APRIL 2007

Ser Gi Tung Pho by Techung

Mountains between Chengdu and Lhasa
Chengdu to Lhasa, view from the airplane


All 180+ seats of our Air China flight were filled to capacity with Chinese and Western tour groups. Looking around the cabin, I noticed many of the Chinese tourists had donned their group-issued bright-colored caps and were easily detectable in their distinct clusters. The western tour groups, as anywhere in China, needed nothing but their mere presence to set them apart.

If any mystery remained about Lhasa as an inaccessible outpost isolated from the world, it was immediately destroyed by one glimpse of this cabin filled with leisured tourists who descended on Lhasa in a daily, never-ending flow via these flights.

an aerial view of mountains turning to sand  

We stepped out of the Lhasa Airport just after one o' clock pm. The sky was overcast and white, but the weather was not as cold as I had imagined it would be.

I looked across the parking lot and saw Chinese lady tour guides holding small, plastic flags leading their cap-wearing army and Western tourists into large, Chinese-operated tour buses. Apart from the parking lot, nothing else existed around the airport but a paved road leading to Lhasa. A man urged us into 25-30 seater mini-buses which would take us to the city for 20 RMB each.

The ride to Lhasa took nearly two hours. Much of what I saw were brown stretches of land and mountains off in the distance whose bodies were half turning into sand.

 Chinese operated mini-bus to Lhasa behind a military vehicle

Entering Lhasa, we passed quite a few military facilities. Too many I thought, for a city of Lhasa's size and distance from the rest of China.



Chinese Hotel in Lhasa

generic-looking hotels catering to Chinese tourgroups sprouting
up all over Lhasa

Our van continued on down Beijing Road passing Chinese shops upon Chinese shops on this street which resembled that of any other Chinese city.

pedicabs on Beijing Road waiting for customers

A couple minutes later, the van dropped us off just to the east side of the Potala Palace where an old Tibetan man with alcohol on his breath offered us his pedicab services.

Early on, my travel companion and I had agreed that for better or worse, we would try to patronize ONLY Tibetans on this trip. (As our trip progressed, we found that this initiative proved much, much harder than we expected).

So we refused the cushy taxicabs and hopped into the drunken old man's pedicab. Five damp, cold, teeth-chattering minutes later, the old man dropped us off in front of our hotel in one piece, but then insisted that the cost of the ride was 20RMB. An average ride around Central Lhasa on a pedicab costs 4-5 RMB. I gently but firmly told him that I was only going to give him what we had agreed to earlier, which was a generous 15 RMB. After some protests, he finally accepted it and rambled away.


Our room on the second floor of the Mandala Hotel faced the kora, the pilgrims' inner circuit around the Jokhang (Tsuklakhang) Temple. From our window we could observe the steady flow of Tibetans circling around the southeastern corner of the temple.


snow-capped mountains beyond Barkhor Square

Due to the 3700 meter altitude at which Lhasa stood, I immediately lay down to rest. I expected the excruciating pain of AMS (acute mountain sickness) I had experienced last winter in the Kham region to attack at any moment.

My travel partner, my father, and I hadn't done much to prepare for the altitude change except drink concentrated vials of Rhodiola Rosea in hopes that the commonly-used Tibetan herbal treatment would help our bodies cope.

 Barkhor Square

By 6 pm, which in Lhasa is still very bright, I had only the slightest of headaches and decided to venture out for a short walk around the hotel.

Barkhor Square, the area around the Jokhang Temple where we were situated, still retains the feeling of Tibet, aided by Tibetan-style architecture, and most importantly, the presence of Tibetan people. They came from hundreds of miles away to this temple, which is considered by them to be the most important temple in Tibetan Buddhism. No doubt, some Tibetans had come to Lhasa to this temple on a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage.




I identified the Kham Tibetans with their taller, stronger stature and the red threads in their hair.

Far fewer but still present were the Amdo Tibetans in their black robes and women wearing double braids.


There were also many Tibetans I could not place; perhaps they came from Western Tibet.




Most prevalent were the local Central Tibetans, whose dress I began to observe.

