Tibet clings to frontier life as modern China encroaches

Chinese minders keep a watchful eye on journalists in the ancient Buddhist theocracy while highlighting improvements in literacy, health, and infrastructure.

Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, is two hours by bus from the new glass and steel airport. The ride over good roads, past endless peaks, along a swollen muddy river, and under a sheltering enamel-blue sky, allows time to adjust to the 10,000-foot altitude - and to consider being in a place where, until a few years ago, foreign journalists were largely forbidden to travel.

Tibet is the land of snows, the rooftop of the world, an ancient Buddhist theocracy hidden in the Himalayas that, until it was "liberated" by Mao Zedong in the early 1950s, was more isolated than China itself. For years the Chinese felt the story out of Tibet was not to their advantage. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual authority here, fled Tibet in 1959 amid wide-scale destruction by the People's Liberation Army of temples and monasteries - considered the seedbed of Tibetan identity. Beijing long complained that the "Dalai clique" overseas got unfair sympathy and attention, and foreign correspondents, the said, were partly to blame. A senior colleague said in 2001 that going to Tibet without permission was asking for trouble.

Yet since 2002 Beijing has sponsored summer visits like this one, 32 foreign journalists given a week in Tibet. The trips, although controlled, show how confident China has become. Authorities say that Tibetan popular unhappiness has ended, Chinese infrastructure is firmly established, tourism is on the rise, and that time has exhausted the human rights outrage of a religious civilization overrun by a modernizing socialist state.

The issue isn't simple. Beijing has a story: In the past four decades China has raised Tibetan literacy from 2 to 95 percent. Radio and TV have been installed. A country with no roads previously now has 20,000 miles of them. Life expectancy has nearly doubled. Those are the claims, and over the next week our talks will often refer to the 19th century American west as a corollary.

Most colleagues are happy to be here, out of an endless summer of pale yellow muggy pollution in Beijing, though no one expects a Tibet dateline to supplant the current "big three" stories: Iraq, the US presidential campaign, and the Athens Olympics. What we do want to find out is how quickly the Chinese ethnic Han are assimilating Tibet. We want to know if the Dalai Lama is still widely loved here. What kinds of economic development are taking place? Can Tibetan children compete with Chinese children if the schools aren't equal?

Lhasa is a 7th-century city and perpetual center of Tibetan culture. It is set in a valley, and as we arrive it still clearly retains a frontier feel on the streets, despite a flood of Chinese commercial storefronts and construction. The key sites are the Jokhang Monastery and the Potala Palace. Jokhang, in the old city, is the most sacred temple in Tibet. Potala, a stunning piece of architecture in the city center, was the religious and civil heart of Tibet and erstwhile residence of the Dalai Lama. Both are in a fight over whether tourism or Buddhism are their main purposes, we are told privately. Tibet and things Tibetan - styles, food, spirituality - are hot in urban China among younger people.

Yet the city has a high degree of cosmopolitan wanderers as well. On any street one passes New York stockbrokers cum explorers, young dreadlocked Germans or Americans seeking a mystical moment, mountain climbers, ecotourists, and far-flung Buddhists. Barhkar Street has internet connections and coffee bars, and a "Seattle sensibility." On evening No. 1, we ran into a Beijing-based artist we know at a place that serves apple crumble. Later, we ran into a young Dutch woman, a photographer traveling alone, who spent four days on the Nepalese border before getting a visa and who is now bicycling into small Tibetan villages to film. It is like that here.

Outside, on the street, sets of young Tibetan kids, pickpockets, openly bounce into us, doing a tag-team number to find where our wallets are. Later in the trip, in the throng at a holy festival, two journalists are robbed, one of his wallet, the other of $1,200. It is also like that.

Even in the city, with the light bouncing off the mountains, it seems as if director Peter Jackson could have filmed his Lord of the Rings series here. Yet already there are some whisperings among the journalists about whether the program is as exciting as last year's, about the hotel (no air conditioning in the rooms and hordes of flies when windows are opened), and always, how much of what we are being told is the truth.

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