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On the roof top of the world

A sensory overload in a sweeping terrain, says YAMINI DEENADAYALAN

PHOTO: YAMINI DEENADAYALAN

IN SHANGRI-LA Lhasa’s Barkhor Square mirrors the real Tibet

A woman is downloading wall papers of Aishwarya Rai in her office. The only thing surprising about this is that it’s happening in a hotel in Lhasa, once the capital of Tibet. The view of Lhasa from my hotel is like any other Chinese city. The re are wide roads lined with Chinese restaurants serving spicy Szechwan food, an indication of the waves of immigrants from the Szechwan province looking for better opportunities. The real Tibet can be seen only in the monasteries and in Lhasa’s Barkhor Square.

There is a flurry of red in the square, as monks make their way to the Jokhang temple, circling their prayer wheels. Old women in chubas chant away while white tourists, beggar children with runny noses and the only Indian – me, jostle for space.

Above, the government watches carefully from strategically positioned cameras. A jolly man plays a traditional instrument to gather a clapping crowd. The police ask him to leave.

The temple, the holiest shrine for the Buddhists, has dingy rooms full of lamps lit by yak butter. The flames sway gently in the intense heat, typical of high altitude Lhasa. The magnificent brass Buddhas stand tall, worshipped by thousands of pilgrims.

All around Jokhang are rows of shacks selling yak butter, large red sides of meat and souvenirs. Women sell what are called street noodles - the equivalent of the Indian bhel puri. To assure you of quality the shopkeepers always say, “Tibeti...no Chinese”.

Tibet is difficult to write about because it is unimaginably beautiful. The economic divide between the Chinese and the Tibetans is painfully obvious. The only English word that the poor Tibetans know is “money”.

The Chinese are very friendly and fascinated by Indians. I had groups of Chinese women come and have their pictures taken with me.

A few metres from the Barkhor, there are wide streets and shopping malls in the Chinese quarter. Shops sell everything from Kashmir carpets to leopard skins. One man offered me a leopard skin for 5000 yuan. The description of our hotel in last year’s edition of the Lonely Planet guide was that of a basic staying facility with pit toilets that smelt noxious. The hotel is by now like a business hotel with plush furnishing and bath tubs in the bathrooms. It is an indication of the rapid pace of development in this part of China. The pit toilets however, it must be mentioned, are a common feature in the rural areas.

In the city, there are glitzy clubs and, occasionally, posters of Bollywood actors such as Divya Bharti and Salman Khan pasted on the doors. People here barely speak English, they don’t even know the word “Indian”. When they see one they whisper “Indu, Indu”, the word for India in Chinese.

In a restaurant, a Tibetan boy, Tenzing, searches me out and asks me if I am from India. He had been in India for many years before returning to Tibet to work as a tour guide. Tenzing is nostalgic about India and longs to return saying he is “grateful to (my) country”. He takes us to a sort of a Tibetan Opera house-meets-disco where Tibetan and Chinese youth dance to the latest Tibetan numbers. There are also traditional Tibetan dance performances in between. The Tibetans who have been to India are eager to talk to me in Hindi.

Getting to Tibet is difficult but worth it. The drive from Kathmandu to Lhasa has perhaps the most dramatic landscapes in the world with charming hamlets and towns along the way. The turquoise Namtso Lake just five hours away from Lhasa surrounded by the highest mountains is a must-see.

And a few hours away from Lhasa, it is immensely desolate, determinedly barren.

There are vast stretches of mountains in harsh grey, brown and rust in the highest elevation in the world.

In the Barkhor itself it is impossible to imagine McDonalds exists even as you are drawn into a fragile world of faith.

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