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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

METROPLUS: On the roof top of the world

January 3, 2008

31 December 2007
The Hindu

Tibet is a sensory overload in a sweeping terrain

A woman is downloading wall papers of Aishwarya Rai in her office. 
The only thing surprising about this is that it's happening in a 
hotel in Lhasa, once the capital of Tibet. The view of Lhasa from my 
hotel is like any other Chinese city. There are wide roads lined with 
Chinese restaurants serving spicy Szechwan food, an indication of the 
waves of immigrants from the Szechwan province looking for better 
opportunities. The real Tibet can be seen only in the monasteries and 
in Lhasa's Barkhor Square.

There is a flurry of red in the Square, as monks make their way to 
the Jokhang temple, circling their prayer wheels. Old women in chubas 
chant away while white tourists, beggar children with runny noses and 
the only Indian - me, jostle for space.

Above, the government watches carefully from strategically positioned 
cameras. A jolly man plays a traditional instrument to gather a 
clapping crowd. The police ask him to leave.

The temple, the holiest shrine for the Buddhists, has dingy rooms 
full of lamps lit by yak butter. The flames sway gently in the 
intense heat, typical of high-altitude Lhasa. The magnificent brass 
Buddhas stand tall, worshipped by thousands of pilgrims.

All around Jokhang are rows of shacks selling yak butter, large red 
sides of meat and souvenirs. Women sell what are called street 
noodles - the equivalent of the Indian bhel puri. To assure you of 
quality the shopkeepers always say, " Chinese".

Tibet is difficult to write about because it is unimaginably 
beautiful. The economic divide between the Chinese and the Tibetans 
is painfully obvious. The only English word that the poor Tibetans 
know is "money".

The Chinese are very friendly and fascinated by Indians. I had groups 
of Chinese women come and have their pictures taken with me.

A few metres from the Barkhor, there are wide streets and shopping 
malls in the Chinese quarter. Shops sell everything from Kashmir 
carpets to leopard skins. One man offered me a leopard skin for 5000 

The description of our hotel in last year's edition of the Lonely 
Planet guide was that of a basic staying facility with pit toilets 
that smelt noxious. The hotel is by now like a business hotel with 
plush furnishing and bath tubs in the bathrooms. It is an indication 
of the rapid pace of development in this part of China. The pit 
toilets however, it must be mentioned, are a common feature in the 
rural areas.

In the city, there are glitzy clubs and, occasionally, posters of 
Bollywood actors such as Divya Bharti and Salman Khan pasted on the 
doors. People here barely speak English, they don't even know the 
word "Indian". When they see one they whisper "Indu, Indu", the word 
for India in Chinese.

In a restaurant, a Tibetan boy, Tenzing, searches me out and asks me 
if I am from India. He had been in India for many years before 
returning to Tibet to work as a tour guide. Tenzing is nostalgic 
about India and longs to return saying he is "grateful to (my) 
country". He takes us to a sort of a Tibetan Opera house-meets-disco 
where Tibetan and Chinese youth dance to the latest Tibetan numbers.

There are also traditional Tibetan dance performances in between. The 
Tibetans who have been to India are eager to talk to me in Hindi.

Getting to Tibet is difficult but worth it. The drive from Kathmandu 
to Lhasa has perhaps the most dramatic landscapes in the world with 
charming hamlets and towns along the way. The turquoise Namtso Lake 
just five hours away from Lhasa surrounded by the highest mountains 
is a must-see. And a few hours away from Lhasa, it is immensely 
desolate, determinedly barren.

There are vast stretches of mountains in harsh grey, brown and rust 
in the highest elevation in the world.

In the Barkhor itself it is impossible to imagine McDonalds exists 
even as you are drawn into a fragile world of faith.
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