Lhasa has a new Chinese section with neon signs, stores and discos; beside it is one of ancient temples and devout pilgrims
By Karla Zimmerman
King Features Syndicate
Tibet's fantastical capital has caused jaws to drop throughout the centuries. A visit today proves no exception, as one greets the 12,000-foot-high city dwarfed by huge mountains and drenched in dazzling sunlight, like a split jewel sparkling out in every direction.
Lhasa is divided in two: a Chinese section with bright neon signs atop hotels, discos and department stores; and a Tibetan section with devout pilgrims in heavy wool clothing twirling prayer wheels. Here you'll see men wearing sheepskin cloaks, their long black hair plaited with red tassels that are wound up and around their heads. The women braid their hair down their backs, woven through with decorations of coral, silver, turquoise and polished yak bone. It is not unusual to see these men and women carrying daggers, seated next to proper Chinese ladies in suits, all slurping noodle soup in the same restaurant.
While this scene is amiable enough, its undercurrent is more complicated. The newer section of town is a result of massive immigration by Han Chinese, who have been encouraged by government subsidies to settle there. The influx is the most potent piece of the assimilation plan China started in the 1960s and '70s, when it "liberated" Tibet, an act that included persecuting its people and destroying much of its cultural heritage.
Fortunately, some of that heritage survives. For Tibetans, Lhasa is a holy city, something like the Vatican of Tibetan Buddhism, and on any visit you will find many people here from remote parts of the country on a pilgrimage to the Jokhang Temple or Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama's deserted home. Religion pervades everything, from the maroon-robed monks who chant on street corners, to the people who prostrate in the middle of the road, to the throngs -- prayer wheels in hand -- who walk clockwise round and round the holy sites under clouds of juniper incense smoke.
But be prepared if you get caught in one of these pilgrim throngs, particularly at the Jokhang's shrine of Jowo Sakyamuni, the most important Buddha in Tibet. The room is small (about 13 feet by 13 feet), dark and stifling, smelling of sweat and sour yak butter, which fuels the candles. On my last visit, there were 100 people crushed into the room, body to body, shuffling clockwise past glass-enclosed Buddhas, toward a figure that made the pilgrims "Om" louder and louder. Little old ladies elbowed us out of the way in their bid to get there.
Inside was Sakyamuni himself. The pilgrims clamoured up one by one to touch their foreheads to his left leg before a monk grabbed them by the back and forced them onward, so the next pilgrim could have his or her chance.
The scene was similar at the Potala Palace, Lhasa's whitewashed icon grafted on to the city's most commanding hill. We climbed a heart-attack-inducing array of steps to reach the entrance, and while much of the palace lay empty (the Dalai Lama governed Tibet from here until China's rulers forced him into exile in 1959), certain chapels were practically vacuum-packed with Tibet's devout come to touch larger-than-life sacred statues.
After each feverish encounter we realized our un-Buddha-like attachment to worldly things, like oxygen -- and food and drink. Finally we threaded our way through Barkhor Square, the marketplace that surrounds the Jokhang. Here rooftop restaurants abound, providing good perches to watch the action and dig into local dishes like momos (dumplings stuffed with meat or vegetables such as spicy green peppers) and thugpa (Tibetan noodle soup). The big decision was what to drink. There was jasmine tea (subtle), flower tea (dried flowers and rock sugar -- extremely sweet), yak-butter tea (salty and thick, like soup broth) and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer (brewed locally, very popular, with a similar taste to that in the U.S.).
What would Buddha choose? As we tried to decide, a rainbow appeared over the Jokhang. It was a perfect moment, and we wondered where in the world we could go that would top -- literally -- Lhasa.
Getting There: Lhasa can be reached from Chengdu, China (which has connections to Beijing and other cities). To visit, travellers need a special permit from the Tibet Tourism Bureau, which is in addition to the visa needed to visit China. Tour operators in Chengdu arrange permits with flights as part of a package (approximately $250 per person one way). Be aware that regulations change with little notice; check www.lonelyplanet.com for updates.
Where to Stay: The city has several good midrange hotels within blocks of the Jokhang. The Yak Hotel (100 Dekyi Shar Lam; tel. 011-86-891-6323496) has colourful doubles for about $40 per night, including breakfast.
Where to Shop: Barkhor Square swirls with local items: prayer flags, silk scarves, golden bowls, yak skulls, thangkhas (religious paintings framed by silk brocade) and redolent spices.
Karla Zimmerman has contributed to numerous Lonely Planet guides.