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Karaoke and karma
The Telegraph, UK[Tuesday, December 30, 2003 21:31]
Half a century of Chinese rule has left Tibet's ancient culture struggling for survival, reports Adrian Bridge

We were close to the sacred city of Lhasa when finally I saw it: the legendary Potala with its golden domes and white and deep-red palaces. Here, at last, was the holy of holies; the fabled Shangri-la that was for so long off-limits to travellers from the West.

But I had more pressing concerns. I had agreed to take part in an evening of karaoke - a big hit in the Tibetan capital, I was told - and I was anxious at the prospect of having to take the stage that night.

Karaoke? It seemed a strange thing to be focusing on in the spiritual home of Tibetan Buddhism, but as this was going to be a personal first, I didn't want to screw it up or renege on my promise and generate a lot of bad karma.

As it turned out, my microphone debut was not to come for a further two days. Plenty of time to run through in my mind the words of When I'm 64. And to acclimatise.

That takes a while in Tibet; initially because of the altitude. This, after all, is the country (sorry, "Tibet Autonomous Region") that, together with Nepal, is home to Mount Everest and a host of Himalayan giants. It has 17,000 glaciers, the world's highest lakes, and is the source of several major rivers including the Mekong, Yangtze and Brahmaputra. Not for nothing is it known as the "Roof of the World".

High and dry: Tibet's culture has been subjugated by the Chinese government
High and dry: Tibet's culture has been subjugated by the Chinese government
Lhasa itself is more than 12,000ft up, and if you've flown in, as we did from Chengdu in west China, it can be a bit disorienting. Initial breathlessness, nausea and headaches are common. For a while I felt as though I was on another planet - but then perhaps that was more to do with the extraordinary scenery and scenes that were unfolding at every turn.

I was there in October with a group of British long-haul tour operators who had been invited by the Chinese authorities in a drive to encourage tourism to Tibet.

The pilgrim season was in full swing and the whole of Tibet seemed to be awash with colourfully dressed convoys of devotees bearing prayer wheels and beads and yak butter to oil the lamps at the statues of the Buddha and his followers in the holy shrines and temples.

At the foot of the Potala, an incredible 13-storey structure on top of a hill, scores of pilgrims were making their way to the summit, stopping only to recite prayers, swing vast prayer wheels or fall prostrate on the concrete before it.

Inside, we wandered through a maze of dimly lit rooms containing unbelievable wealth - gold-plated statues of the Buddha, stupas (a sort of shrine) studded with pearls and gems, vast thrones used by the Dalai Lamas for centuries until 1959, when the last, the 14th, fled to India.

Everywhere there were the pilgrims - bronzed, richly contoured faces from remote rural spots in Tibet itself and farther afield, from the neighbouring Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Qinghai. We saw mothers pressing their babies' hands into packs of yak butter to smear against sacred stones, families bearing wads of jiao notes (worth less than 1p) to leave at almost every passing statue, the bereaved lighting candles and asking monks to pray for happy reincarnations for those recently departed.

It got better. Just outside Lhasa, at the Sera monastery, we walked into an open courtyard where more than 200 monks were shouting, gesticulating and clapping as they debated the meanings of that morning's teachings.

At Samye, a walled temple complex on the north bank of the Yarlung Tsangpo river, we sat in the sun squinting at Tibet's first monastery community - and were woken from our reverie by some deep blasts from two long horns perched on top of a temple.

Back in town, we entered the Jokhang temple, Tibet's most sacred site, just as row after row of cross-legged monks in red and golden robes began a long incantation, punctuated by the odd clash of what sounded like cymbals and further blasts on a horn. The air was filled with the sound of chanting, bells chiming, and the powerful scent of burning yak butter and incense. At the same time, crowds of pilgrims craned to get a rare sight of a fresh coat of gold being applied to the derobed top half of a statue of the Buddha, believed to date back to when he was alive, more than 2,500 years ago. Intoxicating, mesmerising, enchanting: we'd been transported into the middle of a world of mystical Buddhism and deep symbolism. This was the Tibet of legend, the Tibet that inspired Richard Gere, the real Tibet.

Or was it? Just a few hours after being blown away by the heady spiritualism of the Jokhang, we found ourselves wandering along the Beijing Xi Lu Road in Lhasa, looking for music and a bar - my date with karaoke destiny had arrived.