The women wore soft, colored blouses under a dress-like robe, which they called a chupa. Many of them also tied knee-length, striped, multi-colored aprons around their waists. In Lhasa, it is the married women who wear aprons.

Central Tibetans seated against the Jokhang, spinning mani wheels

The Central Tibetan men generally dressed the same as the local Chinese, in slacks and sweaters, except they also wore fedora hats. When the weather was cold, both men and women wore ordinary jackets sold in Chinese shops rather than Tibetan style robes.

We ended up getting quite lost on our walk, but what a joy it was being lost here in the Barkhor.

Tibetan children ambled about looking generally joyful; monks in their crimson robes nodded and smiled when we greeted them with a "Tashi Delek".

Gyantse's Kumbum Chorten


Tashi Delek ("cha-shee-deh-LEH") is the common greeting among Tibetans. It wasn't until the end of our trip that I began to understand why they smiled so broadly hearing us say these two simple words.

One evening as I meandered around the Kumbum Chorten in the town of Gyantse, a young monk, about 16-years-old, passed by me. For whatever reason, I sensed that he was not particularly happy with my presence. I had only a fraction of a second to say "Tashi Delek" before we had already passed each other. When I did, he seemed to stumble in his walk. He stopped, turned to me and replied, "Tashi Delek". We had acknowledged each other.

Moments later, a Chinese woman, dressed in backpacker clothes and looking just like myself, emerged from around the corner. Obviously lost, she bee-lined towards the young monk and said, "Ni hao".

"Ni hao" means "hello" in Chinese.


Gyantse's Kumbum Chorten from a distance

Everywhere I had gone, it was the same. The Chinese who come to Tibet cannot fathom learning the language and ways of the Tibetans. To them, Tibet is a part of glorious China and these poor, backwards Tibetans should learn Chinese ways.

It all became clear to me then. With thousands of Chinese pouring into Lhasa daily, Tibetans are losing their way of life before their very own eyes. Saying "Tashi Delek" to a Tibetan gives them hope; they smile because they dream that their language and culture will be respected and survive.

A 360 degree view of Gyantse from the Pelkhor Chode Monastery

We took a three day trip outside of Lhasa to TAR's other important cities, Gyantse and Shigatse. Gyantse had been described in a 2004 guidebook as one of the most tibetan towns in TAR. From my observations of the town, this is no longer true.

While traditional Tibetan areas in this town can still be found. A new main street appeared to have been built within the last 2 years. The businesses on this street were Chinese owned and operated.

Growth from the influx of new Han Chinese residents pretty much predicts what will Gyantse will become in the next decade, a spitting image of Shigatse now.

Shigatse, save the Tashilumpo Monastery, is just another Chinese city.



Our taxi driver in Shigatse was kind enough to drop us off at a restaurant, "where all the Tibetans ask to get dropped off ". It was an absolutely gorgeous atmosphere inside.

We discovered here that authentic Tibetan cuisine can actually bevery spicy!

A typical Tibetan street, which is growing more and more rare
in the town of Gyantse.

prostrations in front of the Jokhang

walking prostrations along the kora


Before entering the Jokhang Temple, I remembered what I had learned from Professor at the Labrang Monastery last September and purchased two kadas (white scarfs), one for each of us, from the row of women selling them at makeshift tables in front of the temple.

Once inside, I noticed the Tibetans held wads of jiao bills (10 jiaos make 1 RMB) in their hands and placed them just about everywhere they could. Besides the obvious collection slots, they placed bills right on the dieties, but if they couldn't do that, they placed the bills in the crevices of the glass panes protecting the dieties. Numerous bills had fallen on the ground and were left untouched. In front of some large collection piles, it appeared as if the Tibetans were taking bills for themselves, but actually they were making change out of larger bills. Tibetan temples trust worshippers to be honest.

The Jokhang, also known as Tsuklakang in Tibetan and Dazhaosi in Chinese, is significant in that it has no affiliation with any particular sect of Tibetan Buddhism.


walking the kora around Jokhang Temple

The Jokhang from a distance

We waited about thirty minutes in a queue of Tibetans to honor the main diety inside the temple, the Jowo Sakyamuni Buddha. This statue was brought by the Chinese Princess Wenchang as a gift to her new husband, King Songsten Gampo, sometime in the 600s.

