Anna Louise Strong Reference Archive

When serfs stood up in Tibet


Thunder and lightning were still crashing and rain pouring when we went to bed in Sining on August 11th, but the weather report said this was the tail lash of a typhoon' in another province and that it would clear for flight by dawn. The forecast was accurate; when Feng-feng called me at five in the pre-dawn darkness, the stars were bright and the air crisp.

"Put on your warmest things", she warned. "It's cold here before dawn and it will be colder on the flight". She lifted into the hall for the porter the suitcase we had packed the night before. I dressed in the padded trousers and jacket that were winter wear in Peking and carried wool socks too thick to wear inside my shoes, but intended for the floor of a plane which gets very cold in a high flight. Breakfast came to my room at 5.45.

I was as ready now as anyone; three days in bed in Sining, added to that one day in Peitaiho, made four days' rest. I would make it do. To prove it, I had gone downstairs the previous evening to the dancing party tendered us by the local authorities and danced with the governor of Chinghai and the Party secretary of the province, just to show off. The ever-watching Feng-feng tolerated two dances and then came over to say: "That's enough; better go to bed". I went. So I had been awake and ready when she had come at five.

We left the hotel at six — since time in China is reckoned at Peking time, it was not yet four o'clock by the local sun — and made the airport in half an hour. Four silver-gray Ilyushin planes, of Soviet-make, were lined up in the gray dawn, each holding eight. There were more than thirty of us now, with our nineteen foreign correspondents, our two Chinese hosts, our interpreters and doctor and a few top men of the local Air Command who would go in the first plane to chart the way. For though the route was known to all the pilots, the weather over the range might change with any noun This was part of the difficulty with this flight, on which no take-off was permitted until weather was reported fair on the entire route. Even then planes had at times been grounded on an emergency base midway.

The planes would take off at five-minute intervals. We had been assigned our plane the previous evening; mine was the second plane. With me would fly Secretary-General Tang Li of the People's Daily, Alan Winnington of the London Daily Worker and M. Domogadskih of the Pravda, the two chairmen the journalists had elected the previous evening to handle contacts and speeches for the group. With us was also the doctor and Feng-feng.

The sun was still a yellow glow below the horizon when the bright metal steps were rolled up to Plane No. 2. The assistant chief of the Area Air Command came to see us installed. As he wished me a comfortable flight, I asked if it was true that this flight was harder than the famous Burma Hump Route of the Pacific War. He began to reassure me, "The weather is fine; everything will be okay".

"I don't doubt it", I said. "That wasn't what I asked. I want to know if this flight is harder than the Burma Hump".

He got me now. "A little harder", he smiled. So thus we advance. Yesterday's heroic risk becomes today's expedition of correspondents, and tomorrow perhaps a routine travel flight. Could Tibet, that land of mystery, even become routine? But a railway was planned to Lhasa in the next few years.

I was curious to see the plane's interior because of a bit of news imparted the previous evening at the dance. The local Air Command had been concerned on learning that they were expected to carry me to Tibet, for I was by far the oldest person they had taken on this route. Feeling their honor involved in delivering me not only safely but in good health, like a package marked "right side up with care", they were trying to get a bed of some kind, instead of an ordinary seat. It was not yet sure that they could arrange this; if they did, then the first sleeping-plane to Lhasa would be a bit of history.

I was stunned by the elegance of the cabin I entered. It had been .from the start a luxury job, probably designed for the Dalai Lama or Panchen Erdeni or some other high dignitary's use. It was soft yet bright in a cream and blue color scheme, with six porcelain dome lights in the cream vaulted ceiling, and a blue and yellow rug over the entire floor. Heavy curtains of deep blue velours near the entrance could be drawn to shut off the cold end of the plane, where the toilets and luggage deposit were. On either side of a wide aisle stood large reclining chairs, placed singly, each with a window and an oxygen mask, which attached to a central air tank. On one side, between two facing chairs, was a table large enough to hold tea for several people, as well as cameras and books.

