Suhasini Haidar

China diary: The Shoton festival and the bustling Lhasa


As we drive to Lhasa from Tsedang, the Yarlung Tsangpo, how Tibetans refer to the Brahmputra runs beside us. Nothing prepares you for the river's size, even here, hundreds of kilometres before the flood plains, and in parts you could be forgiven for thinking you are at the edge of a gigantic lake, not a river. It is also easy to understand concerns in India over the dams that China is planning closer to the border just before Arunachal Pradesh. Unlike Tibet's pristine, sapphire blue lakes, the Tsangpo is muddy brown, replete with soil it drags down from the bare mountains of the world's highest plateau. In stark contrast to the earthern colours are Buddhist prayer flags that dot the Tsangpo's route. As we climb down to get a better view, I see a rock with writing in Tibetan and Chinese script. 'Haikuo Tian Kong' it says: the sea is vast and so is the sky. Endless possibilities exist in them.


After nature's grandeur, we stop next to see a man-made marvel: the latest addition to the Tibetan railway. After barrelling through mountains , and climbing record heights, China completed the 2500km Beijing-Lhasa rail line, and I was an awe-struck passenger on that ride in 2007. Now China has completed the next phase, connecting Lhasa to the second biggest Tibetan city of Shigatse, home of the Panchen Lama. The 250 km line runs at an elevation west of Lhasa, and we go see the station at Qushwe. Like everything else recently constructed in China, the airport built for 2050, and stadiums built in Beijing for 2008 that will last till the next olympics, this massive station too is built for future capacity. Only one train passes through, the Lhasa Up and the Lhasa Dn, with just 200 passengers using it everyday, but the spanking clean station could process thousands. On the roof are rows and rows of solar panels, that help power the place. The views are breathtaking, and the technology truly amazing, but I can't help wondering about the damage caused by the hundreds of tunnels bored through mountains that allow the train to reach record speeds.


Scale and size is the narrative of our visit. We must wake long before dawn in order to reach the Drepung monastery for the start of the annual Shoton festival. It's a walk up a mountain that nearly one lakh tourists and Tibetans undertake in order to watch the unveiling of a giant wallhanging tangkha of the Buddha. As the tankha is raised on the mountainside , 80 m long and 60 m wide, devotees vie to throw their silk scarves at the highest possible point on it. Then with high drama, to the sounds of pipes and bugles, the entire painting is revealed, with the Buddhas eyes being uncovered!


Finally, Lhasa! The Tibetan capital has turned into a bustling metropolis, complete with glitzy malls, wide roads, and traffic jams. Many have written in to ask, what is the condition of ordinary Tibetans, given protests, images of self-immolations and all the we hear from the Tibetan community in India. The truth is, I can't accurately answer the question. There is no doubt that there is a massive presence of Han Chinese here, perhaps even more than when I was here last, in more strict times. Theres a lower but visible military presence, than I remember. But theres also no denying Tibets double digit growth of the past decade that have allowed Tibetans to get jobs and improve their average incomes, 2.5 times in 20 years, acording to officials. Chinese dominates as the language in all signage, and much of the big money pouring into the hotel and tourism business is from Chinese businessmen. 49% of the communist party here is Chinese, even though 92 % of the population is Tibetan.

Despite that skew, of Tibet's 7 regions or prefectures, 4 have Tibetan CPC party leaders now, which is a change.Is the Chinese government's control complete? I think so. Are Tibetans better off, both in terms of finances and freedom, compared to when I last visited in 2007? It appears so.

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 6:04:14 PM |

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