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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Tibet joins the world

September 16, 2007

Holy city of Lhasa adapts to throngs of tourists from China and the West

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.

Half-naked beggars with matted hair, monks in crimson, old women with dogs, businessmen on cell phones and, of course, tourists come to see one of the world’s most colorful cultures on parade.

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 the summer of 2008 from the roof of the world.

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, especially from the West, 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.

A world-class site, Lhasa lured me with its remoteness. And I was driven by the desire to see what Sinofication had done.

Foreign visitors have sharply different reactions to Lhasa, but Chinese development has added a new layer. Everything here can be interpreted in Tibetan or Chinese terms. And it’s almost impossible to cross a new bridge, stay in the city’s first five-star hotel or visit Tibet Museum (opened in 1999) without feeling conflicted.

Lhasa lies in a 12,000-foot valley carved out of the Himalayas by the Kyichu River. Travelers 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. I was studying Mandarin in Beijing, so I greeted my driver at the airport in Chinese, little realizing English is more welcome to many Tibetans.

The beautiful new highway cut the drive from Gonggar International Airport by about 30 minutes, and we approached the city through a modern high-rise district known locally as “Chinatown.”

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 five-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.

I checked in at the Gorkha Hotel near Barkhor Square, the heart of the old city. It is decorated with brightly painted furniture and fabrics bearing auspicious Tibetan symbols like the lotus, wheel and right-coiled conch shell. A Tibetan-Nepalese family runs the place with joy rather than polish.

Until 2006, when two luxury hotels opened on the city’s outskirts, there were no elevators in Lhasa.

So breathing the oxygen-impoverished air, the climb up three steep flights of stairs left me too winded to speak, a condition aggravated by the room. There, the Tibetan taste for color and ornamentation was on full display.

At the far end of the big room was a king-size bed with zebra-striped pillows. Massive couches and chairs framed a glass coffee table in the room’s center. The large bath had a toilet and urinal as well as a double tub and shower unit with jets that leaked.

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, corbels 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.

The Gorkha is near the city’s main mosque; a blessedly peaceful Buddhist convent; and the Dropenling Handicraft Development Center, a nonprofit organization that supports Tibetan artisans.

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.

Tibet’s Historical and Cultural Landscape, a Chinese-published guidebook, calls Tibet the “shining pearl of China’s cultural treasure house.”

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.

Wax instead of smelly yak-butter candles now illuminate Potala’s colorful murals, thangkas (painted, appliquéd or embroidered scrolls) and statues. On the sun-blasted roof, my guide explained how the fifth Dalai Lama, became the first to preside spiritually and temporally over a unified Tibet.

The same day, we visited Drepung Monastery in the hills west of town; 10,000 lamas lived here before the Chinese began to suppress the monasteries. Now it is home to about 800 monks.

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 didn’t have to read between the lines to appreciate its view of Tibetan history and culture.

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 Chairman Mao Tse-tung gave to the Nobel Prize-winning 14th Dalai Lama.

The entrance to Norbulinka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas, is across the street from the museum. Construction began in 1755. But the walled compound put its most indelible mark on history during the climax of the 1959 uprising as mortar shells were launched into a crowd of Tibetans while the 14th Dalai Lama escaped to India. That terrible night seemed distant on the hot May afternoon I visited Norbulinka, now a public park.

Every day after sightseeing, I returned to Barkhor Square to watch the pilgrims. The night before I left, a peddler gave me a bundle of juniper, which I tossed in the incense oven in front of the temple. It crackled, then exploded.

I still smell juniper when I think of Lhasa and hope travelers will always stand on Barkhor Square to watch the faithful circle Jokhang Temple.

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