Tibetans may be minority in Tibet, warns Dalai Lama



AP File photo


The first train from Lhasa Railway Station travels on the Tibetan grasslands near Lhasa, Tibet, last year. China’s high-speed, high-altitude railway to Tibet carried troops to the region for the first time, state media reported late last Friday, in a development likely to fuel concerns about the railway’s impact on the restive Himalayan area.

Three crimson-robed monks chant quietly as they file through the ancient palace, pausing every now and then to pray in the candlelit rooms filled with Buddhist statues and religious murals.

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A Han Chinese child offers money to a Tibetan man who was performing prostrations in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The increased Han Chinese influence in modern-day Tibet is prompting worries the Tibetan culture may become diluted.

At the Potala Palace, the mountaintop Tibetan landmark where the Dalai Lama lived until he fled to India in 1959 to escape Chinese control, they are in the minority.

A year-old rail line linking Lhasa, capital of the remote Himalayan region of Tibet, with the rest of China has brought a deluge of Chinese tourists. Once quiet holy sites are now filled with sightseers, many of them trailing behind guides loudly explaining their cultural significance.

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A Tibetan Lama keeps the flames going at the Tashilunpu Monastery in Shigatse, in China’s Tibet province. Tibetan Buddhism is the dominant religion in the Tibet region and lamas are widely respected, but some feel their influence is being diminished by the massive influx of Han Chinese and tourists.

“In the past, this was a very comfortable place to come for Buddhists. You could see a lot of lamas and Tibetans in this place and it made you feel like this was a place for your faith,” monk Renzin Gyaltso said as he strolled down a stone path at the Potala Palace.

Tibet’s Buddhist culture, often besieged in the past half-century of Chinese rule by religious restrictions and communist political movements, is facing a new threat: mass tourism.

Pilgrimages to sacred sites are an integral part of Tibetan Buddhism. Gyaltso has visited the sprawling Potala Palace 14 times since joining a monastery as a small boy.

“Now I feel sad when I come here because I cannot see any good people, I can’t see any people wearing lama robes. You can’t see anything special, they all look the same,” he said of the tourists, dressed in fleece jackets and sneakers.

Ng Han Guan/AP

Foreigners and local tourists flock to Jokhang Temple, one of the oldest temples in Lhasa. The encroachment of modernity into Tibet grows momentum as foreign and domestic tourists find a renewed interest in the isolated region after China opened up a new railway link.

The Dalai Lama has warned that Tibet’s religion and culture are imperilled as he travels the world meeting heads of state and drawing harsh rebukes from China.

“Every year, the Chinese population inside Tibet is increasing at an alarming rate. And if we are to judge by the example of the population of Lhasa, there is a real danger that the Tibetans will be reduced to an insignificant minority in their own homeland,” he said when accepting the U.S. Congress’ highest civilian honour in October.

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A villager stands at the doorway into a new house built in Caibalang village, Qushui county of Lhasa. Chinese authorities have tried to strengthen its hold over the restive region by investing in the economy and livelihood of the locals.

Few government plans have succeeded in bringing Chinese to Tibet like the “Sky Train,” which has become a popular alternative to expensive flights or long, bone-crunching bus rides.

Beijing wanted to build a railway to Tibet for decades but was put off by engineering challenges. The project got underway in earnest in 2001 and the train began running in July 2006, on a specially designed track to protect the delicate permafrost that lies under much of the last third of the rail line.

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A view of the the Lhalu Wetland National Nature Reserve located in the city proper of Lhasa, in China’s Tibet province. One of the highest and largest wetlands in China, the Lhalu is an example of the fragile ecosystem that has critics crying foul whenever the Chinese authorities undertake projects like the Tibet railway and a proposed highway.

According to government statistics, 3.2 million tourists visited Tibet in the first nine month of this year, an increase of 67 per cent over the same period in 2006. The figure — 2.9 million Chinese tourists and 326,000 from overseas — is 710,000 more than the total number of visitors for all of 2006.

“There’s been a dramatic increase in tourism generally since the opening of the railway,” said Kate Saunders of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet. “It’s been particularly acute at the major sacred sites … the sites that are most important to Tibetan heritage.”


  • In addition to the seventh-century Potala Palace, tourists in Lhasa pack the Jokhang Temple Monastery, the most sacred of Tibet’s temples, and Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s former summer palace.