"The city is being swept away by the metropolis. This action does not just replace one noun with another, but radically turns one state of affairs into a state of perpetual motion. As a collective action -- a verb more than a noun -- the metropolis destabilizes our concepts of time and place. With the dissolution of the city into the forever- emerging metropolis, our existence slides into permanent mobility." - L. Lerup, in After the City


thirty-two. Beijing outreach: Lhasa
the largest rail station along the Lhasa Express train route, besides Beijing West (second to none in the world, with its massive facade and multi-leveled entry-flows which all come to a screeching bottleneck upon entering through the building's ONE door...), is the newly built station serving Lhasa, Tibet. straight out of Tianan'men sqaure, its massive proportions and high ceilings are an unwelcome respite after hundreds of miles of empty arctic tundra, the wind-torn tents of nomadic yak-herders, and the dilapidated structures of isolated gas stations and outposts.

what to say about the train...it is nation building at its most distilled, a linear moving extension of Beijing that stretches to this town in which i now type, which has a schizophrenic existence caught between the winding back streets and colorful 3 and 4 storey brick buildings of the old Tibetan quarters, and the glossy-but-shoddily built Chinese section where streets spread like a chessboard, and repetitive one and two storey buildings align like the guards that march past the Potala Palace now and again to make their presence flagrantly known. across from the awe-inspiring 13 storied Potala, which is built into the (otherwise-flat) town's largest rocky outcrop, the Chinese government has graciously bestowed their own horizontal monument: People's Park, modeled on Tianan'men's flat banality, and crowned with a flag-bearing concrete monument that praises the liberation of Tibet.

however, i get ahead of myself. this arrival in Lhasa could hardly come as a shock. the Lhasa Express, only 6 months in operation, and purportedly China's darling of luxury rail travel, has already seen, and passed, her best days. tired carpets sport stains, ubiquitous non-smoking signs are casually disregarded, slippery water-logged loos become a site of (ignored) passenger protest (especially by the elderly tour group crowd), windows are so streaked with dirt that photo ops take on a hazy visual surrealism -- perhaps appropriately matching the psychological surrealism of the experience. it's a beautiful, mind-boggling journey through some of the country's most remote territories; it's also a horrifying journey past some of the China's most polluted, forgotten wasteland-cum-towns, within a highly politicized moving vehicle in which cabins are distinctly divided by ethnicity, and kitschy Chinese souvenirs and blaring loudspeaker announcements claim cultural authority over a region that is being very heavy-handedly Beijing-ized. (e.g. Chinese who move to Lhasa are given incentives in the way of tax breaks and higher-than-average wages, and, none-too-hesitantly, the town's main thoroughfare is called Beijing Ave.)

everyday Lhasa, however, is not quite as 'reinterpreted' as the train ride, or the Potala/Tianan'men juxtaposition might suggest. the main public space of the city is still in the Tibetan quarters, in the Barkhor, which surrounds the incense-infused Johkang Temple. here dozens upon dozens of pilgrims and monks come daily to prostrate themselves repeatedly before its weathered walls. the kora (pilgrim's circuit) has become intertwined with a linear market which runs the circumference of the temple, selling all manner of Tibetwares, and perhaps is a prime example of how tourism and cultural identity exaggerate each other in a spectacle of exchange. the main street offers a less glamorous glimpse of the speculative, frontier-aura of current-day Lhasa: rubble-filled construction sites, yak butter stores, butchers, candy stores, trekking supply stores (toilet paper, cooking oil, cookstoves, cheap rope, etc.), tourist hotels, clothiers, restaurants, tea stores, travel agents, and pharmacies alternate in rapid succession.

and anywhere, everywhere, the prayer flags.

photos of snow-covered peaks tented by these windblown colorful strands are not isolated representations, but are merely a small piece of this Tibetan Buddhist practice, the details of which I can't theorize. all I can describe is what I saw in the way of the prosaic compulsion to catch the wind; any site with any height is a potential repository for these whispy offerings of worship. most houses sport them on their roofs, they can be seen in the distance running across the ravines of near-vertical slopes, along the handrails of bridges which cross the Lhasa River, and, most poignantly, between the tops of power lines and cell phone towers. infrastructure becomes impromptu temple, and the flags' ubiquitousness is sometimes so thick as to create a type of room, or roof, fluttering in the wind, in the hopes that the scripts written thereupon will be captured and heard.

1 comment:

pd said...

i love your train pictures. this is my favorite blog to date