Lhasa is the highest city in the world and the capital of the Tibetan autonomous region in China. Home to 3 Unesco world heritage sites, Lhasa is now a very accessible travel destination. Traveling with a Tibetan travel agency is the easiest way to get the permits to enter Tibet and to get information about Tibetan history and local customs. Travelers to Tibet seek to experience life, history and culture and exploring Lhasa in Tibet is the first stop in this fascinating city and country.
An guide to visiting Lhasa in Tibet
Visiting Lhasa’s main attractions
The main urban center in Tibet is Lhasa. The Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple preserve the treasures of Tibetan Buddhist Art. The statues, frescos, and tapestries represent figures and concepts of Tibetan Buddhism, the results of the fusion between the Indian Mahayana tradition with local cults, like the Bön shamanism. The white profile of the Potala Palace dominates Lhasa’s skyline. The Potala Hill was the place where Bodhisattva Chenrezig used to meditate. Chenrezig is a popular character in the history of Tibetan Buddhism. The first Tibetan King, Songtsen Ganpo, erected the palace for his residence at Potala Hill as he considered the hill a divine place.. The Dalai Lama, head of Tibetan Buddhism, resided in the Potala Palace until the 1950’s.
The first King of Tibet also constructed the Jokhang Temple, which is the most important Tibetan Buddhist temple in the country. Jokhang Temple houses a famous statue from the lifetime of the Buddha Jowo Rinpoche, therefore it is constantly crowded. The main cultural interest in Lhasa are Tibetan pilgrims themselves. They are relentlessly spinning their prayers sticks and twirling their mala beads. Many of them crawl around the sacred Barkhor circuit in act of devotion. They come from the small villages around Lhasa, from the provinces bordering Tibet, from India and Nepal. Their determination is touching. Nothing could stop them from paying homage to the ancient statues and shrines. Age, impairment or poverty won’t scare them from embarking with friends and family in the devotional journey.
DAY TRIPS FROM LHASA
Just a short road trip from Lhasa takes you to Sera Monastery. The garden of the monastery is open to visitors that want to see an ancient religious tradition still alive. The monks in there divide into groups and engage in philosophical debates, the ritual is quite arcane but interesting.
Drepung Monastery is another remarkable monastery close to the capital of Tibet. Lhasa stretches out on the Tibetan plateau and is surrounded by a rough landscape that develops into the Himalaya Mountains, home to the highest peaks in the world. Outside the city, the thin, pure air and the colors of nature make you dizzy.
A few hours drive takes you to two enchanting lakes: Yamdrok and Namtso. Strict regulations prevent swimming, fishing and motorized boats on the lakes. Lake Yamdrok and Namtso are much higher in altitude than Lhasa. On the way to both lakes the landscape conveys a sense of spaciousness and of having landed on another planet. A few yaks, some street vendors, and sparse cattle bring you back to reality.
The best way to experience the Tibetan panorama is a road trip from Lhasa to the Everest Base Camp, 700 km in total. The trip leads you higher and higher through Gampa La Pass (4900m) Karola Glacier (5100), and Lake Yamdrok to the city of Shigatse, where you can stop and spend the night in a guesthouse.
The main attraction near Shigatse is Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. Tashi Lhunpo Monastery is the official seat of the Panchen Lama, the 2nd most important leader in Tibetan Buddhism, after the Dalai Lama. As you travel the road from Shigatse to the Everest Base Camp, it gradually narrows to a path, the landscape rocky and deserted. At the Everest Base Camp, 5200m, several warm tents offer shelter and food to the visitors. From the camp location it is possible to admire the colors of the sunset on the western side of Mount everest. A short walk from the everest Base Camp you will find the meditation cave of the ancient master Padmasanbhava. Padmasanbhava is considered the founder of the oldest tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, which he imported from India in the 8th century AD. The cave belongs to Rongbuk Monastery, the highest monastery in the world.
Away from the Buddhist monasteries and the big towns, a part of the Tibetan population is still living a nomadic and extremely simple life. Tibetan nomads make a living from the products of the cattle, especially yaks. The nomads live in tiny villages and tents in the high pasture lands, where they let their animals graze freely. The opportunity to experience this way of living is to go trekking for three-days trekking from Ganden Monastery, (2 hours away from Lhasa) to Samye Monastery. Trekking and camping in the Tibetan mountains usually requires the presence of an official guide, and helpers with yaks to carry the necessities to cook and sleep. The yaks are quite solitary, aggressive animals, and they are not easy to gather, and to load as porters. The trek from Ganden to Samye retraces an old pilgrimage path and offers a chance to observe traditional life on the mountains.
Nomads are resisting as much as they can to the continuous change in the economy of the country. Tibetan nomad’s way of living has been centred around yak breeding for centuries. They barely speak a few words in English or Chinese, the standard language in Tibet along with Tibetan language. They live in tents made from snowproof, insulating yak hides. Tents are quite large and are heated by a central stove powered by yak manure and this stove is also used for cooking. Beds are built with wooden panels raised from the floor. Each tent has a small votive altar for the Dalai Lama. Nomads trade yak meat, milk, cheese, and blankets. They also pick medical herbs on the mountains that are used in Chinese medicine. The youngest in the nomad families often choose to leave their customs behind, and start working in the factories in urban areas.
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