How to experience Lhasa, Tibet and get the most out of your time
While visiting Nepal, I was offered an opportunity to spend a few days in Tibet. It was an offer that I could not turn down; a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Lhasa and the home of Tibetan Buddhism. I could not wait to make a pilgrimage to this legendary city.
Of the 30 days I planned to spend in Nepal, I carved out 4 days for my Tibet experience. It was a mad rush to get my Visa, arrange the tour guide (a necessity) and flights. Luckily, Epic Adventures Nepal, my tour agency handled everything for me. The hike to Annapurna Base Camp (4,130M) helped prepare me for Lhasa's lofty 3,490M altitude.
The visit I had in Tibet will go down as one of the most profound travel experiences that I have ever had. It is truly a MUST EXPERIENCE destination.
Tibet, and Lhasa in particular, are changing rapidly. There are far fewer people who lived through the transition when China took control. The limitations inflicted on the Tibetan people are slowly but surely impacting the culture and traditions. See this place while it still retains some of its history and character. Lhasa is rapidly becoming a cookie cutter metropolitan city.
Fly into Lhasa's modern airport, get picked up by your guide (the only way to leave the airport) and prepare for an eye opening tour. In a short time (3-4 days) you can see most of what Lhasa has to offer. With more time you can venture farther out and see more of Tibet's beauty and traditions.
Day 1- Fly from Kathmandu to Lhasa; Explore the neighborhood
I arrived at the Kathmandu airport, ready for my 80 minute flight to Lhasa. I was told not to bring any literature or pictures of the Dalai Lama. I packed light, but warm. In December, the average temperature in Lhasa is 16°F to 46°F.
The flight was 80 minutes, but the time difference is 2:15. Leaving Kathmandu at 12PM, I arrived in Lhasa at around 3:35PM local time.
I have to highlight the flight as one of the most incredible, as you will fly over the Himalayas and be able to spot some of the highest picks on the planet, including Mt. Everest. I couldn't blink during the whole flight as the views were extraordinary.
Getting through Customs and Immigration was not as tedious as I had expected. The Chinese officials were efficient and professional. I was struck by how cold it was inside the airport; there was no heat.
Our Tibetan guide was waiting for us with the paperwork to be released from the airport. He greeted us with white scarves (Khata) which brings good luck.
Our guide brought us to the van where the driver was waiting to take us to Lhasa. On the outskirts of the city, we had to pass through a checkpoint to register not only our arrival in the city, but also the driver and guide.
Traffic in the city was not heavy and we arrived at our hotel (The Tibet Gang-gyan Lhasa Hotel) by early afternoon. Once again, I was struck by how cold it was - inside! It actually seemed colder inside than outside (no sun to warm me up).
We checked in, were handed coupons for our complimentary breakfast and headed to the room to drop our belongings. Our guide had pointed out a restaurant up the street from the hotel. We walked over for an early dinner and then took a scenic route back to the hotel through some alleys replete with little shops, bustling pilgrims and no other tourists.
Wending my way through the alleys behind the hotel, I took in the sights, sounds and smells of Lhasa. I was immersed in the real life experience.
I bought a bag of freshly popped popcorn (one of my favorite foods :-)) from a street vendor and made my way slowly back to the hotel. The temperature had dropped a lot when the sun went down, but I hardly noticed in the heat of experiencing the new.
As mentioned, we had come from Annapurna Base Camp and were already well acclimated. If your body has not adapted to the high altitude, resting, hydrating and taking it easy on your 1st day is highly recommended.
It is normal to not have any activities planned for the 1st day in Lhasa. The 1st day is a day of acclimation to the altitude
Back at the hotel - We arrived back in the chilly lobby of our hotel and headed to the room. We had a small electric heater which was nice to stand next to. The shower was hot and there were sufficient blankets to pile on to keep warm. It is funny how exploring is exhilirating and energizing, but when you stop, you realize how tired you really are. Sleep well little explorer, sleep well!
Day 2 - Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Barkhor Market Place
Tour time: Approximately 2 hours in each location, plus 30 minute travel time
Potala Palace - Home of the Dalai Lama
Our guide had scheduled to pick me up from the hotel at 8:30AM. I woke up, got dressed warmly and went downstairs for breakfast. Breakfast was a bit different than what I am used to, but they did have eggs cooked to order and a variety of Tibetan and Chinese options to try.
After our breakfast, I hopped in the van and headed toward Potala Palace.
Our driver dropped me and the guide off in front of Potala Palace. Rather than go straight to the palace, we instead crossed the road to go to a scenic overlook. It was early in the morning and the air was so cold that it took my breath away.
