IN PHOTOS: Capturing culture in Tibet as a French Canadian, Han Chinese tourist


After not even two months of studying at Peking University, I grew tired of the dusty sky and crowded streets of Beijing. It was October, 2017 when I decided to venture out with my backpack for company and spend 10 days in the province of Qinghai during Chinese Golden Week.

Few people are aware that historically, before the political separation made by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, the Tibetan Cultural area was formed of three regions: Kham (the Western side of Sichuan), Amdo (the Southern part of Qinghai) and U-Tsang (known as the Tibetan Autonomous Region or TAR). Visiting the province of Qinghai can be a strategic way of accessing Tibetan culture, as entry to the TAR has required a travel permit for foreigners since the political unrest in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, in 2008.

While staying in a hostel in Xining, I met a group of three other solo travelers. Due to my Han-Chinese appearance (French-Canadian Chinese adoptee who was raised in Quebec) and a little knowledge of Mandarin, I was able to join a local tour offered exclusively to Chinese nationals. Because of its remote location and lack of tourism infrastructure, each group was assigned a taxi driver for a five day tour around the famous Qinghai lake. During the trip, I took photos and lent my camera to my fellow backpackers. The resulting photos reveal images similar to those Chinese tourists would have taken.

Working under pressure in heaving mega-cities, financially mobile Chinese tourists often seek emancipation and adventure in untouched lands. However, upon arrival to their destination, their behaviours and words can reveal complex tensions that exist when immersed in this “otherness.” For example, Chinese tourists are often reluctant to approach Tibet’s inhabitants – individuals who have been historically denigrated.

After spending almost a week with Han travellers taking in famous attractions, I sought a more local perspective in the small Tibetan village of Tongren (Rebgong in Tibetan). Along the bustling main road, I met a young Tibetan girl selling traditional costumes. She told me she had recently trespassed from Dharamshala in India after living with the Dalai Lama.

She was fluent in English and Chinese, and we both shared the same age and gender, which made it easy to connect. I spent the rest of my stay in her company. She showed me her favourite activities: eating fried chicken at a local fast-food canteen, playing basketball with her monk friends, indoor roller skating with flirty boys and singing and line dancing at a Tibetan bar.

But while spending time together, she told me it would be better if I spoke English rather than Mandarin. My Han-Chinese appearance had earlier helped me get closer to other tourists, but it could also trigger discrimination against me in an exclusively Tibetan village with strong racial tensions. In this context, it was by showing my Western culture and language that I was able to slip into the category of being a “safe foreigner.”

It was in the company of my new Tibetan friend that I saw something of a paradox – Tibet’s undeniable modernity. The transformation of Tibetan cultural sites and nomadic habitation into tourist-friendly, public spaces that cater to Han visitors, illustrates how Tibetans are gradually incorporated into the market economy, and leaving their traditional lifestyle behind them. Yet, after years of nationalist campaigns to “civilize” ethnic minorities and make them “modern citizens,” the same individuals are now being asked to preserve and celebrate their “authentic” culture for Han-Chinese visitors. In pictures, I sought to capture some of these complexities.

The Qinghai Lake: A typical starting point for Chinese tourist groups in Tibet

With its unique cultural features and natural environment, the Tibetan plateau has long been a coveted tourist destination. But, at the same time, tourism development in Tibet has been hindered by its remote and inaccessible location. In 2006, a direct passenger train connecting Beijing and Lhasa in a 48 hour trip, via Xining in Qinghai, was constructed to improve connectivity. But this is somewhat at odds with travel habits – because they have limited travel time, Chinese tourists typically arrive in Qinghai by plane before continuing their journey on to Lhasa. Often alone and ready for adventure, Chinese tourists book local tours through their hotels and form small groups with other solo backpackers. These groups leave from Xining for five days and visit the main natural parks on the Tibetan Plateau, starting with the famous Qinghai Lake. 

The Qinghai Tibetan Plateau: Tibet’s natural scenery has been identified as the most important draw for travelers

Hailing from coastal mega-cities such as Tianjin, Beijing, Shanghai, Chinese tourists flock to Tibet in search of the famous Shangri-La in the land of snow. The term Shangri-La became famous through James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon, published in 1933. Back in 1743, a Belgian missionary arrived in an abandoned Tibetan monastery in the Blue-Moon Valley and formed a Western fraternity, completely cut off from Tibetans. Due to the life-expectancy of its residents and its purported hidden treasures, the place gained something of a mystic reputation.

A snapshot of a multicultural market place in Tongren

In the Qinghai Province, cultural tourism is the primary focus, with ethnic and green tourism being the two main attractions in the region. This growth in tourism has had parallel growth with China’s open-door policy and growing economy, creating a middle class that avidly pursues leisure activities.

The Chaka Salt Lake: A typical tourist photo spot for ‘adventurous backpackers’

The tourists that I encountered described themselves as adventurous backpackers who lack the language knowledge to travel alone. As a result, these travelers prefer to go on local tours and travel in small groups with other backpackers. One traveller revealed to me that she doesn’t like the speed of industrialisation and urbanisation in China. In search of a sense of nostalgia, she planned to use her vacation to fly away from Shanghai and discover the “real, untouched” and “pure” China.

