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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?"

Lhasa takes the leap

June 16, 2010

The Nation/Asia News Network
June 7, 2010

TIBET -- The Lhasa railway station is 3,490
metres up in the air - or, at least, above sea
level. In just 24 hours the train has climbed
from 2,275 metres in Xining to 5,072 at the
Tanggula Pass, before coasting more or less downward into Lhasa.

It's been a dizzying experience, and Lhasa somehow feels like solid ground.

"I can't believe I've made it!" exults Anna, a
German I'd met at my hotel in Xining and again on
the train. We kiss the ground at the station,
which is modelled after the iconic Potala Palace,
and giggle at our good fortune.

Anna is set for a 28-day tour of the region, just
her and a guide, including a trip to Mount Kailash.

I'd ridden to Tibet astride a famous piece of
advice from the 14th Dalai Lama - whose portrait
is nowhere to be seen in Lhasa, by the way. "Go
to Tibet," he said, "and see many places, as much
as possible, then tell the world."

My own guide is waiting with his Landcruiser 4500
to take me to a hotel in the Old Quarter. No
foreign tourists are allowed to roam on their
own. He's my insurance against trouble with the authorities.

At the hotel I meet Jane, a Dane, and Mike, a New
Zealander, with whom I'd made online arrangements
for a two-week joint tour. Visitors commonly form groups to split the costs.

Jane is a biologist who was taking her PhD at the
University of California in LA when she asked a
guy from the computer lab to fix her laptop.

That turned out to be Mike, a bit of a computer
geek (he can access Facebook in China despite the
website's ban) but would soon be doing marine
research in the North Sea for a Danish firm.

Mike and Jane hit it off and eventually set up house together in Copenhagen.

In Lhasa the three of stay at a family-run
guesthouse in the Old Quarter, which is known as
the "most Tibetan" area of the former national capital, now regional capital.

Travellers usually stay in Lhasa for three days
to get used to the altitude before venturing
outside the city. It gives is a chance to look
around and get to know each other, and, in fact,
none of us would experience any illness due to the heights.

Lhasa in late winter is sunny and a warm-ish 13
degrees during the day, but very cold at night.

In planning our trip we decide to stick with
hotels run by Tibetans - we want to support the
locals, not the Chinese "colonists" who are flooding the region.

For "real" Tibetan atmosphere, the Old Quarter is
best, though it's tiny on the city map. There's a
pilgrimage trail that circles the Jokhang
Monastery, along which many elderly people trek
from dawn to dusk, mostly hunched-over women with prayer wheels in hand.

The Old Quarter is still patrolled day and night
by Chinese security men armed with assault
rifles, an obvious result of the Tibetan uprising
in 2008, during which the incensed locals set Chinese shops ablaze.

Beijing accused the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled
spiritual leader, of masterminding the unrest to
push for independence - and spoil the Beijing
Olympics. The Dalai Lama scoffed at the charges
and continues to insist he wants only autonomy, not independence, for Tibet.

But Lhasa today is one of China's great
boomtowns, thriving on the new railway line. Four
million tourists come every year for the
picturesque temples and Tibetan culture, as well as the mountain scenery.

My travelling companions and I reckon that
fast-changing Lhasa looks just like any other
Chinese city, its streets lined not with trees
but Chinese shops, supermarkets, restaurants,
hotels, advertising billboards and the ubiquitous
spaghetti-like tangles of sagging power lines.

Even in the Old Quarter, new hotels and
restaurants are springing up close to the
venerated Jokhang Monastery, but the beggars on
the curbs are all Tibetans, including nuns and monks.

The Chinese - primarily Han - are migrating here
in large numbers. Their language predominates in
the signs on restaurants and the shops of
cobblers and tailors, and even the placards
brandished by the sex workers and beggars who've arrived to ply their trades.

They're lured by the lucre generated by large
government subsidies plied on the region since
the mid-1990s, particularly for the Western
Development Drive that began in 2000.

Carpenters in Qinghai were earning 15 yuan (Bt70)
a day, but a job helping build the railway to
Lhasa was worth 50 yuan per day. The Han easily
out-compete the Tibetans because they speak
Mandarin and know how decisions are made in the system.

The Chinese gains have pushed Tibetans out of the
sectors enjoying the most dynamic economic
growth, like government administration and large-scale construction.

After a stroll along Beijing Street I arrive back
at Barkhor Square, in front of the Jokhang
Monastery, still exerting its mysterious
gravitational pull on a stream of pilgrims.

This is the modern path for the pilgrims. The
older Tibetans with ponytails do as they've
always done - amble along, tirelessly chanting
"Ohm mani padme hum" and spinning prayer wheels.

Their rhythmic sounds, though, are now joined by
the raucous shouts of Chinese vendors wielding
mobile phones, announcing discounts, while
Chinese soldiers with machine guns keep watch.

The view of Lhasa on my first day can't be any more of a contrast.
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