Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Tibetan Way

Nothing stays the same, nor should it. Yet one of the disappointments of traveling back to a place you loved once is seeing how different it has become.

I was last in Tibet in 1991. Then, Lhasa was a tiny atmospheric town of dirt lanes and Buddhist devotion.

Today it’s a bustling city of 300,000, complete with glitzy storefronts, paved roads, traffic insanity … even nightclubs and a few high-rises. But nothing is allowed to stand taller than the Potala Palace, the centerpiece of Tibetan Buddhism with chapels dating from the 7th century. (A government building comes close, though.)

You can’t blame people for wanting a better life … like jobs that pay and indoor toilets. But I miss the old Lhasa.

One of the biggest changes is the number of tourists. In 1991 we were a handful; by 2005, the number had grown to about 1 million. Since the Beijing-to-Lhasa train opened last summer, the number has tripled. Tickets for visits to the Potala are now timed for a specific date, and you must leave within an hour.

Still, this is a city of devotion. Though the number of monks has dwindled, pilgrims still come each morning to the Jokhang, Tibet’s holiest temple, to pray. Many prostrate themselves, standing tall, then pointing their hands in prayer, then kneeling and then lying flat on the ground. Many more circumambulate the Jokhang, prayer wheels in their hands, chanting softly as they wind through pilgrims and tourists and salesmen. Even in 1991, it was thus.

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