Another Day in Lhasa

LHASA — As October advances, leaves scatter into Lhasa streets full of pilgrims weaving through the occasional knot of Han Chinese and foreign tourists.  According to today’s Tibet Business Daily [西藏商报] , since the National Day holiday started on October 1, the Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR/西藏自治区 ] welcomed 343,770 tourists, a large influx given the region’s relatively sparse population.  The figure, by the way, represents a 27.5% increase over last year’s tourist figures from the same fall peak tourism week.  Hotels are going up all over the city, and by next year, a Shangri-La will redefine Lhasa’s luxury market.  (I live across from the Shangri-La in Chengdu, and it’s downright sumptuous to walk through, inducing a kind of pleasurable guilt, sort of like listening to Debussy.)

What Tibetans think about the influx of tourists is a mixed bag.  Does the fact that tourists spent 1.3 million yuan in Tibet this past week help a bit?  Some will complain that Chinese are doing business illegally in Tibet, failing to register their cars and pay tax.  Today’s Lhasa Evening News [拉萨晚报] reports that eleven people were arrested in the past week for failing to register, and for having such illegal items as fake train tickets to Beijing and business cards.  (One never has such a strong sense of the power of the small-scale printing industry as in Tibet; all the photocopiers are in the hands of Han businesspeople and even Tibetan hotels need to take several hours to make photocopies because they first need a Han to sign off on the action.)

In the Dico’s on the edge of the Barkor (the traditional center of the city) and one of the few fast food restaurants, Chinese tourists talk in exaggerated drama about the relative merits of buying real estate in Hangzhou versus that of Shanghai.  Tibetan beggars walk in and are shooed away by the Tibetan employees clad in their Dico’s uniforms; the Muslim restaurant downstairs, by contrast, lets the beggars in freely, figuring that proximity to holy site should inure everyone to the practice.  At night, the Tibetan policemen retire into big white busses, smoking and playing with their cell phones, while posts throughout the darkening city remain manned by People’s Liberation Army troops, Han Chinese from Sichuan, cradling their machine guns.

Since October 3, things have been somewhat more relaxed in Lhasa in the area around the Jokhang Temple, the traditional Barkhor area where protests against Chinese governance have tended to break out.  An immense police station hides diagonally from the exit to the Johkang (newer and larger police stations are being built directly next to large monasteries, such as at Gyandan about an hour from Lhasa), but recently the PLA opened up a little “tea water and newspaper reading area” under the shade at the edge of the square, and a handful of off-duty PLA enjoy some shopping on a day off.

Once I’m back in Chengdu, I anticipate uploading more photos and writing more about Tibet.  There is much to discuss: CCP education policy, the influx of small businesspeople from Sichuan, the PLA reinforcement of the Indian border, rural Tibet, the future of the Tibetan language, what is being published in Lhasa, new information on the Cultural Revolution in Tibet, and of course, new hip-hop in Lhasa.