Please Don't Eat the Donkeys
by David Morini
I just got back from Tibet, which was totally incredible. Lhasa is a spectacular place, surrounded by mountains, some as high as 20,000 feet. Various monasteries and lots of monks running around town. (Monks move quickly.) Highly isolated, mainly populated by yaks (disgusting as food, by the way, often packed into little balls called momo), nomads, and subsistence farmers, so I was a little unclear why the Chinese take such a strong interest in making sure that they control it. Until you realize that Tibet has huge copper deposits and the Chinese are determined to control mineral wealth to keep their economy strong.
There was a violent uprising in Tibet led by discontent monks here not too long ago, so security is tight, with military on some street corners. Various new Chinese police and military high-rises loom over the old city. To come here, we had to get a special Tibet travel visa and with a pre-approved itinerary so we don't go wandering off into the countryside or do anything to "disturb the Public order." Of equal importance, the official instructions also issued a warning "to not eat dog, donkey, and horse in Tibet." It's one of those things where you didn't know you wanted it until someone told you that you couldn't have it. Now all I want to do as soon as I get back to New York is to hit my favorite grilled donkey stand.
The official government sanctioned tour involves lots of visits to monasteries, which tend to be a little repetitive and which I think ultimately lead to Bhudda-saturation. Meanwhile our official guide — whose English was exceptional — would feign incomprehension every time we asked about Tibetan independence ("what? it's loud in here"), Chinese oppression, or what happened to the rest of the monks who were missing from the monasteries (they were apparently shipped off to prison last year).
We abandoned our official guide to go to an orphanage that I can’t provide details about because I don’t want the people in charge to get into trouble. But it turned out to be the highlight of the trip. The people in charge had gotten into trouble for their political activities (again, no details), and now run an orphanage that’s home to 50 children and one pet sheep in a run-down facility that's roughly the size of an American house. The orphanage receives no government funding and is watched by the police. The children are forced to raise money by begging. It was heartbreaking.
On the other hand, the children appeared relatively happy in spite of the conditions, and if the Bhuddist temples could accommodate any more dieties (they do seem pretty full up, admittedly), I'd gladly nominate the orphanage directors.