Shadows and light


One's first response to Tibet today is likely to be shock - compounded by a piercing sadness if one remembers the way Lhasa's higgledy-piggledy jumble of two-story whitewashed houses (rainbow awnings fluttering from every one) looked only a few years ago. The sign that greets you at Gongkar Airport announces PETRO CHINA, and a nearby building proclaims THE LHASA AIRPORT OF CHINA (Beijing has never been slow to understand the power of visible symbols). And as you complete the 90-minute drive into the Tibetan capital, you are greeted by a classic propaganda billboard of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin beaming beside the Potala Palace, China Mobile banners flapping from every lamppost. Only a dozen years ago you could see that astonishing monument from almost every point in Lhasa; now it is hidden behind tall buildings and new developments. And yet the more time I spent in Tibet last summer, and the more I walked around its markets, villages, and lapis-and-jade lakes, the less I noticed the signs of Chinese imperialism, and the more I felt was meeting a Tibetan spirit that seems unquenchable. Tibet lives mostly in the corners and shadows these days, under its breath, and you have to seek it out. On the surface, Lhasa looks like an Eastern version of Las Vegas: one long strip of ultramodern department stores and gaudy karaoke parlors plunked down incongruously in a desert. For the many Chinese who pile aboard the China Southwest planes from Chengdu, which fly to Lhasa several times a day in summer, Tibet represents a kind of Wild West, a Chinese Alaska of outdoors adventure and job opportunities. Yet for the foreigner drawn to the culture for its devotion and its otherworldliness, there are still traces, every-where, of an older, changeless East.

I first came to Lhasa in 1985, only months after it had been opened to outsiders. I discovered a festival of hope and light: Tibetans excited to encounter visitors really for the first time, and foreigners somewhat astonished to find themselves within a "Forbidden Kingdom" that, in all its history until 1950, had seen fewer than 2,000 people from the West. Photographs of the Dalai Lama filled the altars of the temples, shy monks came out from their prayer halls to toy with my camera and at night the few of us who'd made it into this city 3,300 meters above sea level sat on our terraces and watched the Potala under a full moon. When I returned five years later, Tibet was pitch-black. Soldiers patrolled the rooftops of the low buildings around the Jokhang Temple, Tibet's holiest monument-demonstrations on behalf of Tibetan independence had put them on alert-and tanks were never far away. Tibetan were even forbidden to visit the Potala Palace, the former home of the Dalai Lama, and the handful of tourists allowed in were led through a largely bolted place where the power often failed.

Today Tibet is some respects better off than it was then, although it looks less and less like itself. Tibetan fill the temples now, and the more entrepreneurial among them speak English and do good business. Tourists are generally horrified by the Italian ice-cream parlor and the signs for Giordano and Jeans West on every other plate glass window, but the Tibetans don't seem to object to them, or to mind the better facilities and the cleaner streets they accompany. (The little guesthouse where in 1985 I shared a single cold-water tap in a courtyard and filthy hole in the ground with 30 or so others now offers Japanese food on its rooftop and The Doors' Greatest Hits.) The Dalai Lama himself has often said that discos around the Potala are "no problem" so long as something more important, his people's faith and livelihood, is respected.

Thus Tibet both alarms and uplifts at every turn, its kitschy, factitious new surfaces undermined by a spirit that is committed and wary and fierce. As I admired the vista outside a small window in the Potala one day, a young Tibetan said: "For view, it's beautiful. But for huma right?" Pictures of the Dalai Lama are now kept under wraps, at home, if at all, and though Tashi Lhumpo Monastery in Shigatse is a sumptuous feast for visitors, its abbot was until recently one of hundreds being kept in prison. Many Tibetans will tell you harrowing stories of how they smuggled their children out of the country, a cross hazardous mountain passes, to an India where, although their parents may never see them, they can learn in freedom about Tibetan culture and history.

Perhaps the saddest sight in Tibet today is the lines of monks, on shopping streets and in monasteries, sitting on the ground, rocking back and forth over their prayers, and then extending their hands for alms. When I rested one sunny afternoon in a new Chinese amusement park across from the Potala, complete with swan boats and grinning tourists dressed up (for a moment) as Tibetan noblemen, two little girls of six of seven came up and ran their fingers across my face, cooing, "Give me money. Give me pen." In many of the most beautiful chapels in the temples you are asked to pay to use a camera, and in some the posted price for using a video camera is US$250.

