Late in the night, a Buddhist monk acolyte trod through the quiet halls of the monastery tucked deep in the Tibetan mountains. He found Wyoming adventurer Mark Jenkins and led him to his room.
Once inside, the acolyte pulled out his cellphone and proudly showed Jenkins the music he had collected, mostly rap.
The moment struck Jenkins. The monastery was accessible only by foot. It was a haven of devotion and study. And yet, modernity had reached even here.
Tibet has changed drastically since Jenkins' first visit in 1984. China's growing influence on the region has brought infrastructure and jobs, but Tibet's culture is increasingly under pressure. The complicated 1,500-year relationship between the two cultures will be the focus of Jenkin's upcoming talk, "Tea, Trade and Tyranny: Tibet and China Over Time," to be held Wednesday at Casper College.
“I'm trying to demystify the politics of China and Tibet and to bring a clear lens to the relationship between the two," he said.
Jenkins, the writer-in-residence for the University of Wyoming and a journalist for National Geographic, has traveled to Tibet and China more than a dozen times. During some of those trips, he has tried to trace the route of the 1,000-year-old Tea Horse road. The ancient trade route allowed the two peoples to swap Tibetan horses for Chinese tea. Tea porters carried hundreds of pounds of tea on their backs over the 17,000-foot mountain passes. By the 13th century, millions of pounds of tea and about 25,000 horses crossed the road every year, according to Jenkin's 2010 National Geographic story on the subject.
The road was used as recently as the 1940s, but much of the 1,400-mile route has since returned to nature or been repaved as part of modern highways, where modern trade commodities zip by on trucks. China's ascendancy into a global power has drastically altered the relationship between the two. China has "subsumed" Tibet as it searches for resources and more space for its people, Jenkins said.
“China views Tibet kind of like America views Alaska — the end of manifest destiny,” Jenkins said.
Yak herders have replaced sturdy mountain horses with tiny motorcycles. Tents used by nomadic peoples are now equipped with solar panels. There wasn't a single hotel in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa when Jenkins first visited. Now, there are Hiltons.
Not all of the changes are negative, however. China's growing influence has brought better health services and education, he said. Like most things, the reality of the relationship is complex.
“I’m not an expert on China. I’m a journalist and I’m a mountain climber,” Jenkins said. “But I’ve just witnessed the changes. I’ve been there.”
This is Jenkins' ninth year bringing tales from his expeditions to people around the state. He hopes that by sharing his experiences he can bring understanding of faraway places to Wyoming.
"It’s to recognize the complexity of the planet, to value other cultures and to maybe inspire people from Wyoming to plan their own big trip," he said.