Lhasa: Knocking Gently at Your Heart

Potala Palace - Lhasa, TibetSo much has been written about Lhasa, Tibet, that it has been transformed in our minds from an everyday city to a mystical destination. Now governed by the Chinese and visited frequently by the increasingly mobile Chinese population, one might start to question if there is any magic left. Happily, however, there is. There are very few places where we can travel that have an extra fourth sense on top of the usual sights, smells and sounds, but Lhasa has it: a spiritual essence. Centuries of devoted religious practice has enriched the city with a spiritual feeling that floats gently towards you with every flutter of a prayer flag and every flicker of a burning yak-butter candle. It is well worth a visit just to breath it all in.

Visiting Lhasa and other parts of Tibet will take some planning, as special permits are required and a tour guide must accompany foreigners to all major sights. However, you can request Tibetan guides to make your trip more authentic, otherwise you may end up with a Chinese guide. Many travel agencies in your home country or in China can make arrangements for you, but shop around for a deal you feel happy with. It is possible to fly from many Chinese cities, but the more exciting option is to take the train which officially starts from Xining, the capital city of Quinghai province, although you can buy tickets from other starting points around the country too. The journey from Xining to Lhasa takes 23 hours, with a choice of either seat or sleeper carriage. This gives you plenty of time to see the vast plateau and landscape of Tibet, and the whole journey makes your arrival into Lhasa all the more dramatic. Summer is the peak season for Chinese visitors so train tickets are usually sold out. However, third party agencies are available to source tickets for you at an inflated rate, and a number of them can help you organize tickets and travel permits if you're short on time or would rather avoid the hassle of doing it yourself.

Lhasa is located about 3,500 m, or just over 11,000 ft above sea level, which is enough to cause altitude sickness in many visitors, especially in those flying in from sea level; make sure you allow time to adjust to this. Ideally, visitors would spend time gradually increasing altitude on the way to Tibet, stopping for a few days here and there along the way; this will greatly reduce the potential symptoms of dizziness and nausea. Being prepared will ensure you have enough time to enjoy all the sights and experiences that Lhasa can offer and after coming all this way, you don’t want to miss out because you're not feeling well.

The spiritual heart of Lhasa is Jokhang Temple and Barkhor square that surrounds it. Devoted pilgrims walk clockwise around the square and market vendors sell various religious and souvenir items making it a bustling area where you can easily mingle with the Tibetans. Walking with the many locals in their traditional clothing while spinning prayer wheels makes it easy to think you have arrived in the past. Jokhang temple is one of the most important temples for the Tibetan people and is usually one of the first sites to visit. It is decorated in the typical style: brightly coloured and richly decorated with walls painted with important Buddhist figures. The view over the city from the rooftop is splendid.

Another main site to visit is Potala Palace, the former winter palace of the Dalai Lama. It is now completely unoccupied and is more of a museum of important relics. The long queue of tourists is shuffled through at a continual pace so that they don’t overstay their one-hour time limit. It’s an example of the external control over Lhasa and the spiritual feeling seems to have left with the former occupier. There are a lot of objects of interest inside, although the real beauty is its exterior. The palace is a brilliant white building on a hill that overlooks the whole of Lhasa. Set against a clear blue sky - which Lhasa has plenty of with up to 3000 hours of sunshine per year - the palace sparkles on its hilltop location.

There are enough sites to keep you busy in Lhasa for up to a week, including a number of monasteries in the area, Norbulingka Palace, which was the summer palace of the Dalai Lama, and the Tibet Museum. It is also enjoyable just to walk around and absorb the local atmosphere. Lhasa can be explored on foot, by bus or by bike. Just remember you need to take your guide into all the main sites except the Tibet Museum, which you can visit on your own. You can buy a set of prayer flags to leave with the many others on a temple stupa or on a mountain top. Every flutter of a prayer flag

Food in Lhasa is varied and delicious. Barley is the traditional staple of the Tibetans, as it grows well at high altitudes. They have managed to create a number of dishes from the one grain and the locals seem to enjoy endless amounts of barley porridge. This is barley flour mixed with either yak butter to create a type of museli or yak butter tea to give a smoother consistency like porridge. It may not sounds appetizing, but don't let that deter you! Give it a try, as it is surprisingly tasty. I waited until the last day and was disappointed I hadn’t eaten it more often. Other treats that are not to be missed are momos, which are delicious dumplings filled with either meat or vegetables. There seems to be some adaptation to the tourist tastes, as fried banana momos are also sometimes found on the menu. Perhaps not so traditional, they are still delicious. Restaurants in Lhasa are of a good standard and offer a variety of cuisines, including Chinese and Western foods. 

It is also possible to get out of Lhasa and see other parts of Tibet, although many areas are restricted and also need tour guide accompaniment at all times. Keep in mind that travelling outside of Lhasa can become expensive because there is no public transport available to foreigners so you must hire a 4WD vehicle with a drive at a relatively high daily cost. Any tour outside Lhasa will have to be pre-arranged because different visas are required; be sure to discuss costs and arrangements with a travel agent prior to your trip.

Some popular excursions outside Lhasa are trekking, a trip to an Everest base camp, an overland journey to the Nepal border or a combination of these. Trekking is an exciting adventure but is physically challenging due to the altitude. A popular trek along a pilgrim trail starting from Ganden monastery, not too far from Lhasa, leads over a pass at a height of 5,200 m or over 17,000 ft, which causes altitude sickness in many people even if acclimatized. To make it a bit easier, many trekkers choose to hire yaks to carry luggage though this is still no guarantee that you'll make it. If you do want to trek, plan to go at an easy pace and allow at least a few days in Lhasa to acclimatise first to minimise the risk of altitude sickness. Trekking will give you a unique experience of passing nomads with their herds of yaks and if lucky, you could be invited inside a nomad tent to share a cup of yak butter tea. The taste of this drink may be more memorable than the chance to see how nomads live traditionally and many visitors do not like it. However, it is very rude to refuse and it will at least keep you warm and give you energy for the hard hiking.

Trips to Everest base camp are also popular and don’t involve as much trekking. Keep in mind if you are visiting in the summer months, however, that Everest is often shrouded by large clouds and you may not be able to see it at all. Visits around November generally garner better chances of a clear view.

The drive from Lhasa to the Nepalese border takes you over the Friendship Highway, a perfectly built piece of asphalt that takes you comfortably across the Tibetan plateau. It is typical that this journey takes a few days and includes stopovers at some famous monastery towns such as Shigatse and Old Tingri. You will also see some amazing scenery, like the brilliant blue Yamdrok Lake. However, if you’re hiring a 4WD you can usually tailor your trip to suit your needs, including a side trip to the Everest base camp.

So is a trip to Lhasa and Tibet worth the hassle of Chinese red tape and slightly inflated prices? If you want to experience a taste of a previous time where a devoted peoples lived simply and modestly and kept their traditions because it was the only life they wanted, and if you want to feel transported to another world that will knock gently at your heart, then the answer is a resounding 'yes'. The Tibetans will welcome you and proudly show you their culture and land. My guide, Tashi, said, “Please tell your friends to visit. I want to show them Tibet.” So consider yourself invited.

About the Author

Megan tries to make travelling a part of life. She has lived in six different countries and hopes her job as an English teacher will take her on one long working holiday around the world. As a nature lover she tries to find natural beauty wherever she goes, but also enjoys experiencing the local culture of the people.

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