Tradition vs. Change in 'Lhasa Vegas' Tourists to Lhasa, the ancient heart of Tibetan Buddhism, might find two very different cities — one unchanged by centuries and still clinging to tradition, the other modernizing rapidly along with neighboring China.
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Tradition vs. Change in 'Lhasa Vegas'

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Tradition vs. Change in 'Lhasa Vegas'

Tradition vs. Change in 'Lhasa Vegas'

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick. This week, our tech contributor by Xeni Jardin has been bringing us reports on how technology is changing life for Tibetan exiles in northern India.

BRAND: In today's conclusion of the Hacking the Himalayas series, Xeni visits Tibet itself to witness the impact of new technology on this ancient culture.

XENI JARDIN reporting:

The last day I spent in Tibet's ancient capitol, Lhasa, coincided with the annual festival of Saga Dawa. It's one of the most important days in the Tibetan religious calendar, honoring the birth of Buddha. Beginning before dawn, thousands of Tibetans walk along an unmarked five mile path around the city. The pilgrimage circuit, or Linkor(ph), passes from former sites of worship destroyed by Chinese forces in the 1950s.

I spent two weeks here exploring the ancient and modern. Narrow streets in Lhasas' old Tibetan Quarter lead to the ornate, massive Jokhang Temple. This is the city's heart.

(Soundbite of swooshing)

JARDIN: The swooshing sound of prostrating pilgrims greets you at the entrance. They stretch flat on the ground, then rise up, palms clasped in prayer. The stone beneath is polished smooth from centuries of this devotional gesture. Fragrant smoke offerings of burnt juniper and barley flower rise from a white, clay burner.

A few steps inside the courtyard, dozens of prayer wheels spin. Gold cylinders with printed religious text inside twirl endlessly, propelled by passing hands of the faithful streaming through. Often, pilgrims walk for days in extreme conditions to get here, praying the entire way.

(Soundbite of chanting)

JARDIN: Many ethnic Tibetans of this temple are among the region's poorest. Still, each carries offering for the ancestors, yak butter to keep the lamps burning, or Chinese currency to tuck into the glass cases that hold centuries-old Buddhist statues.

Because of the Saga Dawa Festival this week, shrine after shrine is packed with worshipers.

(Soundbite of squeaking)

JARDIN: Some mothers put squeaky booties on their toddlers so they won't lose track of them in the crowd. I'm wearing a long Tibetan skirt for modesty in the temple. All of a sudden, I feel someone pinching my behind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JARDIN: It's an elderly nomad woman. She grins and gives me the thumbs up. English speakers nearby tell me this is her way of saying she appreciates that a Western woman shows respect by dressing in traditional style in her place of worship. This scene repeats many times throughout my stay, and I learn not to be alarmed by elders slapping or pinching my backside.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

JARDIN: It takes hours to pass through all the shrines inside the Jokhang Temple.

(Soundbite of traffic)

JARDIN: As I step outside into the bright, high altitude sunlight, I feel this old place becoming part of me.

(Soundbite of ringing bells)

JARDIN: A short rickshaw drive away, a different world unfolds. Outside the Tibetan Quarter, Lhasa feels more like a modern Chinese city. Tibet has been under the control of the People's Republic of China since the early 1950s, but it seems the pace of change has never been faster than in the last decade.

(Soundbite of techno music)

JARDIN: Electronic music and sales robot voices saying buy my stuff blare out from Chinese shops.

(Soundbite of robot voice)

JARDIN: On the other end of town, the towering Potala Palace - the Dalai Lama's former residence - dominates the horizon. Inside, European and Chinese tour groups crowd the narrow shrine rooms, but Tibetan pilgrims manage to squeeze through.

(Soundbite of singing)

JARDIN: Standing there, through the ceiling, I can hear workers who've come here from rural Tibet sing traditional songs while they stomp a new roof into place.

(Soundbite of construction)

JARDIN: Construction sites for tourist development are everywhere. Religious and cultural tradition here is an economic commodity and folklore could be sold. Some joke that Lhasa will eventually become Lhasa Vegas. At some large tourist sites, when you hand over your entrance fee, they hand you back a CD-ROM that serves as your ticket.

As ethnic Tibetans embrace technology, they maintain indigenous identity and ancient faith. Cell phones ring at 7th century shrines, and one girl shows me pictures of Tibetan holy men on hers. A monk sees me taking pictures in a small temple and asks me to send him copies by e-mail. He and other monks share an Internet connection upstairs.

Some Tibetans here do have access to the Web, but it's not the freewheeling information superhighway Westerner enjoy. I logged on at a number of Internet cafes during my stays here and encounter the so-called Great Firewall of China. When I tried to click through to, I often got error messages in Chinese, while the censored was fine. Searches I conducted for phrases like Dalai Lama yielded fewer results than back home in the U.S., and I could not reach the home page of the Tibetan government-in-exile or various Tibetan human rights organizations.

As I'm struggling to get information from China's version of the Web, I think about tech developers I met earlier in northern India who were working to connect Tibetan refugees there with the open Internet. Their goal is to widen the flow of news and information about what's happening in the Tibetan homeland. But here, inside that homeland, their voices remain unheard.

A short walk from the cyber cafe is a small, old temple where Tibetans worship and few tourists go. As I pay my respects to the altar inside, priests walk up and whisper two words -- Dalai Lama -- over and over, pointing to their eyes as if to ask, have you seen him? Is he still alive? This way of searching for information does not involve wires or the Internet. But in Tibet, it may be the most reliable way to get to the truth. And it is certainly the safest.

For NPR News, I'm Xeni Jardin.

CHADWICK: The sounds of Lhasa, drums and yak horns in a temple in Tibet's capital; and the sights of Lhasa, you can see pictures from there and elsewhere from Xeni's Hacking the Himalayas series. They're at our Web site, Special thanks this week to NPR foreign editor Ted Clark for his help and to producer Rob Sachs.

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