Wednesday marks the traditional Tibetan New Year. But many Tibetans won't be celebrating. They'll be mourning the almost two-dozen people who set themselves on fire in the past year as a protest against Chinese rule. Eyewitnesses say the town of Aba, site of many of the self-immolations, resembles a Chinese military camp, with soldiers and riot police every few feet. NPR's Louisa Lim traveled elsewhere on the Tibetan plateau to cover the story and sent this dispatch.
It was going to the bathroom that almost got us busted — or , to be precise, my going to the men's bathroom. We were at a gas station on the highway. The women's was out of service, so the attendant told me to go to the men's.
While I was there, a local official pulled up in his black car. He got out – with a slam of the door – yelling in that unmistakable "I'm-an-official-get-a-move-on" tone of voice. Then he headed straight for the men's bathroom where I was.
This was not good.
So I pulled down my woolen hat, put on dark glasses, wound my scarf around my face, and scuttled out, doing my best to look like an ordinary Chinese tourist. He was so busy shouting at the guy cleaning the bathroom that he didn't bother to look at me.
Visiting Tibetan areas nowadays is a risky venture. There is nothing in the Chinese regulations explicitly forbidding journalists. But the unspoken dangers deter many. One colleague told me it wasn't worth bothering; the monasteries are full of spies, he said, you won't get anything anyway.
Many have tried, nonetheless, hiding in the back of vans, under piles of clothes, in questionable disguises. If you do get caught, you might get detained and questioned, but eventually you'll get sent home. At worst, you might get beaten up. The dangers are far higher for those who help us and talk to us.
In 2008, Jigme Gyatso, a Tibetan Buddhist monk from Labrang monastery in Gansu province, recorded a video telling how, after a protest at Labrang, he was arrested, held for 42 days and tortured. His testimony was later broadcast on Voice of America.
He's been detained multiple times, and is currently being held incommunicado. He has been charged with taking part in activities aimed at splitting China. It's unclear what part, if any, the 2008 video played in that charge.
Another factor is geographical. The distances are immense. In the height of winter, the ice-covered roads are treacherous. On just one day, we saw seven traffic accidents. As we slid past a truck that had skidded straight into the mountainside, if police had turned us around for our own safety, I honestly would have felt a small pang of relief.
Outside one monastery, we really did get stuck on a snowy road. We were trying to leave, tape recorders full of incriminating material. But the car tires were not up to the job. A police patrol zipped past, and we ducked beside the prayer wheels lining the monastery walls. In the end, our driver finally made it out.
At another monastery, we actually lost our driver. However, we did manage to maintain cellphone contact. To reconnect, we had him drive up the road honking his horn until he was within earshot, while we hid from the police patrols. Not subtle, but it worked.
So given the dangers, is it worth it? For that, I go back to the testimony of Jigme Gyatso. Our greatest hope, he said, is for a fact-finding team of the international media and U.N. representatives to come to Tibet, to investigate the conditions and then dare to report what they find.