Karaoke is big in Lhasa; primarily among the scores of ethnic Chinese that have moved to the city since the "peaceful liberation" of 1950 and brought it into the 20th and 21st centuries.

Close to where we were staying, neon signs advertising bars and clubs were a stark reminder of the fact that alongside Tibet's medieval, Buddhist past, there is a modern Chinese present. Glancing down a wide boulevard, I saw some flashing lights that seemed to be in the shape of a temple. At first I thought it was the Potala lit up at night: Las Vegas comes to Lhasa.

Stranger things have happened. In the concrete square that has replaced the traditional buildings that once sprawled at the foot of the Potala, there is a modernist sculpture commemorating the "peaceful liberation". Close by, plastic palm trees and piped Chinese music are a further insensitive reminder of who now calls the tune.

We found a lively bar packed with a young crowd and equipped with a large screen, a small dance floor, a couple of microphones - and a book containing hundreds of hit songs, including When I'm 64. There was no escape.

Karaoke is not as bad as I'd feared. I didn't hit all the notes, but it was quite exhilarating. A beer or three later, I was ready for more: Wonderwall (Oasis) and Carlos Santana's classic, Black Magic Woman.

The Chinese regulars cheered us on, then we all took to the dance floor and performed a version of the conga. In one surreal moment, we danced to hip-hop against a backdrop of what looked suspiciously like a propaganda film of the People's Liberation Army in goose-stepping technicolour.

It was time to get back to the monasteries.

The next morning we headed for Ganden, a monastery complex in the hills about 25 miles east of Lhasa. Tibet's monasteries are its main tourist attractions, spectacular temples of light and colour and gold in a landscape that, while breathtaking, can be a bit harsh outside the green months of spring and summer.

But by then we were getting a little templed-out (not to mention confused by the myriad forms of the Buddha - past, present and future, compassionate, wise, watchful). Even so, it was impossible not to be impressed.

Some of the statues and stupas at Ganden were particularly dazzling and fresh-looking. But that wasn't surprising. Like many of the monasteries, Ganden was almost destroyed by Chairman Mao's Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, and what we were looking at had been rebuilt over the past 15 years.

Our Tibetan guide didn't mention that. Nor did he mention the fact that, in 1996, the monks of Ganden had been involved in a riot following the banning of all pictures of the current Dalai Lama and that many of them had subsequently been imprisoned.

The past - and the present - are sensitive subjects in Tibet and before my visit I was warned (by, among others, the Free Tibet Campaign pressure group) not to probe too much. It would be OK for me - I might get away with being deported - but anyone caught talking politics with a Western journalist could face far worse consequences.

I resisted - and instead enjoyed the rich sensations and sights. We got close to a group of yaks resting on a river bed; we watched opera players in traditional costumes whirling and wailing and laughing during rehearsals in the grounds of Lhasa's Summer Palace. We ate yak burgers and drank yak butter tea (a tastebud-challenging mix of yak butter, tea and salt water).

We also went shopping, dropping in on the Barkor Bazaar, a teeming marketplace that runs around the Jokhang temple, attracting tourists, monks and pilgrims alike.

Cheery faces seeing potential business called out "hello" as we passed stalls selling necklaces, horns, bells and bracelets; the less timid added: "I lab you." I paid a bit more than £1 for a bronze mask of the Buddha and three times that amount for a statue of a couple engaged in Tantric practices I never used to associate with Buddhism.

Close by, I ventured into an indoor market where I saw ruddy-faced ladies selling huge slabs of meat (again, inevitably, from the yak) and great tubs of butter, while their colleagues were offering everything from cheap silk pyjamas to thick jackets designed to protect against the harsh Himalayan winter.

And everywhere we went there were more pilgrims and burning lamps and colourful prayer sheets fluttering from the hilltops.

Having been closed - or very difficult to get into - for so many years, Tibet is undoubtedly an exotic destination, even though many of its cities and towns are now essentially Chinese in character, with small "Tibetan quarters" serving as a reminder of what they were like before.

And on the surface, all seems well: the monasteries are open, the monks are chanting and the pilgrims are flocking. Tibet appears to be a rare sanctuary of ritual and religion in a country that is proud to profess itself atheist.

For the burgeoning middle classes of Beijing, it is already a "chic" destination. By day they can be photographed against a backdrop of gleaming Buddhist temples. And by night they can enjoy karaoke.
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