The director of the Tibetan Information Centre in Lhasa has just downed his seventh moutai. As he goes around the table, exchanging pleasantries with each and every member of the visiting Indian and Nepalese delegation of hacks who are negotiating bravely with a sumptuous multi-course dinner (“Is that a cucumber in the middle of the soup or seaweed?"), this dark, Assamese-looking gentleman in a T-shirt and trousers is in total control of his senses and the evening.

He’s just finished singing a Tibetan folk song that sounds strangely like an old Hindi song Manoj Kumar would have been proud to lip-sync to were it not for 1962 and all that. “He’ll get plastered," whispers my Han Chinese minder on my right who’s visiting Tibet for the first time too. “That’s the way Tibetans and Mongolians show that they take the occasion seriously." The Chinese government booklet on Tibet that we were packed off with three days before actually said, “When drinking at a gathering, singing is absolutely necessary... The beautifully dressed girl, singing the enchanting toast songs, will persuade each of the guests to drink in turn until all are drunk."

Royalty: A view of Lhasa’s Potala Palace. Now a museum, it was the chief residence of the Dalai Lama until 1959. ThinkStock

Also See | Trip Planner - Lhasa (PDF)

I don’t know what the Austrian mountaineer and Nazi SS officer Heinrich Harrer saw in his gap years in 1940s Tibet. But he sure gained enough perspective to write Seven Years in Tibet that was turned into a 2 hours, 16 minutes-long film starring Brad Pitt. During my four-and-a-half tightly chaperoned days in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of 2010 China, all I could do was see—and write what I saw. Both perspective and fodder for a film script in the Hidden City of Lhasa had to wait for another stretch of days.

The hop across the Himalayas from Kathmandu, capital of one of the poorest countries in the world, to the southern outpost town of the second largest economy in the world, is rather dramatic. Lhasa, which I expected to be either a Faux Dharmasala or a Shanghai Lite, is neither. It’s more Chandigarh full of “Chinese people". The construction spree is evident—but far less than, say, Communist-free Gurgaon. To my plastic-habituated horror, I realize early on in my trip that there are few and far between bars (none that I visited) which accept credit cards. And to find an ATM in Lhasa—China Construction Bank cash machines only—is almost as difficult as finding a Han Chinese in Lhasa who speaks Tibetan.

In other words, Lhasa is an upwardly mobile B town—at an average of 3,600ft above sea level, it has to be upwardly—sitting in a bowl surrounded by stunning mountains that seem ripped off and erected. It’s a town where during its most “breathable" season (summer), the oxygen level is highest at 70% of that at sea level. At times when I was having a smoke (people here smoke even inside department stores) or making a quick yuan-rupee conversion in my head, I, Indo-Gangetic plainsman, got breathless just thinking about whether it was as improper to ask anyone about the Dalai Lama as it is asking about one’s ex.

But the information director’s advice of keeping one’s eyes open and trusting them is helpful only to a point. Because of its history and, perhaps more importantly, the politics and the public behaviour of its society that has been imported from mainland China, I became increasingly aware of the difference between gathering bits of information and processing it.

On my final evening in the capital of Tibet, after having managed to slip away from an official lunch (the all-pervasive fish oil smell can get to you like a bad mantra stuck in one’s head) I was returning from the Dalai Lama’s old summer palace, the Norbu Linka, confusingly spelt as Luo Bulinka in English on road signs. The palace had been converted into a boisterous public park after the 1959 “liberation" of Tibet by the Chinese Communists. That afternoon, like the afternoon before, I was witness to locals, congregating, frolicking and lolling about without a care in the air. There were clusters of picnics demarcated by each group’s stash of Lhasa beer. The day before, I had joined a large crowd that had formed a large ring at the centre of the palace grounds, congregated around a Tibetan opera under way. The audience was overwhelmingly Tibetan, the kind of folks you’d expect to be selling Tibetan jewellery back home.

That day, there was no Ram Lilaflavoured opera, but the carnival spirit of the ongoing Shoton (yogurt) Festival was very much in the rarefied air. Were it not for a trio of automatic weapons-carrying People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers making their rounds along a garden path, I could have easily been in a Wu-Tang Clan free concert at Central Park on a midsummer day.


I pass the front of the imposing TAR’s governmental building. At the gate, there’s a motionless PLA soldier stationed like a Buckingham Palace guard with an even more depleted sense of humour. The soldier is at attention, standing without a blink inside a glass cubicle that protects him from rain, wear and tear. Then suddenly, even as I stand aside for a moment to let a flotilla of a family—their size unhindered by any one-child per couple policy applicable to the rest of China—I see the guard poke his head out of the glass box and scream at the top of his lungs. It’s a violent shout, not the kind bandied about when a chap sees an old pal in the crowd and hollers his name. This is a shout that’s more suggestive of a threat to decapitate.

