Guest Post: Terminal Lhasa (Mark Unrau)

This week’s guest post is brought to you by Mark Unrau, professional photographer and multi-media enthusiast based in Banff, Alberta:

In 2006, after finishing film and recording work on a project in Amdo, Tibet, I decided to make my way to Delhi, India, overland through the Tibet Autonomous Region and Kathmandu, Nepal.  I happened to be in Xining a month after the highly debated and anticipated rail line that China had completed, crossing expanses of permafrost and high mountain passes ending in Lhasa, Tibet. This rail line connects China to Tibet in an accessible trade and tourist route.  Built to impress the world with engineering and ingenuity, the train hauls tourists, locals and entrepreneurs in a comfortable and interpretive 3 day trip.  The passenger style train is equipped with oxygen under the seats for those of a weaker constitution, and boasts explanations of the technology and scenery in English over the intercom. Until the opening of this rail line the only way to make it to Lhasa was by plane, or on a very uncomfortable, and very long nine day bus ride.  For the entrepreneur and locals the flight is an unattractive option because of baggage restrictions the new rail which is able to carry much heavier and larger loads is an appealing alternative.  For tourists, the very reasonable ninety Yuan price tag and amazing scenery to be enjoyed in cushy roomy seats make it very hard to pass up, except for the following consideration…..

A functioning rail line to Lhasa has allowed an explosion of new development in Tibet, due to ease of access for the Han Chinese, and swift transportation of goods to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.   For the Chinese this is a victory of commerce, and the train has often been portrayed as a good will gesture towards the Tibetan people; the reasoning is that more tourist dollars rush into the local economy and new business opportunities arise.  This may seem fine from a Chinese or businessperson’s point of view; however, for the Tibetans living in Lhasa for generations, it is a disaster. Almost all the business opportunities are being taken by Han Chinese.  On my journey, there were a very few Tibetans taking advantage of what the train had to offer.  Most passengers, including my neighbor, were Chinese.  My neighbor sat quietly for the whole trip, pensive in a well pressed suit.  I didn’t imagine that she was a tourist heading to Lhasa to visit temples, embark on a pilgrimage or buy trinkets from the locals.   The Tibetans were most easily distinguished by their plain clothes, or traditional wear,   burdened with loads of baggage.

I have not done research into the facts and figures around the Beijing to Lhasa train, but the fact is that it has wrought huge change in the Tibetan culture.   With the enormous influx of Han Chinese into Tibet, the eradication of Tibetan culture within Tibet has increased rapidly.  The cost of living has gone up with the influx of Chinese currency and resultant lifestyle expectations.  Some observers, even in the West, say that this increase in living costs and “higher” standards helps the local Tibetans, but as has been the case in our own country, the effect of colonization on the indigenous people, sped up by the arrival of the train, has been profound. During the few days I spent in Lhasa I observed many construction projects, with traditional Tibetan buildings being torn down and replaced by buildings featuring Chinese style architecture. There were Chinese citizens everywhere, with the major concentration of Tibetans clustered in the Barkhor, and near the Jokhang Temple. Chinese police watch carefully, as do the unblinking video cameras in many of the public places.

I had read in books that Lhasa was a beautiful city, and I found this to be true; however, I had never seen the “old” Lhasa, so I have nothing to compare it to.  Though “modern” can be beautiful, one has only to look at cities and towns in Canada that have been built in recent times to meet the demand of an economy that is growing rapidly.  I see a difference in priorities in the function and look of these kinds of places.  What are the views of the developers on providing and maintaining cultural necessities? In northern Alberta, it is instructive to head into the local Native communities that are living within the high development areas and ask how they are benefiting with all this development and prosperity.  Tibet is rich in minerals and there are many mining prospects active on the Tibetan plateau; in fact, some of those projects are headed up by Canadian mining companies.   I have worked in the oil and mining industry since 2002 and know people who have worked on such mining projects in Tibet.   It is not a stretch to see the similarities between our development style and the Chinese, in areas with a high resource value. Lhasa and Tibet are losing, or have already lost, a wonderful architectural and cultural heritage, a culture and history that permeates the thousand year old walls and streets.  There is a feeling, anywhere you travel in the world, that you get when you walk into a home that has been lived in by generations of the same family.  There may be pictures on the walls and markings of how tall the children have grown and the smooth wooden doorways that have collected the oils from the hands of energetic children running through.   These homes were built to be beautiful and are more than just a place to lay your head.  Homes, whether buildings or towns, are made by people who care about more than dollar value. The Tibetans have been making Lhasa home for many generations, contributing and crafting a city much like the one you can imagine.  There is room for new comers as not even the Tibetans are exclusive and they may very well arrive by this train.   Migrants and visitors could be Chinese or Tibetan or even Canadian.  What I found disturbing is the quick and merciless destruction and rebuilding of the great holy city, to fit the ever-expanding needs of the Chinese while ignoring the rich Tibetan heritage, and the desires and needs of the Tibetan population.

There is one thing I value more than a beautiful city or a healthy culture and community.  I am so thankful that in Canada I have the freedom to publish such an article and express strong opinions. In Tibet, many people have been taken away by the police never to be seen again by their families, simply for displaying, or carrying, a worn photograph of the Dalai Lama.  No matter what your thoughts are, or what the facts may be concerning mining or oil and gas prospects, here in Canada we have a choice to voice opposition because of our concerns for irreversible damage to the environment or people.  Tibetans as of the time of this writing still do not have this right.

It is a threat to my romantic memories of Lhasa to return.  If I do, I will probably become like many who have visited many times over the years – I will forget what has been lost, and thus lose a bit of my appreciation for the beautiful place called Lhasa.


This guest post was provided by Mark Unrau, a professional photographer and multi-media enthusiast based in Banff, Alberta:

Mark Unrau is a professional photographer and multi-media enthusiast with a diverse range of skills and experiences.  From immersing himself in different disciplines in the audio/visual  industry and having a passion for creative challenges, Mark has developed a company that continually strives to produce the highest quality products while expanding its creative services.  Mark Primarily uses cameras for still photography which in recent years has brought him accolades such as the Grand prize from National Geographic Traveler’s ” World in Focus” and honorable mention from ” Prix de Paris” International Photo competition.  Mark also works in sound and video which he is proud to have been  involved with The Shining Spirit Project which brought him to Tibet as their field Sound Engineer for the music CD, “Shining Spirit – A Tibetan Family’s Reunion Through Music”.   The Shining Spirit Project documentary has recently been accepted by National Geographic to show at their “All Roads Film Project” in 2010 and has been showing non-stop around the world at festivals.

Mark is available for Photography and Audio production as well as assistance in Photography/Video post-production.

He is currently living in Banff Alberta, Canada.

Check out his website at

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