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Lhasa's religious spirit muted in the midst of economic progress

October 27, 2014

By Geraldine Gittens

Irish Independent, October 21, 2014 - Flying into Tibet, the sight of Mount Everest and Mount Kanchenjunga (the third highest mountain in the world) alerts you to the kind of territory in which you’re about to land.

This is a high-altitude country in the Himalayas with low levels of oxygen in the air – any many travellers here risk altitude sickness.

Standing at the world’s highest latitude, Tibet is known as the “Roof of the World”. Around 50 of its mountains are 7,000 or more metres tall, and 11 exceed 8,000 metres. Mount Everest, the tallest in the world, stands at 8,848 metres (29,029 feet).

Tibet’s capital city of Lhasa (meaning “Place of the gods” in Tibetan) sits on a plateau in the Himalayas. It’s famous white 7th century Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama’s winter residence before he fled the country in 1959, rests on a small hill and overlooks the old quarter.

This beautiful palace is surrounded by blue sky, yellow autumnal trees, and layers of the Himalayan mountains in the distance. The Palace houses ancient books of lectures by Buddhist monks, as well as robes worn by the Dalai Lama, Buddhist murals, and statues full of precious stones and gems.

The Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is a living, breathing reminder of the past – when it was the Dalai Lama’s highseat. His robes still remain folded in one of his former meeting rooms.

Lhasa’s religious spirit has been muted though. Instead of monks and temples, the dominant sights now are tower blocks of apartments, offices, and shops populating the city. This is a changed Lhasa, sprawling for kilometres and still undergoing development at the hands of the Chinese government.

Ostensibly, Tibetans are free to practise Tibetan Buddhism. And outside the Potala Palace and the equally important Jokhang Temple, pilgrims pray in their droves. Along one of the many mountain drives you’ll see Tibetans walking to a sacred site to pray. Or shortly after the harvest in October, they’ll walk the roads to Lhasa to give thanks for an abundant crop.

But undeniable is the fact that Lhasa has now been overtaken by a powerful engine driving economic growth. A new spotless highway (finished in 2011) brings travellers from Gunga Tibet airport into Lhasa within an hour. The road ploughs through mountain tunnels, and huge billboards line up to advertise commercial giants like "Bank of China", "Chinese Unicom", and "Construction Bank". Clustered tower blocks full of offices, homes, and shopping malls stretch for kilometres before you can glimpse the old Lhasa city. Sophisticated farming methods are evident in the suburban areas, with rows and rows of polytunnels stocked full of vegetable crops.

Many Tibetans praise the Chinese government for the improved infrastructure, health system, and a growing economy. And China's government seems attracted to the city's clean air and clean water, such is the number of Han Chinese people settling in the area. Teachers and skilled workers from mainland China are taking up residence in Lhasa in their droves.

In his book "Tibet, Tibet" Patrick French referred to what he called the "export version" of Tibet - that version of Tibet where outsiders tend to imagine happy Buddhist people living in a snowy paradise away from the modern world. Or maybe they imagine a mystical holy city of Lhasa with thousands of devoted pilgrims.

All at once, on the approach into Lhasa today, that "export version" disappears. While the rapid pace of construction continues, it's in the surviving sacred areas that a slimline "export" version of Lhasa possibly still lingers.

The roar of economic progress at the hands of the Chinese government is obvious straight away.

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