First I think that there’s some sort of traffic accident or a scuffle that the guard is bringing to the attention of one of his colleagues. As I follow his by-now vigorous air punches and shouts that sound downright hysterical, I follow the direction of his head and see a slightly bent figure leaning against the stretched-out white-as-salt walls of the government building that the guard is protecting. The shouts don’t seem to make the figure budge. Am I witnessing a historic uprising in the making in downtown Lhasa? Will there be violence that will be quashed by the shouting guard and a posse of his colleagues? Will I see tanks rolling down the crowded road and see the figure next to the wall stand before one tank with his day’s shopping bags in his hands, while I rue the fact that my office is such a cheapskate that it doesn’t provide us cellphones with a camera? While I consider all these possibilities, I see the guard work himself into a state of panic as his authority is being ignored by the rebel against the wall.

I walk closer through the strangely unaffected crowd and see that the figure is a man, drunk and swaying, who has just relieved himself against the wall of the TAR government building. The guard, I see from where I now stand, has disappeared from his position. Has he gone inside to get reinforcements and then ensure that the urinator is hauled away and shot in public view on a Sunday? It turns out that an official’s car is leaving the building and he had gone inside to swing the gates open. By the time he looks at the direction of the Offender Against the State, the latter has merged into the crowd and vanished.

I had just seen a Tibetan man peeing against the wall of a People’s Republic of China edifice.


Or had I just seen an inebriated slob, like quite a few other inebriated slobs I had seen on the way, coming out of Norbu Linka and letting it flow against the closest vertical structure he could find within a certain frame of time? In Tibet, bereft of perspective but definitely a bona fide eyewitness, I would never know the answer.

And that’s the story of Tibet for anyone willing to keep an open mind (read: being ignorant about things beyond what one can only see with one’s own eyes). However much you try to be unbiased and tell yourself, “This is a Potemkin town", there will be that other voice in your head saying, “You cynical Western-media-fed duffer. Believe what you see."

The fact that the Chinese authorities don’t help their own case was on fullblown display when we were taken for an “interaction" with the Tibetan vice-president— the vague equivalent of an Indian state’s deputy chief minister, except that here in Tibet, the president is always a Beijing man and never a Tibetan, so even the Kashmir analogy gets wobbly.

On paper, it was an interaction: a speech, followed by a question-answer session. Accustomed to soporific prime ministerial and presidential speeches in the country to which Arunachal Pradesh belongs, TAR vice-president Daji didn’t sound too bad to me.

Sitting in front of a kitschy horizontal panel depicting the Dalai Lama’s old winter palace, the Potala, she gave a longish Wikipediac lowdown on Tibet (“There are five ethnic minority regions in China. Tibet, with its 2.9 million population, is one." “I have read Tibetan history and there was never any mention of human rights before the Chinese ‘liberated’ it." “After the formation of TAR in 1969, the Tibetan people became their own masters.")

As she rattled out pre-Communist and post-Communist figures on agricultural output, average housing area and other cultural by-products, I found myself wondering whether this dour yet calm-looking Tibetan woman ever let out steam by cracking jokes about the Han Chinese in the privacy of her home.

(Near the steps of the Drepung monastery, after posing next to a PLA SUV once the unfurling of the giant thangka of Buddha across a hill face at the annual Shoton Festival was over, I told one of our Tibetan translators a joke. “A diplomat once asked Mao Zedong, ‘What do you think would have happened if president Khrushchev had been assassinated instead of president Kennedy?’ Chairman Mao thought for a moment and then said, ‘I don’t think Mr Onassis would have married Mrs Khrushchev.’" She didn’t find it funny—probably because the joke was lost in translation.)

One thing about Tibet—or Lhasa, at any rate—that vice-president Daji had said at the asymmetrical “interaction" did strike me as being true: “There are more things to Tibet than religion."

There sure is. There are bars advertising “Budweiser" and shopfronts displaying wares much more varied than momos and Tibetan jewellery. Every third shop on the street I was staying in was an eatery—the heavy, curling smell of that fish oil doing the job of making Lhasa a strikingly appetizing city if your nose prefers the “authentic" Chinese kind of cuisine. Stacked between these and scattered all across town, there are cigarette and clothes shops. This is a modern, pioneer town that I appreciated and I was won over by. Gone were earlier fears of finding myself in a clammy, Kathmandu-like Orientalist’s fantasy of wooden monasteries upon monasteries and very dim lights (which doesn’t mean that our “four star" Tibet Hotel wasn’t an Ashok-type hotel with Paharganjtype service. Here, to order coffee from the coffee shop, you can’t order over the phone. You’ll have to physically go to the second floor and order it. Some Confucian logic there).

In one of my ventures out in the evening, I had swung into a room that I had thought to be a normal bar because of the music I could hear from behind a closed door. It was a room with four or five people sitting down rather seriously on a circular sofa with drinks in the middle. Bathed in the blue light was a lady with a microphone in her hand singing to recorded music. It was a karaoke bar, popular in Lhasa, I was told, among the young—and, going by my random discovery, among the not-soyoung too.

