By Philippe Massonnet
LHASA, Tibet ~ For Wang Xi, the choice between staying at home for his family’s annual Chinese Lunar New Year reunion or breaking tradition with a trip to the snow-capped mountains of Tibet was a no-brainer.
Chinese dumplings, visits with relatives and setting off fireworks just did not compare with Tibet, the tourist destination of choice for thousands of urban white-collar workers like the 25-year-old architect.
“By coming to Tibet, I’m living my childhood dream,” said Wang, who organized his trip independently with two travel companions.
“I don’t like to do the tour group thing. We like to go where we want to go and spend the time that we want to; we choose our own hotels and method of travel,” he said. The journey is costing him about 6,000 yuan (US$800).
The Tibetan capital Lhasa has never seen so many travelers during a week-long Lunar New Year break that this year officially ended on Sunday, partly because this year’s holiday fell on the same day as the Tibetan New Year.
At the Potala Palace, the ancient home of the Dalai Lama, and the Jokhang Temple, Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest shrine, crowds of Chinese tourists mix with pilgrims who prostrate themselves before the temple’s many prayer wheels.
Wang and his friends, decked out in high-end sportswear, are only some of the few who dare adventure to the Himalayas individually, but they are blazing a new trail in Chinese tourism.
Zhou Hui, director of marketing for Shanghai-based Yaji travel agency that specializes in Tibet trips, said most visits to the politically sensitive region ruled by China for the last 50 years are still organized tours.
“We sold out all of our New Year specials to Tibet and had to turn clients away,” Zhou said.
A travel package to Tibet costs from 3,600 yuan to 10,000 yuan for between six and 12 days, she said.
This means that in a nation where the average per capita urban income is about 11,800 yuan, only the upper class can afford travel to “the roof of the world.”
But the good news is that the new Beijing-Lhasa railway, opened in July last year, has cut travel costs, she said.
“Since the railway was launched, Tibet has become a hot destination,” said Tian Ling, a Beijing-based director of the China Youth Travel Service, one of three agencies offering package tours to Tibet during the New Year holiday.
Although most tours offer round-trip air or train travel, most tourists are opting for packages that offer arrival to Lhasa by train and departure by plane, she said.
“Money is a factor, but I think for those going to Tibet for the first time, you should travel by train because this allows you a more gradual arrival and lets you adapt to what lies ahead,” Wang said.
While many Western tourists come to Tibet to glimpse the unique monuments and mysteries of Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese tourists prefer the pristine environment of the Himalayas, Tian said.
“People want to see and experience something new, mysterious and different. Tibet is a perfect place to satisfy their needs,” she said.
“The environment is better – unlike the polluted big cities, Tibet has fresh air and huge green grasslands.”
Although the tourist boom may be allowing some Tibetans to live better, it is not clear how beneficial it has been to local tourist agencies that have long specialized in providing travel services to foreigners.
“There is potential for more Chinese clients but for us it is still too early to tell because the Chinese are not seeking special quality services nor original trips,” said Jampa, the Tibetan vice director of Windhorse travel service.
“The Chinese are not fans of culture and they approach traveling with an eye towards economics that allow them to spend more buying things. This is a different concept from Western tourists.”
The wave of Chinese tourists flocking to Tibet has also led to a frenzy of hotel construction that appears to be giving Lhasa a more Chinese look.
But Jampa said: “The authorities have admitted that there has been some problems in this regard and that they will pay more attention in the future.”
After cramming in a week of sightseeing through breathtaking mountain passes and sacred Buddhist shrines, Wang Xi and his two companions, Sun Tao and Wang Yin, have chosen to end their journey with a day of relaxation.
During a trip to the Yangbajing hot springs, some 70 kilometers northwest of Lhasa, Wang Xi says the view of Mount Everest was his most poignant recollection. He has difficulty finding words to describe the memory.
Two hours later, he dives into a steaming hot spring surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The temperature is less than 10 degrees Celsius, but the sun is brilliant.
He seems to have attained nirvana.