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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 December, 2004, 00:35 GMT
Letter: Modernising Tibet
Chinese journalist Lin Gu has just spent a month in Tibet, an intoxicating and spiritual place, where Buddhism remains a dominant force, despite Chinese Communist control.

But, he says, modernisation and the influx of tourists and outside business interests threaten an ancient way of life.

Potala Palace in the distance viewed from the roof of Jokhang Temple (Photo by Lin Gu)
Pilgrims can only visit the Potala palace at certain times
Jokhang Temple in the centre of Lhasa remains the same as four years ago, when I made my first trip to Tibet.

Its golden roof shines in Lhasa's eternally warm sunshine. At the front entrance to the temple dozens of pilgrims prostrate themselves.

Many of them have trekked thousands of miles from across Tibet - a trek which can take months or even years, to the holiest Buddhist temple in this holy city.

Some doubt if the scene will last long. Lhasa, like elsewhere in today's China, is on the track of modernisation.

Before I left Beijing for the Tibetan capital, a writer, famous for documenting Tibet, told me that the pilgrimage is threatened.


"Well, life is short, why waste several years on such a long journey?" she sighed.

"Economic development has already distracted people from the spiritual path. Fewer and fewer will embark on such a journey."

I passed on these comments to Nyima Tsering, an English-speaking monk at Jokhang who has gained notoriety among foreign visitors to the temple.

"Only those who cannot understand religious minds would think so," he said.

"More and more farmers are coming every day, especially during the quiet winter months.

Lin Gu (l) and Nyima Tsering (r) sitting on the golden roof of Jokhang Temple (Photo by Lin Gu)
Nyima has been a monk for more than half his 38 years
"And even in the city, where people feel alienated by high-rise urban living, they also need a sense of belonging more than ever before."

Nyima is a busy man. The current policy is to encourage the temple to be self-supporting, and to use the income from admissions and souvenir sales rather than offerings from disciples.

That is why Nyima and his colleagues have to play a dual role: as monks and as managers.

The daily management keeps them busy all day. It is only in the evening that they can finally study and meditate.

Concentrated learning

Nyima, 38, joined Jokhang Temple more than 20 years ago. Later he was selected to study in Beijing's Tibetan Buddhist College.

Nyima looks back on his three years in Beijing as a time when he could quietly concentrate on his learning.

The key to many Tibetan problems lies in hard work
I met many young Tibetans who were educated in China's inland. They read and write Chinese much better than their mother tongue.

Tashi, 30, is one such Tibetan. He works for the Communist Party Committee in Tibet, drafting speeches and documents for the local party leaders.

He is fully aware of how visitors from China's inland and elsewhere can be intoxicated by the Tibetan religious passion showcased at Jokhang Temple.

Beautiful and spiritually uplifting though the religion is, Tibetans risk being marginalised because they attach more importance to achieving progress in "the next life", rather than this one, Tashi says.

Tashi was born in Lhasa but went to school in south-east China's Zhejiang province at 11, and later attended the prestigious Renmin University in Beijing, taking degrees in economics and law.

After completing his studies, Tashi returned to Lhasa and began work for the party committee.


He vividly remembers one working trip to a county in northern Tibet in 1999.

There, he watched a televised grand ceremony when the island of Macau was returned to China by the Portuguese government.

Whilst on the TV state leaders and VIPs celebrated the event, in the county local farmers took part in the organised celebrations and dance festivals.

Only none of them had the faintest idea where Macau was. That was a moment when Tashi realised how distant Tibet can be from the modern world.

Tashi is always thoughtful, and has an endearing chubby face.

Daily afternoon debates at Sera, one of the three major monasteries of the Yellow Sect in Tibetan Buddhism.  (Photo by Lin Gu)
Tourists now outnumber monks in Sera monastery
He used to dream about being a scholar, but decided that pure academic debate cannot solve practical problems in Tibet.

So he chose to work for the Party Committee, the highest power in Tibet.

"The key to many Tibetan problems lies in hard work," Tashi explained to me. "And here I can do something solid."

From my one-month stay in Lhasa I have realised that it's a small and intimate place.

One day a new friend invited me to a music bar near Barkhor Street, where we were joined by a group of young men.

It turned out that one of them was Tashi's schoolmate in south China years ago.

Qinghai-Tibetan railway

To start a conversation with strangers in a bar here can be incredibly easy. But you had better watch your topic.

Not everyone I met feels they can be as frank as Tashi, and politics remains a sensitive topic here.

One woman explained: "We have to prioritise practical concerns over frankness."

That was why I was amazed when these young men in the bar started to talk about the controversial Qinghai-Tibetan railway that will reach Lhasa next year.

The railway will zigzag for about 1,200 miles, from the western tip of China's central region across the world's highest plateau to Tibet.
A group of nuns at break in a downtown nunnery in Lhasa. (Photo by Lin Gu)
Many Tibetans feel they are not benefiting from modernisation

"What does it mean to you and your city?" I asked my drinking companions.

Their answers included cheaper prices, but they are also worried about a greater influx of outsiders, which could make it more difficult to find a job.

Criminals may feel it is easier to enter Tibet thanks to the convenience of the railway, and that's why my new friends have concerns about public security, as well as anxieties that their way of life will change.

In many ways, these thirty-somethings belong to a unique generation of Tibetans - they value the old, but they have seen beyond Tibetan boundaries.

"What I've gained is a much broader vision, but what I've lost is my own cultural tradition," said Tashi's schoolmate.

"If you ask me to be your guide in Lhasa, I can only give you a brief surface introduction, but I can never go deeper."

Local product

As the night wore on and the beer-drinking match continued, the smoke turned thicker and the chat louder.

Standing on a bench, a man called Dawa Tsering was playing guitar while singing songs in both Tibetan and Mandarin.

Unlike Tashi, Dawa has never really left Tibet and he describes himself as a "local product".

As a native of Guizhou province in south-west China, his father was among the first Communist army officers to enter Lhasa in 1951.

The loyal Communist party member married Dawa's mother, a devout Tibetan Buddhist.

Dawa appreciated the great wisdom shown in the Buddhist theories, but said his father's Communist teachings give him more encouragement to face the challenges in life.

Smiley faces from Qiusang Primary School is one hour's drive from Lhasa. (Photo by Lin Gu)
A scheme set up by Save the Children UK gives a louder voice in discussing sensitive issues
In Dawa's memory the Lhasa of his childhood was a combination of city and village, with very few cars - a place where cows and sheep would suddenly block the roads.

Dawa and his family used to live at the foot of the iconic Potala Palace, the former abode of the Dalai Lama, with lovely flowery grassland in front of it.

Today the grassland in front of Potala has given way to a cement plaza. Lhasa has many more people, cars, high-rise buildings, bars and advertisements.

Dawa is a writer. Disturbed by so many "fake" Tibetan travelogues in the market, he published his own, and it is selling well.

In one chapter he details how the rhythms of modern life in Lhasa have changed dramatically.

I asked him whether he felt nostalgic about his childhood.

Dawa smiled. "Have you watched those pilgrims circumambulate around Jokhang Temple on Bakhor street?

Modernisation is like that - as long as you join the wave of people, you cannot help but just follow it."

Letter is a BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters give their views on the latest political, cultural or social developments in his or her region.


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