Just opposite this table stood a sumptuous sofa-bed, last word in luxury. Upholstered in warm cream with a blue design, it was covered by a down coverlet in royal blue satin, neatly confined in a double-sheet. Two pale blue pillows at the head were edged with lace frills and topped with lace doilies of such splendor that I tenderly laid them aside before daring to touch my head to the pillows. The oxygen mask lay handy. This was truly Lhasa de luxe!

It was still cold and I saw no reason to sit up for the take-off, so I quickly curled up under blue satin just as Alan Winnington followed me into the plane. He let out a shout at the sight of the boudoir decor. "Here's where you get your picture took", he declared, pulling out his camera.

"You can have all the pictures as long as I get the bed", I retorted, and posed comfortably both with and without the oxygen mask.

Alan said: "It's fixed for a prime minister".

"Prime Minister, nothing!" I retorted. "They don't get lace and satin. It's for the Queen of Sheba, no less!"

We rolled into the field just as the sun came sharp above the clear horizon, a ball of pale gold. Twenty minutes later our air-gauge showed 4,500 meters up; I worked it out as about 14,850 feet elevation, higher than any mountain peak in the United States. In the next five minutes, as we rose to 5,000 meters (16,500 feet) I felt the warm air from the motors coming in. Feng-feng was taking off her coat. This was a heated plane! None of us had yet felt any need of oxygen. That was what three days in Sining had done!

Despite this initial brag, the flight was tiring. High elevation seems to affect the human body not only through the lungs. I think I could have made it in one of the reclining chairs, but I was very grateful for the bed, I found the scenery less overwhelming than expected. The continuity of rock and snow masses grew monotonous; they flattened below us into desolation, broken by occasional moments of high beauty. The first of these was our passage over the great salt lake which the Chinese today call Ching-hai, and from which they take the name for the province ... I prefer the old Mongol name, which China also used in the Tang Dynasty: Kokonor. It lay beneath us in a sheet of brilliant blue. Further on we came to the ranges, snow-capped, each higher than the last. I sat up for a minute or two for each of them, and then lay down again. At nine o'clock we made a landing to take on gas at an interim airport. Some people have been stranded there a week by weather. I was glad that we were not. We took off again at ten for the highest flight, over the Tang'La Range.

We climbed steeply to 6,600 meters (nearly 22,000 feet) and held there. The Tang'La is not only high, rising 20,000 feet in air, but is very long and wide. There is no way to escape this massive barrier between Chinghai and Tibet. One must go over it, either as the pilgrims of the past, on foot and horse, or today's traffic from inland China, by auto-truck, or as we did it, by plane. Our gas-masks, which had been an amusement, became a need. It was not necessary to use them continuously: the high air in . the cabin was sharp, crisp, full of ozone, tasting more delicious than the air in the mask, which seemed by contrast warm and stale. But after a short exposure to the air of the cabin, one grew a trifle dizzy and turned to draw additional breath from the mask. Between times, I looked down on snowy ranges that rolled one after another beneath us, somewhat flattened by the height. The snow increased as we passed from the dry north where weather is determined by the deserts to the southern slopes where winds from the distant Indian Ocean blow in. Even these high rolling peaks at last grew monotonous; the second leg of the flight dragged out more than the first. By one o'clock we dropped to Tibet's airport, and the scenery which the flight had flattened, rose in magnificent snow peaks around us, and in long green mountain pastures, painted in light.

As our planes came in like clockwork at five-minute intervals, we learned for the first time that a fifth plane had followed us, empty, so that if any plane had a forced landing, its passengers might be picked up and taken along without a halt. As far as human planning could do it, our flight had been insured.

