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Railway brings tourist hordes to Tibet

November 27, 2007

By ANITA CHANG Associated Press Writer
Article Launched: 11/26/2007 11:56:23 AM PST

LHASA, China-Three crimson-robed monks chant quietly as they file 
through the ancient palace, pausing every now and then to pray in the 
candlelit rooms filled with Buddhist statues and religious murals.

At the Potala Palace, the mountaintop Tibetan landmark where the 
Dalai Lama lived until he fled to India in 1959 to escape Chinese 
control, they are in the minority.

A year-old rail line linking Lhasa, capital of the remote Himalayan 
region of Tibet, with the rest of China has brought a deluge of 
Chinese tourists. Once quiet, holy sites are now filled with 
sightseers, many of them trailing behind guides loudly explaining 
their cultural significance.

"In the past, this was a very comfortable place to come for 
Buddhists. You could see a lot of lamas and Tibetans in this place 
and it made you feel like this was a place for your faith," monk 
Renzin Gyaltso said as he strolled down a stone path at the Potala 

Tibet's Buddhist culture, often besieged in the past half-century of 
Chinese rule by religious restrictions and communist political 
movements, is facing a new threat: mass tourism.

Pilgrimages to sacred sites are an integral part of Tibetan Buddhism. 
Renzin Gyaltso, 29, has visited the sprawling Potala Palace 14 times 
since joining a monastery as a small boy.

"Now I feel sad when I come here because I cannot see any good 
people, I can't see any people wearing lama robes. You can't see 
anything special, they all look the same,"
he said of the tourists, dressed in fleece jackets and sneakers.

The Dalai Lama has warned that Tibet's religion and culture are 
imperiled as he travels the world meeting heads of state and drawing 
harsh rebukes from China.

"Every year, the Chinese population inside Tibet is increasing at an 
alarming rate. And if we are to judge by the example of the 
population of Lhasa, there is a real danger that the Tibetans will be 
reduced to an insignificant minority in their own homeland," he
said when accepting the U.S. Congress' highest civilian honor in 

Few government plans have succeeded in bringing Chinese to Tibet like 
the "Sky Train," which has become a popular alternative to expensive 
flights or long, bone-crunching bus rides.

Beijing wanted to build a railway to Tibet for decades but was put 
off by engineering challenges. The project launched in earnest in 
2001 and the train began running in July 2006, on a specially 
designed track to protect the delicate permafrost that lies under 
much of the last third of the rail line.

According to government statistics, 3.2 million tourists visited 
Tibet in the first nine month of this year, an increase of 67 percent 
over the same period in 2006. The figure-2.9 million Chinese tourists 
and 326,000 from overseas-is 710,000 more than the total number of 
visitors for all of 2006.

"There's been a dramatic increase in tourism generally since the 
opening of the railway," said Kate Saunders of the Washington-based 
International Campaign for Tibet. "It's been particularly acute at 
the major sacred sites ... the sites that are most important to 
Tibetan heritage."

In addition to the 7th century Potala Palace, tourists in Lhasa pack 
the Jokhang Temple Monastery, the most sacred of Tibet's temples, and 
Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's former summer palace.

Colorfully dressed pilgrims prostrate themselves over and over in the 
square outside the Jokhang Temple, which is crowded with a gumbo of 
Tibetan herders, Buddhist monks and wide-eyed tourists. Vendors at 
cluttered stalls hawk handmade jewelry, prayer flags and Buddha 
statues carved out of orange-tinged yak bone.

Inside the temple, mostly Chinese tourists crowd a large hall filled 
with rare religious statues, including a life-sized representation of 
Buddha Sakyamuni as a 12-year-old. At least three different tour 
guides are shepherding their groups through the room, lit by bare 
bulbs, as temple workers keep watch.

"As a Tibetan monk I feel especially happy to see that so many people 
are so interested in Tibetan culture, the splendid culture," said 
Ngawang Choedra, director of the temple's management committee.

But "it is a contradiction," he said, "on one hand to protect the 
cultural relics and on the other hand to let (tourists) visit Jokhang 
Temple in an orderly fashion."

The number of visitors has doubled or tripled in the year since the 
railway opened, he said. The temple now gets about 2,500 visitors per 
day, in addition to the five or six thousand pilgrims who come to pray.

To handle the crush, the temple administration has drafted a plan to 
cap the number of tourists per day. The admission fee, which used to 
be a few cents), has climbed to more than $9.

At the Potala Palace, the number of visitors per day is limited to 
2,300, said the director of the management committee, Champa Kesang.

"The limitation is to better protect the structure, the architecture 
of the Potala Palace. The palace was built on the Red Mountain ... of 
wood and earth," he said.

Most of the tickets-1,600-are allocated to tour groups. Others who 
want to see the palace must arrive early to get one of the remaining 
700, and the line begins to form more than nine hours before the 
ticket office opens.

The rush of tourists, most of them Chinese, is a sensitive issue.

Since communist troops took over Tibet in 1951, ordinary Tibetans 
have often felt under attack. To exert control, Beijing destroyed 
monasteries and at one point banned religion.

In recent years, Beijing has focused on spurring economic development 
to tie Tibet more closely to China. That effort has drawn criticism 
from some Tibetans and their supporters abroad, who claim that 
Tibet's rich spiritual culture is being diluted.

Many visitors are awed by Tibetan culture, saying it's "more holy" 
than the rest of China.

"When you go to the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple, there are a 
lot more pilgrims praying and that type of thing, whereas when to 
went to the temples in China, it was a lot more obvious it was just a 
tourist attraction," said Carmen Elmasry, of Toronto.

Renzin Gyaltso, the monk visiting the Potala Palace, said Tibetan 
culture needed to be protected, but did not seem to be worried about 
it ever being wiped out.

"Our culture is Buddhism. Tibetans are all loyal to Buddhism. There 
is nothing else. It will never be broken, it will always be here," he 


If You Go...

ETHICAL ISSUES: The International Campaign for Tibet discusses 
ethical issues related to Tibetan travel at

DOCUMENTATION: Foreigners must obtain a visa to visit China as well 
as an additional permit for visiting Tibet. A number of travel 
agencies outside China offer packaged tours that include train 
tickets and the necessary permits. Web sites with information include
tibetfaq-0707 and The China National 
Tourist Office - or 888-760-8218 - can help 
locate a tour operator to arrange the trip.

TRAIN TO TIBET: The Beijing-Lhasa trip takes about 48 hours. One-way 
tickets range from about $50 for a seat to $170 for a bunk in a four-
bed cabin. Tickets can be harder to obtain heading into Lhasa than 
leaving Lhasa, especially in peak summer season; as a result, some 
travelers fly to Lhasa and take the train back.


-Lhasa is located at about 12,000 feet, or more than two miles, above 
sea level. Altitude sickness is common among visitors. Some hotels 
sell oxygen and have doctors on call. Tourists are advised to bring 
extra water and high energy snacks, along with basic medications for 
headache, diarrhea and minor ailments.

-The disk drives of some laptop computers and other portable 
electronic devices may crash at high altitudes and data could be lost.
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