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Things to Do in Lhasa

Few places in the world inspire a sense of mystery and magic quite like the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Closed off to outside visitors for generations, it has only been within the last 50 years that Tibet’s 12,000-foot (3,657.6-meter) capital has been accessible to a handful of lucky visitors. As an area that is still very much protected from the influences of foreign tourists, nearly all travelers must obtain a Tibetan Tourism Bureau permit and be part of an organized tour group. While pockets of semi-rogue travelers have found ways to skirt the stifling Chinese regulation surrounding Tibetan travel, virtually all visitors to Lhasa will be doing so as part of a packaged experience. For the chance to stand on the roof of the world, however, and marvel outside the steps of the Potala Palace—former home of the exiled Dalai Lama—all of the hassle and prior arrangements are undoubtedly worth the effort.

While many visitors to Lhasa opt to enter the region on a flight from Kathmandu, visitors approaching from the east oftentimes choose the Sichuan capital of Chengdu as their jumping off point for the Tibetan Plateau. From Chengdu it’s possible to embark on your trip to Lhasa through a variety of transportation options including planes, trains and automobiles. While the flight from Chengdu to Lhasa lasts little more than two hours, oftentimes those who have flown from the 1,600-foot (4,876.8-meter) elevation of Chengdu to the towering heights of Lhasa are more prone to altitude sickness due to lack of acclimatization.

For those Lhasa bound travelers departing from Chengdu, popular overland options include multi-day overland tours, which weave their way through the Gongha Mountains and high alpine lakes, as well as the 44-hour train ride which gradually ascends its way into the high Tibetan Plateau. Though Lhasa may be the capital city and heart of many Tibet tourist itineraries, the sweeping and rugged landscape which exists on the eastern boundaries of Tibet and western Sichuan province make the journey from Chengdu to Lhasa a memorable part of a mystical Tibetan experience.
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Potala Palace
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Tucked into Lhasa’s iconic Red Hill, Potala Palace is the highest palace in the world, with its main structure sitting more than 12,000 feet above sea level. Its sprawling structures are divided into two parts, known as the Red and White palaces. Travelers who venture to this religious Mecca will find a center devoted to Buddhist prayer and impressive, detailed murals located inside the Great West Hall. The Dharma Cave and Saint’s Chapel date all the way back to the seventh century, offering visitors a chance to connect with Tibet’s rich history in a truly unique way.

The White Palace, which once housed local Tibetan government, now serves as the living quarters for the Dalai Lama. It’s also home to a school, seminary, printing house, well-kept gardens and even a jail. In addition to breathtaking views, visitors will find cultural relics, brightly colored murals and hand-carved statues dating back to ancient times.

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Jokhang Temple
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One of the most popular tourist attractions in Lhasa, Jokhang Temple is located on Barkhor Square. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site that consists of the historic ensemble of the Potala Palace and is a spiritual center of Lhasa. Constructed in 642 by King Songtsen Gampo, Jokhang became a famous temple after the Buddhist master Atisha taught here in the 11th century.

The site consists of four levels of labyrinthine chapels dedicated to gods and bodhisattvas; the dim light of votive candles creates a glow about the place and the smell of incense is everywhere. The entire structure is comprised of an entrance porch, courtyard and Buddhist hall surrounded by accommodation for monks and storehouses on all four sides. The buildings are of wood and stone with a gold roof, and the whole thing is an outstanding example of Tibetan Buddhist style. Jokhang also reveals influences from China, India and Nepal. More than 3,000 images of Buddha and other deities and historical figures are housed here, along with many other treasures and manuscripts. Climb to the top of the temple for a view of Jokhang Square and the pilgrims who circumnavigate the site as part of their pilgrimage. Many prostrate every few feet, while others walk slowly, chanting sacred mantras and spinning hand-held prayer wheels. The top level of Jokhang Temple also provides one of the best views of Potala Palace in the distance.

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Sera Monastery
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Known as the home of the "debating monks,"Sera Monastery was built on a hillside in the northern part of Lhasa in 1419. One of the three most important monasteries in the city, it is dedicated to the Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat, sect of Tibetan Buddhism and is a university monastery.

