Royalty, revolt, and religion — Lhasa has been a city of intrigue since was established more than a millennium ago. Standing at an altitude of 3,490 metres (11,450 ft), Lhasa, which translates to “Place of Gods”, is one of the highest cities in the world. This centre of Tibetan Buddhism draws throngs of curious tourists and devout pilgrims each year. Despite the growing siege of modernity in Lhasa, it remains entirely possible to immerse yourself in the otherworldly charm of the city. Here are ten activities that let you experience traditional Tibetan life.
1. Immerse yourself in the history of Jokhang Temple
Any spiritual journey must begin with a visit to Jokhang Temple, the holy core of Tibetan Buddhism. The nearly 1,400-year-old monastery was founded in 647 by the first Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo, and houses the most revered image of the Golden Buddha, Jowo Rinpoche. Various legends tell of how Jokhang came to be. One popular tale says that a stupa emerged from the lake where the king’s ring fell when he tossed it into the air to ask the spirits for guidance. The lake was filled in, and Jokhang’s central shrine now sits protectively over the extraordinary stupa.
Morning hours are strictly reserved for pilgrims performing their devotions. However, visitors are welcome to observe these rituals from the plaza out front to appreciate Tibetans’ reverence for Jokhang. The grounds are open in the afternoon for the public to explore the labyrinth of temples dedicated to various gods and bodhisattvas.
Address: Barkhor Street
Opening Hours: 8 am to 11:3 0am (For religious visitors), 11:30 am to 5:30 pm
Cost: 85 RMB / 12.30 USD (Apr 21 to Oct 19), 35 RMB / 5 USD (Oct 20- Apr 20).
2. Practice kora around the Barkhor circuit
Barkhor is an area of well-worn streets and a public square that encircles Jokhang Temple. It is said that the path was formed by the thousands of Buddhist pilgrims who flocked to the temple when it was built by the king. Incense is burnt continuously in tribute to the gods protecting Jokhang in the four stone sangkang (incense burners) flanking Barkhor. From dusk to dawn, you can expect to see pilgrims making the sacred kora, or meditative circumambulation, along the circuit.
Start from a clockwise direction and join the locals in treading the sacred path. Even if you are not inclined to prostrate fully as the pilgrims do, the walk is sure to bring you spiritual calm. Do remember to check out the bustling Tromzikhang market for souvenirs, located in the square.
Barkhor Pilgrim Circuit
Address: Barkhor Street
Website: Barkhor Pilgrim Circuit
3. Observe the sunrise on Chakpori Hill
Casting a protective shadow over Potala Palace, the sacred Chakpori Hill is one of Tibet’s four holy mountains. Peaking an impressive height of 3,725 metres (12,221 ft), Chakpori was once the centre of Tibetan medicine. In the past, llamas seeking the knowledge of traditional Tibetan medicine congregated at the crown of the hill to pay homage to a sapphire figure resting within its temple. The figure was said to be the avatar incarnation of Sakyamuni, whose mystical healing powers were renowned and unparalleled.
Today, it is not healers, but photographers who throng to Chakpori Hill. The top of Chakpori offers a panoramic view of Potala Palace and its surroundings. As dawn creeps over the ancient palace, the landscape is illuminated by an ethereal golden glow that reminds you once again why Tibet is truly the place of wonders.
Address: South of Potala Palace
Opening Hours: 7 am to 7 pm
4. Stroll through the lush gardens of Norbulingka
Norbulingka, known as the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, is the horticultural crown jewel of Lhasa. Situated 3 km (1.86 mi) west of Potala Palace, Norbulingka was built in 1755 for the 7th Dalai Lama to work and meditate in. There are in fact 3 palaces within the sprawling 36 ha (89 acres) area: Kelsang Potrang, the oldest palace, is named after the 7th Dalai Lama; Takten Migyur Potrang, the new palace, was where the present 14th Dalai Lama resided before his exile; and Tyokyil Potrang, a pavilion set in the middle of a lake, was built for the 8th Dalai Lama.
Aside from the new palace, where visitors can get a peek of the Dalai Lama’s working and living quarters, most rooms in Norbulingka are closed. Nevertheless, the verdant gardens, filled with more than 100 species of Himalayan flora, and the exquisitely designed pools, reflecting the skies with crystal clarity on clear days, is sure to provide respite for the crowd-weary traveller. As a bonus, visitors should stop by the yellow-walled mani lhakhang (prayer-wheel chapel) south of the Norbulingka entrance on their way out.
Address: No.21 Luobulinka Road
Opening Hours: 9 am to 6 pm
Cost: 60 RMB / 8.70 USD
5. Watch the monks debate at Sera Monastery
Sera Monastery is nestled in the foothills just north of Lhasa. Founded nearly 600 years ago in 1419, the monastery is a complex of colleges, hermitages, and awe-inspiring prayer halls. Although its population has shrunk considerably from its original 5,000 to the 600 today, Sera Monastery persists in its original mission to spread knowledge of Buddhism.
Debates on Buddhist Doctrines, which is said to facilitate a deeper understanding, is a distinctive part of the learning process for monks residing at Sera Monastery. To the unaccustomed onlooker, the vigorous gesticulation and emphatic exchanges between the participants can seem rather intimidating. However, both defender and questioner are bound by a formal set of procedures, and every gesture has its own symbolic value. Do make time to witness this age-old tradition that takes place from 3 pm to 5 pm daily, in the garden near the assembly hall.
