Friday, August 25, 2006

Pssst. Wanna Buy a Potala Ticket?

As reported by the India Times News Network

By Ranjan Roy

24 Aug, 2006; LHASA -- Qiangba Gesang sits in a room draped in crimson and yellow, the harsh northern sunlight streaming in from behind him, talking of the days when he would tie his horse to a stone pillar and run up the steps of the Potala Palace to meet his uncle.

That was when Potala was home to a young Dalai Lama, training in worldly and spiritual ways to lead Tibetans.

Gesang is now the curator of Potala, where his uncle was once an official.

Sitting in what is arguably Tibetan Buddhism's landmark building, Gesang, who was appointed by communist officials, declares that now Potala isn't a temple or a shrine any more. It's just a museum -- a tourist attraction. An abandoned home containing Dalai Lama's relics, restored for tourism.

"It's just the winter home of the Dalai Lama. No religious activity takes place," he says.

That may be officially so. But both inside and outside the 13-storey structure that looks like it's painted on a blue canvass, the rarified air at 12,000 feet is thick with reverence.

At the base of the hill, Tibetans whirling the prayer wheel circumvent the perimeter chanting religious verses. Inside, they stand with folded hands in front of barricaded rooms where Tibetan leaders once lived . . . Potala Palace, from where the Dalai Lama fled in 1959 as the Chinese army marched in to crush a Tibetan uprising, is today again the epicenter of a new battle.

A battle to win hearts and minds of Tibetans and dazzle them into joining China's economic boom.

Freshly painted, the palace, parts of which are 400 years old, is advertised by Chinese authorities as the biggest tourist draw.

Long before the train chugged into Lhasa on July 1, Potala was being dressed up, both Chinese and Western tourists who would be a key source of revenue.

China spent 223 million yuan ($40 mln) between 1989 to June 2002 on Potala, says Gesang.

Now Potala can barely handle the rush and visitors are limited to 2,300 per day. Tickets are sold out and tourists who aren't organised land up buying tickets in the black market for as much as 500 yuan.

The palace is open for 11 hours a day from 7.30 in the morning round the year, except for September 30, the one day kept aside for maintenance.

From a shuttered and impoverished backwater, China is on the verge of turning Lhasa into a tourist heaven and hopes that with the gradual opening of road links into India it will be on a modern Silk Route between Kolkata and Beijing.

Most of Tibet's 500-odd hotels are booked through summer as tourists pour in on the 20 flights landing in Lhasa daily.

The new train connecting Lhasa to Beijing and three other cities bring in more than a thousand daily.

All this is translating into dollar-dreams, not just for the Han Chinese who still control state levers and most businesses in Tibet, for also many Tibetans.

While Barkhor Street near Jokhang Monastery is teeming with local artisans selling Tibetan ware, multi-cuisine cafes and pubs are bustling until midnight.

Lhasa's tarred streets are jammed with SUVs and gleaming sedans, many with Tibetans at the wheel. "I came in here a few years ago and the business is good," says a Tibetan in his thirties, who migrated from Delhi.