Mark Jenkins, a world traveler, author, mountain climber, and writer for National Geographic magazine, journeyed to Laramie County Community College on Sept. 27 to present his slideshow, “Tea, Trade, & Tyranny: Tibet & China Over Time.”
“Most of us in Wyoming don’t have the occasion to think about the relationship between China and Tibet that often,” Jenkins said. “It’s kind of an unusual relationship. Tibet is quite famous, everybody knows Tibet and China are now famous as well but it wasn’t when I first went.”
Jenkins first traveled to China in 1984 on an expedition to climb Shishapangma, a mountain that is one of 14 peaks in the world that exceeds approximately 26,250 feet above sea level. Since then, Jenkins has visited China nearly 15 times and all together has spent close to one and a half years there completing assignments for magazines and endeavoring mountain expeditions.
It was through mountaineering in China that Jenkins discovered the conflicting relationship between China and Tibet that has been on-going for over 1,500 years.
“That’s been a transition and transformation for me,” Jenkins said. “You get really far out there when you climb mountains. You’re in villages, you’re with villagers and you start becoming fascinated with how they live their lives and what matters to them.”
Along with his climbing, Jenkins pitched ideas to magazines and covered topics such as the rivers in China and Tea Horse Road. Through these assignments, Jenkins learned about China and Tibet’s past relationship, and what it has evolved into presently.
In 1950 Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese government, invaded Tibet (a deeply religious country where 95 percent of the population practices Tibetan Buddhism) and took away their freedom of religion and press. China has since become an increasingly industrialized, hyper-capitalist country that refuses to give Tibet or any part of China freedom of religion and press.
“I think it’s important to recognize that the Chinese haven’t really treated Tibetans any worse than they have treated their own people,” Jenkins said. “If you look at the Cultural Revolution, during Mao’s period, it was an incredibly difficult time and 48 million Chinese died through starvation.”
Jenkins reasoned that the main motives for China not allowing its people to have these freedoms are security, population distribution and resources. With Tibet’s location, it serves as a security buffer against neighboring countries. China also has a very high population density in very small areas, so the government has pushed its citizens to move to Tibet.
“The Chinese see Tibet as their own manifest destiny,” Jenkins said. “Their dream is to get their population to move out here (Tibet). In fact, they have lots of programs, tax incentives, and when China had their one child policy if you moved to Tibet you could have two.”
Tibet has substantial amounts of timber, hydropower and, most importantly, lithium. Electrical devices such as cell phones, laptops and even electrical cars are made out of lithium. China has a high demand for lithium in order to make products such as these.
“I don’t think any place in China is going to get religious freedom,” Jenkins said. “Tibet’s just one example. I think the government is very fearful of losing control of the population. They’ve always had this fear so they’re very active, they’re very oppressive and I don’t think Tibet is going to be any different than any of the other provinces where they don’t really allow religious freedom.”
To this day Tibet is still being governed by the Chinese and is filled with many Chinese military bases. According to Jenkins, The Dalai Lama of Tibet only wants for Tibetans to gain religious freedom because economically Tibet could not be successful as a country.
However, Jenkins made it clear that he was speaking in terms of the next 20-40 years and mentioned that the world will have changed significantly up to that point. Understanding that he doesn’t have 50 years to change parts of the world that are in disarray, Jenkins said it is up to the generation who does have 50 years to make a difference.
“You guys are inheriting a pretty messed up planet,” Jenkins said. “It’s not great, so you’re going to have to solve it. You’re going to have to find the solutions.”
Currently writing for National Geographic, Jenkins still travels the world completing assignments while simultaneously working for the University of Wyoming, taking his presentation to communities in both Wyoming and Washington D.C.
How did Jenkins, a small-town boy from Laramie, Wyoming, wind up working for a nationally known magazine, climbing mountains such as Everest and riding motorcycles across Tibet?
“Curiosity is the driving force of journalism,” Jenkins said. “You’re looking for the truth, and you’re trying to figure out how the world works.”
Jenkins has been technical rock climbing since he was 15 but said he has been hiking and climbing mountains since he was a kid, with Wyoming as his backyard playground.
“I think there’s kind of a misunderstanding about climbing because climbing is really about controlling your fear,” Jenkins said. “It’s not about thrill seeking. The goal is to make good decisions in difficult situations. That’s what mountaineering’s about.”
A typical assignment for Jenkins consists of being in the field for one to three months conducting dozens of interviews and writing a “whole book’s worth” of notes. He even reads six to eight books before he goes on an assignment to get as much information as possible about the subject matter. Yet, even with the countless adventures and experiences, Jenkins admitted there were downfalls as a global correspondent.
“Emotionally it’s a tough job because you’re away on your own all the time,” Jenkins said. “If you’re covering war zones you’re seeing horrific things that aren’t good for the human brain. On the adventure side I’ve broken my leg, my back, my arms, my wrist, my skull. I don’t care too much about those, but the emotional side is difficult.”
Going from the Casper Star Tribune to Time magazine, and currently working with National Geographic, Jenkins assured anyone can do it if they have the patience and commitment to see the world, and understand what is happening around us.
“You have to love the act of writing as much as you love the travel, or the politics or the culture because in the end that’s what you’re giving to people is your story.”