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The other Lhasa

There are two Tibetan Capitals out there. A plush one with malls and nightclubs, and the old, down-and-out quarter. In between lies the nation’s story, writes Vijay Jung Thapa.

world Updated: Jan 26, 2009 06:25 IST
Vijay Jung Thapa

In 1976 the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, tripping on a strong dose of yajé, wrote about the ‘Tibet of his imagination’ — a psychedelic account of a secret, shadowy, white paradise up in the Himalayas. Like Ginsberg, the Tibet of my own imagination, spurred by writers from Hedin to Harrer to Hopkirk, had always conjured up a powerful image of Eastern mysticism set against the great brooding mass of the Potala — a place of pure spirit, unsullied by greed or personal ambition.

Five minutes into Lhasa, that illusion lay shattered.

As our van rolled onto a smooth-as-silk eight-lane-wide boulevard, my Chinese interpreter excitedly gushed: "This is our Lhasa." Outside, glistening glass-and-chrome buildings, plush hotels and supermarkets with bright neon signage floated by. Bulky Prados purred down the uniform grid of roads that go off in all directions and chic women and strutting businessmen dotted the sidewalks and street corners. It was a new landscape where Lhasa meets Las Vegas — minus the buzz and with an unmistakable touch of Chinese kitsch.
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Old city: Construction work in a poorer district of Lhasa where more ethnic Tibetans are to be found

I almost missed the city’s defining landmark — the Potala Palace — until someone pointed it out to me. It’s still a heart-stopping sight. A majestic white-and-red palace that seems to sprout out of living rock, its huge bulk appearing, by some architectural sleight of hand, to float above the city, like a defiant symbol of Old Tibet. Yet, its imposing authority that once dominated the city now seems to have shrunk — despoiled by the symbols and tastes of a New Tibet.

New symbols abound. Like the pair of giant, kitschy golden yaks to the side of the Potala — ‘given’ to the Tibetans by the Chinese government to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 17-Point Agreement. To the back of the Potala, a sacred lake is now filled with electric boats in the summer and the gardens around have become a popular picnic spot with amusement rides, fast-food stalls and employees dressed up as little pandas.

Historic landmarks, I realised, have altogether disappeared. The Sixth Dalai Lama, a notorious libertine who grew his hair long and wrote erotic verse, was known to have wooed lovers in the smoky taverns of Shol, a village that lay at the feet of the Potala. Today, the 300-year-old village, once a stellar example of Tibetan architecture, no longer exists. In its place lies the vast, shiny Potala Square — a Tibetan Tiananmen that reduces the great home of the Dalai Lama to a photo-opportunity backdrop.

Still, my shattered vision of Shangri-La notwithstanding, I didn’t really need the persistent insistence of my Chinese hosts to realise that the rapid development had done some good. On the way from Gonggar airport to Lhasa, I could see bright new houses being built to replace the smoky hovels many Tibetans used to occupy. China estimates to have re-housed more than 15 per cent of Tibet’s population in the last two years. One could argue that this is China’s way to settle nomadic Tibetans who put up a strong resistance to the Han invasion in 1950. But it would be churlish to deny China’s attempt to bring economic development to a disadvantaged region.
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Security works at many levels in Lhasa: a police for Barkhor, a local force, an armed para-military and the Army. The secret services HQ (below) is in one of the spanking new buildings around

In terms of investment, the Land of Snows has never had it so good. Under the ‘Go West’ policy of President Hu Jintao — who once was general secretary of the Communist Party in the Tibet Autonomous Region — the government is pouring in money to try to close the gap between the prosperous coastal regions and the economically backward inland areas.

Last year alone, more than 10 billion yuan (Rs 72 billion) of public funds flowed into Tibet — equivalent, say officials, to a subsidy of 4,177 yuan (Rs 30,000) to each of its 2.7 million people. Indeed, spurred by these subsidies and a million tourists every year, Tibet’s economy has surpassed China’s average growth. Tibet’s GDP is today 39.2 billion yuan (Rs 282 billion), up from 700 million yuan (Rs 5040 Million) in 1978. Tibetans have certainly benefited from China’s ‘leap-frog’ growth drive. Life spans have increased, public health has improved and opportunities to explore the outside world have grown. As Tashi Tshering, a shopkeeper, told me: “I don’t like how they’ve changed Lhasa. But the Chinese have brought good things to Tibet.”

