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NOVEMBER 20, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 20

Visit Tibet, but Go with Low Expectations

Charles Illustration for TIME by Clara Loon.

Liberation is overrated. Just ask the Tibetans. Ever since the Chinese communists "peacefully liberated" the land of the snows in 1950, finding the real "Shangri-La" has become nearly as difficult as identifying the next living Buddha. From its vantage point atop the highest plateau in the world, the Buddhist kingdom of Tibet has long captured the imagination of outsiders. For many who actually reach the mountain-wrapped valley, however, the most overwhelming sensation is not so much fascination as disappointment.

To the traveler, it may seem that when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959, packed in his bags was the spirit of the nation. Lhasa is still home to monuments like the Potala Palace (the traditional residence of His Holiness) and the Jokhang (the most revered religious structure in all of Tibet), but it is also increasingly overrun by the unappealing hallmarks of modern Chinese architecture. Witness the Tiananmen-style public square that sits in front of the Potala (complete with security video cameras) or the gaudy Golden Yaks monument that marks Lhasa's main crossroads.

Visit Tibet, But Go With Low Expectations
Ever since the Chinese communists 'peacefully liberated' the land of the snows, finding the real 'Shangri-La' has become nearly as difficult as identifying the next living Buddha

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Before the Chinese "modernized" the city, Lhasa's population was approximately 30,000. Now it is estimated at 150,000, with Chinese residents apparently outnumbering the locals by a wide margin. The city is clearly divided along ethnic lines, with the traditional Tibetan enclave comprising a mere 4% of Lhasa's land area.

Tibet's commercial appeal, however, is not lost on the Chinese, many of whom hawk Tibetan souvenir trinkets—mostly imported from Nepal—to starry-eyed travelers. Even more enterprising is the army of official Chinese tourist guides that has cropped up to shepherd visitors around Lhasa and beyond. Listening to guides indoctrinated with the Communist Party's interpretation of Tibetan history is an experience as inadvertently entertaining as it is surreal. Pointing to luggage left behind by the 14th Dalai Lama at the Potala when he escaped to India, one Chinese guide offered, with a straight face, "He had to leave in a hurry." Indeed. Still, the most disturbing aspect of any visit to Lhasa is not just the overwhelming Chinese presence, but the Tibetan absence. At the Potala, every effort has been made to eliminate all references to the current incarnation of the Dalai Lama, giving the palace the awkward feel of a deserted museum.

"There's not very much Tibet left in the actual Tibet," says Palden Talung, a 34-year-old Tibetan-born American. The merchant, who travels at least four times a year to his homeland, says the Chinese are effectively eroding Tibet's identity. "People who go to Lhasa expecting to see authentic Tibetan culture should brace themselves," he says. "It's basically just another Chinese city with a few Tibetans thrown in for color." A few leftover revolutionary slogans make it an even odder experience. At Lhasa's Drepung monastery, home to the famed three-story statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha, visitors can glimpse another photo-worthy spot: a wall covered with graffiti from the Cultural Revolution. There is something incongruous about the sight of monks shuffling past the smiling face of Chairman Mao.

Even outside Lhasa, it's difficult to find much that is genuinely Tibetan. In Gyantse and Shigatse—the most heavily trafficked spots beyond the capital—the karaoke bars and dumpling houses may be scarce, but China's presence is still unmistakable. This becomes especially apparent with a visit to the Tashilhunpo monastery, the traditional seat of power of the Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's second most powerful figure after the Dalai Lama. Though the monastery is one of the few in Tibet that survived the Cultural Revolution mostly unscathed, the central government has left its mark. In the compound's central courtyard hangs calligraphy by President Jiang Zemin himself, exhorting Tibetans to strive for the good of the nation. Most of them do—it's just that they're striving beyond Tibet's borders—exiled in India's Dharamsala.

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