Monasteries into Motorways

Isabel Hilton

  • Lhasa: Streets with Memories by Robert Barnett
    Columbia, 219 pp, £16.00, March 2006, ISBN 0 231 13680 3

If the Dalai Lama ever makes it back to Lhasa, as excited press reports have suggested he might, he won’t recognise the place. The city that he left in 1959 had fewer than 30,000 inhabitants; it is now six times the size. In 1951 it covered one square mile; now it sprawls over twenty. The original city – a warren of low-rise Tibetan houses with their distinctive tapering shape, proof against earthquakes; their double brick walls, proof against Tibet’s winters; and their austere white façades decorated with black-painted window frames and enlivened by fluttering pelmets – has largely been bulldozed. The remnants are now known as the Tibetan city, a small island in the sea of the new Chinese city.

Every spring, the Dalai Lama used to move to the Norbulingka, his summer palace, from his gloomy winter quarters in the towering Potala Palace. The procession was a celebrated early summer ride along a rural road. Now the Norbulingka lies in a dreary inner suburb, surrounded by uninspired functional architecture. The road to it is lined with shops and karaoke bars.

The village of Shöl, beneath the Potala, where one of the Dalai Lama’s more colourful predecessors used to drink and write poems to beautiful bar girls, has been flattened to create a vast open plaza, nicknamed by Lhasa’s inhabitants ‘Tibet’s Tiananmen Square’. And the Potala’s pre-eminence on the skyline is now challenged by the 13 storeys of the Public Security Bureau headquarters. The 18th-century medical school that used to sit on Iron Hill, near the Potala, was reduced to rubble by Chinese mortar fire during the 1959 uprising; most of the buildings of the great monasteries have been demolished; and the Tibetan character of the city has almost disappeared as it has been surrounded and overlaid by successive Chinese visions of the modern.

Robert Barnett’s experience of Lhasa does not go back as far as the Dalai Lama’s memory: he first visited in 1987, as a tourist on a not very profound search for enlightenment. He never got to the cave where he had planned a week of meditation. Instead, on his first day in the city, he found himself witnessing the first major protest against Chinese rule to take place in the presence of foreigners. The security forces responded brutally. Protesters who had been shot or beaten up were unable to get medical treatment. The few foreigners there, including Barnett, tried to help: he is unsparing in his assessment of the futility – and incompetence – of their efforts.

He returned to London and founded the Tibet Information Network, an organisation that provided, until its recent collapse, a steady flow of carefully checked information. Now he teaches at Columbia University, returning to Lhasa regularly as an academic. (In the interests of full disclosure: I have known him for many years and admire both his expertise and his commitment.) Barnett may not have seen Lhasa in the 1940s or 1950s, the last decades in which the Dalai Lama’s state could be said still to exist, though already under Chinese occupation, but for that period – and earlier – his scholarship compensates for his lack of direct experience. He emerges in these pages as a perceptive and sympathetic observer of a city that has often been described, but rarely understood, by Westerners since they first began to trickle through in the 18th century.

The motives of Western visitors have been at best mixed, and not many had an appetite for a nuanced story. A few were able to take up residence, among them the Jesuit Desideri, who wrote about Lhasa in the early 18th century, and, in the 20th century, Sir Charles Bell and Hugh Richardson, British scholars and diplomats who both spoke Tibetan, and two Austrian mountaineers, Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter, who landed there for several years after escaping from British internment in India during World War Two. For most visitors, though, as Barnett observes, contact with Lhasa’s inhabitants was slight, the language barrier was high and, in modern times, the political risks for Tibetans have been extreme. Outsiders can look but not hear, and even in looking, they tend to distort. Tibet has suffered more than most places from the projection of Western desires and fantasy: the image of Shangri-la, derived from James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, stands for a way of seeing in which Tibet and its people play little part.

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[*] Reaktion, 256 pp., £19.95, August 2005, 1 86189 235 7. Andrew Nathan will write about Beijing and Shanghai in a future issue.