An old friend of mine who I used to ride with and is now an internationally traveled and almost stereotypical surfer once said to me, you’re either an ocean person or a mountain person. It’s not until you’ve experienced the best and worst of the realities of both environments that you find which is the one for you. It took years to really understand what this meant, but I think he’s right. You can enjoy both, but you only feel truly comfortable or at home in one place. I know that I’m a mountain person. It doesn’t matter if it’s the most amazing golden sandy beach with equatorial warm ocean water and offshore reefs awash with aquatic wildlife. There is no contest to the mountains in my book.
In my visit to the RGS in October, I borrowed a copy of Imagining Tibet from the Library. It’s an academic text, so it’s not really one of those books that is difficult to put down, it actually quite hard to get into the right frame of mind to absorb it. I chose it because Tibet is one of those places I would really love to go and ride a mountain bike. When people talk about traveling in Asia, I don’t think about Bali or Hong Kong, I’m thinking of the ceiling of the world, the big mountains and plateaus. In the book there is a chapter by Jamyang Norbu, called Behind the Lost Horizons which other than making me think of the music from an album by Lemon Jelly, contains a paragraph of text that I think is very accurate. Although not rewritten word for word, it essentially states:
The desire to maintain the cultural purity of such Shangri-la-like societies as Tibet and Ladakh or certain Amazon Indian tribes seems to necessitate cocooning them against the realities of the outside world, especially politics, commerce, and technology. Development for such societies is only deemed appropriate when it is nonmilitary, nonindustrial, and environmentally friendly in nature. Such considerations are probably well meant and sincere, but often ignore society’s own changing history, its role (however humble) in geopolitical strategies and even in the desires of its people, who may be seeking change for their own reasons. When Claude Levi-Strauss said that anthropology is the handmaiden of colonialism, he was probably not envisioning the kind of “New Age” colonialism that the few surviving ancient cultures in this world have to put up with.
So if and when I go to Tibet I want to remember this. I want to be able to focus on the natural landscape that has drawn me there, not the fact that I am privileged to have flown half way around the world to be able to take it all in. I am not going there hoping for a cultural or religious life changing experience. As Norbu writes, however hopeless their cause or marginal their survival, Tibetans are better off living their own reality than being typecast in ethereal roles in the fantasies of the West. In my mind no matter how wonderful the people of Tibet are and irrespective of how jaw-droppingly beautiful its environment, it is not going to save our materialistic and self-destructive consumerist society.