Getting to Tibet may not be easy, but the capital city Lhasa is a must-visit for those looking to experience the country's unique culture. It is certainly worth the trek. Here's how to plan a visit.
LHASA, Tibet – Lhasa is unlike any other city, anywhere. Although it's fast becoming a modern Chinese metropolis with high-rise developments and wide-lane boulevards, at its core it is still the heart of Tibetan culture and religion. It's a city of pilgrimage, bursting with Tibetans from all over the world and chock-full of beautiful palaces, Buddhist temples, and monasteries. Take a few days and get lost. There is plenty to see and good food to eat.
LAY OF THE LAND
Lhasa is two separate cities: the new city and the old city. The new city sprung up over the last few decades to accommodate Chinese tourists and migrants relocating for work. It doesn't have historical sites of note, but you'll pass through at least once on your trip — the only road to and from the airport cuts through the middle of it, and the new train station is located there. It isn't the Lhasa that many Western tourists come to see, but for better or worse it's where the city is headed.
In contrast, the old city is the core of Tibetan Lhasa. Tibetan families work and play in narrow interlocking streets with beautifully ornamented buildings. Lhasa's top sites, restaurants, and hotels are unsurprisingly located in this area. Like a large maze, it's easy to get lost, but don't worry, that is part of the fun. It's not very big and people are generally very helpful.
WHAT TO DO
While most people only stay for a few days before heading somewhere farther afield, there is enough to do in Lhasa to keep you busy for weeks.
Potala Palace is easily the city's most recognizable and iconic site, rising up and over Lhasa from the Marpo Ri (Red Mountain) on the edge of the old city. The winter residence of ten Dalai Lamas until 1959, it is prominently featured on the Chinese 50 RMB note. Although it is no longer the residence of the Dalai Lama, it is still tended to by monks and visited by Tibetans who come to pray and pay their respects. Mind the instructions of the fire brigade men in orange suits, and don't miss the former living quarters of the current Dalai Lama.
Though not quite as well known as the Potala Palace, you can't visit Lhasa without seeing Jokhang Temple (Chengguan District; +86-891-633-6858). Located in the center of the old city, it's the most important temple in Tibetan Buddhism. Said to have been built over the heart of a demon, the temple is always packed with Tibetans waiting to pray in front of a statue that supposedly blessed by the Buddha. There were so many people when I visited, I thought it must have been a Buddhist holiday, but it was just a regular Tuesday.
Surrounding Jokhang Temple is the Barkhor, a “kora” or clockwise pilgrimage route dotted with shops and teahouses. When I asked my guide whether Tibetans had a favorite sport, she told me about the Barkhor. At all hours of the day and night, Tibetans walk, pray, prostrate, and mingle along this route. If you get tired, do as the locals do: rest on one of the many benches and watch people go by.
The Ganden, Drepung, and Sera Monasteries all merit visits. They are the three most important teaching monasteries in Gelug Buddhism, which is the dominant sect of Buddhism practiced in Tibet.
Ganden Monastery (Dagazê County) was founded by Tsongkapa, the founder of Gelug Buddhism. Besides its beautiful shrines and statutes, there is an easy hike around the exterior of the monastery, where you'll come across one of Tsongkapa's cave hermitages as well as a traditional sky burial ground. (A sky burials is a customary Tibetan funeral practice that involves the body being eaten by vultures.) Ganden Monastery is the only one of the three monasteries that requires hiring a car, as it is a bit outside of downtown Lhasa.
Drepung Monastery was once the largest monastery in the world and the residence of the Dalai Lamas before the fifth Dalai Lama moved his residence to the Potala Palace. Check out the monks' kitchen. The size of the oven and the huge cooking pots will give you a good idea of how many monks once called Drepung their home.
Sera Monastery (Chengguan District; +86-891-638-3639) is my favorite monastery of the three, as it's the best place to watch Tibetan monks debate Buddhist philosophy. The debates happen every weekday in a courtyard on the monastery grounds and are open to tourists. The monks at Sera use a unique style of debate, smacking their hands together and using exaggerated gestures to make points. Inside the monastery, don't miss the Chapel of Tamdrin, the horse-headed demon god, where you can follow the line of modern pilgrims underneath Tibetan spears and shields and touch your forehead to Tamdrin's feet for a blessing. If you are interested in Buddhist religious items, shop here for prayer beads, bracelets, and charms. The monastery has some of the best prices on these types of items, and you can't beat the location for getting them blessed.
Dropenling is a nonprofit market selling handmade Tibetan textiles, toys, and art. Souvenirs are sold on almost every street in the old city, but if you're looking for something crafted, go to Dropenling (11 Chak Tasal Gang Rd.; +86-887-823-2292) in the old city's Muslim Quarter. The whole area is great to explore and shop.
WHERE TO STAY
If you'd like to stay in the heart of the old city, book a room in the House of Shambhala. The boutique hotel has nine rooms uniquely decorated with traditional Tibetan décor and furniture. The rooms are washed in vibrant reds, blues, and yellows with tiger skin rugs, locally-sewn pillows, and hand-painted dressers depicting scenes from Tibetan mythology. My favorite touch was the comforter, with semi-precious stones, sea coral, and magic amulets woven in to ward off evil spirits. The hotel sells oxygen canisters in the lobby to help you cope with the altitude. If you get a room on the top floor or want to go to the rooftop terrace, you'll need one. Carrying my luggage up three flights of stairs felt like scaling Everest. The rooms can get cold at night, so if you're visiting during any season other than summer, ask for a space heater.
