Tibetan Studies: Living in LhasaBeijing, Spring 2012
(This is the first post in a three-part summary of the Contemporary Issues Tibetan Studies long trip to the Tibet Autonomous Region.)
“What are your feelings on the Tibet-China issue?” This is the question that a lot of people asked us before we left. Obviously, none of us really knew – even after two weeks studying in Tibet, I can’t really give a definite answer.
Some quick background on our trip: in the CI program, we take our area studies classes in blocks, studying each class intensively for four weeks before moving on to the next one. Tibetan Studies was my last elective, rounding out my studies after Modern Chinese Literature and Modern Chinese Economy with something a little less…overtly modern.
After a week of introduction and preparing for our research topics, we flew from Beijing to Lhasa and immediately got hit by the altitude, marking the beginning of a seemingly constant flow of minor-to-major health problems on the trip.
But that didn’t deter us – we made the most of our itinerary (and took the steps of Potala pretty slow), and the few days spent adjusting to the altitude in Lhasa and the two days before the train trip out really gave us a good look at the city. Lhasa is a city of many sides, booming with economic activity due to the increased flow of people and suffering from poverty, tense cultural and political situations, and a climate that doesn’t always agree with entrepreneurship.
Granted, compared to some other parts of Tibet, Lhasa has it pretty nice. Thanks to the huge tourism economy, there are a lot of ways for people to make money, and some of the nicer city amenities draw a lot of people. Of course, it’s always a little unsettling to see a city that is so economically dependent on tourism – sometimes things seemed sort of devoid of real activity, a Disneyland that could be switched on or off depending on who was there.
That, of course, was also a big issue – who was there? Who were we buying from – were they Tibetan or Chinese immigrants from the mainland? Why did they come here – were they former nomads or farmers, attracted by urban expansion, or were they like the Sichuanese girls studying at Tibet University because their exam scores were too low for Sichuan and they thought Tibet seemed more “mysterious”?
Lhasa, with it’s potential as a trade hub between Himayalan countries and a huge tourist area, reminded me a lot of Tianjin – construction, speculation, and a mixture of people. It’s just that this city had a bit more altitude and culture clash along with it.
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