Slouched in a patio chair wearing a beach-bum cap and a stylish windbreaker, the software engineer rubbed his eyes and tried to shake off his hangover. The sun was shining brightly...

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LHASA, Tibet — Slouched in a patio chair wearing a beach-bum cap and a stylish windbreaker, the software engineer rubbed his eyes and tried to shake off his hangover. The sun was shining brightly in a clear blue sky and it was already well past 1 p.m., but the 33-year-old Beijing native had just ordered breakfast.

Back home, he would have been sitting in his dreary cubicle by now, squinting at a computer screen in a windowless room illuminated by pale, fluorescent lights. But two months ago he quit his job, gathered his savings and departed for a faraway land he had heard was entirely different from the rest of China — Tibet.

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He even adopted a Tibetan name, Nyima Tsering. Several young Chinese professionals lounging with him in the courtyard of a cheap hostel here in the Tibetan capital said they had taken Tibetan names, too.

“We came here to get away from our old lives, and to experiment with the Tibetan lifestyle,” Tsering said, gesturing at a Tibetan woman who was singing as she hung laundry on a nearby balcony. “We don’t want anything to remind us of our past, not even our names.”

Idealistic young travelers

The inns of Lhasa are full of people like Tsering, young Chinese slackers who have traveled to Tibet in search of a romantic ideal, a land of natural beauty unspoiled by the materialism and competitiveness they see at home.

Some stay for months, others for as long as their money lasts. If they are China’s hippies, then Tibet is their Berkeley.

They are an extreme example of a growing popular fascination with Tibet in China. Especially among young, college-educated Chinese in the prosperous cities in the east, Tibet is the cool place to visit, and all things Tibetan are hip: Tibetan music, Tibetan jewelry, Tibetan literature, even Tibetan spirituality.

These Chinese often are interested in Tibet for the same reasons so many Americans and Europeans are: They see this isolated region of snowcapped mountains as a simpler, untainted alternative to modern pressures.

“In Beijing, in Shanghai, it’s all about materialism. Your neighbor buys a car, and then you have to buy a better one. Life is so stressful. But here, it’s different,” said Fei Tieren, 56, who gave up his job as an electrician in Shanghai to take a two-month journey through Tibet. “There’s a different culture, with different values, and I think we can learn from it.”

One result of this surge in interest is a remarkable boom in domestic tourism. Last year, officials said, more than 720,000 Chinese tourists visited Tibet, up nearly 30 percent from 2001. By comparison, about 140,000 foreign tourists visited the region in 2002, an increase of about 2.4 percent.

Of course, not all these Chinese visitors are disillusioned city dwellers seeking spiritual enlightenment. Most journey through Tibet with tour groups, busing from one attraction to another, buying trinkets, taking pictures and interacting very little with Tibetans. Some are government officials from other parts of China using state money to fund “inspection visits” that are essentially junkets for their friends and relatives.

“Why shouldn’t we visit Tibet? It’s part of Chinese territory,” snapped one portly official after posing for a photograph in front of Tibetan pilgrims prostrating themselves before the Jokhang temple, Tibet’s holiest shrine.

Li Shaoshan, a television producer who worked in Tibet for several years during the 1980s, said even the young Chinese who stay for months in Tibet are largely ignorant of Tibetan culture.

“They treat it as Disneyland,” he said. “If they really cared about Tibet, they should work and try to help the Tibetan people instead of just playing around.”

A Catch 22 for some

But at least some Chinese visitors leave Tibet a little more sympathetic to the local people and a little more worried about what is happening to their homeland. Though Tibet has drifted in and out of Chinese control for centuries, the unprecedented influx of Chinese settlers is transforming its cities, and government policies are weakening its unique culture.

“I came to Tibet to visit the temples and shrines, to feel my religion more deeply. I thought it would be a very different place, a very spiritual place,” said Li Xin, 26, a finance student from northeastern China on a two-week trip through Tibet. “But now I can see how much it has changed, and I know it is people like me, from inland, who are changing it.”

The Chinese government appears somewhat uncomfortable with the growing interest of its people in Tibet, especially in Tibetan Buddhism.

Two years ago, Chinese authorities cracked down on a huge monastic encampment in eastern Tibet known as Larung Gar, ordering the expulsion of most of the community’s 7,000 to 8,000 monks and nuns. According to eyewitness reports, police made it a priority to expel all the Chinese postulants first.

China has also tried to ensure that both Chinese and foreign visitors to Tibet hear only Beijing’s side of the international debate over Chinese rule of the region.

This year, the government dismissed more than 150 Tibetan tour guides because of suspicions about their political views, according to people in the tourism business here.

Every tour guide who had studied English in India, where the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, lives in exile, was fired, the sources said, to be replaced by more than 100 new tour guides trained in China.

Tranor, deputy director of Tibet’s tourism bureau, acknowledged that “a few” Tibetan tour guides were dismissed. He said tourists complained that they had made remarks supporting independence for Tibet.

He also confirmed that police now check the “political background” of every Tibetan who applies to be a tour guide.

“As for who qualifies or not politically, it’s not for us to decide,” he said.