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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Holy city: A multibillion-dollar push for tourism makes Tibet more accessible to travelers

September 2, 2007

At sunrise and sunset, the air is cool, the scent of burning juniper incense is strong, and a river of pilgrims flows in a sacred circle around Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet.

Every day, they walk the perimeter of Lhasa's holiest shrine to accrue blessings in the next life because, the precepts of Tibetan Buddhism say, their lot in this one is preordained when they come into it.

Once, travelers risked their lives to reach the mystical city of Lhasa, locked in Central Asia at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Mountain ranges rise in every direction: the Karakoram and Ladakh to the west, the Kunlun and Nan Shan to the north, the high Himalayas to the south and east. Coming to Lhasa by land meant crossing some of the roughest terrain on Earth; before about 1950, there were virtually no paved roads.

The holy city of Lhasa is remote no more; a multibillion-dollar drive to develop tourism has made getting to Tibet easier than ever. The world's highest railway between Beijing and Lhasa was inaugurated in 2006. Highways crisscross the Tibetan Plateau, and the rough road to Mount Everest base camp is being smoothed so the bearers of the Olympic torch can announce the Beijing Games in 2008 from the roof of the world.

Chinese influence

About 2.6 million people visited Tibet last year, many of them newly affluent Chinese, their love of travel unleashed by boom times in their homeland. To them, Tibet is the Wild West, an inalienable part of the People's Republic of China, and in big Chinese cities, Tibetan style is suddenly chic.

But to others, many of whom recall that Tibet was free and independent before a 1950 invasion, development is a calculated maneuver by Beijing to open the region's doors to Han Chinese, diluting its indigenous culture and drawing it into the People's Republic.

Lhasa lies in a 12,000-foot valley carved out of the Himalayas by the Kyichu River. T ravelers begin here, seeing the fabled sights of Tibetan Buddhism and getting acclimated before moving on to higher elevations.

In May during Golden Week, the big spring holiday in China, I, too, stopped here at the start of a six-day Tibet tour.

The mountaintops were frosted with snow, but the wide Kyichu Valley looked more like desert Arizona than alpine Switzerland. There were no glaciers or ice fields, as I had expected, only rocky hills and alluvial fans spreading down to the braided, milky blue river.

In the low, fertile flats, willow and poplar trees framed orchards and barley fields, yielding to suburbs of perfectly replicated Tibetan-style homes, each one its own snug little compound. In some, yak dung, traditionally used as fuel in Tibet, was drying on the walls.

Then I saw a yak, followed by a woman in a geometric-patterned apron, or "bangdian ," the traditional garb of Tibetan matrons, and, finally in the center of town, Potala Palace, cascading down a rocky mount.

The route around nearby Jokhang Temple, known as the Barkhor , is one of three important circumambulations in Lhasa. The Tsekhor takes pilgrims around Potala Palace, the former abode of the 14th Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet during the 1959 Tibetan uprising against the Chinese. The Lingkhor, a 5-mile circle around the old city, is the longest.

Recent development can be seen everywhere, from the crane poised over Barkhor Square to the fresh fruit and vegetables newly available in the markets. Still, Lhasa must be one of the few cities in the world without a McDonald's or a Starbucks.

The old town is a tangle of dark, narrow streets, so I had to pore over a city map to get to Jokhang Temple, a complex with whitewashed walls, windows outlined in kohl black and a section of golden roofs and finials.

Barkhor Square at its threshold is a stock exchange floor of commerce. Every time I crossed it, I found something to buy and a new restaurant to try. Tibetan cuisine features spicy, salty yak meat and mutton. But many eateries offer Western, Chinese and Indian fare.

Immigration's impact

The most recent Chinese census put Lhasa's population at 474,500; 87 percent are Tibetan. Lately, however, immigrants from other provinces - members of China's Han ethnic majority - have streamed into Lhasa, changing the population mix. Locals think the Tibetan-Han ratio is 50-50.

Lhasa's shining pearl is Potala Palace, which I visited with a Tibetan guide. The breathtaking complex, in the middle of an almost 20-year renovation, was both a royal palace, begun by the fifth Dalai Lama in 1645 , and the seat of the Tibetan theocracy.

Now, it is a museum, encompassing tier upon tier of richly decorated temples and tombs, assembly halls, government offices and libraries holding precious Buddhist texts. In almost every chapel, a housekeeping lama collects donations or sips tea on a cushioned bench.

My guide seemed disinclined to take me to the Tibet Museum, but I managed without him. Among the English-language signs is one that credits the Chinese Communist Party with preserving Tibetan culture by opening the museum.

I saw the beautiful golden seal of the fifth Dalai Lama and the skin of a rare snow leopard, as well as a jade vase that Chairman Mao Tse-tung gave to the Nobel Prize-winning 14th Dalai Lama.

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