And yet one way that Tibet has always challenged visitors is by refusing to present itself in black and white. Some of the friendliest shopkeepers and taxi drivers I met in Lhasa and Shigatse were, in fact, Chinese migrants from neighboring Sichuan province, here for the jobs they cannot get at home. The Mainland tourists pouring off the planes in zippy Discover Tibet baseball craps, or sitting in the sunny courtyard of the Yak Hotel reading old copies of Lost Horizon are, perhaps in some cases, the people who can do the most to help Tibet. The Dalai Lama (unlike Nelson Mandela in apartheid South Africa, or Aung San Suu Kyi in oppressed Myanmar) has never asked foreigners to boycott Tibet; to turn one's back on the culture is, in effect, to condemn it to a slow death under house arrest. Only visitors can convey to the world the needs and suffering of the Tibetans.

What I found, then, as I drove across the spectacular 4,600-meter passes that link Lhasa to Gyantse, as I visited temples whose thousand-year-old murals have been protected, or looked in on hangouts like the Boiling Point Internet Bar, was a place that can often make you weep but does not necessarily leave you disappointed. On the one hand, gaudy yellow and red banners in the streets of Lhasa announce, WELCOME TO PARTICIPATION IN TIBET HOLYLAND TOUR FESTIVAL and PARADISE OF ALL DREAM SEEKERS, as if to mock the sacred traditions that Beijing has turned into a theme park; on the other, there are Tibetans all around whose magnetism and warmth are just as strong and touching as when I first visited 18 years ago. Likewise, the rail line linking Golmud and Lhasa, which Beijing is hoping to complete by 2007, seems certain to accelerate the Han settlement of Tibet (and the US$2 to $3 million being spent on the project is more than local government has put toward health and education in 50 years combine); yet the Tibetan sense of self seems, if anything, to have instensified in reponse to pressures brough to bear on it. The traditional marketplace around the Barkhor in Lhasa, for example, bustles with people selling false teeth and pieces of watermelon, and with friendly local smiling even as soldiers goose-step behind them.

Tibet today is essentially two different countries living on top of, and around, and even inside one another: a worn Tibetan amulet inside a gaudy Chinese box. Go to the Jokhang Temple in the afternoon, say, and it's all tourists in cowboy hats strolling around the rooftops and flashing their cameras. But go in the morning and you'll see nothing but a long line of pilgrims, some from the farthest reaches of eastern Tibet, the whole dark place an enchantment of flickering candles and muttered chants and unceasing prostrations. Similarly at the Potala, Tibetans make the "pilgrims' ascent" up the palace's front steps in the early afternoon, and go through its rooms in the proper ceremonial order. Tourists tend to visit in the morning, ascending the back side and coming down through its room in opposite direction. Sometimes the two converge. In one dark chamber containing a throne that belonged to the sixth Dalai Lama and some pricelsess statues, I saw a lone monk chanting in the sunlight. A group of noisy tourists came into the room, joke around, threw some trash into a panda-shaped trash can, and then disappeared. The low, steady chant continued throughout.

As I stayed longer in Tibet, I started going out in the early morning, when figures were just outlines in the darkened alleyways, and joining the first pilgrims on their ritual circumambulation of the Jokhang. No tourists were visible at that hour, just old women furiously spinning their prayer wheels as they walked, and occasional nomads shouting out their supplications. Girls diligently swept the area in front of their stalls and shops, and here and there a monk on the ground murmured his sutras. High above, the Potala slowly came to light, while on either side of the Jokhang two furnaces, in which pilgrims pour gasoline and stoke juniper branches to release a scented mist, began to glow. All that was visible of the low dark chamber immediately in front of the temple, slippery with melted butter, were lines of tiny flickering candles throwing light into the faces of those who tended them.

Around me were signs for the Lhasa Satellite Conference and even, next to one Tibetan-owned guesthouse, a gold plaque: EXEMPLARY SITE OF SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT IN TOURIST INDUSTRY. To my left was a bolted door, above which was ominously written, JOKHANG SQUARE CONTROL OFFICE. Yet in front of me-and inside me now-were long lines of candles, flickering before the holiest site in Tibet, as it was once and as it is now. (*Picoiyer -Destiasian)



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