Tibet - Getting to know Lhasa
Lhasa is a tale of two cities. The western side of the Tibetan capital - an unappealing urban sprawl of identikit shopping malls and bulky apartment blocks known to some as ‘Little Sichuan’ resembles many modern Chinese cities. But Lhasa’s eastern section is a different story. Here it's far more traditionally Tibetan - deeply devout, romantic and mysterious, and positively swirling with charm. Rickety whitewashed houses and lamp-lit temples line the backstreets, their low ceilings a hazard to taller visitors, while ancient pagodas perch elegantly on the hillsides. One can easily get lost for hours around the Jokhang Temple and the bustling Barkhor circuit and not regret a second of it. No surprise that it’s here we suggest you focus your time!
Simply travelling to Lhasa is an adventure in itself. Arriving by air, it’s impossible not to be spellbound by the sight of jagged Himalayan peaks piercing through the clouds, before a memorable descent to the almost-lunar landscape of the Tibetan plateau. Or there’s the dramatic train journey up from Beijing, which climbs so steeply that extra oxygen is pumped into the carriages - they would probably need to do this anyway, as the scenery is so breathtaking (sorry!). After all, when people make such an effort to reach you, it’s important to make a big impression.
Many travellers will take a few days to explore Lhasa and its incredible landmarks - three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple and the Norbulingka Palace. It’s an opportunity also to acclimatise, with handy oxygen chambers scattered around, and pleasant walks by the Lhasa river, which runs through the city and is known by locals as the ‘merry blue waves’. Many of the city’s splendid parks have sadly been built on, but there are still plenty of attractive green spaces around, where you can picnic while basking in the perpetual sunshine that gives Lhasa its nickname of ‘the Sunlit City’.
Lhasa was reinstated as the Tibetan capital in the 17th century, when the fifth Dalai Lama unified the country and had the Potala Palace built as his winter residence. Up until the 1950s and the Chinese takeover, the city was a vibrant hub of trade and pilgrimage, with a truly cosmopolitan, multicultural atmosphere. The markets, the monks and the zippy cycle rickshaws are still here, yet there is also an unmistakable current of tension running through the city now, which you can’t help but pick up on. It must be said though that the Chinese authorities have loosened their grip somewhat in recent years, and tend not to make their presence overtly felt except during sensitive times such as the lead-up to Tibetan New Year. Up here on the roof of the world, things can sometimes feel precariously balanced.
What to do in Lhasa
- Occupying a prestigious position on the Red Mountain in Lhasa Valley, the Potala Palace is a truly captivating feat of architecture. Surrounded by thick earthen walls and fortifications, the complex is comprised of the White Palace (which contains the Dalai Lama’s ceremonial hall and throne, as well as vast quantities of priceless treasures, ancient sutras and almost 700 murals) and the Red Palace, holding the burial chambers of former Dalai Lamas, and their private chapel. After the Tibetan Uprising of 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama went into exile in India, and since then the palace has become a museum, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s worth mentioning that daily visitor numbers are capped, so if you’re there in peak season, it’s advisable to arrive early in the day.
- The Jokhang, located a short walk from the palace, is the most sacred temple in Tibet, 1300 years old and a vivid mix of Nepali, Indian and Tibetan architectural design. At the time of writing, some areas of the temple, including the famed golden statue of the Buddha, are off-limits to visitors due to a fire in early 2018. The true extent of the damage is unknown, likely for fear of unrest, as this is generally regarded as the spiritual heart of Lhasa. Joining the morning kora around the temple is a wonderful way to experience the essence of traditional Tibetan life. Locals and pilgrims walk the cobbled streets in a clockwise direction, following the path of the sun and occasionally pausing to spin prayer wheels and prostrate themselves, amid clouds of juniper incense and the pungent aroma of yak butter lamps. The kora circuit takes you through the lively Barkhor market, where you’ll see artisans at work creating paintings, furniture, sculptures and ceremonial banners.
- Two miles from the Potala Palace, the handsome Norbulingka Palace is home to what’s thought to be the largest manmade garden in Tibet - known as the ‘Plateau Oxygen Bar’. Originally built in the 18th century by the seventh Dalai Lama and then expanded, Norbulingka is formed of three superb potrangs, each of which contains many historic relics and impressive works of art.
- Built in the 15th century and used as a residence by several early Dalai Lamas, the Drepung Monastery was once the biggest in Tibet, home to over 7000 monks. You can watch the resident monks debating Buddhist philosophy in tranquil, forested courtyards, and roam around this immense complex, centred on a couple of beautiful white pagodas.
- Named for the wild roses that bloom on the hill behind it, the huge Sera Monastery developed as a series of hermitages and nunneries for training in Buddhist doctrine, and was renowned for its daily debating sessions. The monastery was hollowed out during the 1959 revolt, and many of the surviving monks fled to India but a sizeable number remain. The monastery hosts the spectacular Shoton Festival in August, which features Tibetan opera, and the ceremonial unfolding of a stunning Buddha portrait.
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You won’t see many fish dishes on the menu in Lhasa restaurants. Tibet is landlocked of course, but the main reason is that Buddhists rarely eat fish. The logic goes that several people can eat from a large animal, and the fewer lives sacrificed the better.
Like the rest of Tibet, Lhasa is predominantly Buddhist, but a small Muslim community has also lived here for centuries, distinct in everything from architecture to food, clothing and customs. There are actually four mosques in Lhasa, of which the Great Mosque to the east of Potala Palace is the best-known.