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Celebrating Tibet's Culture

With its wide avenues, billboards with neon ideograms, shopping malls, discotheques, Sichuan restaurants, and brothels (usually disguised as massage parlors, as I discovered to my embarrassment), Lhasa now resembles a Chinese city on the make, as fanatically devoted to consumerist excess as it once was to Communist austerity.

The Lhasa of my imagination—pilgrims with rosaries shuffling through a mist of incense, past old mud houses with painted-wood window frames in narrow alleys—existed only within a few blocks around Jokhang temple, the most sacred spot in Tibet, where the ceremony confirming the next Dalai Lama is historically held. There, the hustling that gave much of Lhasa the raw vulgarity of a frontier town was relatively absent. Tibetans made up most of the crowd of pilgrims, tourists, policemen, and trinket sellers flowing clockwise around the temple. Women from eastern Tibet, magnificently adorned with turquoise headdresses, necklaces, brooches, and bangles, mingled with young Tibetan city slickers in reversed baseball caps.

But at the monastery of Sera, tourists clicked their cameras frantically as young monks debated Buddhist philosophy in the traditional way, underscoring points by leaning forward and bringing their hands together with a loud clap. The event seemed staged; an American woman with a money belt around her waist moved slowly through the crowd of tonsured men.

The Potala palace still appears fabulous, as it abruptly rises, tier by tier, above the city on its own steep hill, and gazes equably at the mountains surrounding Lhasa. But looking directly down from the roof of the palace, I saw ugly squat blocks of concrete stretching to all four corners, and the palace, with its vast magnificent bulk, suddenly appeared marooned in the city. As I stood there one afternoon, a shampoo salesman with a megaphone harangued passersby in the huge Chinese-built square below the palace—a desert of tarmac created by razing the old quarters. The echo penetrated the melancholy empty apartments of the Dalai Lama, still touchingly preserved.

From this transplanted China that is modern-day Lhasa, I was relieved to return to Tibet. I went on the long highway to Nepal in a Land Cruiser, an essential vehicle in a place where there are hardly any paved roads. And every step of the way—trailing clouds of dust across barren white valleys; past the black tents of nomads, from which children emerged, waving, holding their happy mucus-smudged faces up to us; on the high passes where prayer flags rippled in the strong wind; bowling alongside a turquoise lake cradled by yak-encrusted hills—I felt the enchantment of Tibet's immense spaces.

It was evening when we drew into the town of Gyantse, the place where Tibet had first encountered the modern world, in 1903–04, when invading British troops from India machine-gunned hundreds of Tibetan defenders equipped only with antiquated rifles and swords. Before the Chinese invasion in 1949, Gyantse had been an important town on the trading route to India, then Tibet's closest trading partner. Now cheap Chinese-made goods filled the shops and the stalls that spilled onto the dusty pavements, and in the lobby of our empty hotel, very young Chinese girls in identical red silk dresses stood smiling vacantly under a barbershop sign offering 24-HOUR MASSAGE SERVICE.

China is developing and modernizing Tibet, taking it into a glorious future: it was hard to get away from this message, which was garishly advertised on the welcome arches and billboards along the empty roads, and which my Tibetan guide always pointed to with a wry smile. But the extreme youth of the prostitutes was proof that although the future might be glorious, the present is an ordeal for many—the Tibetans as well as the large number of drifting Chinese who have sought work in what to them is a remote, strange, and inhospitable land.

I had read in several books and articles on post-Mao China about the country's "floating population," estimated to be more than 100 million, looking for work away from home. Such large-scale uprooting was said to be one of the effects of the country's economic policies. In Tibet, Chinese-led development appeared to me to have affected only the few urban areas, where most economic migrants from China live. It seemed to have left untouched the laborers repairing the roads, the farmers in the small villages, and the idle Tibetans playing pool in roadside dwellings everywhere. And it had not diminished, and may even have reinforced, the role of religion in Tibetan society.

Almost all reports about contemporary Tibet attest that despite having been under continuous assault for more than three decades, Buddhism remains central to the lives of most Tibetans. For them, the liberalization that began in the eighties primarily meant the freedom to worship rather than to play the new stock market in Lhasa. Some of the pilgrims I saw the next day at Gyantse's famous octagonal stupa had traveled hundreds of miles. Half bent under the weight of their wooden-framed rucksacks, they walked around the monastic complex, feeding the mangy dogs and reflexively doling out money to the beggars while spinning their prayer wheels. Inside the chapels, they squeezed yak butter out of yellow plastic bags into the lamps burning at altars, and with greasy hands stuck one- and five-yuan bills in the shrines, their small-denomination notes with idealized pictures of Chinese peasants easily outnumbering the big-denomination ones left by tourists from Buddhist Taiwan, Japan, and Thailand.

I felt frustrated that I couldn't talk to Tibetans freely without risking the malevolence of the men in dark glasses—plainclothes policemen—who sat conspicuously in hotel lobbies and sometimes even followed foreign tourists. But one didn't need extended conversations to understand the unqualified devotion the Dalai Lama inspires among monks and laypeople alike, more than 40 years after he fled to India. Monks and nuns had led the pro-independence demonstrations in 1987 and 1989 that provoked Chinese authorities to declare martial law in Tibet. As the veteran Chinese Tibet expert Wang Lixiong admitted recently, "virtually all Tibetans have the Dalai in their hearts."

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