On most nights, Barkhor Square is full of ancient-looking pilgrims on a Buddhist kora around Jokhand temple, a 1,400-year old World Heritage Site.
But last Tuesday around 9 p.m., it was unusually quiet when about 30 police officers wearing riot helmets sped into the cobblestone streets in vehicles resembling golf buggies. In front of a few foreign tourists, the police grabbed two young men in street clothes, put them in headlocks, and hauled them away to a nearby police station.
The arrests were the fallout from the largest public protests against Chinese rule for nearly 20 years, according to Tibet experts. The protests came on the 49th anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising against China, which has long claimed dominion over Tibet, and which China has tried to modernize in its own way.
US-supported Radio Free Asia reported the arrest of more than 50 monks on Monday and said that police used tear gas to disperse hundred of monks outside Sera monastery on Tuesday.
While a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing acknowledged arrests on Monday as necessary to prevent disorder, details remained sketchy about the number of arrests and the condition of detainees.
The protests on Monday and Tuesday surprised many China-watchers, who assumed that the Qinghai-Tibetan railway – which connects Beijing to Lhasa in 48 hours over a 4,500-meter-high plateau – was helping to integrate Tibet with China. In the summer, thousands of Chinese flock into Lhasa, staying in dozens of new hotels and paying extra on the black market for scarce tickets into Potala Palace, perhaps the most beautiful structure in Asia and the former residence of the Dalai Lama, now exiled in India.
In Barkhor Square, police officers shooed the group of foreign tourists out of the square and back to their hotels. The officers were smiling, as if this was for the foreigners' safety. Clearly, something was going on in the latest hot spot of Asian tourism.
A young European backpacker, gasping for breath in Lhasa's 3,650-meter altitude, came running into a hotel looking for an Internet connection.
"There's a big protest going on in the road to Sera monastery," he said. "There are hundreds of people in the street, howling like wolves. They look like local people and they're angry because the police have arrested some monks. I didn't see them fighting with police. It didn't look violent. The police chased some of them into small alleys to arrest them."
The tourist said police picked up him and other foreigners, questioned them, and escorted them to the hotel district in unmarked cars, warning them to stay inside. The backpackers sent out personal reports on the Internet, even as uniformed police and men believed to be spies stood outside cafes watching them.
Eager to witness this uprising, the tourists, including this writer, looked for taxis at nearby Beijing Street. But irate drivers were shouting at a group of police of both Chinese and Tibetan ethnicity. With police out in force, blocking access to monasteries, Tibetans warned the foreigners to come inside.
Normally afraid to talk openly about politics, they were impassioned by the arrests of monks. "I heard that they arrested four monks, and even three nuns on Monday night," said one local worker. "This will make everyone angry."
A young Tibetan woman was worried about her mother at their home near Sera monastery, one of the three most famous in Tibet. Her mother, talking into a cellphone from the roof of their building, told her about the mayhem of police and protesters below. She said the monks were demanding the release of fellow monks, arrested a day earlier during protests at two sites: the road from Drepung Monastery to Potala Palace, and Barkhor Square downtown.
The protest outside Sera monastery reportedly began at 3 p.m., the time each day when Sera monks challenge each other to passionate debates about Buddhism, using martial arts techniques, such as swinging prayer beads and slapping hands, to shock pupils into enlightenment.
Many Tibetans, perhaps the most devout Buddhists in Asia, said they feared monks would be beaten and jailed for years. They said police are stepping up intimidation and making it harder for Tibetans to get permission to become monks, study their own language, or gain passports to travel.
"Lhasa is not a free place like Beijing," said one local. "It is a police state. Spies are following you everywhere, on the street, on the phone, on the Internet. They can take you away and nobody knows when you'll come back. Sometimes people come back after 10 years. They can't even talk or think anymore."
Many tourists appeared unaware of the protests and continued to enjoy the city's old-world charm.
While welcoming tourists, many Tibetans say they want Hong Kong's power to restrict the entry of Chinese migrant workers, who they say bring with them alcohol, prostitution, and disdain for religion. "We like Chinese people, but there are too many of them coming into Lhasa," said one local.
With global attention focused on China ahead of the Beijing Olympics, many Tibetans say this year might be their best chance to protest human rights abuses in Tibet. "We are afraid of losing our culture," says a local. "Even some of the police who are arresting monks are Tibetan people."
The reporter on this story, an eyewitness to these events, has not been identified to protect future access to Tibet and the identities of local people.