Sunday, December 03, 2006

Lhasa- first impressions

Finally I made it to Lhasa! After so many plan-changes and so many last-minute decisions, I felt downright thrilled to be there.
Once I was actually in the city, however, I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. I'd heard a lot of people say that Lhasa really isn't a Tibetan city anymore, and I could see what they meant. Going to any new city in China can be disappointing because they all seem the same- the same architecture, the same sidewalks, the same Sichuanese restaurants, the same shops and banks, and the same traffic-jammed highways. There is some variation, of course, but any place that sounds like it should be different or special never turns out to be that different from the place you just came from.
In Lhasa seeing that it was all the same as everywhere else in China felt all the more disappointing because of its fame as the center of a culture radically different from China's. Most disturbing for me was the signs on the stores- large Chinese characters dominated signs, while the Tibetan was pushed to a corner, if it was there at all. Actually I had noticed that the Tibetan Autonomous Region seemed a lot less Tibetan than western Sichuan the moment I entered it- every town seemed to have more Chinese people than Derge or Ganzi, and certainly far more than Pelpung or Dzongsar. But Lhasa is the heart of Tibet, and the disappearance of Tibetan culture there felt all the more acute than in small, insignificant places like Pasho. Even the Potala, which in pictures always seems to be in its own isolated time bubble, seemed shrunken and dwarfed by the wide highway and empty, concrete plaza in front of it.
In the morning of my first day I found Lhasa to be a little less disappointing than it appeared to be at night. The old town was a pleasant surprise- it was larger than most "old towns" in other Chinese cities, very bustling and not overly touristy. Its winding, narrow alleyways wandered haphazardly among traditional two to four story whitewashed Tibetan buildings. There was a plethora of restuarants and stores, selling things like yak butter, bread, nuts, raw yak meat (all laid out in open air- in the evening some places even laid out large pieces of the carcasses on the sidewalk and hacked off pieces for customers), clothing, TVs, DVDs, CDs, kitchenware, fruit, vegetables, cookies, noodles, thangkas, door hangings, trunks, posters, monk's robes and so on.
In the center of the old town was the Jokhang, Tibet's holiest temple. The road around the Jokhang was called the Barkhor. Tibetan pilgrims walk clockwise around holy sites that they visit, so most temples, monasteries and holy mountains or lakes in Tibet are circled by a path, called a kora. Since the Jokhang is Tibet's holiest temple, the Barkhor is one of its holiest koras.
When I first saw the Barkhor, however, it felt anything but holy. In addition to being a kora, the Barkhor also serves as Lhasa's central market, and is lined with stalls selling all sorts of traditional Tibetan clothing and religious items. While there were a good number of Tibetans prostrating themselves in front of the Jokhang, most of the people on the Barkhor seemed to be Chinese tourists, with a few foreigners mixed in. A few elderly pilgrims were doing the kora, spinning prayer wheels as they went. It wasn't terribly overrun with tourists, but it added a little to the disappointment I already felt.

No comments: