By ANDREW JACOBS, The New York Times, February 18, 2012
HONG’AI, China — Despite the absence of road signs or promotional Web sites, a dozen or so people each day manage to find their way to this sleepy hamlet that sits in the fold of a dusky mountain in northwestern Qinghai Province.
They congratulate themselves for having found the place — and for evading the police — but then come face to face with Gonpo Tashi, a squat, no-nonsense barley farmer who guards the entrance to the house where his uncle, the 14th Dalai Lama, was born 76 years ago.
If the traveler speaks Tibetan, Mr. Tashi, 65, will peer warily out into the road before swinging open the heavy wooden doors and allowing entry to the modest home where China’s most reviled and revered spiritual leader spent the first three years of his life.
If the visitor is Han Chinese, the country’s dominant ethnic group, the gatekeeper might grumble vaguely about “the rules” but then relent.
But if the supplicant bears patently Western features, Mr. Tashi can be relied upon to throw up his hands with dramatic effect and shoo the interloper back toward the vehicle that made the hourlong drive from the provincial capital. “Leave, leave now,” he will shout. “If they come, you will be in trouble.”
“They” refers to the local public security personnel who occasionally block the road to Hong’Ai or stand outside the Dalai Lama’s ancestral home, especially when there is trouble brewing somewhere on the expansive plateau where most of China’s 5.4 million ethnic Tibetans live.
That this state-financed shrine to the Dalai Lama exists at all highlights Beijing’s complex and contradictory attitude toward a man it frequently describes as a terrorist, a separatist and “a wolf in monk’s robes.” Since relations between the exiled Tibetan leader and the Chinese government took a nose dive in the mid-1990s, even possession of the Dalai Lama’s picture is considered a crime.
The government’s official line is that the Dalai Lama is agitating for an independent Tibet, even as he insists that he is seeking only meaningful autonomy. In recent months, the government has sought to blame him for the self-immolations of about two dozen Tibetans, a ghastly act of protest against Chinese rule that he has condemned.
Hong’Ai, or Taktser as it is known in Tibetan, has long been on the receiving end of that official ambivalence. In the mid-1980s, when talks were proceeding reasonably well, the government rebuilt the Dalai Lama’s birthplace, which had been destroyed during the antireligious fervor of the Cultural Revolution.
In 2010, the local Communist Party poured 2.6 million renminbi, or about $410,000, into Hong’Ai, upgrading the town’s 54 residences, including the Dalai Lama’s homestead, with the aim of turning the place into a lucrative tourist attraction. The improvements included tall, white-tile gates for every home and a colorfully painted but imposing wall in front of the Dalai Lama’s home that prevents visitors from peering inside.
In an article about the town in 2010, the official Xinhua news agency boasted that the improvements to each house had cost more than 10 times as much as the average villager’s annual income. “Everyone was enthusiastic,” a township official was quoted as saying about the renovations.
Mr. Tashi, the caretaker, made out particularly well, having received a modern toilet to replace an arrangement that involved two planks over a trench. “Maybe when I am too old to squat, the flush toilet will be useful,” Xinhua reported him as saying.
Other official news accounts were slightly disparaging, calling him a “big shot” and pointing out that his family owns a car paid for with a handsome government salary augmented by visitor donations. Two of his three children, one article said, are Communist Party members.
That same account said that Mr. Tashi had visited his uncle twice in the 1990s in India and that he yearned for his return. “I miss him very much,” he said.
According to official figures, a majority of the town’s 274 residents are Han, and even those who describe themselves as Tibetan cannot speak their ancestral tongue. In his 1990 autobiography, “Freedom in Exile,” the Dalai Lama said his family spoke no Tibetan, only a dialect of Mandarin. It was only when he and his family moved to Lhasa — after high-ranking lamas identified him as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama — that he learned the language.
In his book he described his hometown in bleak terms, recounting the crop failures and the harsh winters. His last visit was in 1955, four years before he fled to India during a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
Those who make it past Mr. Tashi’s temperamental door policy report that there are a few utilitarian rooms surrounding a courtyard, its center anchored by a pole draped in multicolored Tibetan prayer flags. Just as eye-catching is the late model Volkswagen, covered by plastic drop cloth, that sits in one corner. One room contains a bed, another a yellow throne and a Buddhist shrine.
Most of the two-story house is off limits to visitors, and the only nod to the Dalai Lama is a small painting of him on the ceiling. Photographs are forbidden.
Those villagers willing to speak to foreign visitors were proud of their connection to a man who, under different circumstances, might have been the most powerful religious figure in the land. A 46-year-old woman who gave her name as Chobai and described herself as a distant cousin said she had once traveled overland to India to visit him.
“We are all waiting for him to come back one day,” she said with a smile.
Another woman a few doors down offered a tour of her home and the shrine that includes two photographs of the Dalai Lama, a distant relative.
After a trio of Dutch tourists pounded on the front gate and refused to retreat, Mr. Tashi’s 45-year-old nephew stepped outside and watched with a mixture of curiosity and annoyance.
When the police failed to materialize, he seemed to relax as one of the tourists, Lisanne de Wit, described a recent visit to Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives. Ms. de Wit, a 19-year-old theology student, then made one last plea for entry, describing how she had endured a weeklong bus ride from Sichuan Province to reach this corner of Qinghai.
The nephew shrugged and offered a sympathetic smile. “The order has come from above,” he said before shutting the door. “And there’s nothing you or I can do about it.”
Mia Li contributed research.