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Tradition vs. Change in 'Lhasa Vegas'

From the roof of the Jokhang, looking out over the Barkhor, or central marketplace, signs of change: a backhoe digs up ground for a new construction.
/ Xeni Jardin, NPR
Xeni Jardin, NPR
From the roof of the Jokhang, looking out over the Barkhor, or central marketplace, signs of change: a backhoe digs up ground for a new construction.

Many refugees, including the Dalai Lama himself, settled in northern India after China invaded Tibet in 1950. Beijing says Tibet is historically part of China, not an independent nation.

For years, Tibet has been a difficult place to get to for most Westerners, because of visa restrictions — though these rules may soon be eased to facilitate tourism, according to a recent announcement by a communist party leader in Tibet.

Tourists to Lhasa, the capital and ancient heart of Tibetan Buddhism, might find two very different cities.

Inside what's known as the Tibetan Quarter, the timeless rituals of faith unfold. At the ornate, massive Jokhang Temple in the heart of the quarter, visitors are greeted with the sights and sounds of prostrating pilgrims. They stretch flat on the ground, then rise up, palms clasped in prayer. The stone beneath is polished smooth from centuries of this devotional gesture. The towering Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama's former residence, dominates the horizon.

But just a short rickshaw drive away, a different world unfolds. Outside the Tibetan Quarter, Lhasa feels more like a modern Chinese city, full of garish sights and sounds. The pace of change has never been faster than in the last decade.

Construction sites and tourist developments are everywhere, and the city's religious and cultural traditions are now an economic commodity. Folklore is sold. Some joke that Lhasa will eventually become "Lhasa Vegas." At some large tourist sites, when you hand over your entrance fee, they hand you back a CD-ROM that serves as your ticket.

Tibetans are increasingly integrating technology into their lives. One girl shows me pictures of Tibetan holy men on her cell phone, taken at a 7th-century shrine. At another small temple, a Buddhist monk sees me taking pictures and asks me to send him copies via e-mail — he and other monks share an Internet connection upstairs.

While some Tibetans have access to the Web, it's not the freewheeling information superhighway Westerners enjoy — thanks in large part to the so-called Great Firewall of China. When I tried to connect to, I often got error messages in Chinese. But I connected easily when using the government-censored Web page

Searches for phrases like "Dalai Lama" yielded fewer results than back in the United States, and I could not reach the home page of the Tibetan government-in-exile, or of various Tibetan human rights organizations.

It's telling that in the Tibetan refugee "capital" of Dharamsala, in northern India, a team of experts works to build a large wireless network for Web access. The goal is to open a flow of news and information about what's happening in the Tibetan homeland. But within Tibet, those voices remain unheard.

A short walk from the cybercafe where I access the Web, I find a small, old temple where Tibetans worship and few tourists go. As I pay my respects at the altar inside, Buddhist priests walk up and whisper two words — "Dalai Lama" — over and over, pointing to their eyes as if to ask, have you seen him? Is he still alive?

This way of searching for information does not involve wires or the internet. But in Tibet, it may be the most reliable way to get to the truth. And it is certainly the safest.

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Xeni Jardin
Xeni Jardin can be heard on NPR’s Day to Day, offering technology insights for listeners nationwide. Jardin is also a contributing writer for Wired Magazine, as well as a tech culture journalist and co-editor of the collaborative weblog, the award-winning "Directory of Wonderful Things."