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Celebrating Tibet's Culture

During those first few days it seemed to me that many centuries happily coexisted in Tibet. On the small ferry I took the next morning across the Tsangpo River to the eighth-century Samye monastery—the oldest in Tibet—there were two yaks and a young monk who wore blue jeans and sneakers under his habit.

The ferry wasn't meant for tourists; my guide had managed to get me on it, and I was grateful for the chance, rare on government-organized trips, to travel with ordinary Tibetans. The sun was warm, dazzling when reflected in the water and on the snowy peaks. A handsome old man in a trilby hat twirled a prayer wheel. Two young women sat silently, holding stylish parasols with one hand and rosaries with the other; they turned out to be pilgrims, like most people on the ferry. A young couple in jeans and embroidered boots sat on the floor with their red-cheeked baby.

The baby cried, and was appeased with sweets by his parents. People smiled when their glances met—not the polite half-grimaces of strangers, but quick, toothy, and guileless smiles, which momentarily lit melancholy sun-beaten faces and seemed to convey the purest goodwill.

At the ferry beach, a ramshackle bus waited to take us across sand dunes to the monastery. I spent the long afternoon walking around the circular walled compound, which was originally designed to represent the Tibetan Buddhist cosmos and was once fringed with gold-encrusted chortens, or reliquary mounds. Chinese, Indian, and Tibetan architectural styles rendered distinctive each of three floors of the central building, whose wide assembly hall was full of the guttural chants of monks sitting among colorful silk drapes and shafts of sunlight.

In one of the darker chapels, a young monk whispered to me in Hindi. In our brief, hurried conversation—Chinese spies were everywhere, he said—he explained that he had left Tibet illegally in order to spend a couple of years in Dharmsala, India, the home of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. Educated at Samye, he had not taken his vows until after his visit to the Dalai Lama. And now his younger brother was planning his own risky journey to Dharmsala.

To go from Samye to Lhasa, past ruins of hillside monasteries and fortresses, was to enter a more fraught world. It was to confront again the knowledge that had shadowed me at Yumbulagang and Samye: that I was looking at ghosts of buildings almost entirely destroyed by Chinese and Tibetan fanatics before and during the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976; that I was seeing traces of the extreme violence that had forced the Dalai Lama and more than 150,000 Tibetans into exile in India.

"Religion is poison," Mao Tse-tung had told the Dalai Lama in 1954, early during the Chinese occupation of Tibet. After 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled to India, the Chinese moved to undercut the power of the monasteries, which owned most of the arable land and loaned money to and educated poor villagers. At Samye, where the first Tibetans were ordained as monks, Red Guards, fired up by Mao's denunciation of religion, pounded chortens and statues into dust; some of the chortens have been rebuilt and, with their mix of concrete and gold leaf, embody well the tawdry kitsch produced by Chinese-led restoration efforts in Tibet. The destruction was most extensive in the region of Lhasa, where most of the major monasteries—Drepung, Sera, Ganden—were reduced to ruins. Lhasa's 17th-century Potala palace, the traditional home of the Dalai Lama, was one of the few sites to escape the fury of the Red Guards.

The Communist leadership in Beijing now admits, if grudgingly, to "excesses" and "mistakes" during the Cultural Revolution, when tens of thousands of Tibetans were condemned as "reactionaries" and "capitalist roaders," and imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. Ambivalence now clouds the official memory of Mao, the Great Helmsman, who steered his country into famine and chaos. This is partly because two decades ago the Chinese regime embraced the free market and decided that "to get rich," as the late Communist leader Deng Xiaoping put it, "is glorious."

It wasn't easy, however, to get rich in Tibet. The hard ground and extreme cold precluded extensive agriculture—most Tibetans still depend on yak meat and barley flour for subsistence—and little infrastructure for heavy industries existed outside Lhasa. The high altitude (an average elevation of 13,000 feet) and low oxygen deterred many outsiders from settling there. The only thing that Tibet seemed to possess in quantity was its religion, and an exotic past that the Chinese regime in its new mode decided to package and sell to tourists.

Since the early eighties, the Chinese authorities have promoted tourism in Tibet, despite occasional setbacks such as the anti-Chinese riots and demonstrations in Lhasa in 1987 and 1989. They remain suspicious of the growing popularity of Buddhism among young Tibetans and even Chinese: in eastern Tibet in 2001 they partly demolished a monastic encampment that had attracted thousands of Tibetan and Chinese students of Buddhism. But they also hope to attract visitors to the more famous old monasteries and temples, and have rebuilt and renovated a few of them. They have improved telecommunications, and built roads and even a new railway that in a few years will link Lhasa with China.

New government hotels aiming, not always successfully, at an international style have gone up in Lhasa and the towns of Shigatse and Gyantse. There are fewer visa and travel restrictions for foreigners. Although you often see American, European, and Japanese tour groups, it is groups of nouveau riche tourists from the cities of coastal China that appear most often in the monasteries, as they pose with monks and clamber up steep metal-lined ladders to peer eagerly at murals depicting tantric sex.

Encouraged by the government in Beijing, which wishes to open up Tibet, like the rest of China, to private enterprise, hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese—the ethnic majority of China—have moved to Tibetan cities to take advantage of tax breaks and incentives for small businesses. Han Chinese are said to outnumber the Tibetans in Lhasa by two to one.

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