Walking the Barkhor, a winding street which encircles Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple, has been a vital part of the Tibetan pilgrim experience for centuries. Visitors from across Tibet join Lhasa natives in worship and shopping while walking clockwise circuits around the 7th century Jokhang, the spiritual heart of Tibet. Arriving in Lhasa in 1946, just a few short years before the Chinese invasion, Heinrich Harrer described the Barkhor as “a center of business, sociability, and frivolity,” in which most of the life of the city was concentrated. Stalls selling everything from Scotch whiskey to Indian cloth in an open-air bazaar served as a social center for Tibetans of every class.
The last few decades have been transformative for the Barkhor, though, and as Chinese state-run media outlets launch another round of propaganda regarding the latest change, we’re presented with a good opportunity to look at just how much Tibet’s Barkhor has become China’s Barkhor. Today local business is dominated by Chinese migrants. As far back as 1994, research revealed that more than 70 percent of the businesses in the Tromzikhang, a historic marketplace on the Barkhor, were run by Chinese traders. Today the Tromzikhang is set to be overshadowed by new malls built by the Chinese in the heart of the old city, including one massive project called the Barkhor Shopping Mall which will encompass 150,000 square meters and includes a 1,117-space parking garage. When Tibetans have already been largely edged out of small stalls, it’s hard to see how they can successfully compete with Chinese businesses in a high-rent mall with no cultural or historical Tibetan connections.
Tibetan architectural heritage has also been under incessant pressure. The Tromzikhang itself was gutted and rebuilt in the 1990s; only the facade was left intact after authorities decided it should be ‘redeveloped.’ A National Public Radio reporter visiting Lhasa in 2006 spoke to residents who lamented the loss of centuries-old homes and temples, adding that their reconstructions merely pay lip service to traditional architecture.
Chinese authorities have ignored these concerns and actively pushed back against preservationists who sought to protect Tibetan architecture. A German named Andre Alexander became a leading figure in preservation after inventorying every remaining historic home in Lhasa, and through his efforts (including the founding of the Tibet Heritage Fund) a number of them were saved. He had to work quickly, as he found that “on each subsequent visit, houses had vanished – stone by stone, block by block, alley by alley.” In recognition of his efforts Chinese authorities eventually expelled him from the People’s Republic of China and denied the Tibet Heritage Fund access to Tibet. Perhaps it’s fitting that Alexander was standing on the Barkhor when he personally witnessed one of the defining moments of recent Tibetan history: in 1987 he was almost hit when Chinese police open fired on Tibetan protestors who had gathered in front of the Jokhang Temple.Surveillance has become a defining characteristic of the Barkhor. Security cameras, plainclothes police, and heavily-armed police patrols have proliferated greatly since the 2008 Tibetan Uprising; Tibetans and Chinese alike wonder if security personnel outnumber pilgrims and tourists today. It’s now considered unusual when camouflaged police armed with rifles are absent from the rooftops along the Barkhor, as they were when authorities withdrew them during the visit of US Ambassador Gary Locke in June 2013. Aside from such brief attempts to project normalcy, the police presence is stifling; a Lhasa resident described the city as “a giant prison” while speaking to Radio Free Asia last year. Checkpoints and metal detectors form an impenetrable ring around the Barkhor, while a network of at least six police stations keep tabs on the area. Cyril Payen, a reporter working for France24, said that arriving in Lhasa felt like entering “an Orwellian world of surveillance” while reporting from the city in early 2013.
While security grows, the pilgrim presence has tapered. Human Rights Watch documented a mass expulsion of Tibetans hailing from outside the Tibet Autonomous Region after two young men from northern Tibet self-immolated on the Barkhor in May 2012. Human Rights Watch’s China Director Sophie Richardson argued that “this arbitrary expulsion of people because of their ethnicity or place of birth is clearly discriminatory and violates their basic rights to freedom of movement and residence.”
Religious festivals, formerly a major draw for pilgrims, have also been severely restricted. Harrer describes seeing a major festival shortly after his 1946 arrival (likely Monlam Chenmo, the Great Prayer Festival) in which tens of thousands of pilgrims witnessed, by light of butter lamp, the procession of the Dalai Lama circling the Barkhor and arriving at the Jokhang Temple. Chinese authorities have forbidden the observance of Monlam Chenmo in Tibet since 1959, save for a brief revival in the 1980s which ended in 1990. Tibetan writer Woeser mourned these changes on her blog, writing that the Barkhor “has no more of the pilgrims from Kham and Amdo who prostrate themselves all the way from the far borders to Lhasa; no more lamp pavilions in which thousands and tens of thousands of butter lamp offerings were lit every day.”
All of this brings us to the latest news. Early this week Xinhua crowed about the complete removal of all street vendors from the Barkhor, explaining that they had been forced to relocate to the newly-constructed “Barkhor Commercial Building.” ICT reported on an earlier partial relocation last year, although at the time stall-owners were told that the relocation would be temporary. This time the intention appears to be a permanent removal. A picture posted to the Chinese-run news site Tibet Online shows a modern building with a faux-Tibetan facade, while the Chinese-language label above the front door dwarfs the Tibetan script.
With this change, the Barkhor may well be unrecognizable to Harrer and those who knew it well in pre-invasion Tibet. The bustling open-air market is gone, the pilgrims have been slowed to a trickle, and the Dalai Lama hasn’t been on the premises in decades. Shotgun-toting patrols, rooftop snipers, and armored personnel carriers probably don’t lend themselves to the atmosphere of frivolity Harrer described.
Instead, a new Barkhor exists to serve Chinese interests: profit for businessmen, a destination for tourists, and a symbol of Chinese control over Tibet. On a recent stroll through the Barkhor, Woeser paused to count the number of Chinese flags flying on the rooftops above Jokhang square. There is perhaps no place in Tibet more intensely watched by police trying to prevent the flying of the Tibetan flag, and in its place she counted 14 Chinese flags flying around this small square. Each one helps convey a message: as far as the authorities are concerned this is China’s Barkhor, not Tibet’s Barkhor.