Tibet’s transformation: a new age for once-remote Lhasa

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Lhasa, Tibet

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. 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, pre-pubescent monks in crimson, old women with dogs, businessmen on cellphones and, of course, tourists come to see one of the world’s most colorful and precious cultures on parade.

Lhasa, Tibet: “A New Age for Lhasa,” in the Aug. 19 Travel section, reported that the Tibetan city’s first elevators were built last year for the Brahmaputra Grand and Lhasa Manasarovar hotels. The Lhasa Hotel, completed in 1985, also has elevators. —

Once, travelers risked their lives to reach the magical, 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 last year. Highways crisscross the Tibetan Plateau, and even the rough road to Everest base camp is being smoothed so the bearers of the Olympic torch can announce next summer’s Beijing Games from the roof of the world.

About 2.6 million people visited Tibet last year, most of them newly flush Chinese, their love of travel recently unleashed by boom times in their homeland. To them, Tibet is the untrammeled 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 all too clearly that Tibet was free and independent before a 1950 invasion, development is simply a calculated maneuver on Beijing’s part to open the region’s doors to ethnic Han Chinese, diluting its unique indigenous culture and drawing it ever more tightly into the People’s Republic.

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

Foreign visitors have long had sharply different reactions to Lhasa, but Chinese development has added a new layer to the conundrum. 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 the Tibet Museum (opened in 1999 ostensibly to preserve the region’s culture) without feeling deeply conflicted.

12,000 feet up

Lhasa lies in a 12,000-foot valley carved out of the Himalayas by the Kyichu River. Almost inevitably, travelers begin their trips 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 with a cheerful ninhao, little realizing that English is more welcome than Chinese 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 like hard sauce on a Christmas pudding.

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. My Tibetan guide told me he got his weight under control when he began walking it daily.

You don’t have to walk the Lingkhor to notice recent development. Its hand can be felt almost everywhere, from the crane poised over Barkhor Square to the array of 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.

One of the owner’s daughters showed me to my top-floor room, the best in the house, I gathered. Until last year, when two luxury hotels opened on the city’s outskirts, there were no elevators in Lhasa. So, together with the oxygen-impoverished air, the climb up three steep flights of stairs left me too winded to speak, a condition aggravated by my first sight of 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 mounded with zebra-striped pillows. A set of massive couches and chairs framed a glass coffee table in the room’s center, and an empty, prefabricated fish pond lay under the windows. The large bath had a toilet and urinal as well as a double tub and shower unit with jets that leaked.

The old city

The old town is a tangle of dark, narrow streets, so I had to pore over a city map whenever I set out from the Gorkha. I soon realized that the Lingkhor passes the hotel’s front door, so I needed only to walk against the current of pilgrims to get to Jokhang Temple, a complex with whitewashed walls, rows of windows outlined in kohl black and a section of golden roofs, corbels and gleaming 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 most of the eateries around the Barkhor, like Snow Land and the New Mandala, also offer Western, Chinese and Indian fare.

So I ate and shopped well. And as I got to know the old town, I found other haunts a little distance from the main square. The Gorkha was near the city’s main mosque; a blessedly peaceful Buddhist convent where I posed for a picture with three bald, giggling nuns; and the Dropenling Handicraft Development Center, a nonprofit organization that supports Tibetan artisans.

Whenever I went out to wander in the old city, I was warned to watch my bag. Crime in Lhasa is reportedly on the rise, said to be fueled by an influx of underemployed people from the countryside.

The most recent Chinese census put Lhasa’s population at 474,500; 87% are Tibetan. Lately, however, immigrants from other provinces -- most of them 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 gem

“Tibet’s Historical and Cultural Landscape,” one of the Chinese-published guidebooks I bought here, 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 sits sipping 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, but the palace still seems hermetically shrouded until a visitor suddenly arrives on the sun-blasted roof. There, with all of Lhasa spread at his feet, my guide explained how the fifth Dalai Lama, known as the Great Fifth, 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, but now it is home to only about 800 monks.

My guide seemed disinclined to take me to the Tibet Museum, but I managed fine there 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 biased view of Tibetan history and culture. I saw the beautiful golden seal of the Great Fifth and the skin of a rare snow leopard, as well as more nuanced relics such as a jade vase that 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 I finished sightseeing, I turned back to Barkhor Square. I stopped again the night before I left, watching pilgrims.

A peddler noticed me and 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 that its future is not preordained, that travelers will always stand on Barkhor Square, watching the faithful circle Jokhang Temple.