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Simmering streets in Tibet's largest city

Bo Gu, an NBC News Assistant Producer, traveled from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet on Sunday. The following is her account of the scene in the Tibetan city over the last several days.

LHASA, Tibet – When I arrived in Lhasa, the site of recent protests against Chinese rule, I asked a taxi driver to take me to the House of Shambala, a hotel in the center of town.

"The House of Shambala? No way, I'm not going there," said the Tibetan taxi driver, his wrinkled, tanned face looking nervous.

"It's really chaotic in Lhasa now," another taxi driver said as he approached us. "Two hundred and I'll take you to Lhasa, but not to the House of Shambala. That area is all blocked now."

The second driver wasn't exaggerating – we soon discovered that the city was in lock-down mode.

Image: Tibetan exiles react emotionally as they raise anti-China slogans.
SLIDESHOW: Tibet protests turn violent

We had already been checked twice by Chinese police at roadblocks on our way into Lhasa from the airport. They checked our IDs and even took a look inside the trunk of our car. On the way, we also saw at least 10 army vehicles coming out of Lhasa with soldiers sitting in the back.

And the east side of the city, where all the tourist attractions are – the renown Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple, and the shopping sanctum, Barkhor Street – was blocked from access.

Silent streets

As we walked around the parts of the city that were accessible on Sunday, the streets were absolutely dead. Most of the shops were closed with steel shutters.  We saw very few pedestrians on the streets. A soldier gestured to me an absolute "no" when I tried to take a picture of the Potala Palace.

We walked down a road north of our hotel until we hit a traffic intersection, where at least 100 soldiers were stationed, holding shields and wearing helmets. Some of the soldiers had either guns or batons in their hands.  A few armored vehicles were stopped at the street corner as well.

Just as we were about to cross the street, mayhem erupted. Half of the soldiers started running toward a nearby residential area, shouting loudly, while other soldiers told the pedestrians to leave.

We found a nearby hotel that had a rooftop deck and climbed up with a few curious members of the hotel staff to see what was going on. 

The soldiers walked out of the residential area with three men who had their hands tied behind their backs. I assumed they were Tibetan monks, because they were wearing red robes. The men were taken to the intersection and forced to kneel down. We had to leave before seeing what became of the arrested men.  

Smashed windows, looted shops

On Monday morning we tried to stroll along the main road in Lhasa – Beijing Dong Lu – which had been totally blocked the day before. To my surprise, we were able to walk down it freely. But every car that drove by was forced to stop and was checked by soldiers stationed at roadblocks.

But as we walked down the road, I was totally shocked.  It smelled like a battlefield.

We saw smashed windows, looted shops, and buildings that were totally burned down – some of which were still smoking. There was trash all over the street. Armed soldiers were everywhere and taking photographs was absolutely forbidden.

Most of the burned or smashed stores were clothes shops, restaurants, beauty salons, hotels, or bank ATMs run by ethnic Han Chinese, although I did hear a few Tibetan shops were damaged, too. The Tibet bureau of China's state-run Xinhua news agency was burned very badly. And all the residential alleys running along the main road were still blocked. 

A soldier harshly shooed me away when I stopped to watch some soldiers on a rooftop throw rocks off a building. By afternoon, more people came out into the street. They were mostly Han Chinese, though I did see a big crowd of Tibetans in front of an elementary school – they were mostly Tibetan parents waiting for their kids to come out of school. There were dozens of armed soldiers outside the school as well.

Fearful residents

One of the waitresses at the hotel didn't like seeing us walk around the city. She hadn't been outside the hotel for a few days out of fear of becoming the target of attack. 

"One of my friends just walked on the streets by himself the other day when a Tibetan guy put a big knife [at his throat], asking him, 'Are you Han or Tibetan?' He said he was Tibetan and was let go. He definitely would have been hacked to death if he had said he was Han," said the waitress, as she shook her head and sighed.

Surprisingly, despite the fear that the waitress expressed, by Tuesday morning, life seemed to be getting back to normal. There were more people walking on the streets and buses and taxi cars were beginning to run.