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Lhasa today, between pop culture and tradition, Tibet, China

Lhasa is a special place. Here the beggars walk around with bags full of money (even if they are filled only with penny notes) and the locals wear Indian cowboy hats. The sunlight falls glistening into the unprotected iris of every fool that leaves sunglasses or a hat at home (or like me, forgets it in the back of a taxi). Almost everyone seems to be a pilgrim. Three pilgrimage routes lead through the city: along the former city limits (Lingkhor), around the Jokhang Temple and parts of the Old City (Barkhor), in the courtyard of the Jokhang Temple (Nangkhor) and around the Winter Palace. The monotone murmur of the Buddhist mantras, the rhythmic spinning of the prayer wheel and the scraping noises made by their hand protections as the metal surfaces scrape the pavement. Their bodies stretch out, and the head humbly descends to the earth. I expect sparks, but there are none. It's a routine movement. Sometimes, people glide effortlessly, other times illness slows them down. They meet in small groups that sit side by side, drink sweet-tea or butter-tea together, or they are lonely penitents.

A married tibetan woman wears a skirt, an apron and a hat, Tibet, China
The sun is shining, but it's not hot, Summer palace, Tibet, China

Not many European tourists come to Tibet. They treat me with friendly reserve. But nowhere do I move unnoticed. I don't have to be afraid to be approached or touched because nobody speaks English. Only Chinese tourists dare to ask for a selfie, but I refuse. I know what happens to such photos in India and Nepal, and since I usually don't take pictures of Chinese tourists (or locals), I don't want to be on their cameras either. I'm quite stubborn and unfriendly (in the eyes of other tourists). But even that touches me little because this short exchange has nothing to do with a cultural encounter. It's pointing the finger, and that makes me uncomfortable.

Winter palace, Potala Palace, not the usual angle, Tibet, China

In search of clarity, my gaze falls on the facial features of the people surrounding me. Chinese and Tibetans are hard to distinguish. Not because they actually look alike, but because they mix. The young people often look similar in both cultures. I'm unsure until the end, and the spectrum remains large. Often you see the familiar round faces of the children with red cheeks, but just as often the tanned faces of the elderly remind me of Nepalese in traditional dress. Clothes and skin often give more information than facial features. China is not a homogenous country, and my surprise about this fact shows me what a fixed idea I had about this black spot on my map.

Traditional paint, Winter Palace, Potala Palace, Tibet, China
Cityscape, Lhasa, Tibet, China

With the obligatory escort, I pass through the sights of the city. The winter and the summer palace of the Dalai Lama are beautiful. The Winter Palace proudly sits on the mountain. The Summer Palace is embedded in a park full of trees and flowers, a rarity up here. In the shelter of the walls, spring looks like home. Pink peach blossoms and blue skies distract from brown soils and the last remnants of snow. For 21 months I haven't seen anything like this. The fragile beauty makes me strangely emotional. Spring is different between Finland and Tibet. It's cold, brown and wet, or warm, green and short. It's just not the same, and my eyes almost fall out of my head. It's beautiful, familiar and detached from the barren reality of the place I stand in.

The 14th Dalai Lama's Summer Palace, Lhasa, Tibet, China
Spring at the Summer Palace, Lhasa, Tibet, China
Summer Palace, Lhasa, Tibet, China

Coming from Europe, I knew that the Chinese are suppressing the Tibetans. However, it was not clear to me that this will never change. The Tibetan struggle for independence is fought and lost. The oppression is mostly invisible to tourists because on the surface it seems fine. Each new building is decorated in Tibetan style. Everywhere you see people practicing their religion. You might think it's normal. The Chinese are doing their cruel business intelligently and with an iron fist in the background. The oppression is found in the system and in the bureaucracy. For example, Tibetans do not have a passport and therefore are not allowed to travel abroad. However, some do (countries like India have a lax entry policy towards Tibetan Buddhists) and are sent to jail on their return. The hospitals are staffed exclusively with Chinese doctors because the Tibetans do not have the necessary papers / training. Schools and kindergartens teach Chinese first and then minority, if not English. This contributes to the local culture slowly disappearing. Between early childhood education and the Internet, the survival of minority cultures is difficult. The interest in ghosts, eastern medicine and Buddhist philosophy is being replaced by social media and progress. Although everyone I've talked to is convinced of the superiority of Buddhist philosophy, none of them wants to invest the time to study for a lifetime. Tibet is not alone with its position in China. Many of these things happen in other provinces as well. However, cultures are dying all over the world. This is a central theme from Europe to Asia. And I start wondering, how much is Chinese oppression and how much is the price of progress, so to speak, the spirit of the time?

Modern sights, Lhasa, Tibet, China
Everything goes, Lhasa, Tibet, China
Sera Monastery, on the outskirts of Lhasa, Tibet, China
Sand Mandala, Sera Monastery exhibition, Lhasa, Tibet, China
Monk's debate, Sera Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet, China

In Sera Monastery, once one of the largest Buddhist monasteries of Tibet, I am allowed to, like all other tourists, document the debates. In comfortable sneakers, the monks defend their argument. They clap their hands firmly when they have made a point. This creates a tense and dynamic atmosphere. If one looks only at the feet, the repetition of the lunge creates the impression that they are dancing. Their red faces, clenched teeth and sometimes flying spit make the spectacle comparable to a gladiatorial fight. Opposite the debating monk, another monk sits with his feet crossed, listening patiently to the dancers' quarrels. In a much quieter voice, he parries the attacks, knows his counterpart in the barriers and shows the weaknesses in the argument. One or two other monks nod or listen in silence. They usually don't interfere, but act as referees if necessary. Considering that once thousands of monks met here, the agile, but small group that finds itself in the debate court on this day is a sad reminder that this way of life might die out too.


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