Modern forces pale against ancient magic in Tibet's troubled capital

By Jane Wooldridge, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 8, 2008

LHASA, Tibet -- Scene from last summer: A flutter of crimson crowds the square as dozens of young Buddhist monks sweep from their classes to their daily outdoor debate practice at the Sera Monastery. The low murmur swells to a roar as they offer their arguments, underscoring points with a clap of hands or a stomped foot. Occasionally one breaks from his rhetorical intensity into a giddy smile, and you wish you could understand the Tibetan words.

<< Potala Palace, Tibet

One stops in mid-gesture, drops to a crouch and pulls out his cell phone. Even once-remote places are now wired.

Such modern communication, perhaps, helped Bhuddist monks and other Tibetans coordinate recent protests against the Chinese domination that has ruled for nearly 50 years. Many of those years saw brutality and what Tibet supporters see as systematic attempts to subdue the populace and destroy the culture.

Early last week, the Chinese government claimed 10 had been killed in the recent protests. Other estimates put the death tally near 80; the Dalai Lama -- Tibet's spiritual leader -- decried the violence. Foreigners were moved outside the city, according to a report by the Associated Press; tourists were sequestered in hotels, said Reuters. Independent information was in short supply: foreign journalists were evicted from the region, and local access to websites such as YouTube was blocked.

What all of this means both for Tibetans and travelers who want to go there is uncertain. After previous protests, Chinese officials have clamped down on travel; last year, when a group of Westerners unfurled a "Free Tibet" banner at Base Camp Everest, new restrictions were established that included permits for foreign visitors.

That was still the case when I visited last July, traveling via the engineering feat of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, which has brought more than 5.95 million people to Lhasa since its opening in July 2006. A "tour" was required, and though I was often free to wander at will, my visits to major sites were in the company of a Chinese guide.

This 21st century Lhasa was far different from the city I visited in 1991. Then, tourists could travel there only as part of a group tour. The city was still cozy and decidely Tibetan; the holiest temples were filled with the rancid smoke of yak butter lamps burning in offering, and the only Western-style hotel was a Holiday Inn on what was then the outskirts of the city. Restaurants were few, mostly simple noodle shops tucked into private homes. But even then, the future was obvious; a growing number of Han Chinese already had moved to this far western region, setting up shops and barber stands. Temples long decayed were being repaired for their tourism value.

On the last day of that trip, our tour schedule suddenly changed, and we visited a monastery that, even today, lies far from the city. I didn't hear the guide tell us to stay at the hotel during lunch; when my companion and I caught a cycle rickshaw to the main square in front of the Jokhang, Tibet's holiest temple, we found Chinese military tanks stationed along the way, designed to quell any protests on what was -- unknown to us -- the anniversary of the 1950 Chinese invasion. An obvious "undercover" agent in a fedora and pinstripe suit intercepted us, a sound wire hanging from his ear. We were just shopping on our last day in the country, we told him; he escorted us to a shop selling the items we wanted.

Flash forward, July 2007: Lhasa has morphed into a bustling, modern city of nearly a half-million people, complete with ATMs, cell service, supermarkets, comfortable hotels, a range of eateries and Internet access -- though access to some Web sites, including my own blog, was blocked. Population figures are deemed unreliable; still, the percentage of Tibetans in Lhasa -- some say it's as high as 87 percent, others as low as 56 percent -- has clearly diminished.

While it's tempting to anguish over the charm and quaintness lost, you can't blame Tibetans for appreciating modern conveniences. And for first-time visitors like Joe Brennan and Barbara Norremo of Idaho, the city was still "colorful and exotic."

But other changes -- as evidenced by the protests -- probably weren't so welcome.

Military personnel were stationed obviously throughout the area; a sign prominently displayed the office of Barkhor Bazaar Control, and closed-circuit cameras stared from every corner of the bazaar. The undeniable message: Someone is watching. Pickpockets aren't the problem.

My Chinese guide delivered the official history -- that Tibet has for hundreds of years been tied to China -- and spoke of China's 1950 military action as Tibet's "liberation."

Guidebooks warned that locals might be wary of tourists, lest they be punished for conspiring to protest, and tourists should avoid talking about politics. Photos of the Dalai Lama -- who fled in 1959 -- weren't allowed; only a single one still appeared in public, at Norbulingka, the Summer Palace. Fewer people seemed comfortable with having their photos taken then when I visited before.

Still, with all the caveats and concerns, Lhasa was a place of magic.

Pilgrims -- perhaps some delivered by the new train -- circumambulated the Jokhang, prayer wheels in hand as they deliberately moved clockwise around the temple. The Barkhor Bazaar surrounded them, a bustling marketplace of prayer wheels and prayer beads, traditional clothing and tourist T-shirts, necklaces in plastic that would once have been real amber and turquoise.

The prayerful chanted before the Jokhang's doors, snatching a moment for meditation before the temple opened for tourists. The most devout prostrated in an act of reverence: Hands over head, then to the ground, knees following, then flat to the earth before rising again, over and over and over. Others -- more humbled, desperate or needy perhaps -- prostrated as they circled the temple through the winding bazaar, shoppers and worshippers and gawkers taking care not to block them.

The Potala Palace, Lhasa's most recognizeable icon, has been restored, so packed with tourists -- both Chinese and foreign -- that visits were timed and numbers limited to 3,000 per day, my guide said.

The yak butter lamps were gone, and though the tradition may be missed, I welcomed relief from the acrid smell and smoky haze. Gone, too, are the thousands of monks that once lived in Lhasa's monasteries; today they number 10 percent of that -- or less. It's a disappointment.

"It's beautiful," said Brigitte Fruensgaard, a visitor to the Potala from Copenhagen, "but I thought I would see more of the monks' life. I didn't see any monks."

A disappointment, yes, but still worth the visit.

That was the Dalai Lama's response to a question posed a few weeks ago, before the uprising.

"His Holiness encourages people to go and see Tibet and find out the reality of Tibet and the conditions Tibetans face," his press spokesman, Tenzin Lodoe Choegyal, wrote in an e-mail.

For most of us, our strongest connections with destinations far from home is as a tourist. Once we've visited -- or simply longed to do so -- a place becomes our own. When trouble strikes, we share the heartache. New York after the 9/11 attacks; Bali after the 2002 and 2005 bombings; Thailand after the 2005 tsunami; New Orleans after Katrina. They become our tragedies as well.

As I travel, I try to watch and listen without cloaking myself with bias -- that is my job. And yet I can't help but think of Tibet's 1950s "liberation" as a scarring human violation, and the country's current troubles as my own.

China's, too. Given the disastrous PR, you have to wonder if today's Chinese government might not wish its predecessors had left the place alone. After food safety scares and toy recalls, and with the Olympics on the way, the savviest spin doctors should shudder at the damage control required.

If the past is a guide, Tibet will again welcome foreign visitors and the money they bring. Its $4.2 billion railway will chug on. And so will the people of Tibet.

Whether tourists will want to return remains to be seen. How fortunate for those who have visited already.