Tibet's sunset, China's sunrise

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LHASA , Tibet — Shock would be a natural response for anyone returning to Lhasa after two years. Approaching in late afternoon — when the sun spreads gold over the city and the wind sweeps out the midday heat — the urban sprawl on the west side of town is staggering.

Next come the billboards advertising Japanese and American luxury vehicles. Six-lane highways, flyovers near the new railway station, and a futuristic bridge lead to the new Special Economic Zone in Lhasa, feeding it so that it grows and sells like Shenzhen, where the first Special Economic Zone burst onto the Chinese capitalist scene in the early 1980s.

Amid this new Lhasa, old women struggle to cross roads that run through what used to be their barley fields. But finally, upon arrival at the true heart of Lhasa, between the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple, within the Lingkor Road and near to the Barkor Market, it hurts to look.

Armed military details are stationed at every street corner 24/7, six-troop patrols march up and down the lanes of the old town in synchronized step, and watchmen stand sentry on rooftops adjacent to all sensitive zones like the Ramoche and Jokhang temples, two of the most sacred sites in Lhasa as well as the focal points for past protests.

Saddest of all are the beggars — men, women and children — who populate the streets in unprecedented numbers. Word is that the authorities banned all begging in Lhasa last summer, worried that hordes of travelers arriving from the Olympic Games would be put off by their numbers.

The travelers never came, the gates were finally opened, and the beggars returned in a flood. In Tibet, begging isn’t stigmatized as it is in the West. The Buddha was himself a beggar. If you can make a better living by pan-handling than farming then, well, why not do it?

Nevertheless, and despite rationalization, it is disturbing to confront such untold numbers resorting to a livelihood by desperation.

Over a few days I was able to spend in Lhasa, visiting the holy sites, meeting old and new friends, and walking about town, I realized that Tibet had changed more between 2007 and 2009 than it had in the preceeding eight years. A mere decade of exposure is certainly limited, but this has been a decade unlike many others: Some of the most significant events in Tibet history have occurred in the past few years.

Economic and social developments in Tibet have created a volatile situation that radiates from Lhasa across the country. Two in particular have had the greatest impact: first, railroad and highway construction, and its resulting rapid transfer of people and material goods to and from mainland China, and between the plateau and the Indian subcontinent; second, the commercialization of a "mystical Tibet" to both the Chinese and Western consumer. These developments gather steam by the day.

This report comes from a journalist in our Student Correspondent Corps, a GlobalPost project training the next generation of foreign correspondents while they study abroad. Next: "Part 2: From road and rail, to market and war."