Friday, June 15, 2007

Lhasa, Tibet

Our tour of Tibet finished in the capital, Lhasa. At an altitude of 12,000 feet, Lhasa is one of the world's highest cities and was the highest capital in the world when Tibet was an independent state (the highest capital now is La Paz in Bolivia, at a slightly a lower altitude than Lhasa).

The most famous landmark in Lhasa - and indeed the whole of Tibet - is the Potala Palace, built by the 5th Dali Lama and the winter home to all incarnations since. Even more sacred is the Jokhang - Lhasa's Buddhist 'cathedral' - the most sacred building in Tibet.

Sadly, large sections of Lhasa are now indistinguishable from many other Chinese cities. This seems a great shame when so many visitors were captivated by it's uniqueness only 50 years ago, before the invasion. However, even without the occupation, it's difficult to imagine that Lhasa could have escaped the 20th century completely and some development must inevitably have occurred. While the ancient culture and way of life may have seemed a living Shangri-La to Western visitors, for many Tibetans their feudal existence was a life requiring ceaseless toil just to survive. While we lament the passing of a traditional way of life, there are many benefits for the local people. Much the same can be said of the Sherpas in Nepal.

Despite the homogenized sections of the town, the old Tibetan quarter is still a unique place to visit. All day, every day, thousands of townspeople and pilgrims walk around the Jokhang in a clockwise direction (Buddhists drive on the left) using the circular Barkor road. This act of worship is accompanied by the turning of prayer wheels, gently circling within a circle.

The Potala Palace, former home of the Dali Lama.

Pilgrims prostrate themselves outside the Jokhang, Lhasa's Buddhist cathedral and the most sacred building in Tibetan Buddhism.

Monks practice debating at Sera Monastery in Lhasa.

The Brahmaputra river flows though Lhasa on its way to the sacred Ganges. Here, outside Lhasa, local people cross on a ferry.

We left Lhasa by the new train service to Beijing. The train has been open for less than a year, and has taken decades to complete. It is the world's highest altitude train, traversing a pass above 5000m with the tracks built on permafrost. Supplementary oxygen is pumped into the carriages. The railway is also highly controversial, since it allows the Chinese Government to accelerate their program of moving Han Chinese families to Tibet, changing the ethnic makeup of the country forever. While ethnic Chinese families move in, minerals and other mining products are moved out by the railway. For these reasons many western tour companies have boycotted the train and advise western travelers to do this same. It seems to me the truth is more complex. Many Tibetans use the train, including a friend of our guide, who uses it to travel to University in Beijing. In general, the economy has very obviously grown under the Chinese and offered many Tibetans new opportunities. We heard about new payment schemes to the rural poor and other measures to try and equalise the uneven development that has taken place. Undoubtedly Tibet could not have remained a closed country forever given it's size. The tragedy is that economic benefit has come with such a heavy cultural and political price.

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