Shock would be a natural response for anyone returning to Lhasa after two years. Approaching in late afternoon - when the sun would spread a gold blanket over the city as the wind picked up to sweep out the midday heat - the urban sprawl on the west side of town is staggering.
Next come the billboards advertising Japanese and American luxury vehicles. Six-lane highways, flyovers near the new railway station, and a futuristic bridge lead to the new Special Economic Zone in Lhasa, feeding it to grow and sell like Shenzhen, where the first Special Economic Zone burst onto the Chinese capitalist scene in the early 1980s.
Amid this new Lhasa, old women struggle to cross roads that run through what used to be their barley fields. But finally, upon arrival at the true heart of Lhasa, between the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple, within the Lingkor Road and near to the Barkor Market, it hurts to look.
Armed military details are stationed at every street corner 24/7, six-troop patrols march up and down the lanes of the old town in synchronized step, and watchmen stand sentry on rooftops adjacent to all sensitive zones like the Ramoche and Jokhang temples, two of the most sacred sites in Lhasa as well as the focal points for past protests.
Saddest of all are the beggar-men, women and children who populate the streets in unprecedented numbers. Word is that the authorities banned all begging in Lhasa last summer, worried that hordes of travelers arriving from the Olympic Games would be put off by so many supplicants.
The travelers never came, the gates were finally opened, and the beggars returned in a flood. In Tibet, begging isn't stigmatized as in the West, as the Buddha himself was a beggar. If you can make a better living by pan-handling than farming, well, why not do it?
Nevertheless, and despite rationalization, it is disturbing to confront such untold numbers resorting to a livelihood by desperation.
Over a few days I was able to spend in Lhasa, visiting the holy sites, meeting old and new friends, and walking about town, I realized that Tibet had changed more between 2007 and 2009 than the prior eight years. A mere decade of exposure is certainly limited, but this has been a decade unlike many others: Some of the most significant events in Tibet history have occurred in the past few years.
Specifically, two tangents in Tibet have created a volatile dynamic that radiates from Lhasa. First is the train and road construction and its transfer of people and material goods from mainland China to Tibet, and between the Plateau and the India subcontinent. Second is the commercialization of a ‘mystical Tibet' to both the Chinese and Western consumer. These developments continue to gather more steam each and every day.