It hurts so much to say it but Lhasa is basically just another big ‘fuck off’ Chinese city. Busy, shiny and sleazy like any other. Illuminated by neon shop fronts and big Chinese signs. Where pollution and congestion are becoming a concern, and in the gaps between the hooting and the honking, is the quite audible sound of the locals (the Chinese) grunting, hacking, and spitting in the street at thoroughly nauseating volumes.
In fact, if you never stumbled across the small Tibetan section of town, there are precious little clues around that you’re not in mainland China. Fortunately the biggest thing in the city, the Potala palace is visible from just about everywhere, and for the time being still serves to remind people exactly where they are.
Lhasa is expanding at a phenomenal rate, and visitors returning each year are shocked at the amount of construction that’s taking place. Although actual, reliable figures are hard to obtain, it’s quite apparent that the Han Chinese out number the Tibetans by at least three to one.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the Chinese part of town, if you found it somewhere else in China, you might even like it. The people are pretty sociable, there are plenty of great shops and restaurants, and the surrounding scenery is basically gorgeous.
But with the knowledge that all this development has taken place at the expense of a single ethnic group, who are now squashed into a very tiny corner of the city, it’s hard to feel anything but resentment towards the dominant regime.
Lhasa is basically two cities in one. Cross the street from the Chinese metropolis and you’re in the Barkhor, the ancient Tibetan neighbourhood immediately surrounding the Jokhang temple. Slightly reminiscent of Kathmandu, the streets and alleys that comprise the neighbourhood are lined with markets stalls and souvenir shops all selling a similar selection of thankas, pashminas, jade statues, precious stones and prayer flags. There’s still a great atmosphere though as the monks and worshippers continue to circumnavigate the temple, burn juniper bushes, and prostrate themselves from dawn until dusk.
Around the city too there are some must-see sights including the Sera monastery, the Drepung universtity, the Anitsanghung nunnery, Ganden and Dukyerpa monasteries, and the Jokhang. The Potala is best appreciated from the outside. While the inside has some beautiful rooms, ornaments and religious imagery, most are viewed only through a glass screen giving the place something of a sad museum feel.
In fact the same can be said of parts of the Jokhang. As a rule, the most enjoyable visits in Lhasa tend to be to the less well known destinations (the ones with small or no write ups in your guide book), which are less regimented and relatively free of Chinese tour groups and government officials.