Ved’s Climate Story
Mount Kailash, Tibet
How are you sensing climate change?
I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey; my parents on the other hand grew up in India. Much of the way I think about the world is influenced by the culture of the Indian subcontinent. My mother, specifically, had a great impact on my cultural upbringing and today I consider myself a Hindu-Buddhist or Dharmic because of her. For dharmic society and South Asians in general, the natural landscape of the region is deeply intertwined with storytelling and spiritual life. Specifically, almost every river and mountain in the Indian Subcontinent from Bhutan to Afghanistan holds spiritual meaning to someone somewhere, though of greatest importance is the Ganges river and the Himalayan mountain range.
As mentioned, the mountains are part of spiritual life, but mine is a story of when spiritual life is muddled by climate-driven geopolitics. In 2018, between high school and college, my parents decided I should make a pilgrimage to the holiest of mountains, Mount Kailash, which is also sometimes famously called “Mount Meru.” For Indian citizens, the pilgrimage is a legally complicated journey since Mount Kailash is located in the Himalayas of Tibet, an autonomous province of China boasting more than 25% of the nation’s landmass. Tibet, a peaceful Buddhist stronghold, was invaded in 1949 by Communist China marking the beginning of one of the world’s most brutal annexation and deculturalization processes. However, India quickly gave the leader of Tibet, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, sanctuary and a public voice. India continues to recognize Tibet as an illegally occupied country. This has, for the last 70 years, been interpreted by the Chinese government as an act of aggression, and, thus, China limits the number of Indians allowed near Mount Kailash, let alone the rest of Tibet.
Now, one might ask: why is China (and India) interested in Tibet? The answer: natural resources and safeguards against climate change. The Himalayan glaciers are some of the most climate resilient water sources in the world, creating a massive opportunity for China to hydrodam for glacial runoff. In fact, in 2021, China initiated the construction of the world’s largest dam on the Tibetan part of the Brahmaputra River, which is of incredible cultural importance to Tibetans and Indian Hindus. In fact, most of India’s holy rivers originate in Tibet, including the famous Indus river. At the same time, China’s most important river, Yangtze, also originates in Tibet.
Fortunately, as an American citizen, I was able to make this spiritual journey to Tibet with an American mountaineering guide and local Tibetan guides. At the time, my fitness was very high (not so much anymore), but it was not the altitude that tired me during my nearly month-long stay in Tibet. Although I am legally not allowed to share photos or personal accounts of the security infrastructure in Tibet (as part of the conditions of my travel), I can still remember the ferocious roar of Chinese fighter jets over what is for many, the land of enlightenment. At many points during my pilgrimage, I was near the India-China or Nepal-China border. This was the most pristine land I have ever seen, and yet I knew military exercises were happening every hour in order to protect Chinese environmental interests. The region continues to be in a state of cease-fire, but India’s and China’s military have recently had an uptick in skirmishes. For the near term, China will continue to see Tibet as a legitimate defense against climate change while India sees it as a place to be liberated from Maoist communism. Of course, to me, Tibet is a holy land, a land where my ancestors traveled to for spiritual pursuits and where I was lucky enough to experience that for myself.
How do these changes make you feel?
I felt helpless because the situation is entirely under the control of a powerful semiautocratic government.
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