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Lhasa sits on a plain at around 12,000 feet (3700 meters). The city is surrounded by barren hills. In the 1940s the city was less than one mile (1.6 kilometers) wide, and it had a population of around 15,000, about half of them monks. Lhasa was Tibet's capital and center of Tibet's economy and culture, including its Buddhist religion. Many dwellings were of whitewashed clay and sun-dried brick, with pigs and dogs around. Wealthy people lived in houses of brick and stone.

The Chinese took over the city in 1951, and by the end of the century the urban portion of the city had a population of around 200,000, many of them people who had migrated from China. By then the city's residents had television with 35 channels. They had access to the internet, and there was one telephone for every four persons. There was also tourism, factories, massage parlours and casinos.