A reception committee from Lhasa met us with thirteen autos. This was the first surprise, that Lhasa, which only a few years ago had never seen even a cart wheel, had now this auto-fleet. Our next surprise was to learn that we were still nearly half a day's journey from Lhasa by a mountain road. It was explained that the previous local government, the kashag, would not allow Peking any nearer site. Our third surprise was to learn that the Central Government of China, which the Western press denounced as the ruthless suppressor of Tibet, had for eight years submitted to this local dictation, even in a matter so important to national defense as the air connection with Tibet. We were also told that even this place which the kashag permitted had been considered unsuitable by experts, as its clearance was not as long as the height demanded, but the Chinese pilots by careful maneuver, had managed to make it do our hosts led us into a dining-room and proffered lunch. They also offered oxygen from two tall tanks at the end of Che room that looked like gasoline ser-vice tanks in miniature. Though the elevation here was probably not far from 15,000 feet, nobody felt the need. It seemed — and this was confirmed when we made our return trip — that the fresh air of the (pastures has a quality more stimulating than the lower valley air in Lhasa. "A million serfs have stood up", were the words I most recall from the greeting given us in the brief luncheon speech by Fang Tse-shing, head of the prop-aganda department. "They are burying the old serfdom and are building a new Tibet. This land, frozen in feudalism for centuries, has come to life and its people have taken their destiny in their own hands. They are building a democratic Tibet which will be-come a socialist Tibet. All the clamors of the imperialists are useless. The wheel of history turns always forward and not back. We shall build here a happy tomorrow".

We now learned for what purpose we had elected two chairmen for the correspondents. Domogadskih, of Pravda, had the job of rising to make a response. He congratulated the airforce for organizing "this heroic air-route". Then we were swiftly on our way. Hurry was urged, both to get down to a lower elevation, and to reach Lhasa before dark.

The mountains, now that we were down among them, were far more impressive than they had seemed from the plane. In the high, thin air, all nature seemed penetrated with light. Snow peaks, rock cliffs, long sloping pastures were all more brilliant in color than any landscape I had ever seen. The sky was bluer, the grass greener, even the color of the rocks brighter and more varied in this upper sunlight than colors appear at lower elevation, blanketed by depths of air. What from the plane had appeared a monotony of gray rock and white snow broke now into a vast variety. Cliffs were red, lavender, even orange, indicating a probable presence of minerals. Pastures were dotted with yaks, sheep, goats. Streams of clear water, blue from the melting snow, tumbled across the highway. Some day this should be one of earth's great vacation lands!

Herdsmen appeared among the animals or standing beside rock shelters. The rags that hung in festoons of filth from their bodies indicated incredible poverty, and their tiny rock shelters were poor barriers against the outer cold of night. But they stood erect, and most of them waved or shouted greeting. Near one cluster of shelters, four small boys rushed up to the road and lined up in salute. Our trip had been nowhere announced yet, and nobody on these pastures knew who we were, but they knew from the line of autos that we came from the airport and had some connection with the great innovations sweeping their country. The words "a million serfs have stood up" seemed very appropriate. It was as if the landscape had come alive.

The road was wide and carried considerable traffic. It was part of the main Sining-Lhasa highway. Before we reached Lhasa we met at least fifty seven-ton trucks. The highway was hardly smooth; it was a road for jeeps and trucks rather than for passenger cars. It was subject in places to ravages from streams or rock slides, and we passed many repair gangs, both of men and of women. In almost every case they waved or shouted a welcome. One group of women was singing at their work. On another occasion we met a train of donkeys and the front one tangled with our radiator, bringing us to a quick stop. The donkey-driver came with his stick, disentangled the donkey, and exchanged cheerful apologies with our chauffeur as he went on his way.

"Were the Tibetans like this formerly?" I asked those of the correspondents who had visited Tibet in 1955. ''I never have seen a livelier people".

"They were never like this before", was the answer. "They have come alive".

Steadily we dropped from the high pastures to the valleys. Half way to Lhasa we came to a road junction, where a road to the right led towards Shigatse, the seat of the Panchen Erdeni, and thence towards India. Our road to Lhasa turned left. We stopped briefly at a small settlement and were offered tea, the pale, unsweetened tea of the Hans or the salty buttered tea of Tibet as we might choose. Beyond this our road plunged down through a mountain gorge. When we emerged, we began to pass small settlements, with fields of barley and beans. Monasteries appeared on hillsides and up ravines.

