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Young Tibetans  spinning a big prayer wheel for good luck, Shangri La, eastern Tibet,  March 2010. Photo: TPI/Mike TaylorDharamshala: Coming off the sleeper bus from Kunming to Shangri La, eastern Tibet this March brought more than just fresh air and a mild headache due to the altitude. Outside the bus station is a long corridor for a main street, empty and modern. The lone vehicles look like small jets on a massive runway struggling to take flight as they drive by. After thirty minutes or so of navigating the hollow streets we found the Old Town with renovated wooden shops and prayer flags. We passed stores with Tibetan women on display in their traditional clothes weaving items for clamoring Chinese tourists who came to "see" Tibet. Being my first experience in a community of Tibetan influence I was fascinated despite a growing suspicion that something was not quite right. It was not until watching a unit of soldiers in army fatigues run by my window while drinking Yak Butter Tea. Not until merely playing guitar on the opposite side of a military compound only to get scared off by intimidating looks from heavily armed guards. Or not until seeing riot police armed with their shields and clubs when I went to see my friends off at the bus station did I realize what was at stake.

Throughout the week that I spent in Shangri La, a personal transformation was taking place within me. I remember standing dizzily underneath the largest prayer wheel I've seen and a sense of wonder came over me. We went hiking to a monastery on the hill where thousands of prayer flags adorn the peaceful forest. Then one day I was humbled to my knees in one of the temples and had a vision of traveling through Tibet alone. At that point I made the decision; I wanted to go to central Tibet.

Despite my determination, I quickly learned that it would be nearly impossible to venture legally into Tibet. When I went to the bus station to find out when buses went to Deqin, a border town 10 hours north of Shangri La they told me the road was snowed in. I overhear a person that needed to get to Chengdu in Sichuan province and was told that there weren't any buses for foreigners at the present time. Both enraged we went to the police station to discover why foreigners weren't allowed in Sichuan. The police told us that foreigners aren't allowed in western Sichuan because it was near the anniversary of the Lhasa riots in 2008. They also told me that foreigners aren't allowed permits into Tibet until some time in April from China because of the same reason. Hopes quickly faded, not only would I have to wait for two weeks at least, travel agencies wanted over $1,000.00 for a three day tour just to Lhasa. I won't even mention the prices for a full ten day tour.

Viewing the Prayer flags from hill, Shangri La, eastern Tibet, March 2010. Photo: TPI/Mike TaylorWe were not the only ones having these problems; Taiwanese travelers on pilgrimages had their plans ruined because permits were not being given out at that time. Other travelers who were coming back from Tibet complained that tour guides control everything they do and see. They also told us about how many armed soldiers are in Lhasa as well as surveillance cameras. The people who work in Youth Hostels were terrified to say too much because they feared that someone would tell police about their opinions and be sent to prison.

So even though I couldn't go to central Tibet, I observed the contradictions that remain in Shangri La with China Telecoms and army surplus stores everywhere. The contradictions made it obvious that a cultural battle was taking place. Children attending the youth academy walk down the streets in camouflage where as the others attending Monastery sport their maroon and gold robes. It makes me remember that wars and oppression are often times founded on differences in ideas, like Tibet. China does not have to worry about Tibet taking over China, but China still commits atrocities because of ideas different from theirs. Shangri La should be on a list with countless other cities where modern culture is endangering the once well preserved way of life for Tibetans. It is my hope that the traditions that have seen Tibet through hundreds of years can outlast the childish spread of control and industry through western China into Tibet.

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