2005.10.01 Lhasa, Tibet Yak in front of Tibetan Doorway

I'm back in Lhasa for the first time in over eight years. It's something of a surprise.

I didn't have any illusions about the city being some enchanted Shangri-La--there was plenty of karaoke and neon in the skyline the last time I was here. What astounds me is how much it has grown and how developed this city has become: downtown Lhasa could be mistaken for anywhere in China, were it not for the Potala Palace looming overhead.

Aside from its growth into a booming Chinese city, I've also been surprised by the numbers of Western tourists I've seen around. Perhaps it's my location: I'm staying at a hotel near the Barkhor, the Tibetan area of town. Of course every other traveller who comes to Lhasa wants to be in the same area, but the foreign presence is so extreme it feels like this city's minority population is European, not Tibetan. It's hard to walk around the central parts of town without hearing English or some romance language spoken.

I guess my current impressions of the city are playing in contrast to both the image of Lhasa I had from many years ago, and the route by which I chose to come here. I did meet many other travellers en route, but coming from Xinjiang is such an arduous journey I'd forgotten that it was possible to just hop off a plane or hire a jeep from Kathmandu.

After a month on the road, it's also a shock to be in a well-stocked city. Supermarkets and boutiques abound in the city center. Shelves are full, prices are comparable to what would be paid anywhere else in China. This too surprised me, as goods coming into Tibet are all transported by truck over high mountain roads. Western Tibet found slim pickings at inflated prices. Right now, a few hours after arrival, Lhasa feels like the most developed place in the world.

(I actually feel that there is tangible proof that Lhasa is less remote than Urumqi. My ATM card will work in any branch of the Bank of China, except for those back home in Xinjiang. Until last night I had speculated that perhaps both Xinjiang and Tibet ATM's would be off-network. After successfully withdrawing cash at a Lhasa ATM yesterday evening, I now feel Tibet is better connected than Xinjiang.)

The three of us--Nisagul, Wang Lei, and I--have been taking advantage of the creature comforts here. For dinner we ate yak burgers. It was the first time Nisagul was willing to eat at a non-Muslim restaurant, and only upon assurance that there were no pork items on the menu or hiding elsewhere in the kitchen. For dessert, we went to a gelateria just east of the Potala Palace, gorging ourselves on four scoops of gelato each. I chose coconut, lychee, rum-amaretto, and coffee.

I plan to spend a week or so here in Lhasa, figuring out where I'll be over the rest of the year. If I can get permission to go to Yadong in south-eastern Tibet, I won't hesitate to extend my current trip. Else, I'll take a combination of buses and trains back to Urumqi, returning in mid-October.

Thereafter, I'm unclear. I've been considering returning to the U.S. over the holidays, coming back to Xinjiang just before the spring semester begins. I could make it back in time for Thanksgiving, perhaps finding some sort of temporary work in Seattle for three months.

On the other hand, the cold Urumqi winter might be just the right time to hole-up in my flat and focus on studies. One thing I've realized over this trip is that my language skills are still weak. I'm far from fluent in either Uighur or Chinese. I do have limited functionality in both, but my pronunciation is funny, grammar awkward, and vocabulary limited. Right now I feel inspired to curl up at home and hit the books.