Opening Hours: 9 am to 4 pm
Cost: 55 RMB / 8 USD
Website: Sera Monastery
6. Receive blessings at Drepung Gomang Monastery
Similarly to Sera Monastery, Drepung Gomang Monastery is one of the three great monasteries of Tibet. Drepung Gomang translates to “rice-heap”, so named for its iconic white exterior which can be recognised from afar. At its prime, it was the grandest monastery in the world and housed up to 7,700 monks. Although its population has dwindled to about 600 today, Drepung’s history as the Dalai Lama’s original residence has helped to cement its influence.
The best time to visit Drepung is in the afternoon when scriptures are read in front of the statue of the Dalai Lama in the Assembly Hall. Then, streams of midday light set the golden figure aglow, even as novices scamper in and out of the kitchen just left of the hall to ferry tsampa and yak-butter tea to their elders. More importantly, make sure to visit the image of Maitreya Buddha (the future Buddha) on the third floor of the main building. Cup your right hand above your left when offered the holy water. Sip, then splash the rest on your head.
Drepung Gomang Monastery
Opening Hours: 9:30 am to 5:30 pm, smaller chapels close at 3 pm
Cost: 60 RMB / 8.70 USD
Website: Drepung Gomang Monastery
7. Spend a night at Ganden Monastery
The Ganden Monastery is the third of the three most important monasteries in Tibet. Significantly, it was the first monastery of the Gelugpa order. Ganden was established in 1409 by the founder of the order himself, Je Tsongkhapa, to symbolise the birth of Gelugpa. A labyrinth of more than 50 structures, the complex rests on Wangbori Mountain at some 3,800 meters (12,467 ft) above sea level. Devotees practicing kora around Ganden are blessed with a breathtaking vista of the Kyichu River weaving through the Lundrup Valley below.
The Ganden Monastery is located about 50 km (31 mi) east of Lhasa and requires at least a 1.5 hr journey by car. However, as any of the thousands of pilgrims making their way there can testify, the promises of benediction and an opportunity to absorb Tibetan history is worth any length of travel. Visitors can choose to spend a night in the guesthouse run by the monastery.
Opening Hours: 9 am to 4 pm
Cost: 50 RMB / 7.25 USD
8. Walk in the footsteps of masters at Drak Yerpa
25 km (15.5 mi) northeast of Lhasa sits Drak Yerpa, a collection of shrines, meditation, and retreat caves. The hermitage of 108 caves was built in the 7th century by King Songtsen Gampo for his wife after she established the early temples in Yerpa. Among those who have graced the holy site are Guru Rimpoche (“Lotus-born”) and Atisha, the Bengali religious leader recognised for spreading Buddhist teachings widely across Asia.
Admittedly, the hike up to Drak Yerpa requires some effort. Nevertheless, for visitors who can and are willing to make the climb, the hermitage bestows upon them a feeling of serenity and an unparalleled view from its resting place of 4,000 m (13,023 ft) above the Yerpa Valley. As the local saying goes, “if Lhasa is the shrine of Tibet, Drak Yerpa is the shrine of Lhasa”.
Address: Yerpa Valley, Dagzê County
Cost: 30 RMB / 4.36 USD
9. Learn to cook Tibetan cuisine at the Tibetan Family Kitchen
As any seasoned traveler will tell you, food is vital to understanding a new culture. Tibetan cuisine reflects its landscape of mountains and plateaus and hints at influences from its neighboring regions of India and Nepal. In the wintry climate where it is difficult to cultivate vegetables, barley, dairy products, and meat from animals such as yaks and goats form the staple of the local diet.
While Western and Chinese restaurants now flood the dining scene in Lhasa, not far from Barkhor is the Tibetan Family Kitchen, which continues to serve authentic Tibetan food. Let the cook, a local Tibetan well-known in Lhasa for his culinary skills, whip up a few dishes such as yak momo, tsampa, yak butter tea, and more. Or even better, sign up for their cooking classes and learn the art of creating these comforting fares for yourself.
Tibetan Family Kitchen
Address: No. 1 Danjielin Road 6-2-5
Opening Hours: Mon 9 am to 5 pm, Tue to Sun 10 am to 10 pm
Website: Tibetan Family Kitchen
10. Recuperate with a Kunye Massage at Tenzin Blind Massage Centre
Kunye, roughly meaning a body rub, is one of the healing practices found in the four Tantras of Tibetan Medicine. It is believed that early tantric yogis relied on massages and acupressure points to help align their energies and life-force. As a dynamic form of therapy, Kunye may use various oils (clarified female yak butter being the preferred choice), hot stones, indigenous herbs, and so on to treat specific conditions.
The Tenzin Blind Massage Centre offers the blind a chance to integrate into society by training them as medical masseurs. Run by graduates of the Braille Without Borders organisation, Kunye administered at the hands of these dedicated individuals can help you acclimatise to Lhasa’s altitude, or to recover from the many steep temple steps. Should you wish, you can even request for a session in the privacy of your hotel room.
Tenzin Blind Massage Centre
Address: Beijing middle road, 3rd floor, Door No. 42
Opening Hours: 9:30 am to 11 pm
Cost: 130 RMB / 18.88 USD for Chinese massage, 150 RMB / 21.75 USD for Tibetan oil massage
Website: Tenzin Blind Massage Centre
Finding peace at the Place of Gods
It is important to note that independent travel is not allowed in Tibet. Before you embark on your Lhasa experience, do secure a trustworthy Tibetan guide from the many agencies available. Do also take some time adjust to the altitude when you arrive. As the yak-butter lamps continue to be filled by earnest supplicants and as the incense continues to permeate the soaring stupas, Lhasa will remain a city of divine wonder.