Tourists overrun Potala Palace as Dalai Lama takes a 'complete rest'

Sixty years ago, the Potala Palace in Lhasa hummed with the comings and goings of the Dalai Lama's shaven-headed government officials as they ineffectually set about ruling the kingdom of Tibet.

The extraordinary 13-storey mud and wood palace also contained chapels, cells, schools for religious training and the gold-embossed tombs of past Dalai Lamas.

Today the palace is still alive with activity but it is to the sound of thousands of chattering Chinese tourists gaping at one of the wonders of Eastern architecture, the history of which they are largely ignorant.

Soon there will be more tourists pouring through its vast medieval doors after an announcement that the daily entry quota has been raised from 1,500 to 2, 300 now that the Qinghai-Tibet railway is operational, funnelling up to one million extra tourists a year into Lhasa. Mass tourism may be about to do for Tibetan culture what the Communist Party cadres failed to do.

Meanwhile, the battle of wills between Tibet's Chinese rulers and the government-in-exile grinds on.

Champa Phuntsok, the head of Tibet's Beijing-appointed government, launched a harshly personal attack on the Dalai Lama, dealing a blow to hopes that backroom talks between the Chinese government and envoys of the exiled Tibetan leader were about to bear fruit. At a rare press conference in Lhasa yesterday, Champa Phuntsok accused the Dalai Lama of using "deceit" and said he was engaged in secretive tactical manoeuvres to disguise his true goal, the full independence of Tibet as well as Tibetan ethnic regions in other provinces of China.

Thrupten Samphal, a spokesman for the Tibetans' government in Dharmsala, India, said that in the past, "the Chinese would not listen to Tibetan representatives". But now, he said, they want to talk about the proposals of the Dalai Lama's representatives. The Dalai Lama has been pressing for permission to visit Beijing and has given assurances that he wants no more than autonomy for Tibet.

A further blow came when the Dalai Lama's office in London announced he was cancelling a European tour on doctors' orders, just as it was about to begin in Helsinki, after he was told "to take complete rest".

There are well-grounded fears that the Unesco-protected building containing the priceless treasures of Tibetan culture could be damaged, or worse, by the advent of mass tourism. Until the first train made its way over the mountains this week, a passage to Tibet involved a backbreaking bus journey or a flight still beyond the reach of many Chinese tourists.

The Potala is a building steeped in the tragedy of the Tibetan people but the hand-picked Chinese and Tibetan guides provide visitors with a sanitised account of the palace's history. Spies listen in on the guides to ensure they remain on message and many rooms are scanned by CCTV and microphones.

The tourists who pour through the gates of the fragile palace from 9.30 each morning are following in the footsteps of Communist Party cadres who did their best to destroy it during the Cultural Revolution. The People's Army even shelled the building during the 1959 popular uprising against Chinese rule after the Dalai Lama fled.

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