Not anymore. Now old-age pensioners and family groups can reach the fabled Tibetan capital sitting in the comfort of an air-conditioned train.
So easy has the access become since the rail link from southwestern China to Lhasa opened in July, that there are growing fears the fragile cultural heritage of Tibet could be damaged by the growing influx of tourists.
10,000 Visitors A Day
Feng Jing, the head of the Asian desk at UNESCO's World Heritage Center, points out how pressing the problem of mass tourism has already become in physical terms.
"During the last summer, the site management of the Potala Palace [in Lhasa] tried to put a limit to the numbers of tourists allowed into the palace [per day] at about 3,000," Jing says. "But that figure didn't reflect the reality of the demand; each day, there may be up to 10,000 people around the palace, who want to visit the heritage site."
Jing says that about 95 percent of these tourists are Chinese, who now have money for travel as a result of China's rapid economic expansion. Foreigners make up the rest. The scale of the problem seems likely to worsen when the rail link is extended southward, to Tibet's second city, Xigaze.
Activist groups like the London-based Free Tibet Campaign say fragile old buildings are indeed threatened by large crowds. The group's spokeswoman, Ya'el Weisz-Rind, says it is not just buildings that are at risk, but also ancient socio-religious traditions.
"Places of a religious nature, like monasteries and nunneries, are under extreme pressure, with an influx of tourists and visitors, and thus the practices of the monks and nuns in those monasteries are becoming more and more tourist attractions rather than religious practices, according to the original purpose of the institutions," Weisz-Rind says.
Weisz-Rind says the authorities are also commercializing the traditional religious observances by charging fees to visitors. She urges tourists to recognize what is happening, including its political implications.
"I also call for foreign tourists to be aware of the issues, and to be vigilant about the implication of their own visits," Weisz-Rind says. "And obviously [to think] about the new train. We are calling for a tourism boycott of the railway. We believe that by using the railway, tourists are politically, financially, and morally supporting China's tightened control over Tibet."
Tibet, which was forcibly incorporated into China as an autonomous region in the 1950s, suffered heavily in the upheavals of Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution. Hundreds of monasteries and their precious historical contents were destroyed.
The Free Tibet Campaign sees a continuing lack of interest by the Chinese in the preservation of Tibetan culture.
"If we consider any of the Chinese policies since the occupation it is very clear that there is no attempt to preserve Tibetan culture, again because it is so closely related to the question of Tibetan identity, and the issue of independence, and of Tibetan Bhuddism," Weisz-Rind says. "From the Chinese point of view that is manifested in the policies of the last 56 years."
However, UNESCO's Jing notes that Beijing is now consulting with officials in Tibet about adding extra heritage sites to the UN agency's World Heritage list. He says that one of the potential candidates to be nominated for the list is the site of the Guge kingdom in Western Tibet.
And there is new hope offered by the coming into force last Aprilof a UNESCO convention on safeguarding "intangible heritage." The measure extends to music, poetry, theater, ceremonies, and the like. China is a party to that convention, and -- if its terms are applied vigorously -- it could help preserve the culture of old Tibet from oblivion.
The new railway to Lhasa has also run into criticism from environmentalists. They say the track of almost 1,200 kilometers threatens the delicately balanced ecosystems found at the roughly 5,000-meter altitudes at which the train operates.
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