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On the creeping commoditization of Tibet

THE PHOTOGRAPHERS LINE UP on the horizon, about 15 of them: head to toe Gore-Tex, cigarettes dangling, black cameras at the ready.

It’s late afternoon and the sun is about to set.

They’ve traveled here from as far as Beijing, perhaps — a fleet of expensive jeeps that are now parked at violent angles on the grassland below, windows sheened with dust.

Nearby, and several worlds away, a large circle of Tibetan pilgrims sit round a fire, drinking tea. The last of the sunlight catches on the red braids in their hair, as a woman’s high-pitched song spirals up towards us with a plume of smoke — both soon lost in the vast expanse of the plateau.

Chen flicks his finished cigarette in the direction of the cameras, jumps up, and bursts into a rough copy of a Tibetan folk dance: one leg bent, the other outstretched, a violent clap and whoop that echo down the valley. And then, just as quickly, sits back down beside me and offers another cigarette.

We’ve only known each other for an afternoon, and I can’t yet tell which gestures are real, which are for show.

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