Lhasa's street, May 2009
This is the third time I’ve entered
. The first time, in June 1992, I took the train from Chengdu to Xining, then a bus through Tsinghai Lake, Tanggula Mountains, Hoh Xil, Yuzhu Peak to arrive at Lhasa, then a truck from Lhasa to Shigatse and Zhangmu, and finally a small military postal plane (with only 4-5 seats) to return to Sichuan. Tibet
The second time was October 2003, in a car with friends. We entered
from Tibet 's Yunnan . Along the way were huge roadblocks caused by landslides, and muddy pitfalls that had formed under year-long rains and the grinding of heavy trucks; the road couldn't be called a road. As such, what remains in my memory is not scenery and place names, but nervous worries on when our delicate car made for urban use would become stranded, in a place with no cell phone signals. Gaoligong Mountains
This third trip, in May 2009, is the result of a sudden fantasy: I wanted to ride on the new high-speed train from
to Shanghai , to enjoy the sights of the Tsinghai-Tibet Plateau in the pressurized train-car that prevents both ultraviolet exposure and altitude sickness. Lhasa
I don't dare to focus my camera on soldiers or the locals, so I take pictures of the scenery.But the originally narrow, grassless dirt road harmonious with the
The Lhasa without the thick smell of smoking pine and burning incense, the Lhasa without pious believers in dusty Tibetan robes who kowtow and pray along the way, the Lhasa without people leisurely sitting on the ground and looking at tourists with friendly smiles, the Lhasa that has lost its original look, how does it distinguish itself from Chongqing or Shanghai or any other tourist city?
Another thing that surprises me is the large amount of white waste, results of quick food supplies for tourists. Neither the Tibetans nor the local government seem to care about it. Those white plastic containers, abandoned as freely as one pleases, lie calmly in the holy city's sunlight, at every corner of
, even the riverside of the beautiful Yarlung Zangbo, becoming the most eye-catching scenery. Lhasa
The temples are obviously overloaded with tourists that have brought serious damage to the architecture and Buddhist statuary, but the desire for ticket revenue seems only on the rise. In recent years, the involvement of the World Heritage Committee has forced the temples to restrict the number of visitors. However the temples are not short of counter measures. Large-scale price increases are only a small appetizer. On the surface, they limit the number of entering visitors to 200 a batch. But they maximize the number of batches a day by herding the visitors like sheep. In front every Buddha or bone-pagoda is not a lama but a fellow wearing a wide-brim hat, who shouts non-stop "Hurry, move! Don't pause!" And the crowds follow the order obediently as if in a spell; whether you are old or young, whether you are a foreigner or Chinese, you must move with a speed that can't even be called "looking at flowers on a running horse." In less than an hour, you finish a tour that would normally need the better part of day.
Exiting the dim palace and coming outside into the blinding sun, tourists look at each other in blank dismay: "What did you see?" As if suddenly awaking from a dream-walk, they are annoyed at being fooled, but the only thing they can do is to find balance and pleasure in the misfortune of the next batch of visitors.
I guess this is the dilemma that every old city whose main revenue comes from the tourist industry faces. To maintain a historical place and local traits often also means keeping outdated and coarse ecology. Don't Tibetans also wish to live a modern life, to have flush toilets and hot-water showers in their homes? What rights do we have for ourselves to enjoy modern convenience, while requesting others to live in a primitive environment for our entertainment?
Yet I've also heard that in tourist towns of the US West, they paint bathrooms and service areas the same color as the surrounding mountains; I've heard in Rome they’d rather spend hundred times more to maintain the city's old look; I've heard in Yunnan a businessman pulled down every electricity pole in his tourist area and painstakingly hide the power network underground; I've heard in Zhouzhuang, Zhejiang Province, villagers lay in front of steam rollers to stop the construction of a highway across their ancient town.
A few days ago someone was puzzling over why nothing was happening on June 4th this year. Another one smiled: If you talk about 6.4 with those born in the 80s or 90s, they will ask, What's that? Another kind of currency?
Will there be one day that Chinese become so poor that their only possession is money?
My memory brings me back to the dusk one day over a decade ago. By the limpid
, several Tibetan girls were humming and washing clothes. At the end of a flagstone path one or two yellow houses stood with black-and-red window frames, prayer streamers hanging above the roofs. The sky was a clear blue infiltrated with a tint of purple. A breeze sent over a faint smell of smoking pine and the strong fragrance of buttered tea, as well as the acrid odor of burning cow-manure cake. I languidly lay on the meadow until sunset and the moon rose. That wheel of dreamy moon – its quality you could never find in an urban moonlight – is carved into my bone marrow. Lhasa River
That moon has long elapsed behind tall buildings and colorful neon lights. Will it ever return?
(All photos ©2009 Maple Xu)