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Lhasa and its people -- A witness account
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By Zhou Yan

When I first arrived in Lhasa, I could not help wondering how the holy city had even been built in the craggy, snow-covered mountains.

After a dry and gloomy winter in Beijing, it was a pleasant surprise to bathe in Lhasa's sunshine, inhale some unusually moist air after three days of snow and see peach trees already budding along the streets. I even went up to make sure the buds were real, not the fake ones sometimes tied to lifeless twigs in Beijing to give the appearance of freshness. I was not disappointed.

Like all my friends in Beijing, I was curious about what was going on in Lhasa ahead of the first anniversary of the deadly violence and the 50th anniversary of the democratic reforms in Tibet, the end of feudal serfdom and the flight of the 14th Dalai Lama.

As I was resting and adapting to the high altitude, I wandered along Beijing Road, which links the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple and Porgor Street, Lhasa's most famous market street.

The stylish stores, selling casual wear, sunglasses and snacks, were similar to those of any other Chinese city. Most shop assistants are from the neighboring provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai. Some speak Tibetan, but nearly all speak Mandarin.

A three-story commercial building on a corner of Beijing Road still bore the scars of last year's violence. In the charred building, which used to house Lhasa's largest children's clothing retailer, clothes and sneakers are stacked untidily on an old counter.

"Renovation will start next month," a shop assistant said. "For the moment it's better to keep it running as it is."

In Lhasa, like all other Chinese cities, migrant workers make up the bulk of laborers, with Tibetan people from outside the regional capital and other Tibetan communities in the neighboring provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu, as well as Han people from the inland provinces.

Many restaurants are run by people from Sichuan Province and as a result, the province's hot, peppery dishes are extremely popular here and Sichuan dialect has become the second language of Lhasa, after native Tibetan.

Foreign media criticism about the influx of Han people, the dominant Chinese ethnic group, is all too familiar to me. Are these "intruders" actually robbing the natives of their job opportunities? I kept asking myself that question as I strolled Lhasa's streets, bumping into as many Tibetans as Han people.

"You wake up every morning only to find out you're in the red," a taxi driver from Sichuan said about working in Lhasa. The "administration fee" to the taxi company is 250 yuan (36.6 U.S. dollars) a day and he must pay at least 100 yuan for fuel.

"When business is good, I can make 500 yuan a day and take home about 150 yuan."

The driver insists he is only doing something the natives are reluctant to do. "Except for those government employees, most people are staying home for the Tibetan new year," he said.

When I woke up at 3 a.m. one day and couldn't get back to sleep again, I peered out my hotel room window at the street below.

To my surprise, I found at least 20 empty taxis at the intersection, waiting for the traffic light to turn green. Despite the early spring buds, Lhasa's air is still extremely dry in March, as usual. Everyone knows the tourist rush won't come until next month but the drivers, mostly migrants from Sichuan and Henan provinces, take turns working days and nights.

I also noticed most stores were run by Han people but most of the staff were Tibetans.

"Our boss is from Sichuan and all the employees are from Tibet," said Pempa Tsering, a cashier at a bakery that reopened Thursday, after the week-long Tibet new year holiday.

Pempa Tsering himself is from a rural county on the outskirts of Lhasa. He said the average monthly income at the store is about 2,000 yuan. "It's a pretty handsome amount, but the prices here are very high."

The railway to Lhasa that opened nearly three years ago brought a wider range of food to the markets but did little to lower prices. Produce and sweets are almost always 50 percent higher than in the inland provinces.

A 350-gram pack of Yili brand fruit yogurt costs nearly three times as much as in Beijing.

The Han influx, however, has created more jobs in Lhasa, particularly in the service sector. Many Tibetans have joined the shoe polishers from Sichuan Province to make 2 yuan for cleaning a pair of shoes. Others offer pedicab rides across the city.

With a two-hour time difference from Beijing, office workers begin working at 10 a.m. and finish at 6 p.m., with a two-hour break for lunch and a nap. Although Tibet, like all of China, runs on Beijing time, the workday starts and ends later to reflect the actual different time zones.

They, however, feel the pressure of faster pace and fiercer competition that Han people have brought in many sectors. Still, many Tibetans are interested, or at least curious, in what the migrant population brings to the plateau.

When truckloads of People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers took to Lhasa's streets Thursday morning to provide free health and repair services and haircuts -- an effort to emulate the late Chairman Mao's model soldier Lei Feng -- many pilgrims stopped to have their blood pressure measured or get some pills for minor ailments.

Most Chinese people aged over 30, Tibetans included, are familiar with Lei Feng's story. March 5 was designated by Mao for the nation to learn from Lei, a soldier who saved every cent and spent all his spare time helping the needy. He died in an accident at 22.

In a friendly gesture to get closer to the public, PLA soldiers and police have put up posters and set up service stands in downtown Lhasa to explain they are here to help. "The relationship between the army and the people is like that between fish and water," many posters read.

But those standing at guard duty are stone-faced. "No, I can't tell you anything," one told me abruptly as I tried to strike up a conversation. "We have strict rules," he explained.

The locals do not seem to mind the tightened security. Losang, who runs a souvenir store in Porgor Street near the Jokang Temple, is even grateful. "I hope no one will come to smash my store this year."

Losang has photos of the damages his store sustained in last year's violence. "They broke the glass and took away some of my most valuable items."

(Xinhua News Agency March 10, 2009)

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