Day 4: In search of Tibetans

On Day 4 of our state-managed press trip to Tibet, I took time from a busy schedule of official interviews to try to meet some Tibetans. At press events, we were told Tibet is 92 percent Tibetan, but Lhasa did not reflect that figure.

Along a leafy shopping street, near an Italian ice cream shop, we found Li Su, who runs a popular bakery concession. Li came here from Guandong Province three years ago, and she has no plans to return home. The story is typical, it seems. Of the 12 shops visited on this renovated avenue - eight selling clothing, four assorted goods - only one is owned and staffed by Tibetans.

Chinese restaurants and shopping centers dot the cityscape, often sporting the canopy-like strings of triangular flags seen all over China. Nor is it unusual to witness restaurant employees on sidewalks before the dinner hour, in lime green or purple uniforms, marching to the sound of animated pep talks. This practice, common in Beijing and Shanghai, is to maintain discipline and morale. But it isn't a habit among Tibetan businesses, and still causes giggles among the locals.

Clearly, Tibet is opening up, being "Sino-cized," to use the expression of a veteran Asian correspondent.

A profound example of that opening is seen in a nearly completed railway bridge across the Lhasa River, 10 miles outside town. The rail line, set to open July 1, 2007, will link Lhasa with central China's Qinghai Province. Half the track is already laid.

The rail link solves an old problem. For years, the only way to penetrate Tibet was by plane or vehicle. Planes are for elites, and flights are not direct. Buses and trucks have to navigate a rugged 8 to 12 hour trip, minimum.

But when the Tibet line is finished, eight trains a days will call at Lhasa, and Shangri-La will be more accessible. (Some veteran reporters speculate the train will also be useful to the Chinese military, to put down uprisings or guard the border; this is denied by officials.)

The train is part of a hoped-for tourist bonanza. Indeed, the official policy for tourism seems to be, "if you build it, they will come." The industry is starting to boom.

In the remote area of Gongbujiangda, for example, authorities have put miles of picturesque wilderness under protection. The idea is to attract "ecotourists." Ministers from the local bureau speak of visiting US national parks, and using American consultants, for hints on marketing.

Chinese tourists in particular are encouraged to come and relax, or as the promotional materials say, "come and avoid violent activities - the break is good, just playing is good." A search for Buddhist spirituality can be combined with appreciation of nature at newly built sites like Basongco Lake. Visitors are pulled out to a small island by homemade rope bridges; there is a walk to a small country monastery.

In that region alone, the number of three-star hotels has risen from 12 to more than 50 since 2001, according to the Tourism Ministry.

But good grief. Suddenly, we may have news. We all learn from Chinese Central TV that the young Panchen Lama is in town. This causes some excitement among our press troupe.

The 11th Panchen Lama, as the 14-year old boy is known, seems to be a figure chosen by Beijing to one day replace the Dalai Lama as the spiritual authority in Tibet. He is highly patriotic, and poised.

However, most Tibetans don't accept the Panchen, who lives and studies in Beijing under close guard. This was his first visit in two full years. The young man was taken to the Jokhang Monastery, the Dalai Lama's temple, where he spoke and put garlands of flowers on local monks.

Most of us ask to meet the Panchen, but are denied.

By 11:30 p.m., I'm tired, but still not ready to return to the stuffy hotel room. I walk down the street and within a block come upon a huge storefront beauty parlor that is lit up like a Hollywood première. The lights mean one thing for certain: This is a Chinese business, since a Tibetan barber shop, even if one could possibly be open this late, would be dim inside, with dark wood and furs. No, this was a hair-cutting crew from Sichuan - a full staff of 12 that had more energy than a small nuclear plant. They have fashion magazines, track lighting, new equipment, huge vases of fresh flowers.

It has been seven weeks since my last haircut and beard trim. The price for both is $8 dollars. I go for it. Haircut, shampoo, and trim - at midnight. Now that's China.

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