Tibet Spring 1985

Monks at the Potala Palace
Monks outside Lhasa’s Potala Palace 1985

In 1985, I was one of a small number of Beijing/Peking-based Western journalists to travel to Tibet in one of the first such groups in many years to be allowed into the province to report.

This was at the height of China’s pre-Tiananmen Square opening up – and it was an extraordinary trip. (For a comprehensive set of photos from the trip, see the links at the bottom of this page).

Lhasa was still very basic and undeveloped, and after the horrors of the 1960s Cultural Revolution which saw more than 90% of Tibet’s monasteries and temples destroyed, the various religious sites in and around Lhasa were being slowly rebuilt.

Monks moving back into Ganden Monastery, 1985, against a background of destruction

Ganden was particularly chilling – razed to the ground some 20 years earlier as mortar target practice for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

Tibet suffered terribly in the years of Maoist fanaticism, and to a first-time visitor, there was grief in the very wind that blew across the plateau.

The Chinese were ready to admit that bad things had happened. But they would very quickly point out that bad things happened throughout China, not just in Tibet – soothing and pushing aside a responsibility that few Chinese have ever comfortably acknowledged for the ferocity of what was done to Tibet.

Lhasa Sky Burial 1985

In 1985, we (that was Jim Pringle, then I think of Newsweek, and his wife Milly; Anthony Barker of the Reuters bureau in Peking; Mary Lee of The Times; and Hugh Davies of the Daily Telegraph and his lovely then wife Liz) were up very early one day to witness the sky burial where the Tibetans feed their dead to the vultures and release their souls to heaven.

Tibet’s then still-ruined Rongbuk monastery with Everest looming behind, May 1985

We motored on dust roads across the 12,000 foot plateau to Everest base camp at the then-still-devastated Rongbuk monastery, and departed Tibet down the long road drop into Kathmandu at a miserly, wet and oxygen-rich 6000 feet.

Click the link at the top to listen to my BBC Radio 4 International Assignment, produced again in partnership with the legendary BBC radio producer Adam Raphael.

I should not – as Anthony rightly remarked when he heard the feature later- have broadcast the vox pop clip of a young Tibetan man saying he wanted Tibetan independence – xizang duli. That was a breach of confidence, and for nearly 30 years, I have hoped that he came to no harm.

But as a piece of radio – completed in frantic haste as the always last-minute Adam finished editing the second tape reel as the first was already on air – it’s one of my favourites from my postings as BBC correspondent.


1. Arriving in Lhasa

2. Lhasa May 1985

3. Potala Palace Spring 1985

4. Portraits of Tibetans 1985

5. Around Lhasa 1985

6. Ganden Monastery

7. Road to Everest from Lhasa

8. Everest and the Rongbuk Monastery

9. Tibet Sky Burial

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