But that hardly makes Lhasa the Sodom and Gomorrah Vegas Town that many critics of Chinese-ruled and Beijingchanged Tibet talk about. These folks may want Tibet to be a mystical place, unchanged since Tintin in Tibet and with only Western foreigners breaking the monotony of red-robed monks spinning their prayer wheels. Going by what I saw, however, Tibetans seem to be comfortable with modernity. Whether it be the more cosmetic yardsticks of steel and glass buildings and shopping centres filling up the empty spaces, or the broad, clean roads and infrastructural amenities of hospitals, (the gigantic but achingly empty) station and public spaces, Lhasa is not a cute town posing for the backpacking tourists but a smart town hankering to be part of the Chinese economic fun story.

It’s another matter that there is a sense of Big Brother looming over everyone and everything in this upwardly mobile town that was once a crashingly backward feudal capital. Inside a courtyard in the seventh century structure of the Jokhang monastery, Tibetan Buddhism’s most sacred sites, there’s restoration work going on. A huge banner, apropos nothing, reads in Mandarin, in Tibetan and also in English: “Eleventh five year period, the deep cultural resource renovation is going on inside Jokang Temple, Bew are of your secure!"

The interiors of the monastery are dark, lit up by low-power bulbs and resembling cowsheds minus the dankness. I’m told that that is how Tibetan monks prefer their temples to be: dark. Which perhaps explains why I find it pretty much impossible to figure out whether a rotund monk, balled up in his robes and sitting in a grotto- like corner of the main hall with a baseball cap pulled down on his head, is humming while deep in meditation or letting out a soft snore while he sleeps.

The Chapel of Amitabha (Buddha of Infinite Light) has a framed photograph of the Dalai Lama, not the fellow who’s never going to be invited to a Beijing birthday party, Tensin Gyatso, but his predecessor, Tubdan Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama. Sitting astride a chair and sporting a moustache that makes him look like a cross between a non-turbaned Air India Maharaja and an Edwardian gent, he seems like a zamindar rather than the former incarnation of the head of the Buddhist faith.

As I am on my way out of Jokhang, I hear a “Good morning, how are you?" followed by titters. Two women construction workers in camouflage shirts and floppy summer hats are on a rooftop and trying out their English skills on me. And this I notice at the breathtaking (from the outside) Potala Palace too. Not women labourers teasing visiting tourists, but the sameness and narrowness of the monasteries in Lhasa. I decide to simply zip through the maze that is the interiors of what was once the Dalai Lama’s winter palace, Potala. The overwhelming colour is dark red, the “dark" representing the level of light inside rather than the actual shade of the wood all around.

Tibetans, old, middle-aged and young, walk slowly, most of them pressing their foreheads reverentially at prescribed sacred spots. The Han Chinese tourists, identified by the guide right in front of them giving them a spirited tour through Potala, are more interested in the history of the place.

Taking up a position and breathing slowly now that I am out of the claustrophobic entrails of Potala Palace, I try to differentiate between Han Chinese and Tibetans by looking at their faces. Tibetans with far more wrinkled and squarer faces wearing traditional clothes were easy to pick out. The tour guides speaking in Mandarin also made spotting “mainland" Chinese easy (Tibetan sounds much more different from Mandarin than Tibetans look from Han Chinese). A few of us from multilingual, multicultural India decide that we are equipped with antennae that have an “80% success ratio" in letting us distinguish a Tibetan from a Han.

Over the next few days, as we visit a model “fishing" village outside Lhasa, stare into the faces of locals as we barge into their homes to be shown top-notch Happy Tibetan Peasant hospitality— which boils down to being served undrinkable butter tea and/or far-toodrinkable- for-comfort barley wine—drop by at a Tibetan traditional medicine factory, followed by a visit to a near-empty, fully-automated Tibetan barley beer factory, and watch with great interest an accompanying Nepalese journalist record everything (including dung cakes burning in a village stove) on his brand new camcorder, we are pretty sure that we can now easily make out a Han Chinese from a Tibetan.

“No, I’m a Tibetan," says one of our guides with a smooth, longish face and minus the usual tinge of natural blush that we had noted as a classic Tibetan mark, especially among the women.

“Are you sure?" I ask her, thinking that if I say anything that isn’t in the script, our hosts will get confused and start telling the truth.

“Yes, both my parents are Tibetan and my hometown is just outside Lhasa," she insists. Just when I was about to junk the idea that four days in Tibet would equip us to perceive things beyond the surface—and make us immediately tell a Tibetan from a Han Chinese—I remembered what the Tibetan Information Office director had told me earlier over the clink of a moutai: “Write what you see." Clearly, the girl was lying. I could make out she was a Han Chinese as easily as a discerning eye can tell a Marathi manoos from a north Indian bhaiyya.

I could see that she was not a Tibetan. Oh, and Lhasa really exists.

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