The mystery of Tibet has long held fascination for travelers the world over and part of the mystique of the region has been its inaccessibility. That's all about to change. When the Qinghai-Tibet train pulls into the snow land on July 1 carrying its load of visitors, it will be making history in more ways than one. It's the highest operational railway in the world, but its launch may also spell the end of an era.
Many people are worried whether Tibet can preserve its pious image in the advent of swarms of tourists streaming in on a regular basis? Once the mystery of Tibet is gone, will it still be the revered place that attracts pilgrims? And if the original attraction is destroyed will there still be any point in developing Tibet?
'Train will bring benefits'
Lhaba, 39, has been a monk at Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa for 22 years. He was born into a herdsman's family of Tibetan Buddhists. His family has three children--his brother is also a monk. At least one male child entering the monastery is a common situation in many Tibetan families.
"The train will bring more tourists to Tibet and our temple will get more benefits," Lhaba told Beijing Review. He said revenue from the temple's ticket sales totaled 8 million yuan in 2004, bumping up to 10 million yuan in 2005. It was listed in the World Heritage List in 2000, and as the largest and most holy of all Tibetan temples, it attracts the biggest number of pilgrims. The total income in 2005, with donations included, was about 18 million yuan. For a temple with only 118 monks, this figure is impressive. Estimations are that with more tourists coming in by train, Jokhang Monastery, one of Tibet's most well known temples, is in for even more prosperous days ahead.
Dainzin Puncog, Deputy Director of the Management Committee of Jokhang Monastery, said life for monks in the temple has improved greatly in recent years and the opening up that the train brings will add to this situation, he believes. Monks earn salaries that vary from 1,200 yuan to 300 yuan depending on seniority and have opportunities to enjoy subsidized travel and language study. "This allows the monks to broaden their minds," he said.
Lhaba has been to Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, among other big cities, traveling mostly by air. He now manages some of the temple's affairs and is proud to talk about how life has improved and modernized, to the extent that monks own cellphones and even watch World Cup soccer games.
Yet in spite of the good conditions at Jokhang Monastery, he said the trend for monks to leave for secular life is increasing. Some monks are staying for less than a year, then taking up business opportunities for financial rewards. Others leave because they just cannot cope with temple life.
"It's not strange for this kind of thing to happen. It's the result of social development. But I think this is also a reflection of the freedom in religious belief. There shouldn't be any enforcement in any religion," Lhaba added.
As for possible impacts the train would bring to the Buddhist culture in Tibet, Lhaba said numbers of people coming to Tibet would not affect the religious status quo. "The key is that our country keeps its policies on religion and maintains the principle that every person enjoys the freedom of religious belief."
Many young people in Tibet hold the same optimistic attitude toward the new train service. Renqen, a 21-year-old sophomore majoring in Tibetan Language at the University of Tibet, said he only saw trains on TV as he has never traveled outside Tibet.
"Religious culture is history, and it certainly should be inherited and developed. However, the new train can help develop Tibet's economy and I prefer to lead a modern life," said Renqen, dressed in casual clothes. He doesn't believe the train would threaten Tibetans' lifestyle and culture.
Batoin, a 23-year-old intern reporter working for a local media in Lhasa, has never ridden a train. He is excited and looking forward to a train ride as soon as possible.
"The train won't deal a negative cultural impact to Tibet. Economic development and religious culture are promoting each other, so I'm not worried about this," he told Beijing Review.
The attitude of young locals doesn't surprise Xu Guangzhi, Director of the Institute of Tibetology at the University of Tibet. Xu recently carried out a survey on religion among Tibetan university students and found that it is less important to many young educated Tibetans. However he said there are still those who are still as passionate and pious about Buddhism as their ancestors. These view Buddhism as a spiritual way to help alleviate the pressures of life, he continued.
"Secularization of religions is a tendency of social development, which has been proved by the history of many countries," Xu explained. He predicted that in a backward, secluded region like Tibet, where Buddhism has dominated culture for hundreds of years, market economy would soon become the mainstream.
Wonders on snow land will remain
To sacrifice development to retaining the mystery of a region would be irresponsible for the nation and society, Xu told Beijing Review.
