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Shooting pool in Tibet

(Photograph) - When I first see him coming down the road, he's about half a mile off. As he gets nearer I can see he's wearing shades under his wide-brimmed cap and an old army style jacket, making straight for us. He strolls up to the table and says in an accent I cannot place: "Wanna play?" Okay, I reply. I have nothing better to do. Time passes slowly in the Tibetan mountains.

My brother and I play for hours on end, keeping half an eye on the goats and horses, switching between billiards and pool, trying impossible doubles and plants just to break the monotony. We know each other's game inside out, so it's good to play someone new.

At first the new guy misses a few easy shots, but I can tell from his cue action he's good. Either he's not played for a while or he's trying to hustle me.

You won't find pool listed in the culture section of a Tibetan guidebook, but then Tibetan culture, or almost anythingto do with this country, isn't what it once was. Before1950, Tibet was a country apart, on a remote plateau the size of Western Europe, bordered by mountain ranges, barely touched by the 20th century. A place of Buddhist priests and peasant farmers, with a rich and ancient culture. The roof of the world, they called it, and that much, at least, has not changed.

Then the Chinese People's Liberation Army invaded. Nine years later they put down an uprising in the capital, Lhasa, killing thousands.

Our leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Compassionate Defender of the Faith and Ocean of Wisdom, fled for his life. Now living in exile in India, he is banned from setting foot in his own country, and we in Tibet are prohibited from displaying his image. Our government in exile wants independence from the Chinese, freedom from oppression and proection of our natural resources and environment. But the Chinese refuse to negotiate. They call our country the Tibet Autonomous Region, and say it is, and always has been, a part of China.

They have destroyed our temples, persecuted and killed hundreds of thousands of people, and clamped down on dissent. What can we do? As Buddhists, we are committed to only non-violent protest, and for this the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But only last month he was banned from attending a meeting of world religious leaders at the United Nations so as not to offend the Chinese delegate.

There are more Chinese than Tibetans living here now. Slowly, they have taken over. In the bigger towns, you can visit karaoke bars, video shops and department stores. And by the side of the road we play pool.

The felt on the table is threadbare and torn in a couple of places, but more from over-use than exposure to the elements; the air is cold and dry at thisaltitude, but we cover the table with a plastic sheet at night to protect it from the frost.

The new guy lines up a shot, steadies himself and strikes the cue ball. It rolls across the table towards me, losing momentum as it hits the deadened cushion and comes to rest behind another of his balls. He stands upright, and for the first time I can see that he is Chinese.He gives me a wry smile as if to say "get out of that one". I'm snookered. Photograph by Natalie Behring.

Chronology of Tibetan history: www.friendsoftibet.orgevents.html

Tibetan government in exile:

International campaign site: and www.derechos.orghuman rightsnasiachina

Chinese view of Tibetan history: www.china window.comAreaXizangpart1index.htm

Harvey McGavin

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