set itinerary, group travel, a mandatory guide and a one-week maximum stay. Some areas of the TAR, like the holy Mount Kailash or Mount Everest, require additional permits or are often shut down completely.
Still, a visit to the world
s rooftop is worth waiting for. Even as the region booms with controversial new developments and tourist facilities (this May also sees the official opening of the five-star St Regis hotel in Lhasa, and a Shangri-La and an Interncontinental will follow in 2012), Tibets heady holiness and captivating people remain as mysterious as the subtleties of its convoluted politics.