Xu is a Mongol and has worked in Tibet for 30 years, during which time he has done research on Tibetan history and culture. As an ethnic minority scholar, he has a profound understanding and experience of the development of Tibet, an ethnic autonomous region.
A most prominent feature of Tibet is that over 90 percent of the population is Tibetan. The high proportion of minority population outdoes any other area in China. And in quite a period, nearly all Tibetans in the area believe in Tibetan Buddhism.
"Buddhism has been part of the Tibetan society and is reflected in all aspects of life. It's omnipresent. It's very hard to change this kind of deep-rooted philosophy," Xu said.
In Xu's opinion, any culture has to adapt to modernization, or risk losing its vitality. "I think the arrival of the train will not affect Tibet's religious culture; in fact the core part of the culture may better develop," he added.
To support his view, Xu pointed to history. The apex of Tibet's cultural development took place around seventh century when it benefited greatly from its interactions with India, Nepal and other surrounding states. Since then Tibetan culture has stagnated for some time, because of being closed off.
He pointed out changes in local lifestyle are taking place amid the increasing presence in Tibet of business people and tourists from other part of China and foreign countries and regions. More Tibetans begin wearing modern dress and eating dishes they would never try before and the streets of Lhasa have become more modern. It's all due to opening up the region, he said.
Wang Taifu, a research fellow at the Institute of Economic Strategy Studies of the Tibet Regional Academy of Social Sciences, is also optimistic toward the role of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. He played a leading role in a recent program to assess the impacts the railway would have on Tibet.
Wang is from the Han ethnic group, married to a Tibetan woman. His home reflects the typical Tibetan style and in appearance and manner he is Tibetan.
"I have lived in Tibet for 40 years, but still don' t understand the mystery of Tibetan culture," Wang said. "It's impossible for tourists coming to Tibet to truly understand the religion here or take its mystery away. After the train begins to operate regularly, Tibet and its culture are expected to open up more, boosting its development."
Some concerns exist
In 2003-04, a government-sponsored fund financed a research program to assess the impacts on the social and cultural development along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway line. The program was carried out by Ma Lin, Director of the Institute of Tibetology of the Qinghai Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, taking the Buddhist aspect of the culture as a centerpiece. Although the program is finished, Ma continues to monitor the situation.
According to Ma, currently Tibetan temples are financed mainly by pastures allocated by the government along with donations. "This is easy for the funding of prestigious monasteries like Jokhang Monastery, but most other temples along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway are located in remote areas, which makes it quite difficult for them to be economically self-sufficient," Ma said.
Due to the financial difficulty, monks in some temples have to farm or are supported by their parents, attending the temples only for religious rituals or Buddhist studies. Ma took a temple situated along the railway, which he declined to name, for example. The temple has only two intensive periods for learning sutras each year, each lasting for seven days. During the rest of the year, most of the monks go home to farm or to work as herdsmen.
Many of the temples that line the railway are today under poor management. The local government has noticed this decline and some departments are considering the option of opening these temples to tourists that could be incorporated with the railway operation. This is thought to be a way of solving the financial difficulty of temples through tourism development and improving their management.
"I am for this method, but it has to be implemented carefully and done step by step," Ma said.
There are up to 300 temples along the railway line, which contain profound Buddhist heritage and precious cultural relics. Some could be opened to the public but others not. Ma, however, is worried that such an operation of tourism development may be difficult to control once it is up and running.
Dainzin Nanda, a 24-year-old monk at the Jokhang Monastery, feels the same way.
"The operation of the train can develop the economy, which is good. However, what's more important is the protection of religious culture, which we can't afford to damage," Dainzin stressed, implying that large influxes of tourists could have an adverse effect on the cultural heritage if not watched carefully.
Relevant government departments have taken some measures in response to this kind of concern from Tibetans. According to Li Qun, an official of the Tibet Regional Commission of Ethnic Affairs, the local government has set up an expert panel that focuses on the possible impacts the Qinghai-Tibet Railway would bring to Tibetan religious culture. This research consists of two questions: pre-warning of possible impacts and devising measures to deal with them.