Over two-thirds the size of India, Tibet, also known as the ‘Roof of the World’ or ‘Third Pole of the Earth’, may no more be an enigma for the outside world now.

For, China has opened its door to the tourists after keeping the Tibet Autonomous Region in the southwest, the land rich in minerals and a variety of flora and fauna, out of bounds for ages.

President Xi Jinping last week made an unannounced visit to the politically sensitive region of Tibet, the first by a Chinese leader in more than 30 years.

Besides visiting Nyingchi, a strategically located border town close to Arunachal Pradesh, and the regional capital Lhasa, Xi inspected a number of key local infrastructure projects, including the Lhasa-Nyingchi section of the Sichuan-Tibet railway project.

As per the regional tourism development department, the traditional culture-dominated Tibet Autonomous Region is seeing a tourism boom with a record 17.58 million trips made by visitors in the first six months this year, up 110.9 per cent year-on-year growth.

It says the opening of the Lhasa-Nyingchi railway, the first electrified railway on June 25, has injected new vitality into the development of Tibetan tourism.

Tibet saw more than 35 million tourists in 2020 despite the pandemic, up from 1.8 million tourists in 2005, according to the local government.

But for the foreign journalists and government dignitaries it’s still off-limits, fearing backlash for seizing control of the Tibetan monasteries and expanding Chinese education rather than the local language.

A small group of foreign journalists every year gets a rare opportunity to visit the Tibetan plateau — barren and ringed by dense groves — at the invitation of the Chinese government to showcase the progress Tibet has made since the Chinese ‘takeover’.

This correspondent was part of the foreign media tour of Tibet in the recent past.

The tastefully lit square with magnificent fountains facing the famed, majestic Potala Palace, once the seat of the Dalai Lama, is the most visited place, especially in the evening.

In Lhasa, which in Tibetan language means holy land, the sun sets normally in summer at around 9 p.m.

Transcending geographical barriers, Hindi movies and love songs make their presence felt in mobile ringtones and even the lips of the Chinese youth in Tibet.

When this IANS correspondent visited the Beijing Experimental School in Lhasa, a big screen at the entrance showcased students swaying to the “Chaiyya chaiyyaa” song from the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Hindi film “Dil Se”.

Government officials say that Indian films, dubbed in Mandarin, get released simultaneously in Lhasa with the mainland. The upscale Lhasa has four cinemas.

The 1,300-year-old Potala Palace, included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994, with seven golden peaks on the main building, is a model of ancient architecture and home to over 100,000 pieces of cultural relics such as murals, stupas, statues, ‘thangkas’ and rare sutras.

The authorities restrict visitors to the Potala Palace to less than 4,000 a day and it stays open from 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.

In 2002, the Chinese government invested a total 179.3 million yuan in the renovation of the palace. Every year renovation is being carried out by painting the interior and exterior walls of the Potala Palace.

The Potala Palace, which symbolises Tibetan Buddhism and its central role in the traditional administration of Tibet, was first built by the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century and it was rebuilt in the mid 17th century by the fifth Dalai Lama.

According to UNESCO, the Potala Palace, noteworthy for its unique architecture globally, reached its present size and form in the years that followed as a result of repeated renovation and expansion.

The Potala Palace, together with the Norbulingka and the Sakya Monastery, are the three main Tibetan cultural heritage sites in Lhasa.

The current Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, lives in exile in Dharamsala in the northern Indian hill state of Himachal Pradesh.

He escaped to India from the Potala Palace in 1959 along with his followers after China crushed an uprising in Tibet.

India has a literary connection with Tibet and one of its most widely travelled writers, Rahul Sankrityayan, is still close to the heart of the Chinese people, even after eight decades.

His memory is preserved in a memorial to renowned Tibetan scholar, poet and thinker Gedun Chophel, who was Sankrityayan’s fellow traveller, in the capital Lhasa.

Located on the popular Barkhor Street in the vicinity of the Jokhang Temple, the important cultural relics in the heart of old Lhasa, the Gedun Chophel Memorial was opened in his last residence to the public after renovation on November 11, 2013.

Rahul Sankrityayan (or Rahula as mentioned in memorial archives) came to Tibet in 1934 to trace the lost Sanskrit texts, says the memorial.

Spread over more than 1.2 million sq km, the Tibet region constitutes about one eighth of China’s territory.

The plateau is seeing an infrastructure boom too with roads connecting 95 per cent of the township-level administrations and 75 per cent of the incorporated villages.

Tibet now has five airports that link with 60 cities across China. It will have three more airports to further improve the region’s comprehensive transport system, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China.

The entire Tibet has been undergoing a construction boom with expressways, housing complexes, markets, posh neighbourhoods, special economic zones and education centres coming up in rapid succession.

China has reached up to villages with modern amenities and optimum tapping of hydro, geothermal and wind energy.

Lhasa has an average 3,000 hours of sunshine per year.

With funding from the central government hundreds of micro hydropower plants have been set up in Tibet that have been meeting the electricity requirements of the locals.

Tibet has a mini Switzerland too.

Located in eastern Tibet, the picturesque small township of Nyingchi, which is connected by railway with Lhasa, is acclaimed for alpine beauty comparable to that of Switzerland.

It’s known for virgin forest with rich flora and fauna.

Rural homestays have provided additional employment to locals, mainly Buddhists, and generated economic activity too, say officials.

Located some 500 km from Lhasa on the Lhasa-Chengdu national highway through the majestic Mila Pass (5,013 metres), the picturesque Nyingchi located at an altitude of 3,100 metres houses a small population of less than 400.

Each household in Nyingchi and nearby areas has a homestay unit. The government is encouraging the locals, who are mostly herdsmen and farmers, to opt for homestays to get additional income by extending subsidies to rebuild their houses and to make homestay units.

The Nyingchi Peach Flower Festival in spring is a famous annual event when the hills bloom with flowers and abound with butterflies, including the dragon butterfly.

The yellowish caterpillar fungus, which is about two inches long and weighs less than one gram, is the costliest medical ingredient in the local markets of Nyingchi.

Not only is Nyingchi Prefecture the third largest forest area in China, but it also has one of the most intact virgin forests in China.

The forests in Nyingchi Prefecture function as the source of the climate and ecology for Tibet and even the entire country and Southeast Asia. The area of glacier and ice in Nyingchi Prefecture amounts to 6,783 sq km, ranking second across the country.

The entire Tibet region is populated mainly by tribals. The climatic conditions are harsh as much of the land is a cold desert where the mercury drops to below minus 20 degrees Celsius in winter.

The important festivals of Tibet include Shoton, also known as the Yoghurt festival, in Lhasa, the Yarlung and Qomolangma (Mt. Everest) festivals in Shigatse, the Grand Canyon festival in Nyingchi and the Khampa art festival in Qamdo.

The staple food is barley, wheat, peas, rice, rapeseed and salted tea mixed with yak butter.

(Vishal Gulati can be reached at [email protected])

–IANS

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