Two worlds apart

Yet, Tibet isn’t, by any standard, a tranquil Shangri-La. There is deep resentment that often spills onto the streets — a case in point being the March 14th riots just before the Beijing Olympics. To understand why the Tibetans still don’t share China’s vision of a brave new consumer world, I walked down to Barkhor — a part of Lhasa that still resembles Lhasa. The heart of this old Tibetan quarter is the great Jokhang temple, a magnificent whirlwind of prostrating pilgrims, chanting toddlers, old nomads tottering on canes, and Chinese CID personnel making clandestine cell-phone checks. Inside the shrine, a loose and happy mob circled the interior, beneath a worn fresco depicting Tibetan folklore. In it, I could see a king leading out his army to smash hordes of barbarians; scything through the ranks of the deluded materialists.

Later, in a smoky anteroom of a restaurant that served strange fusion dishes like yak lasagna and curry pizza, I sat with a gangly Tibetan who gave his name as Lobsang. The rapid development, he said, hadn’t helped Tibetans much. Rather than enriching the locals, most of whom are farmers and herders, much of the money ends up in the hands of the Han migrants who dominate the urban centres. While the average disposable income in towns is the highest in China, Tibet’s farmers are among the poorest. In the villages, where the government is offering tax concessions, peasants are returning to the practice of sharing a bride among brothers. But in Lhasa, bars, brothels and cafés are springing up to cater to a growing army of non-Tibetan workers who are paid more than double their usual salaries to work in Tibet. “All Tibetans,” he added, “feel a strong resentment against the inequality they face in their day-to-day lives.”

That night, in a glittering banquet, I asked my host Nima Ciren, vice chairman of the People’s Congress in Tibet, why such rapid development hadn’t dampened the separatist demands of the locals. Between many toasts of Maotai wine, Ciren gave me the most honest reply I ever got from a government official on the trip. “Tibetans as a whole need to introspect whether they want to be separatists or remain with China…. until we do that, this kind of trouble will stay with us.” The evening whirled on through several courses of exotic pheasants and meats and more and more Maotai. But through that fun exterior, I thought I noted a sadness in Ciren. He belongs to a generation (now in their 60s) who had been, in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, elevated by Mao because they came from good ‘serf’ backgrounds. Exiles would be quick to call them collaborators, but I felt the situation was more complex. Some of them, at least, were working within the system as a way of defending Tibet.

Younger Tibetans in Lhasa seemed to have their own mindsets. Pub hopping, one evening, on the roof of the world, I met 22-year-old Phinjo Phuntsog, who works as a mid-level executive in a construction firm. Phuntsog and his friends work hard and party hard in a town where they claim the nightlife is as good as Singapore or Hong Kong. These were a different set of Tibetans — poles apart from the angst-ridden idealistic youth I’d encountered in Dharamsala. They were dressed sharply in casual chic, with exaggerated hairstyles and armed with the latest mobile technology. We were sitting in a lively bar, round a table full of beer bottles, next to a stage where local pop bands and crooners belted out old-time rock favourites with an Oriental twang. Whenever the band hit a foot-tapping number, Phuntsog and his friends would dance so hard you would never believe oxygen is in short supply at this altitude. I ask him whether he feels he is a part of the great Chinese nation. The answer is lightening-quick: “Not at all. I am Tibetan and that will always be my identity.”

Nursing a hangover the next morning, waiting for a flight back home at the Gonggar airport, I thought Phuntsog had got it right. In the end, it’s all about identity. Fact is that Tibetans feel Tibetan. And no amount of rapid development will change that.

Tibet will always be a country that’s ethnically and culturally different from China. It doesn’t matter if the Old Lhasa is gone, it would have changed anyway. Modernity has undermined Tibet’s oppressively religious hierarchy, already being reformed by the Dalai Lama, just as it’s changing China’s own vision of communism. What can bring ever-lasting peace is genuine autonomy and equality for Tibetans — with or without talks with the Dalai Lama, within or without the Chinese system.

Till that happens, the romantic image of Tibet as a free, unsullied, spiritual Shangri-La will only live on in our imaginations.