It is a Lhasa shop-front, with bins full of t-shirts meant for tourists. Many of these are embroidered with the likeness of the Potala, the traditional palace of the Dalai Lama. A man is untying a sack containing a new consignment of t-shirts, these bear the message “Yak, Yak, Yak, Yak, Tibet” over four embroidered yaks.
The name of the Nepali-speaking merchant is Amar Bajracharya, also known by his Tibetan name, Tsering. He starts untying the bundle. The labels all read “Made in Tibet”, but the shipment has just arrived by truck on a three-day overland journey across the Himalaya from Kathmandu. There, the cotton t-shirts were embroidered by Indian hands from Bihar, who have never seen a yak in their life.
Outside Amar’s shop, directly facing the Jokhang, Tibet’s holiest shrine, are stalls selling souvenirs, knick-knacks, clothing and other items. Two Chinese couples from Shanghai, on holiday in ‘exotic’ Tibet, examine the t-shirts, ‘Tibetan’ prayer-wheels, ‘yak-bone’ jewellery, and end up buying one of the shirts for 30 RMB, bargained down from 35 (a bit over USD 4.00).
The camera-toting Chinese tourists, like the hundreds of others who join the colourful Tibetan pilgrims circumambulating the Jokhang route known as the Barkhor Circuit, are blissfully unaware that most of the so-called ‘Tibetan’ trinkets are not made in the high plateau, which has little manufacturing and few cottage industries. Most come from Nepal or India. The prayer-wheels are crafted in Kathmandu, and the yak-bone jewelry actually originates in the lowland water buffalo.
Some savvy Japanese backpackers pass by the t-shirts which they know can be bought in Kathmandu’s touristy Thamel for only 150 Nepali rupees (USD$2.00). However, one of them pauses to consider buying a set of wooden prayer beads (made in India), while the lady behind the stall barks “20 yuan – no bargaining!” The same beads, of course, can be bought in Kathmandu for about NRs 50 (about 70 cents).
“Most tourists just want it cheap,” grumbles Ratna Tuladhar, proprietor of Syamakapu, a Nepali family-run business that has been importing statuettes from workshops in Kathmandu Valley’s Patan. This, at least, is a traditional enterprise, for Patan’s Newar-Buddhists have been casting the bronze statues for generations and exporting them to Lhasa–just as Buddhism itself travelled up here from Nepal.
“Most of our old customers are Tibetans,” says Tuladhar, “and they don’t mind paying seven to eight thousand yuan for something that they know has been made in Nepal by master craftsmen. But the new tourists are mostly newly-rich Chinese and foreign-package tourists. They snap up the cheap imitations.” Although tourism is said to have increased in Lhasa, vendors and merchants like Tuladhar complain that business is slow. Tourist season in Tibet runs from April through November, peaking in July-September.
Tourists looking for real Tibetan t-shirts–decorated with designs of the Potala Palace or a pair of dancing yaks, or the Tibetan greeting “Tashi Delek”–usually have to wait till after dusk when the regular stalls close and street vendors lay out their goods on the footpath. The locally made polyester t-shirts that sell for 5-8 RMB (less than a dollar) are of inferior quality and are picked up mostly by poor locals. “They fall apart after only one washing,” warns Amar. But how to tell the local t-shirts from the embroidered ones from Nepal? “That’s easy,” says Amar with a knowing smile. The Tibetan ones (actually embroidered in Chengdu, in neighboring Sichuan Province), carry labels that say “Made in Panama”.