on April 5, 2004
Niema Ash's "Touching Tibet" was one of the most beguiling and thought provoking pieces of literature published last year. Her skills lie in the way she personalizes her experiences and allows the reader to relate to her story. Her journeying in Tibet will be particularly at home amongst fellow travellers where there will be plenty of parallel experiences. Something I can empathize with is being underdressed in a cold place, usually en route to a hot destination. Sludging through thick Scandinavian snow in open-toed sandals and thin trousers was no fun, but I had the last laugh when a sweaty Santa decanted into Bangkok's 80% humidity! I have also demonstrated disco dancing to the Chinese.
Also like Niema, I have wept in Lhasa. I entered on one of the few organised tours allowed into Tibet after the Chinese clamped down on border crossings and made Niema's style of independent travel in Tibet a thing of the past. When she went, there had only been a handful of tourists before her. When I went, there was even a Lonely Planet Guide. Much of what I found was a result of the bastardization of the Tibetan people, their home and their culture. There was little of Tibet left. This is far removed from what Niema witnessed as the clinging vestiges of an oppressed country. I recognised that Tibet had lost against overwhelming might. And this is why I wept.
Niema's writing comes in three quite different styles; narrator, storyteller and political activist. As narrator, Niema's recollections resound wih the day-to-day trivia and props familiar to the global traveller; guidebooks, guest-houses and market-place bartering. But, beyond the mundane, her fascination with Tibetan Buddhism breeds an undercurrent of the supernatural; part hippy new-age, part ancient sorcery. These are islands in the flowing descriptive narrative which is also punctuated by stilted and contrived dialogue. For their comparitive secularism, more storytelling and politics would have been welcome. However, she does admit that "Touching Tibet" is not a "sociological, political or historical study of Tibet". There are plenty other sources for that, and Niema is not that type.
No, Niema is like the Tibetans - an aesthetic people. A people who recognise and cherish beauty. Her description of the Potala is exactly right, "The Palace and hill have become one in a fusion of nature, God and man". But this delivery does take skill to maintain clarity, and elsewhere Niema does drift infrequently into states of fuzziness. For example, a few pages later, and on the same subject, "preserving a formidable distance between God and men", contradicts her previous description.
Niema's descriptions of the open devotion at the Jokhang is unrecognisable to me. Only a short time after Niema's Tibet, the country was even further incarcerated by Chinese rule, making it quite impossible to express one's faith there. Sadder still is that Tibet will never again be recognisable to Niema, but at least we have this gift of her everlasting impression through her story.