An edited version appeared in The Hindu
A woman is downloading wall papers of Aishwarya Rai in her office. The only thing surprising about this is that this is in a hotel in Lhasa , once the capital of Tibet. The view from my hotel reveals that Lhasa is today like any other Chinese city. There are wide roads lined with Chinese restaurants serving spicy Sichuan food. This is an indication of the wave of immigrants from the Sichuan province coming in search of better opportunities. One wouldn’t guess one was in a harsh high altitude Tibet except in the monasteries and the Tibetan heartland of Lhasa , The Barkhor Square.
There is a flurry of red in the Bakkhor square as monks make their way to the Jokhang temple, circling their prayer wheels. Old women in chubas chant mantras as they drag themselves to the temple. In this human traffic are the white tourists, beggar children with runny noses( almost always) and the only Indian – me.
Above, the government watches carefully from strategically positioned cameras. A jolly man plays a traditional instrument to gather a clapping crowd. The police come and ask him to leave, threatening to confiscate the instrument.
The temple- the holiest shrine for the Buddhists has dingy rooms full of lamps lit by yak butter. The flames sway gently in the intense heat typical to high altitude Lhasa. The magnificent brass Buddhas stand tall worshipped by thousands of pilgrims.
The pilgrims prostrate themselves repeatedly in front of the temple making scraping noises each time they get up and creating the faint buzz of mantras.
All around the Jokhang are rows of shacks selling yak butter, large red sides of meat, souvenirs etc. Women sell what are called street noodles- the equivalent of the Indian bhel puri? To assure you of the quality of the item they are selling you, shopkeepers always say’ Tibeti ..no Chinese’ . The ways to vent out frustration are few and subtle ways like this help.
Baptista , a Portuguese woman studying Tibetan tells me ‘This faith is one thing they cannot destroy’. Her pale skin flushes and her eyes crinkle as she talks about the Chinese people and the Christian missionaries who, according to her are determined to destroy Tibet’s religious heritage
Tibet is difficult to write about because it is all at once unimaginably beautiful and also heart breaking. The economic divide between the Chinese and the Tibetans is painfully obvious. They only English words that the poor Tibetans learn are ‘money’, ‘Please give me some money’ that they chant repeatedly to hapless tourists.
One night when we were walking back home, a mob of dirty looking Tibetans surrounded us and grabbed our packet of food with such desperation and rage that I didn’t know how to respond. The Chinese are very friendly and fascinated by Indians. I had groups of Chinese women come and have their pictures taken with me.
A few meters from the Barkhor , there are wide streets and shopping malls in the Chinese quarter. Shops sell everything from Kashmir carpets to leopard skins. One man offered me a leopard skin for 5000 yuan. The description of our hotel in last year’s edition of the lonely planet guide was that of a basic staying facility with pit toilets that smelt noxious. The hotel is by now like a business hotel with plush furnishing and bath tubs in the bathrooms. This only indicates the rapid pace of development in this part of China. The pit toilets however, it must be mentioned are a common feature in the rural areas.
In the city there are glitzy clubs and occasionally posters of Bollywood actors like
Divya Bharti and Salman Khan pasted on doors. People here barely speak English, they don’t even know the word ‘Indian’ . When they saw me they’d whisper ‘Indu, Indu’ , the word for India in Chinese .
In a restaurant a Tibetan boy searches me out and asks me if I am from India. He had been in India for many years before returning to Tibet to work as a tour guide. Tenzing is nostalgic about India and longs to return saying he is ‘grateful to (my) country’. He takes us to a sort of a Tibetan Opera house meets disco where Tibetan and Chinese youth dance to the latest Tibetan numbers. There are also traditional Tibetan dance performances in between. The Tibetans who have been to India are eager to talk to me in Hindi.
Getting to Tibet is difficult but it is worth it . The drive from Kathmandu to Lhasa has perhaps has the most dramatic landscapes in the world with charming hamlets and towns along the way. The Turquoise Namtso lake just five hours away from Lhasa is surrounded by the highest mountains is a must see.
And a few hours away from Lhasa, it is immensely desolate, determinedly barren.
There are vast stretches of mountains in harsh grey, brown and rust in the highest elevation in the world.
In the Barkhor itself it is impossible to imagine McDonalds even exists as you are drawn into a fragile world of faith.