Chinese-led tour groups of Westerners and Chinese whizzed by; I doubt they were even able to glimpse the Jowo Buddha not having entered its chamber. When we entered the brightly lit chamber, I could see that every Tibetan had a kada and some jiao notes to offer the diety. Our queue went clockwise around the diety until we reached the 3 o' clock position. From here, each person had the chance to make his/her offering and touch their forehead to the diety's lap for a blessing. I didn't know it at the time, but this is the moment that you should make your biggest wish. A minder-monk stood by to pull each worshipper back and make sure the queue continued.


view from the Jokhang rooftop of the Potala

The Jokhang Temple also had a second and a third floor filled with more chapels and dieties. As I climbed the narrow flight of stairs to the 3rd floor, a monk who appeared to be sitting and guarding the entryway said something to me in Tibetan which pretty I gathered meant, "You're not allowed to go here." Before turning back, I glimpsed past the door and could make out Tibetan pilgrims performing full prostrations. Reading a guidebook later on, I found they were worshipping King Songsten Gampo.

The roof of the Jokhang was a little curious. It offered splendid views of the Potala Palace and much of Lhasa, but it also had an enclosed area where women were seated in a circle around a 2 foot tall pile of bills, counting them while chanting. Also on the roof was a temple store which was playing, if I remember correctly, a hip-hop song by some American rapper.

a chamber underneath the Jokhang  

To a casual observer, the Jokhang Temple looks as if it could be no more than 10 years. In actuality, this temple was built 1,300 years ago by Songsten Gampo, then King of Tibet. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), it is said that every chapel (and there were hundreds) in the Jokhang Temple was destroyed except for two because they bore a link to China. The first was the image of Gampo's second consort, Princess Wencheng from Tang Dynasty China, and the second was the Jowo Shakyamuni Buddha she brought with her.

outer areas of the Drepung Monastery have not been restored

The Jokhang is just a small reflection of the overall destruction that happened in Tibet. In total, 6000 Tibetan monasteries and temples were destroyed since the beginning of Chinese occupation, leaving only 13 intact (tibet.com). Fortunately, beginning in the 1980s, many of the dieties were replaced or reconstructed from the destroyed originals. Restoration continued after 2000, the year the Jokhang Temple became a UNESCO World Heritage site. No wonder the temple felt so "new" to me, it had probably just been freshly re-painted.


From the outside, we could see the Red Palace and the White Palace which made up the Potala Palace. The Potala Palace, like the Jokhang Temple, was built by King Songsten Gampo in the 600s.

Tibetans prostrated themselves on the sidewalk direct center and in front of the palace, nearly getting themselves run-over by pedicabs. Across the street from the palace is a large Tiananmen-esque square and monument reminding the Palace (considered a symbol of Tibetan independence) of the day the Chinese began its occupation of Tibet.

Tibetan families celebrate labor day holiday

The Potala Palace has traditionally been the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas, the summer residence being a park-like estate called the Norbulingka. It was from the Norbulingka, which means "Jewel Park" in Tibetan, that the current Dalai Lama fled, in disguise, to India in 1959.

When I visited the Norbulingka, I found it filled to the brim with Tibetans enjoying their Labor Day holiday. The weather was pleasant and families wasted no time spreading out on the grass for a picnic. They were completely oblivious to the bloodshed which took place here nearly 50 years ago.

a door of the Potala

Because I had queued the day before for tickets, we received morning tickets requesting we arrive to the front gates by 9:20 am.

Everyone passed through a discreet security checkpoint just inside the main gate before entering the Shol Village area in front of the Potala Palace.

Too eager to get to the Palace, we skipped passed the Shol and headed straight towards the stairway. We climbed past women singing and pounding solid the top of clay walls (this is how these Tibetan structures are made). I also heard women voices singing a beautiful song from within the Palace walls, but unfortunately they had faded off by the time we arrived.

guarding the Potala

Inside, the Potala became a neverending labryinth of dimly-lit rooms and sun-lit hallways filled with thousands of precious ancient images and statues to overwhelm the eye. The air smelled of dree (female yak) butter and incense, just as all Tibetan monasteries and places of worship did.

We took our time walking through the Palace and trying to take it all in. A monk was stationed in each room to make sure we tourists behaved. Most of them were seated on Tibetan carpets and reading scriptures and/or chanting. Besides jiao bills, Tibetan pilgrims brought with them butter candles (which they weren't allowed to light). To get around this, they would scrape the wax from their candles into the candles which were already burning in each room. In other temples which weren't as regulated, I have seen pilgrims simply pour the liquid wax from their lit candle into the room candle basin.

No photos are allowed in the Potala Palace.

a diety in the Pelkhor Chode Monastery in Gyantse

My strongest impression of the Potala actually came from one particular room. There was definitely a higher energy here. I looked at the label for the diety residing in this room; it simply read "Avalokiteshvara". I noted the name and continued on through what I can only describe as a visual overload of brilliant images and craftsmanship. There is really no way I can fully describe the enormous gold, turquoise, coral, and jewel encrusted stupas which housed the remains of several former dalai lamas.

I had to wonder, as I walked through the dark halls surrounded by these thousands of Buddhist relics 1) How they managed to protect it all from the destruction of the Cultural Revolution and 2) whether the Dalai Lama sometimes missed this place where he spent the first 20 some years of his life.


A mandala in the Pelkhor Chode Monastery in Gyantse.
One example of the thousand or so we saw

Some days later, when my father and I were returning back to Guangzhou by train, I spoke with an Australian couple who had their tour pre-arranged by a travel agency. They complained that their tour of the Potala was limited to an hour and that everyone, including an 80-year-old lady, was rushed like mad through the Palace. They also paid $800 RMB each for their tour compared to our $100RMB. Talk about profit margin...

From what I could see, the Chinese-run agencies didn't care what kind of experience their "customers" had once they'd arrived. The tour groups I saw were always rushed through these beautiful places with no substantial, or even truthful for that matter, explanation given by their flag-waving guides of what they were seeing. Perhaps this is fine for Chinese tourists, but I honestly don't think that Western tourists desire this kind of experience.


view of Lhasa from Marpo Ri Hill on which the Potala stands

For those of you planning a future trip to Tibet, I cannot emphasize how important it is to make arrangements on one's own after arriving in Lhasa. Local Chinese agents will take every opportunity to "relieve" unknowing foreign visitors of their money by citing things like "mandatory tour guides", "permits", "size quota", and other such things. I met a Canadian man who told me he cut his trip short since he found out that a new regulation stipulated that foreigners would not be allowed to leave Lhasa. I didn't have the guts to tell him that my father and I had just returned from a trip to Shigatse and Gyantse and had seen many non-Asian foreigners walking about the temples there. Brief conversations with other foreigners only made it more evident to me that regulations in Lhasa are completely arbitrary. The problem with foreigners is that most of us actually believe this nonsense. It took 3-4 tries before I finally found an agency which would do the trip we wanted for a fair price. Strangely, every Tibetan tour guide I initially called refused to take us on a tour. I'm guessing it definitely had something to do with me speaking English. What was going on that could make them flat-out refuse business like this?


the author dressed in Tibetan clothing


Having no hope of looking like an American, I opted to look more like a Tibetan than a Chinese. Tenzin*, a local woman about my age, took me to a famous dress-shop on Beijing Rd. to help me purchase a blouse and chupa (long dress). I selected a dark gray striped chupa and lavender blouse. The style was winter colors and something which looked like daily wear as opposed to festive. In all, the chupa cost 240 RMB and the blouse 30.

After changing, Tibetans began speaking to me in Tibetan assuming I was a local. The Chinese began treating me worse.

