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<-Back to WTN Archives Tibetan capital tells a tale of two cities (VS)
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World Tibet Network News

Published by the Canada Tibet Committee

Monday, August 22, 2005

5. Tibetan capital tells a tale of two cities (VS)

The Vancouver Sun
August 21, 2005

Lhasa has a new Chinese section with neon signs, stores and discos; beside it is one of ancient
temples and devout pilgrims

By Karla Zimmerman
King Features Syndicate

Tibet's fantastical capital has caused jaws to drop throughout the centuries. A visit today proves
no exception, as one greets the 12,000-foot-high city dwarfed by huge mountains and drenched in
dazzling sunlight, like a split jewel sparkling out in every direction.

Lhasa is divided in two: a Chinese section with bright neon signs atop hotels, discos and
department stores; and a Tibetan section with devout pilgrims in heavy wool clothing twirling
prayer wheels. Here you'll see men wearing sheepskin cloaks, their long black hair plaited with
red tassels that are wound up and around their heads. The women braid their hair down their backs,
woven through with decorations of coral, silver, turquoise and polished yak bone. It is not
unusual to see these men and women carrying daggers, seated next to proper Chinese ladies in
suits, all slurping noodle soup in the same restaurant.

While this scene is amiable enough, its undercurrent is more complicated. The newer section of
town is a result of massive immigration by Han Chinese, who have been encouraged by government
subsidies to settle there. The influx is the most potent piece of the assimilation plan China
started in the 1960s and '70s, when it "liberated" Tibet, an act that included persecuting its
people and destroying much of its cultural heritage.

Fortunately, some of that heritage survives. For Tibetans, Lhasa is a holy city, something like
the Vatican of Tibetan Buddhism, and on any visit you will find many people here from remote parts
of the country on a pilgrimage to the Jokhang Temple or Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama's deserted
home. Religion pervades everything, from the maroon-robed monks who chant on street corners, to
the people who prostrate in the middle of the road, to the throngs -- prayer wheels in hand -- who
walk clockwise round and round the holy sites under clouds of juniper incense smoke.

But be prepared if you get caught in one of these pilgrim throngs, particularly at the Jokhang's
shrine of Jowo Sakyamuni, the most important Buddha in Tibet. The room is small (about 13 feet by
13 feet), dark and stifling, smelling of sweat and sour yak butter, which fuels the candles. On my
last visit, there were 100 people crushed into the room, body to body, shuffling clockwise past
glass-enclosed Buddhas, toward a figure that made the pilgrims "Om" louder and louder. Little old
ladies elbowed us out of the way in their bid to get there.

Inside was Sakyamuni himself. The pilgrims clamoured up one by one to touch their foreheads to his
left leg before a monk grabbed them by the back and forced them onward, so the next pilgrim could
have his or her chance.

The scene was similar at the Potala Palace, Lhasa's whitewashed icon grafted on to the city's most
commanding hill. We climbed a heart-attack-inducing array of steps to reach the entrance, and
while much of the palace lay empty (the Dalai Lama governed Tibet from here until China's rulers
forced him into exile in 1959), certain chapels were practically vacuum-packed with Tibet's devout
come to touch larger-than-life sacred statues.

After each feverish encounter we realized our un-Buddha-like attachment to worldly things, like
oxygen -- and food and drink. Finally we threaded our way through Barkhor Square, the marketplace
that surrounds the Jokhang. Here rooftop restaurants abound, providing good perches to watch the
action and dig into local dishes like momos (dumplings stuffed with meat or vegetables such as
spicy green peppers) and thugpa (Tibetan noodle soup). The big decision was what to drink. There
was jasmine tea (subtle), flower tea (dried flowers and rock sugar -- extremely sweet), yak-butter
tea (salty and thick, like soup broth) and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer (brewed locally, very popular,
with a similar taste to that in the U.S.).

What would Buddha choose? As we tried to decide, a rainbow appeared over the Jokhang. It was a
perfect moment, and we wondered where in the world we could go that would top -- literally --

Getting There: Lhasa can be reached from Chengdu, China (which has connections to Beijing and
other cities). To visit, travellers need a special permit from the Tibet Tourism Bureau, which is
in addition to the visa needed to visit China. Tour operators in Chengdu arrange permits with
flights as part of a package (approximately $250 per person one way). Be aware that regulations
change with little notice; check for updates.

Where to Stay: The city has several good midrange hotels within blocks of the Jokhang. The Yak
Hotel (100 Dekyi Shar Lam; tel. 011-86-891-6323496) has colourful doubles for about $40 per night,
including breakfast.

Where to Shop: Barkhor Square swirls with local items: prayer flags, silk scarves, golden bowls,
yak skulls, thangkhas (religious paintings framed by silk brocade) and redolent spices.

Karla Zimmerman has contributed to numerous Lonely Planet guides.

Articles in this Issue:
  1. Avant-garde artists strive to express rage and aspirations of modern Tibet (AFP)
  2. Rival child lamas grow up and into political storm (Reuters)
  3. Tahoe/Reno International Film Festival to Screen Documentary about Humanitarian-Award Winning Doctor
  4. Frenzied Rutgers readies to welcome Dalai Lama
  5. Tibetan capital tells a tale of two cities (VS)
  6. The rage of the lamas
  7. Showcase of Tibetan films
  8. Hu Jintao will make talks with Canadians a priority on his first visit to North America (VS)
  9. Tibet's cause through Tibetan eyes (TT)

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