Marieke ten Wolde's blog

Documentary photography, and other things interesting enough to bother you with

Tibet Travel log 9, Lhasa: everything changes

with 2 comments

Lhasa 2012, Incense burning in front of the Yokhang temple


Butter lamps and low-energy light bulbs inside the temple


After posting my last blog with the photo of the military on the Barkhor square (the center of the Tibetan part of Lhasa) I realised how much has changed and, at the same time, how little has changed.

When I visited Tibet for the first time in 1998 I was a tourist that did not know anything about Tibet apart from the sketchy news coverage in the Netherlands and the introduction in the Lonely Planet which I only bothered reading in full when I already had returned home. To me Lhasa was a magical city, full with beautifully dressed friendly Tibetans, mysterious temples with monks in their red robes everywhere. For many first time tourists this would still be the first impression.

But in the mean time I have changed, because I know more I see more. I see the CCTV camera’s, I see the fake monks, I see the old buildings disappearing and the lesser known monasteries collapsing. It is not only I am less naive, it is also because Lhasa’s old center changed. In 1998 Tibet was not a tourist destination for the Chinese middle class, there were a few tour groups and they showed the typical tour group behavior. It was easy to avoid them. It was only after 2000 Tibet started to become fashionable and large numbers of chinese tourists started to arrive.

Now 95% of the tourists in Lhasa are Chinese, and quite a few are independent travelers and interested in Tibetan Buddhism or are even followers. The number of tourists visiting Tibet has grown tremendously from around 100,000 in 1998 to over 7 million now. This has changed the Barkhor area beyond recognition as the shops and restaurant now cater for these masses.

In 1998 the Yokhang (the main temple at the Barkhor) did have an entry ticket but the monks often did not bother to charge. A few years later I could just buy a ticket once and walk in and out every morning waving my ticket. The monks were friendly and laughed. In 2007 the whole ticketing had become very strict, with a ticket box outside the temple and no monks to be seen. It also had become a lot more expensive, so that meant no short Yokhang visits anymore. This year it was even forbidden to enter without a guide and I could only enter after 10.00 when most of the Tibetan pilgrims had gone. There are metal detectors to go through before entering and the Tibetans are led in through narrow fenced lanes, like cattle. The inner kora (pilgrim path) is also fenced, so there are now few Tibetans spinning the prayer wheels. However inside, it is still magical. Like it is outside on the Wednesday mornings when many people come out to burn Juniper in the large incense burners.

It is at these moments I forget about all the changes that happened in the past 10 years. I just enjoy and realise Lhasa is still a magical place.


Written by Marieke ten Wolde

September 7, 2012 at 09:32

2 Responses

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  1. I couldn’t agree more. But I fear that Lhasa and Tibet are heading for even more difficult times.
    With regards to change, I think that I have to realise that what I see as destroying some of the historic quarters in Lhasa, is in Chinese and maybe even Tibetan eyes, genuinely progress. How can cleaning up some of the derelict buildings and building modern facilities be bad?

    Marieke ten Wolde

    September 7, 2012 at 19:37

  2. In essence, change can be good, only this is a progress which does not help in the understanding between people and cultures. I hope the pendulum will start to swing the other way and that the atmosphere will be more relaxed.


    September 7, 2012 at 14:20

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