Visitors flock here to see the debates. a tradition young monks take part in as part of their training. In a series of debates, the senior monks drill the younger ones on various doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism and the teachings of Buddha. It’s a very physical display: the senior monks are standing, seeming to shout at the younger ones and then slapping their hands together dramatically—the hand slapping is the signal for the seated monk to respond. The debates may also be punctuated by screams (to throw the other person off). While it’s a very entertaining display for visitors, it’s a serious matter for the monks and a crucial part of training. Also of interest at Sera Monastery are the sand mandalas, beautiful works of art created from sand. These pieces take days to complete and, when finished, are swept away and started again.

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Drepung Monastery
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In the 1930s the Drepung Monastery ranked among the largest monasteries is the world with between 7,000 and 10,000 monks from various countries living on its grounds at any given time. Its colorful halls were once divided into four schools for monks from Mongolia, Khampas and two other nearby regions. And while the number of monks has dropped to approximately 2,000, Drepung is now divided into seven colleges where men venture to learn about lineage, religion and geography.

In 2008, Chinese authorities shut Drepung down after monks led what became a violent protest against Chinese rule. After that, it didn't open to the public until 2013. Now travelers can explore the caves and temples around the grounds and step inside the iconic white pagodas tucked amid the hillside. Ganden Potrang, one of the most popular sites of Drepung Monastery, originally served as a residence for the second, third, fourth and fifth Dalai Lamas, before becoming a political and religious meeting place. While travelers agree the monastery’s buildings are certainly impressive, it’s the vast courtyards and dense forests that make this famous destination a perfect place for finding peaceful reflection.

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Barkhor Street
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Like a treasure trove or something out of Aladdin’s cave, Barkhor Street is an ancient road that circles the square that houses Jokhang Temple. Most significant as a thoroughfare for pilgrims on their way to the temple, Barkhor Street is also home to the Tromzikhang market, host to a wide variety of vendors selling everything from prayer wheels to yak butter to tea kettles.

According to local history, when Songtsen Gampo built Jokhang Temple, its grand scale immediately began to attract millions of pilgrims from the area. So many walked around the temple that they wore a path, which came to be the original Barkhor Street. Today, visitors can see pilgrims walking clockwise around the temple, holding prayer wheels. Many of these pilgrims have come from the outer regions of Tibet, walking for days, weeks or months to reach the temple. Some move only by bowing, crossing just a few feet during each prostration. A visit to Barkhor Street is an immersion in Tibetan culture, a multi-colored and fascinating glimpse into the wide diversity of people who inhabit this land.

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Norbulingka
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Between the late 1700s and the 1950s, Norbulingka was used as an official summer home for the Dalai Lama. Today, it is recognized not only as a World Heritage site, but the premier garden and quintessential historical site of Tibet. In addition to a 374-room palace, the park is home to hundreds of rare plants, rose bushes, fruit trees and even a bit of wildlife. The expansive grounds offer travelers and locals a quiet escape from the hustle of the city, and on warm, sunny days, dozens of people can be found picnicking on the well-kept grounds.

In addition to Norbulingka’s unmistakable natural beauty, travelers will find some 30,000 cultural relics from ancient Tibet scattered around the grounds. Visitors should be sure to check out Kelsang Palace, the oldest building in Norbulingka, as well as the Lake Palace on the southwest portion of the grounds. Three islands connected by small bridges and a row of quaint horse stables make this a picturesque stop on a visit to the garden.

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Ganden Monastery
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Ganden Monastery is one of the oldest and largest Buddhist monasteries in Tibet. It is nestled into the slopes of Wangbur Mountain, at 4,300 meters above sea level, and with a stunning view over the southern bank of the Lhasa River. Together with Sera Monastery and Drepung Monastery, Ganden Monastery is part of the three great university temples of Tibet. This cultural and religious significance began early in the 15th century, when the leader of the Yellow Hat Sect, Tsongkhapa, was calling for a reformation of religion. His ideas were so popular, that the Yellow Hats became the biggest and most influential religious group in Tibet and Ganden was established as the sect’s main temple.

In total, the monastery consist of over 50 buildings painted in blocks of white, maroon and ochre and topped with gold-capped roofs. Chituokhan Buddhist Temple is one of the earliest buildings within Ganden Monastery and is the location where Tsongkhapa and other abbots of the monastery lived. Another highlight is Tsokchen Hall, the monastery’s main assembly hall that can house 3500 monks and is decorated with over a hundred pillars and skillfully carved bronze statues. The tomb of Tsongkhapa, or rather what is left of it after China’s cultural revolution, can be found at Serdung.

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