Lhasa Today

   photo index 


 Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, is an ancient city with a history of over 1,300 years. The Lhasa of today, however, is not only famous as the "City of Sunlight," but also as the city from which one can determine the pulse of a constantly changing Tibet.
Tang Dynasty (618-907) Princess Wencheng married into the Tubo Kingdom in the 7th century, and legend has it that sheep were used to carry earth to fill in a pond to make a site for the construction of monasteries. The Tibetan word for sheep was "ra" and the earth used to fill the pond was called "sa," hence the site became known as Rasa. Construction of the Jokhang and Ramoche monasteries was completed and Rasa not only emerged as a holy site in the eyes of the Tibetans, but also became the religious, politicial, economic and cultural center of Tibet. Rasa was later renamed as Lhasa, a Tibetan word meaning "Holy Land."
Lhasa's economy remained severely underdeveloped for an extended period largely due to the prolongation of feudal serfdom accompanied by temporal and religious administration. Centuries of city expansion concentrated on the construction of monasteries and government offices, and the city lacked even one architectural structure in the modern sense. Although both glistening and majestic, the Potala Palace quite simply symbolized the paramount power of the temporal and religious administration. The structure simply towered high over dull low-lying slums for hundreds of years.
Prior to 1951, Tibet was a landlocked region lacking any semblance of a processing industry. The vast majority of materials needed for both production and daily life were transported to the region on the backs of either men or beasts of burden. Poor economic conditions also restricted population growth in Lhasa. Prior to the introduction of the Democratic Reform conducted in Tibet 1959, downtown Lhasa had a population of only 30,000 people, including some 4,000 beggars. Structures in the city's three square km urban area had a construction area of only 220,000 square meters. The city's narrow streets were nothing more than pathways; private homes were quite simply shacks; the city had no water supply and sewage systems; litter abounded; and the rampant spread of plague took its toll of numerous Lhasa residents.
However, the peaceful liberation of Tibet on May 23,1951, ushered in a new era, and Lhasa has witnessed monumental changes over the past 40-plus years. Ancient monasteries have been protected and new buildings have mushroomed. The old section of Lhasa has been renovated and the new city has been expanded. The State Council of the People's Republic of China approved Lhasa as a prefectural level city in 1960, and designated the city as one of China's 24 Historical and Cultural Cities in 1982.
One year later, the State Council approved an urban expansion plan for the city of Lhasa, and 18 projects proceeding with the aid from inland provinces, municipalities directly under the Central Government and autonomous regions beginning in the following year. The 18 public infrastructure projects became part of 43 aid projects commissioned for Tibet by the end of 1985. Said projects have enabled the northern and western sections of Lhasa to compliment the city's ancient architecture, such as the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Monastery.
Since 1959, the government of the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Lhasa municipal government have invested heavily in the renovation of dilapidated housing in the city, with the effort being especially prominent over the past 10-odd years. Lhasans now enjoy per-capita living space of close to 10 square meters.
The Potala Palace, the Jokhang Monastery and the three major monasteries of Zhaibung, Sera and Gandain in Lhasa all experienced varying degrees of damage over the centuries. The state responded by allocating massive funding for repair projects, with the Potala Palace renovation project (the largest cultural relic protection project in the history of China) alone consuming over 50 million yuan. Renovation of the Potala Palace was commissioned along with a project to construct the accompanying palace square.
The long list of monumental changes Lhasa has witnessed over the past 40-plus years include: a population increase from 30,000 to over 140,000 people; urban expansion from a mere three square km to 45 square km; completion of 2.4612 million square meters of structural construction, up 11-fold on the figure for the 1950s; and completion of a highway network linking the city with areas throughout the region and other parts of China.
Several months were required for Central Government officials from the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) to travel from Beijing to Lhasa. Modern-day aviation routes, however, have shortened the travel time to only a few hours. In 1993, the Gonggar International Airport was expanded to accommodate Boeing 747 and other large jumbo aircraft. Gonggar now features modern navigation, power supply and weather forecasting systems, as well as inner-city booking facilities and a ground satellite communications station. The renovation project, funded by the Central Government at a cost of 272 million yuan, was completed in only five years.
Lhasa is now home to 500-odd schools, including colleges and universities. Tibet University has seven departments offering courses in 15 specialized fields and a teaching staff of over 700. Over 70 percent of the school's 1,400 students are members of either the Tibetan or other minority nationalities. The university graduates between 300-400 students annually.
Lhasans living in old Tibet lacked access to medical care, with historical documents showing that some 7,000 people died in 1925 when a smallpox epidemic spread through the city. Typhoid fever swept Lhasa in 1934 and once again in 1937 killing over 5,000 people. Fundamental changes have been introduced and Lhasans are now served by a three level health care network. Lhasa now has over 120 hospitals and clinics, with the Lhasa Health Care Center for Women and Children providing medical treatment and training services to women. Access to medical care has dramatically raised the former 15 percent survival rate for women and children.
Lhasa's posts and telecommunications services have developed apace. The city is now served by some 500 program controlled telephones, with a total installed telephone capacity of 10,000 lines. The citizens of Lhasa now have ready access to long-distance direct dial services to other parts of China and various countries, as well as satellite communications services The availability of radio paging services has led to the appearance of an ever increasing number of mobile phones in Lhasa. Satellite communications ground stations have also provided Lhasa with cable and telex services. A satellite radio and TV station entered operations on October 31, 1989, making it possible for people living in other parts of China to watch Tibetan TV programs and for people in counties throughout Tibet to enjoy programs from both Beijing and Lhasa. TV antennas on the roofs of private homes now sit alongside sutra streamers fluttering in the breeze.
The original city of Lhasa was built on marshland and had no water supply and sewage systems. Streets were extremely dusty on sunny days and muddy on rainy days. Lhasa witnessed great changes with the introduction of the aforementioned 43 aid projects funded by areas in other parts of China. Roads have been expanded and the rudimentary water supply and sewage systems in place at the time have been extended by some 30 km. Today's Lhasa features a comparatively clean, neat and spacious environment.
Just as those in other parts of China, the citizens of Lhasa have benefitted greatly since the introduction of the reform and opening policies in 1978. Dosenge Road, a new commercial shopping district, has been built along the formerly muddy rut-filled road which led to the wilderness. Stores flanking the new road now facilitate the daily life needs of local people. The Serkang Shopping Center, built at a cost of 9 million yuan, opened on January 5,1994. In the past, vegetables were rarely available in the city of Lhasa which is tucked away at an elevation of 3,600 meters above sea level. Today, however, 10,000 kg of fresh vegetables are airfreighted to the city on a daily basis, and the establishment of local vegetable farms is proceeding smoothly. Vegetable fields, which covered only 200 hectares in the mid-1980s, have been expanded to 300 hectares, including 80 hectares of greenhouses.
The downtown Lhasa Stock Exchange opened for business in January 1993. The computerized exchange, which covers 260 square meters, features large electronic screens displaying stock transaction on the Shanghai and Shenzhen exchanges.
Tibetan traditions have been preserved despite the fact that Lhasa is on the fast-track to becoming a modern city. Western clothing is appearing on the streets, but traditional Tibetan clothing remains a popular item. Pilgrims continue to prostrate themselves as they make their way along asphalt highways leading to holy mountains or lakes. Large numbers of pilgrims continue to visit monasteries around Lhasa, and butter sculptures continue to shine like blossoming flowers. Butter lamps burn both day and night and the beautiful, yet mysterious, modern city of Lhasa is still strongly tinged with traditional flavor.

Photo index