Life Goes Higher On Roof Of The World

By Sunil KC, The Rising Nepal, June 20, 2005

Lhasa, Tibet (China) -- For outsiders, the very name Tibet evokes an impression of a rustic place at a remote corner of the world ? beyond the great Himalayas and other lofty mountains, high plateau above the tree line with almost barren landscape, harsh climate with thin air and one has to take a deep breath to have a lungful of oxygen. Tibet remained an enigma for long. This mysticism was added by its long isolation and its famed spiritualism. Therefore, a visit to this mythical land is eagerly waited by anyone who has some interest in its history, geography, culture and tradition.

<< Potala palace: Seat of the Dalai Lama

The recent opening of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China has given chances to many, both Asian and Westerners, to solve the word-of-mouth riddles of both those who have been there and those who have not.

The Air China flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa about three weeks ago was filled with many foreigners and Nepalese, including a team of eight Nepalese journalists, and about a dozen Nepalese students, who were going to Chengdu via Lhasa. Lhasa, the capital of TAR, is only about 650 kilometres east of Kathmandu ? just one-hour flight on modern jet ? yet the geography makes it look so far. The Airbus-319 took off on a clear May sky and headed eastwards. With the Himalayas on its left all eyes were peering through the small windows at the snow-capped peaks.

Those who knew were pointing and spelling out the names of the peaks. About half-an-hour into the air all eyes were gazing at the majestic Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) and a few minutes later it was Kanchanjungha, the third highest peak of the world, on the right. Crossing the Himalayas gave way for the dull grey (called clay forest) landscape below, but on the far snow-capped peaks emanating from the Pamir knot could still be seen. After about an hour the jet landed on the Lhasa Airport. The airport is located at what looked like a barren place before.

The new annexe to the old terminal has turned the Lhasa airport able to handle big planes and multiple flights at a time. Construction is still going on ? a trend that is seen all over Tibet. The city lies about 100 kilometres from the airport, and the ride to the city gives a glimpse of the transformation of Tibet from a rustic plateau into a modern society. The wide and smooth road along the mighty Brahmaputra River does not allow the feel of the distance. A new bridge being built over the confluence of the Brahmaputra and the Lhasa Rivers will reduce the distance by as much as 40 kilometres bringing the airport much closer to the city.

Making of a metropolis

Once in Lhasa, the first mystery is shattered. Lhasa is not a rustic town of monks alone, burgeoning but has been transformed into a metropolis with modern buildings and shops, wide four-and six-lane roads that crisscross the city, neon and other signs that include international brands such as Kodak and lots of cars, SUVs such as Land Cruisers and Pajeros. The economic liberalization is astounding with the rise of consumerism. Shops flaunting the latest designs of clothes and shoes, big supermarkets selling everything from electronic gadgets and other consumer items shows the bug of consumerism has smitten the people. Discos and nightclubs dot the city. On the wide pavements Bryan Adam intermingle with Chinese folk tunes and there are even Hindi songs that give the city a cosmopolitan look. Modern restaurants compete with traditional roadside eateries and people are willing to dispose their extra-income.

The looks of the city tell that most of the buildings are newly constructed and there are constructions going on unabated. Still, there are some buildings with the traditional Tibetan architect and they are kept intact. Lhasa has a population of only about 300,000 and with the expansion still is taking place. It looks certain it could become a metropolis located at the highest place of the world. Modernity has its peccadillo. The nightlife of the Lhasa may still be nascent in comparison to cities like Bangkok, but the sex shops, where girls with plunging neckline and raised hemline wait to be picked up well after mid-night.

Potala Palace

Potala Palace is the most famous landmark of Lhasa and also of Tibet. The 1,300-year-old monastery dominates the city skyline. The 13-floor and 115-metre high brick red and white structure is one of the most important centres for Tibetan culture and spiritualism. Inside, Potala houses the most important artefacts of Tibetan Buddhism. There are thousands of scriptures of Buddha?s teachings and the explanations of the texts, of Tibetan history and architecture. The images of Shakya Muni and different incarnations, make it probably the biggest collection of such relics in the world under one roof.

The riches of its religious texts and also the material wealth such as thousands of kilos of gold used in making the stupas and statues are makes everyone shake heads in disbelief. A diamond placed at the top of the crown of the statue of Maitreya Buddha (the future Buddha) is said to be the second largest in the world after Cullinan.

However, the most sacred chamber of the Potala lies deep inside the Palace and it has the image of Songtsan Gampo, who built the original Palace in the 7th century, and his two consorts ? Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal and Princess Weng Chen of China. A significant collection of the artefacts is dedicated to the Dalai Lamas. Of the previous 13 Dalai Lamas it has stupas for all of them except the first and the sixth. The stupa of the first Dalai Lama is not in Potala, but in Tashilhunpo monastery in Xigatse. The 6th Dalai Lama had passed away in Mongolia and there is no stupa of him inside Potala.

The Palace was expanded to its present size by the 5th Dalai Lama in 1645 AD, who also made Potala his residence. Now, there are 76 monks in Potala and 300 other employees to take care of the palace. Because of its religious significance and its location at the heart of Lhasa makes it the most famous tourist attraction. The faith of the Tibetans on the Potala is so great that still Tibetans, who walk past the Potala, prostrate themselves before their religious citadel. The other major religious sites in Lhasa are the Jokhang and Ramoche temples. Both these temples have relics that also link ancient Nepal to Tibet. Jokhang temple has stones brought by Bhrikuti to Tibet and the Ramoche temple has the statue of Mikyo Dorge, the bodily form of Shakya Muni as the main religious object. The statue was also brought by Princess Bhrikuti from Nepal. The Tibet museum contains items depicting Tibet?s evolutionary sequence in the historical, cultural and geographical (ecological) niches. One item of interest to the Nepalese might be the crown of Songtson Gompo.

After the opening of Tibet to outsiders, people from all over the world visit or aspire to visit Tibet because of the aura of mysticism it had harboured for so long. Not only that but also because of the rugged terrain, high mountains and the indigenous culture and tradition that developed for so long without much outside interference, Tibet has many other tourist attractions ? both historical, cultural and natural. According to figures of the Tibetan government, 1.2 million tourists visited Tibet last year making it one of the most promising industries. The rise in the number of tourists is amazing. It is galloping like the Chinese economy in double figures. In 2000, it was about 600,000; in 2002 it rose to 867,000, then to 929,000 in 2003 and in 2004 it was double the 2000 figures, bringing in 1.5 billion Yuan to the local economy.

But the most important thing is the rapid change of Tibet, especially of Lhasa. Even the small township of Na Qu, with 30,000 population at the height of 4,600 metres is seeing the urbanization drive with constructions for modern buildings, wide roads, city halls and others going on at feverish pace. Tibet government officials say that out of the 117 grand project undertaken in the last decade or so, 83 have been completed. But the most talked about project is the railway that links Lhasa with Beijing. Track has already been built up to 32 kilometres from the city and this will be completed by October this year. The air of optimism is so high that both people and officials say it will transform Tibet and its hinterland like never before. And there is no politics involved in the project, like we had in the Arun III and others.

Looking impressed by the changes that are taking place in Tibet, a member of the journalist team had commented, the Chinese are ants, one day they will transform all barren hills into green.

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