It’s dawn in Lhasa, Tibet, and the quiet is punctuated only by the gentle chanting of Buddhist pilgrims.
They pray outside the Jokhang temple, Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest place.
Some prostrate themselves on the cool stone ground, while others walk clockwise around the temple, spinning hand-held prayer wheels.
The thick, sharp scent of incense hangs heavy in the air.
We’re watching all this from the side, mere silent observers to rituals honed over hundreds of years.
More restricted than North Korea?
The early morning calm belies the region’s tumultuous history.
The Communist government in Beijing has controlled Tibet since 1951. After a failed revolt against Chinese rule in 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama – Tibet’s spiritual leader – fled to India.
Simmering defiance from Tibetans who remained sometimes boils over into large-scale riots.
Activists say more than 140 people have lit themselves on fire in protest of religious and cultural suppression since March of 2009.
It’s a side of Tibet the Chinese government doesn’t want outsiders to see. Beijing requires all foreign tourists to have permits and sometimes shuts down access for weeks at a time. It only rarely allows reporters to visit the region.
However, in early September, CNN was among a small group of journalists invited on a five-day, government-led trip to what China calls the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
It was the first time a CNN team had been allowed to visit Tibet since 2006. By comparison, CNN has been to North Korea, often referred to as the hermit kingdom, more than a dozen times in the same period.
We were allowed in only under the watchful eye of government minders, who packed our days with activities – art classes, operas and an international tourism expo.
What we saw … and didn’t see
The lack of access to anything controversial or the ability to ask any real questions was a theme of our trip.
When we met Tibet’s vice chairman, Penpa Tashi, the most senior official we encountered, we hoped to be able to pose some tougher questions.
Instead, we were forced to sit silently as he spoke for 80 uninterrupted minutes, talking about how everyone in Tibet is happy and content – a picture in stark contrast to the one painted by human rights activists.
We also asked to visit a Buddhist monastery during our stop in Nyingchi, a town near the border with India, but were told there were none nearby.
A quick Google search brought up a Chinese state media article from just two weeks earlier, showing a photo spread from a monastery in the same area, a mere 15 miles (24 kilometers) from where we were.
We asked our minder about that too, and he simply shrugged and ignored our question.
All in all, Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, felt like most other Chinese cities I’ve visited – safe, busy and very much in Chinese control.
For people who track daily life in Tibet, demonstrations of dissent are just a spark away from being reignited.
“Tibet is one of the regions in China where political oppression and religious oppression are at the highest point,” says Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia Director at Amnesty International.
Much of the tension stems from concerns over the influx of Han Chinese – China’s dominant ethnic group – into Tibet.
In 1964, there were just 39,500 Han Chinese in the remote region, just under 3% of the population, according to scholars. That figure now stands at 245,000, according to the 2010 census figures.
While this is less than 10% of the population, Han Chinese traders, workers and investors have mainly settled in Lhasa, where they control many businesses and fill better-paying jobs – deepening resentment with Tibetans.
Nearly every shop we visited appeared to be owned by Han Chinese.
The government has invested billions of dollars into transforming the region, focusing on building new infrastructure, schools, and modern medical facilities.
We saw a new multi-lane highway being built between Lhasa and Nyingchi.
As our mini-bus bounced over the existing road – a muddy, potholed mess – we envied what future travelers will drive on: the highway that will cut the nine-hour journey by half.
Many Tibetans are still extremely poor and welcome these improvements. But they have come at a cost. Traditional nomadic ways of life are beginning to disappear.
Others complain that ethnic Tibetans don’t share equally in the benefits.
One afternoon in Lhasa, we left our minders behind during a lunch break, and wandered into some back streets not far from our hotel.
We met a 29-year-old Tibetan laborer who said he had never gone to school. He said he made more money than he used to and his neighborhood has paved roads. However, he complained that his Han co-workers got paid more than he did.
“When we are doing exactly the same work, the Han people get, say 300 kuai, and the Tibetans get 200 kuai,” he said, using the colloquial term for China’s currency.
It’s an example of the dichotomy facing many Tibetans – frustration over Chinese rule combined with a desire for an easier way of life.
Many Tibetans also feel their native culture is under threat as the number of Chinese tourists visiting the region’s yak-filled grasslands and snowy peaks has surged.
This year, some 17 million tourists will have come, state media says, up from just a trickle a decade ago — although some have questioned whether the number is really that high. By 2020 authorities expect upwards of 35 million, according to officials we met.
Critics say locals are being marginalized, as the Chinese make money hand over fist using Tibetan culture as a selling point.
Western brands are also cashing in on the tourist influx, with new hotels like the InterContinental opening in Lhasa. Five-star hotels once steered clear of the area, fearful of the backlash from pro-Tibetan groups.
In Nyingchi, our minders took us to a newly built village, which will feature shops and restaurants with Tibetan facades. It’s expected to open soon as a tourist attraction.
A Chinese company built it, and most of the stores that will be renting out space will be Chinese owned.
A Tibetan settlement stood on the site for many years, but villagers were forcibly relocated and given new apartments, according to the government official giving us the tour.
He added that the villagers would be allowed to sell biscuits and tea to the tourists if they wanted.
No space for dissent
CNN also spoke to La Mu, a Tibetan woman who has upgraded her small farmhouse and turned it into a guesthouse for tourists with the help of government subsidies. Government minders hovered behind us and took notes on her answers.
When asked if she thought all the development and Han migration was having a negative effect on Tibetan culture, she would only smile uncomfortably, and said she didn’t know.
Her reticence at speaking openly is quite common in a place where activists say she could be swiftly questioned or jailed for voicing dissent.
Since 2012, Bequelin says upwards of 400 Tibetans have been detained for protesting over the lack of religious freedom and economic inequality – including what some call the illegal Chinese extraction of minerals from lands considered holy to Tibetan Buddhism.
“The lack of space for any dissent, even peaceful, will continue to drive deep resentment within Tibetan society,” he says.