The road grew rougher; the streams that crossed it were larger, swollen with the melted snows of late afternoon, spreading over the road and cutting into it so that each time when our auto plunged into a sheet of water-which was now often twenty or thirty feet wide-I wondered whether we would emerge on the other side. The drivers, it seemed, were accustomed to this; they entered the water carefully in low gear, picked their way with circumspection, and chugged slowly, steadily across. The entire line of thirteen autos followed at regular intervals.

The sun was already low in the west when we entered a long valley, passed by a large monastery which later we were to know as Drepung, the largest monastery in Tibet, and suddenly saw far ahead what seemed like a red and white jewel, shining in the last gold of the setting sun. We knew it at once —the famous Potala Palace, built by the Fifth Dalai Lama as the residence for the living Dalai and the tomb for the Dalais who had died. He had chosen the site well, on a hill that rose in the middle of the long valley, catching always the sun, visible from afar to the pilgrims who came by whatever road. He had built well also, a red palace which held the tombs, flanked on both sides by a large white palace for the living under wide roofs of gold. It was a new type of architecture, with the side walls sloping inward like the mountains, as if the structure were part of a living cliff. It testified to a talent for originality among Tibetans, which might again revive from the stagnation of centuries.

We were still several miles from the Potala. We wound around many jutting hills and splashed over many small streams as the sun dropped below the horizon. We dodged increasing numbers of carts or donkeys of peasants or townsmen going home for the night. Haze drew over the earth with the sun's setting and obliterated the still distant Potala Palace. The upper air and the hills were still bright. At the edge of Lhasa we met a long line of workers carrying spades; they waved their spades at us and cheered. Our driver told us they were going home from a volunteer ditch-digging to drain a flooded area.

"There were lamas among them", he added. We had not yet known that the volunteering of lamas for community labor was considered significant, a sign of the national rebirth.

We reached the Potala Palace and rounded its northern edge; it was now a tall white shadow on the cliffs. We turned into a large compound, circled a garden of brilliant flowers and stopped at a guest house. From the garden the Potala was visible again, against the darkening western sky. We were just twelve hours from Sining; it seemed a different world. This flight over the Tang'La Range and down the high pastures and long valleys had taken the pilgrims of past centuries more than a year. It also seemed a miracle that all of our thirteen autos had arrived in proper sequence. Some were ordinary passenger cars and some were jeeps and none of them looked new. All had kept to the line and none had stuck in water or had even a flat tire on the way.

"You are expected to rest tomorrow", they told us. "In the evening there will be a banquet and a dance. There will be no trips or interviews till the following day."

The reason for rest was clear when we saw how we gasped for breath in climbing the stairs to the second floor where the bedrooms were. Lhasa, much lower than the pastures, still lay above twelve thousand feet elevation. The British had stated 12,800, but the Chinese said 3,680 meters which my arithmetic makes out as around 12,150 feet. In any case it was as high as a first class mountain-top in most of the world. Our problem would be to get breath.

I was given a corner room with windows on two sides. They looked on a range of wild mountains and on Iron Hill, the highest point in Lhasa, where the College of Tibetan Medicine stands. There was a wall-to-wall carpet, a bright Tibetan weave of green, orange and yellow from the Gyantse handicraft looms. There were two over-stuffed chairs with a stand between them for serving tea. The bed was wide and covered with a bright quilt. In the corner between the windows stood an enormous desk and a desk-chair with foam-rubber cushion. A washstand near the door held a bowl of hot water brought by a maid. The room had everything but running water and a view of the Potala. Lhasa had as yet no water system. As for the view of the Potala, Feng-feng told me to cross the hall to her room when I wanted to look at it.

"They have given you the south and west exposure", she said. "In Lhasa you will want the sun".

We would want the sun, we would want rest, we would want, above all, air. No transfer to Lhasa could be quite easy, even if made de luxe. But never had any trip been so carefully planned and cushioned to save all strength for the coming work.