It was when a policeman took them aside on the steps of the 7th century Jokhang temple in Lhasa that the Taylor family realized the extent of the sensitivity of being among the first tourists allowed back into Tibet.
“We’d been on the roof of the Jokhang where you get the panoramic view of the Potala Palace and Barkhor Square and where every tourist takes a bunch of pictures,” said Chris Taylor, an expatriate history teacher in Hong Kong.
“There was no problem for the Chinese tourists, but on our way down, there was a plain-clothed policeman who checked our camera, and he didn’t just check it but zoomed in and looked at every little bit of each photo.
“He stopped at one picture where there were five or six soldiers in the middle distance who I hadn’t even spotted. The policeman was very friendly about it, but there wasn’t any question about it – we had to delete the picture.”
Arriving in Lhasa on April 6, the Taylors were among the first foreign tourists to be allowed into the troubled province after a two-month ban as Tibet had a series of sensitive anniversaries.
After a turbulent year in which tourism has been severely restricted, Beijing has reopened the troubled province to foreigners and aims to draw three million Chinese and foreign tourists in 2009.
For Taylor, his teacher wife Justine, and daughters Molly, 8, and Martha, 10, it was a holiday that had been more than a year in the planning.
They first tried to visit at Easter 2008 but the March riots scuppered their travel plans – and with only days to go before their visit this month, it appeared they might again be shut out.
“On the Monday before we left, we were told by our travel agent. ‘There’s no chance of you getting in.’ Then late on Tuesday I got an email saying ‘You’re in,'” said Taylor.
Tibet was fully reopened to foreign tourists on April 5.
“We went partly to go to see [Mount] Everest as it’s the best time of year to see the mountain when the air is clearest,’ said Taylor, a 41-year-old Briton. ‘But we also wanted to see Lhasa in the context of what’s happened in the past couple of years.
“… I always had slight doubts about the morality of going there. But in terms of personal risk, I think it’s probably safer now than it is ever going to be.
“In Lhasa, there is a big military presence and there are huge issues to do with that, which I don’t take lightly. But you’d have to be a very brave Tibetan to do anything now because there are armed soldiers everywhere.”
The biggest disappointment of their holiday was the sterile and lifeless atmosphere of the monasteries. “In some cases, it was like looking around a gorgeous museum where monks used to be,” Taylor said.
“The Potala Palace in Lhasa is awesome, but it is totally dead. You have the feeling this used to be an important religious place, but you were just wandering around something that has no life. Then the further you got from Lhasa, the more alive the monasteries are.”
The absence of tourists also gave Tibet an almost deserted feel. “We were wandering around Lhasa. and there was virtually no one there except Tibetans and pilgrims and a whole bunch of soldiers, of course,” said Taylor.
“Outside Lhasa, there was just no one on the roads. We hardly saw another car and we had [Everest] Base Camp to ourselves, which I think is pretty unusual. It added to the feeling of remoteness.”
Mandarin-speaker Taylor – who has previously led a party of his students to North Korea – said he was uncertain of what to think of Tibet after the holiday, although he believes if anything it made him more sympathetic to Beijing’s viewpoint.
“Lhasa is tightly controlled, because there is a lot of potential for uprising among the monks,” he said. “The further you go from Lhasa, the more it ceased to matter. For people out in the country, it is a question of subsistence, and it might be more important for them to have good roads and good housing.”
“It is true China has put in a lot of money, and it’s also true that China is completely unable to see there are other issues as well,” he said. “They just don’t get all that stuff at all. But I also got the feeling maybe life has got a little better for peasants out in the countryside.”
What left the deepest impression for Taylor, however, was not the soldiers, the monks, or the thorny political issues but rather the sheer drama of the scenery – a majestic landscape that has enthralled travellers for centuries and outlived countless political dynasties.
“I don’t think I have ever been somewhere that I have regretted leaving so much,” Taylor said. “It is like another world entirely, and as soon as you leave, you feel like you really want to be back in the remoteness of it all again.”