The House of Shambhala has a sister location also in the old city, Shambhala Palace, located just a block away from the east side of the Barkhor. Shambhala Palace has seventeen rooms and was allegedly once the home of an important Tibetan lama. A little larger that the House of Shambhala, Shambhala Palace has been painstakingly decorated in the same style, with hand-painted red and yellow details, Tibetan antiques, and colorful wall carvings in the courtyard depicting the story of the legendary Shambhala kingdom.
WHERE TO EAT
There are lots of great restaurants in Lhasa, but my favorite was Tibetan Family Kitchen (1 Danjielin Rd.; +86-138-8901-5053). It's a family home hidden on the second floor above an interior courtyard just off Danjielin road. You have to walk through the family's kitchen to get to the two-room restaurant, which I think doubles as their living room and bedroom. They have an extensive English menu and everything on it is great. Try their delicious momos (Tibetan dumplings). If you like meat and haven't yet tried yak, this is the place to try it — there's no better way to try yak than in a momo. Don't worry if you're not a fan of meat, they have vegetarian momos too. My absolute favorite dish on the menu is the spicy potatoes. I ate two plates and probably could have had another. This is a popular restaurant and it fills up quickly, so have your hotel or guide help you make a reservation. You don't want miss this place.
Another great old city spot is the House of Shambhala Restaurant on the ground floor of House of Shambhala hotel. I don't usually like to eat in hotel restaurants, but this one is so good that I ate there twice. They serve Western, Nepalese, Indian, and Tibetan fare. Start with the amazing roti and naan, followed by the vegetarian curry and chicken tikka. You can get your yak fix here too. Order a Kathmandu chocolate brownie for dessert and walk it off with a night stroll around the Barkhor. Wash it all down with a Tibetan beer or the restaurant's homemade barley wine.
WHERE TO DRINK
Tibetan butter tea and teahouses are everywhere. Butter tea, traditionally made with black tea, yak butter, and salt, is an acquired taste, but Lhasa is a great place to try it. Makye Ame, reputed to have been owned by the mistress of the sixth Dalai Lama, is the yellow teahouse and restaurant on the southeast corner of the Barkhor. Yellow is a sacred color, but Makye Ame is allowed to be yellow because the sixth Dalai Lama supposedly slept there.
For better tea and a less touristy atmosphere, try Woeten Tibetan Family Tea House located on the north side of the Barkhor on the second floor of a building close to Wengduixinga road. If you can find it, you'll probably be the only foreign tourist there. If you can't find it, ask your guide. Besides good tea, they have tasty noodles and a beautiful view of the Barkhor.
If you prefer coffee, go to The Sense Coffee (3 Barkhor South St.; +86-0891-650-81810). It's a new third-wave cafe on the second floor of the Ni Sang Chen Bo Market on Barkhor South Street. They make great coffee and use a fancy Marzocco espresso machine. They also serve small bites.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
How to Get There
Traveling to Lhasa requires time and patience, as well as a travel permit from the Chinese government. You can't travel to Lhasa on your own. Since 2008, all foreign tourists must book travel to Tibet through a registered tour agency. If it's important to you that your trip supports the Tibetan business community in Lhasa, i-Tibet Travel is a great option. It's Tibetan-owned and operated and employs Tibetan guides and drivers. Another Tibetan-owned agency that gets good reviews is Explore Tibet. These agencies tell you exactly what types of documents you'll need and how to get them. You can buy your flight online even if you haven't received your Tibetan permit, but if you plan on taking the train into Lhasa, have your tour agency help you book your ticket.
There aren't many direct international flights to Lhasa. If you're in China, you will still probably have a connecting flight. There are direct flights from some of the bigger Chinese cities, like Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an, and Chengdu, but these flights are expensive. I flew Sichuan Airlines to Lhasa, but I've flown most of the other airlines that service Lhasa at some point. There isn't much difference between these airlines, so go with the cheapest option. None of these airlines have a reputation for being on time, so keep that in mind when choosing a connecting flight.
Hiring a car in Lhasa can get expensive. This past summer, prices for a private car jumped to about $2 per kilometer. A private car isn't necessary to see the sites within Lhasa. Buses, taxis, and pedicabs are plentiful and most of the popular sites are fairly central and walkable. However, hiring a car is necessary for visiting sites outside the city, like the Ganden Monastery.
Good to Know
Lhasa is about 11,500 ft. above sea level and the altitude hits you right away. It takes a few days to adjust and otherwise normal physical exertion can be a challenge at first. Stairs are the worst. Take it easy and drink plenty of water.
Avoid taking pictures of any police or military personnel. There are many of them and they don't take kindly to being photographed. If you happen to come across a sky burial, remember that it's a funeral. Don't be the disrespectful tourist who takes pictures.
Tipping at most places is not the norm nor is it expected in China, and Tibet is no different. However, at upscale hotels and restaurants that cater exclusively to wealthy Western clientele, tipping is expected. In these cases, ten percent of the bill will do. If you think your guide did a good job, 50RMB to 100RMB per day is appropriate.
For additional tips on how and when to travel to Lhasa and Tibet, check out The Land of Snows for regular updates on travel advisories and advice.