The basic facts about Tibet are well documented. Once the Chinese were firmly in control, land seizures, interrogations, struggle sessions, torture and the pulverizing of Buddhist images were conducted with a degree of fury only possible at the hands of religious or political zealots. Over 95 percent of Tibet’s monasteries were dynamited; Tibetans claim that over 1 million people were killed.

SKY TRAIN: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History, by Canyon Sam. Silkworm Books, 2009, 269 pp., $24.95 (paperback)

Less known is the plight of Tibetan women during the early years of the occupation. The writer, Canyon Sam, points out a little known fact: that when the Chinese occupied Lhasa in March, 1959, it was a city largely inhabited by women. These invaluable eyewitnesses to the atrocities of history are the subjects of this book.

Pre-Chinese Tibet, a rigid feudal society dominated by a landed aristocracy and monastic elite, was no democracy. When practiced, polygamy gave the very privileged a degree of hereditary and marital rights comparable to those in Islam. Curiously, this strangely dissociated world appears to have had few dissenters among the lower orders of society.

Because being female implied an inferior level of birth, women prayed fervently to be reborn as men. Perhaps this should be of no surprise in a religion that asserts that a stone has more chance of becoming enlightened than a woman. As aristocrats, high-ranking lamas and landowners — the social groups with more wealth, prestige and mobility — fled to India and elsewhere as the Chinese closed in, Tibetan women found themselves trapped in a nightmare not of their own making.

With the occupation split along gender lines, women in the Chinese labor camps bore the brunt of abuse and torture. The thousands of women working in the Chinese gulag in Tibet, were, quite literally, beasts of burden, the Chinese guards even referring to them as yaks. Tibetan women, though, are clearly a tough and singular breed. Some even managed to survive such monstrous ordeals as the Chinese authorities’ practice of taking blood from prisoners, even those in critical states of ill health.

Sam freely co-opts the methods of travel writers for her book, but soon augments the genre. Opening with a description of the scene at Beijing Station, the book might easily be mistaken for one of Paul Theroux’s train accounts. As it is, we end up with an intriguing meld of travel, anthropology, history, politics and interviews with survivors living in Tibet and in exile. Rather than lining up interviews and profiles back-to-back, the author provides interludes of travel, reflection and analysis.

There is no doubt that the “sky train” of the title, the rail link the author rides between Beijing and Lhasa, is one of the great civil engineering feats of our time, passing over permafrost and the highest plateau in the world. In the view of the author, though, its construction — ostensibly to improve the lot of Tibetans, but actually to numerically overwhelm them with Han Chinese settlers — represents the second invasion of Tibet.

Two trips are compared: one the author undertook in 1986, and another visit some 20 years later. Sam, a Chinese-American, is willing to give propaganda the benefit of the doubt on her first exploration of China, but five weeks into the trip she is thoroughly disillusioned: “Instead of a model society,” she finds “Orwell mixed with Dickens in the largest nation on earth.”

Twenty years later, Lhasa is a city of neon signage, giant shopping complexes, shooting galleries, car fumes and architecture that deliberately obscures the majestic Potala Palace. Appalled at a holy city turned into a capitalist mall, a city powered up for the future, she notes that in this modern Chinese city, the only beggars are Tibetans. Instead of the gulag, Sam concludes, the Chinese are now suffocating Tibetan culture with consumer goods. Material improvement is seductive.

The book reminded me of my own recent trip to Kashgar, an old Silk Road city at the extremity of the Taklamakan Desert in predominantly Islamic Xinjiang province, and the news report I read a few months later detailing the authority’s plan to bulldoze its wonderfully intricate old quarter, with its mud-walled alleys, bazaars, tiny mosques, tea houses and cool courtyard homes. The insanity of erasing an entire architectural heritage and replacing it with cement and breezeblock apartments could only be explained in political terms, the state’s obsession with crushing dissent by eliminating culture and community.

This is a book that will make you weep. The tragedy of Tibet is that resistance only serves to harden the resolve of a China against which few Western governments, as economic ties grow ever stronger more numerous, are willing to take a meaningful stand. New Chinese settlers continue to arrive in droves, diluting Tibetan culture and marginalizing an indigenous population in their own land. This is unlikely to change. Like the iron will of the government, the railway line and all that it represents is intractable.

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