For the few remaining foreigners in Tibet, most of Lhasa has become a no-go zone. Soldiers have filled the streets ahead of a deadline set by China for all demonstrators to turn themselves in by the end of Monday.
“They’ve absolutely locked the city,” said Paul, a European backpacker who asked that his full name not be used. “It’s really massive. There are at least 30 soldiers on every intersection.”
China has blocked foreigners from traveling to Lhasa and the rest of Tibet after Tibetan independence protests turned violent, and the U.S. State Department has issued a travel alert urging Americans in Lhasa to seek safe haven in hotels (see www.travel.state.gov). U.S. tour companies, such as San Francisco-based Geographic Expeditions, which was a pioneer in Westerners’ travel to Tibet and continues to offer many small-group tours to Tibet, are scrambling to rearrange clients’ itineraries.
In Lhasa, a group of backpackers has been moved from a budget hotel to a five-star resort after rioting and looting destroyed much of Beijing Street, the city’s main east-west thoroughfare, said Paul. One of them counted at least 30 flipped cars on that road, seven buildings gutted by fire, and looting at half the stores.
The travelers had to go through four checkpoints. A Canadian who saw their van tried to jump in. “The soldiers trained their guns on him and almost shot him,” said Paul.
The hotel, he added, “turned the Internet off as soon as we arrived.”
The unrest in Tibet began March 10 on the anniversary of a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule in the region that sent the Dalai Lama and much of the leading Buddhist clergy into exile. Tibet was effectively independent for decades before Communist troops entered in 1950.
But what began as largely peaceful protests by monks spiraled Friday into a melee with Tibetans attacking Chinese and burning their businesses in the Tibetan capital Lhasa. The outburst came after several years of intensifying government control over Buddhist practices and vilification of the Dalai Lama, whom Tibetans still revere.