The Silk Road, China

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Lhasa - arrival in Tibet

Having spent a few days alone in Xian after Helen headed home, I was very much looking forward to meeting up with Tom and Debs - friends from University who had decided to join me in Tibet for their summer holiday. We arrived more or less at the same time and spent a relaxing few days in Lhasa acclimatising to the altitude.

Lhasa could not have provided a sharper contrast with the humid, smoggy cities of Gansu and Shaanxi province. The air is clean and crisp - if a little thin at 3600m. A poster in a travel agency proudly named Lhasa the Sunshine City, due to an average of 3,000 hours of sunshine every year. That equates to an extraordinary average of 8+ hours of sunshine every single day. And Tibet is not famed for its mild winters.

Beyond the weather, the Tibetan style buildings lept out in contrast to the entirely functional, concrete monotony of China. Black framed windows set into the white washed walls and red underlining the roofs both created a sense of character that has been entirely lacking so far.

After just a few hours in Tibet, it is hard not to notice some quite different characteristics in the people (as well as a number that are shared with the Chinese). Despite an equally challenging language barrier, the Tibetans' attractive features are constantly adorned with an infectious smile that is hard not to love. As a visitor, you feel far more welcome than elsewhere in China.

Doubtless this is due in part to the fact that Tibet has had more contact with foreigners in recent history. Although Britain established contact with Tibet as early as the the 18th century, it soon after closed its doors to all foreigners for over a hundred years. It was not until the Great Game was played out east across Central Asia right into Tibet, that foreign influence arrived onto the plateau in the early 20th century. Interestingly, before this time and since, of all the non Asian powers, Britain has had a disproportionate influence on Tibet.

Today tourism is clearly a major pillar of the Tibetan economy. Lhasa is a crazy melting pot of religious ritual and naked capitalism that somehow seems to hold together. The best example of this juxtaposition is the Jokhang kora, the pilgrim circuit around Tibet's holiest temple: bazaar style haggling at the stalls lining the street provides the backdrop to countlesss pilgrims who shuffle clockwise around the temple, spinning their prayer wheels and chanting out loud.

The Jokhang kora

It is refreshing to once again see old buildings alive with people acting out ancient traditions, albeit in jeans and contemporary clothing if they are young. A vast number of pilgrims of all ages lined up outside the Jokhang when we visited, and we were pleased to feel jostled along inside by Tibetans moving around the temples, as opposed to tourists wielding their cameras. Here historical buildings appear to have a value beyond restoration into sterile museum pieces and extraction of the maximum possible revenue from tourism.

Perhaps because as a tourist you are simply a (lucrative) byproduct of what is going on anyway, it is impossible not to feel privileged to be in Tibet. The religious buzz in and around the Jokhang is extremely moving, while from the outside, the massive Potala Palace (the traditional residence of the Dalai Lama) is as imposing as it is impressive.

So first impressions of Lhasa are overwhelmingly positive: it appears to be a thriving city in which Tibetan culture is not only allowed some freedom to express itself, but is showcased to visitors from around the world. The most interesting thing to understand over the next few weeks is to what extent Tibet is really functioning under the surface.


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