Social and physical divides: A tourist style photo of the wall that divides the Rongwo Buddhist Monastery and the rest of the village

Although the tourists I spoke to often expressed nostalgic sentiment and concern about the destruction of nature and culture as a casualty of massive tourism development, they did not approach or interact much with local people in Tibet. When visiting temples and other attractions, tourists were very cautious when approaching the locals. Instead, their goal was to capture local sites and people only through their camera and eyes. While tourists appreciated taking pictures and buying ethnic souvenirs, they did not engage in cultural dialogues. They didn’t eat Tibetan cuisine, talk with locals, or try to learn the local language.

A selfie statement: Chinese solo women travellers are often on a quest for emancipation

For women, travelling to China’s Far West seems to signify a break from Confucian beliefs. All the female tourists that I encountered were relatively young students or workers, and often travelled without permission from their parents. They confessed that they wanted to prove they could achieve something great and leave their villages. Their adventures would show their courage and their will to break social norms that limit women to family responsibilities and housework.

Many tourists use social media to share the backpacker lifestyle, before returning to real life

Throughout the trip, Chinese tourists recorded every moment with their camera and cell phones. The most requested pose was the one pictured above. In the middle of the road, they wanted to show their connection with nature. Some even took off their clothes. All the travellers I spoke to were well-equipped backpackers. They shared their photos on social media and collected as many souvenirs as they could. For one businessman working in Tianjin, going to the West was an achievement before he began working in a big company. He had been to Sichuan, Yunnan and the Tibetan Autonomous Region previously and Qinghai was only his last stop before returning to his “real life.”

Dual vision: Tibetan twins in a Tu Village illustrating modernity and traditional clothing

Tibet’s tourism industry relies on an image evoked in the minds of would-be travellers. This vision is important to the entire tourism ecosystem, from the tourists themselves to tourism promoters, governments and NGOs, to offer a few examples. When this image was disrupted, it revealed moments of disappointment; tourists were content to see children wearing Tibetan costumes, but disappointed when others wore blue jeans. Chinese representation of Tibet has its roots in three dominant discourses: the Western condescendence against the Tibetans in the 19th century continued by the Chinese Communist Party in 1951, the modern Western supporters of Tibetan independency, and the current neoliberal state discourse to include Tibetans in the harmonious society by commodifying their culture. 

Capturing a distanced Tibetan “otherness” during a horse festival

In the 19th century, representation of Tibetans was mostly based on missionaries’ observations. Lamas were considered ignorant, superstitious and intellectually inferior beings. In the 19th century when the British Empire fought against the Russian Empire over Asian territories, Tibetan areas were closed to the West. This in turn contributed towards creating an idealised image of Tibet as a land of lost wisdom. After 1949, the former Chinese leaders emphasised the concept that the People’s Liberation Army saved the Tibetans from feudalism. This discourse remains recurrent in Chinese tourists’ interactions with Tibetans.

A disruption in expectations: A monk pictured buying meat

Since the spread of the Tibetan diaspora in 1959, Tibet has been often described as a Buddhist kingdom populated by pacifists, threatened by Chinese development. Defenders of the Tibetan cause argue that Chinese occupation destroyed a harmonious society. But Tibetan society was in fact highly complex, with power often monopolized by elites. Chinese tourists have also been influenced by this discourse within new media and alternative cultures. For these travelers, Buddhists are expected not to eat animal products. However, Tibetans are big meat consumers due to the aridity of the climate and specificity of Lamaism Buddhism.

The Fervent Contribution Bridge and the Tibetan landscape as a part of the “Chinese Dream”

Since the beginning of the 21th century, the Harmonious Society Campaign by Hu Jintao shaped Chinese tourist imaginaries. The Fervent Contribution Bridge (Regong in Chinese), along with propaganda posters and PRC flags on the walls, all contribute to Chinese tourists’ perception that Tibetans are becoming a part of the Chinese Dream. For the tourists I interviewed, the Chinese Dream corresponds with unification of all ethnic minorities under the common goal of national development. After several social protests in the last decade in Tibet, China has increasingly emphasized its presence, while simultaneously promoting ethnic minorities’ culture for economic development.

New Age or new age? A monk holds a cellphone in front of a renovated Stupa at the Rongwo Monastery

Tibet may be seen as an exotic remedy to the ills of complex civilisations. Since the 1970s, the role of Tibet in the New Age movement in the U.S. must be understood not in isolation from other aspects of Eastern culture, but as a part of a broader sense of searching for an alternative lifestyle. Due to Tibet’s mysterious and religious culture, I found Chinese tourists were surprised that monks used cellphones. The reconstruction of the temple in this photo captures again the paradoxical situation between modernity and tradition. Discourses of the past and present – colonialism, socialism, nationalism, and tourism – seem to be fertile ground for adventure and romantic tourist dreams.

About the author

Portrait of the author. Credit: André-Anne Côté

André-Anne Côté is a culturally French-Canadian Chinese adoptee who was raised in Quebec, Canada. In addition to a B.S. in Anthropology from Laval University, she holds a Master’s in International Relations from Peking University. Her thesis examines the return of Sino-Canadian adoptees to their homeland. Her writing has been published in NüStories, Inkstone and others. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

About the editor

Elizabeth Beattie is a New Zealand-born journalist and writer based in Hong Kong. She had reported for publications including the Guardian, Al Jazeera, SBS and the UK Telegraph, covering politics, human rights and culture. Visit her website.