* a fictitious name

 Tibetans watching Tibetan Opera. The musicians

etan woman and her kin at the Sera Monastery. The children received black marks on their nose

The Chinese taxi cab driver who stopped when my father waved him down hesitated to take us to our destination after seeing that I was with my father. My father even showed him a map of the destination and explained the address. The cab driver still, for some reason I could not fathom, hesitated to take us. It was only until after I spoke Mandarin to the driver that he allowed us in the cab. He immediately began conversation with my father:

Cab driver: "Where are you from?"
Dennis: "America."
Cab driver: "What about her?" (pointing a thumb to me in the back seat)
Dennis: "That's my daughter."
Cab driver: "She not a Tibetan?"
Dennis: "No, she's American."
Cab driver: "Then why's she dressed in Tibetan clothes?"
Dennis: "Well...don't you think it looks nice?"
Cab driver: "..." (strange expression on face)

Dennis, clearly wanting to pick a fight:

Dennis: "So why aren't you wearing Tibetan clothes?"
Cab driver: "I'm Han Chinese!"
Dennis: "Well, you've come to Tibetan land, why not dress like the locals?"
Cab driver: (raising voice) "Why should I?! This is China! I'm Chinese!"
Dennis: "But don't you think you should try to blend with the local culture?"
Cab driver: (shouting) "Tibet is China's land!" (Xizang shi zhongguo de tudi!)
Dennis: "How? By force?"

A common attitude. Throughout the rest of the trip (with me dressed looking like a Chinese tourist), I counted three conversations with Chinese men that included some disparaging or discriminatory remark made about the Tibetans. Having only been in Lhasa 10 days, the tension was already becoming evident.


Plenty of beggar children live in Lhasa. They are beggar children trained by their beggar mothers who are sitting close by.

Those who are older seem to have to fend for themselves, like these boys who try to play what looks like a simplified dranyen, a popular tibetan stringed instrument, to the crowds at the Norbulingka.

I had not seen beggars in Amdo or the Kham, but they could be found especially around Lhasa's monasteries, tourists spots, and in the Norbulingka. These little children ask for PET bottles, money, candy, anything you can give them. In Lhasa, these children were never Chinese, they were Tibetan.

a young girl in Gyantse watching me from her balcony
She has a home and proper care.

One evening, Tenzin took me along with her to a volunteer project she had committed to for 6 months. Her assignment was to tutor 3 Tibetan girls with their homework. These weren't ordinary Tibetan girls though. These girls, not so long ago, had been beggars on the street. An American couple had, through a U.S. aid organization, provided these girls and their mother with the small apartment they live in and with the tuition the girls needed for an education.

I looked around their 12' x 12' bedroom. It had room enough for two beds and 3 small desks. A photo of the American couple hugging the girls hung on the peeling teal-colored wall. On another wall were images of Tibetan gods, and on another wall was a large, photo poster of Lhasa.

Hearing them practicing their English and writing Tibetan was the reality created by a couple who simply donated a tiny fraction of their monthly salaries to these girls. Being there made a lasting impression on me.

Street in Gyantse's Chinese area
a sign over a newly constructed street in Gyantse, encouraging the small town to become like Shanghai

A Tibetan woman in a shop told us that the ratio of Chinese to Tibetans in Lhasa was now around 70/30. When a Tibetan customer arrived in the shop, the woman put her finger to her mouth, signalling that we should stop talking about the Chinese. It seems Tibetans can't even trust each other in Lhasa.

From what I read online, the government plans to have Lhasa's population reach 700,000. Lhasa's current population is 260,000. Every cab driver we spoke to had only been in Lhasa on the average of 3 months. They had come from Henan, Sichuan, and all over China. These Chinese men told the same story. They left their spouses behind and came looking for opportunities.

The train to Lhasa, opened in July 2006, is far more crowded than the train leaving. It deposits thousands of Chinese into the city every day. A one-way ticket from Beijing to Lhasa can be purchased for as little as $50 US dollars. Compared to these trains, the daily flights to Lhasa were a mere drop in the bucket.

On the road to Gyantse
 Yamdrok Tso Lake and Mt. Nojin Kamtsang (7191m)

I didn't travel to the city of Lhasa seeking out Chinese injustices. I had much less noble intentions. I went merely to experience the beautiful culture of Tibet. In other words, I was a tourist.

The situation there, however, is that only a grossly ignorant tourist could travel to Lhasa, tour the area, and leave unawares of the disturbing social, economic, and cultural transformations happening there.

Copyright crystalchen.com. All rights reserved.


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