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Tourists invade Tibet Railway linking Lhasa with China brings thousands to holy sites

December 16, 2007

ChronicleHerald.ca, Canada
The Halifax Herald
December 15, 2007

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 Palace.

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
imperilled 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 honour in October.

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 got underway 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 per cent 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.

Colourfully 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.

Renzin Gyaltso, the monk visiting the Potala Palace, said Tibetan
culture needed to be protected, but did not seem worried about it 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 said.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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