9 Extraordinary Experiences You Can Only Have in Lhasa
Tibet has long been one of the world’s most remote and forbidding places. Until the early 20th century, only a handful of Europeans had been to Lhasa, and there were stringent laws against foreigners entering the city. Today, Tibet is still remote, but the path has been increasingly smoothed. Much of Lhasa itself is surprisingly urban and modern.
It will take years before Lhasa is a fully modern city, but now is the time to visit, before too many changes obscure its original Tibetan culture. Make sure to have these nine extraordinary experiences when you visit Lhasa, Tibet.
1. Find Yourself on the Roof of the World
Who wouldn’t want to say they’d been to the Roof of the World? Lhasa is perched right up there on the roof like an ornament, one of the 10 highest large cities on earth. Its most imposing sight, the Potala Palace, is even higher. Lhasa is so high (11,995 feet) that when you arrive, you need to spend a day just lying around resting to acclimate to the altitude. Even if you feel fine that first day, you need to take it easy, or you’re sure to feel pretty bad the day after. Susceptibility to altitude sickness doesn’t depend on age or fitness level.
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2. Appreciate the Historical Headquarters of Tibetan Buddhism
Traditionally, it’s said that the wives of the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo – a Nepalese and a Chinese princess, both devout Buddhists – introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the 7th century AD. The new religion was actually established when a monk from India founded a Buddhist monastery near Lhasa around 750 AD.
Two Buddhist sects eventually emerged. In 1641, the Gelukpa, or Yellow Hat sect, crushed the Red Hat sect, their rivals. The Yellow Hat leader took the title of Dalai Lama, or “Ocean of Wisdom,” and religion and politics merged as the Dalai Lama became the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. Lhasa was his historic base, and the Potala Palace his home, his reception rooms, and his place of spiritual practice.
3. Marvel at the Potala Palace
The Potala Palace, the “Sacred Place” of Buddhism, rises in red, white, and gold splendor high above Lhasa, dominating the landscape and watching over every aspect of local life. Although it was built in the 8th century, the majority of the present structure dates from the 17th century, during the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama.
A massive structure made of stone, wood, and earth, this UNESCO World Heritage Site rises 13 stories toward the sky and runs nearly 1,150 feet across the hillside from east to west. A maze of over a thousand rooms and thousands of altars and statues, the Potala is made up of two main buildings. The eastern section served as the Dalai Lama’s residence and administrative center, and the Red Palace, the main sacred section, includes numerous chapels, shrines, stupas, tombs, and libraries.
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4. Circumambulate Jokhang Temple
Jokhang Temple has been the most sacred site in Tibet since the 7th century. It’s the place that shelters the Jowo Sakyamuni, a 6th century statue of the Buddha at the age of 12 brought from China by the new wife of King Songtsen Gampo. Buddhist pilgrims come from everywhere to circumambulate the temple, some prostrating themselves at every step. Yak butter candles sputter in the entranceway, and murals and gilded carvings adorn the shrines.
5. Browse the Tibet Museum
The Tibet Museum in Lhasa, inaugurated by the Chinese government in 1999, has a wonderful collection of Tibetan art and cultural artifacts, including an extensive display of fabric thangkas (sacred Buddhist banners) and scrolls. Tibetan musical instruments, medicine, and astronomy are well represented. Following the Chinese party line, much is made of the historic ties between Tibet and China; nonetheless, the museum is worth a visit to experience its Tibetan riches.
6. Stroll in Norbulingka
Stroll through the gardens of the 18th century Norbulingka or “Jeweled Garden,” known today as the People’s Park. This was the summer residence of the young Dalai Lamas, and used to house them until they were 18, when they moved to the Potala Palace. Begun in 1740, the parks around the palace are beautiful and extensive. Norbulingka was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List as an extension of the Potala Palace.
7. Sit in on a Monks’ Debate
In a northern suburb of Lhasa, magnificent Sera Monastery is celebrated more for what goes on inside, rather than the wonderful frescoes and statues displayed in its halls. Sera is a teaching monastery, and every weekday the student monks troop into the courtyard for a grueling debate to hone their understanding of Tibetan Buddhist doctrine, as well as their eloquence in expressing it. You can be a fly on the wall – well, a fly in the courtyard – as the young monks are grilled by their peers and elders in the loud and vigorous formal exercise that is a monks’ debate.
They break into pairs, one standing (often one of the elders), and one sitting at his feet. The standing monk is the questioner, and the sitting monk must answer. If the answer is too long in coming, he might push the seated monk, or deride him in some way. From the sidelines, the scene in the courtyard is one of swirling red robes amid shouting, clapping, and sometimes laughter from the many pairs of monks engaged in the debate.
Though you may not understand the words, you can often tell the winners from their victorious calls and dramatic posturing. As long as you are respectful, you are participating in the monks’ education: debating in front of an audience is part of their rigorous training.
8. Enjoy a Cooking Class
Learn how to prepare traditional Tibetan dishes with a Lhasa home chef. On the menu might be tsampa (roasted barley), sha phaley (stuffed semicircular pies), momo (fried dumplings), or thukpa (noodle soup). Tibetan cheeses are made from yak or sheep milk, and yak meat and mutton are common as well.
Enjoy the meal you’ve prepared with your teacher and host afterwards, while sipping Tibetan butter tea or barley wine.
9. Shop at Barkhor Market
Encircling Jokhang Monastery is Barkhor, the old market of Lhasa. On the whole, this area is a time-honored example of the way the city used to look. Originally, pilgrims arriving at Jokhang Temple wore a path around its exterior, and soon merchants set up shop to cater to them. Over the years, the trading center grew outward from the temple – now little lanes are lined with shops and booths, and small restaurants serving tea and snacks waft delicious aromas into the streets. It’s good to remember that at the center of all the commercial activity is a sacred place, and the custom of walking clockwise around it is still upheld.
Browsing the shops here is a great way to interact with Tibetan people, as you search for turquoise jewelry, carpets, yak wool boots, and Tibetan fur hats trimmed with brocade. Bargaining is expected and encouraged, and vendors enjoy engaging with western travelers.
Travel to Tibet with MIR
More than 30 years of travel expertise means that the specialists at MIR know how to get there, what to do while you’re there, and how to enhance your trip to Tibet. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
We regularly garner raves from our travelers for the inspired opportunities we provide to help them get to know the local people, distinctive art, architecture and accomplishments of Tibet.
May we suggest these ready-made itineraries:
Ride the high-altitude train to Tibet, and explore the Tibetan Plateau on a splendid route that embraces the sacred cities of Gyantse and Shigatse, as well as Lhasa, “City of the Sun.”
Fly to the holy city of Lhasa high on the Tibetan Plateau. Admire the treasures of Tibetan culture on the “Roof of the World” and respond to the atmosphere of centuries of Buddhist practices.
Or chat with our Private Journeys department to have a trip handcrafted to your interests, pace, and budget.
Contact MIR today at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-800-424-7289.
Top photo: Monks in Lhasa, Tibet. Photo: Russ Cmolik & Ellen Cmolik
PUBLISHED: June 11, 2019