Carefully we ascended the steps to get a view of the palace. This was an amazing introduction to the place we were about to visit. From this vantage point I could see many pilgrims circumambulating around the palace in prayer.
My guide acquired the entry passes while I took pictures. The entry pass was set for a specific entry time. Since I had a few minutes, our guide showed us where a type of wine was produced in the lower levels of the palace, including the process for making it and how it was stored. It was a nice way to pass the time.
I went through security and entered the palace. As cold as it was outside, it felt even chillier inside.
I am used to heat indoors in the winter, in Tibet that is a rarity, especially in a historic structure like Potala Palace. We began our ascent going through the palace and up outside stairways.
My hands and feet were sore from the frigid temperatures, but the spectacle of the palace was warming me from the inside.
The tour of Potala Palace took about 2 hours. My guide stopped and explained how certain rooms were used, where the Dalai Lama met with people, where he studied, where he slept, etc. He showed us the statues of the 13 previous Dalai Lamas, and the statues of different Buddhas. I only saw a fraction of the 1,000 rooms in the palace, but it was incredible.
Please note that no one is allowed to take any pictures inside the Potala Palace, as well as inside any religious site in Tibet, as they are very strict with the photography rules.
The palace is so well preserved and so well taken care of, like it is waiting for its owner to return home any day now. The only other people in the palace were Tibetan pilgrims. I was visiting the palace on December 31st, and many Tibetans came from the countryside to celebrate the New Year with a pilgrimage to the holy sights in Lhasa.
Seeing the pilgrims making offerings (money or yak butter) was so special. It is through these donations that the monks maintain this amazing structure.
Jokhang Temple is located in the center of Barkhor Market Place. To get to the temple, we first had to pass through a police checkpoint. Foreigners need only pass through a metal detector and put their bags on a belt to be scanned. Tibetans have to do the same thing but also scan their identity cards to register their entry into the area.
Built in the 7th century, this Temple is considered the holiest place in Tibet. Barkhor Street surrounding the temple hosts a centrifugal tide of pilgrims from all corners of Tibet.
The approach to the temple is a sight to behold. You will see many people prostrating themselves repeatedly in front of the temple in veneration of Buddha and the relics within. While my guide went to get the entry tickets, I took in the incredible scene before me. The scent of yak butter candles was heavy in the air, the crowds of pilgrims in the midst of prayer, the colors and variety of the costumes, and the people looking at me with smiles and curiosity.
My guide led me to a short tourist line to enter the temple. There was a much much longer pilgrimage line that converged on the entrance door. We squeezed inside along with the people making their pilgrimage, their hands full of money, yak butter and a variety of other offerings.
Our tour lasted approximately 2 hours, seeing the different rooms, statues and levels of the temple. There are thousands of images (statues, pictures and wall hangings) of bodhisattvas, including a huge Sakyamuni Buddha statue which is highlight for many of the pilgrims.
One of the most interesting parts of the vist was learning about the Future Buddha. The Future Buddha will come when the Dharma is all but lost and will provide the teaching to liberate others' from suffering and achieve enlightenment. Wow, it was a very cool and beautiful lesson in Mahayana Buddhism. Hearing my guide describe the meaning of the bodhisattvas and explain the importance of specific images added an intimate insider dimension to this tour.
After the temple tour, our guide showed us how to get back to our hotel which was within walking distance. By now it was late afternoon, the sun was still shining, and there were many people walking around Barkhor Market. I decided to stay in the market and continue to explore the area.
Barkhor Street is an approximately mile long loop around Jokhang Temple with alleys and small side streets branching off from it. There is so much to see and it is in my opinion one of the best photo taking opportunities I have ever seen.
I spent approximately 2-3 hours exploring and photographing people and places in and around Barkhor Market. I was so immersed in the experience and the environment that the time passed too quickly and I knew I wanted to return again. But, with the sun down and a growling stomach, it was time to get some dinner and head back to the hotel. Spending time wandering the market and the alleyways was the highlight of my day! This was the real Tibet, observing Tibetans and being observed by them. My husband and I were stopped many times to have pictures taken with a variety of people. It was a unique, amazing and special experience.
Spending days at this altitude is tiring, but the more time we stayed, the more you start to adapt. Aside from getting winded climbing stairs, I did experience a lack of appetite as a side effect of the altitude.
Day 3 - Sera Monastery, Drepung Monastery & Bakhor Market Place (again)
Tour time: Approximately 2 hours per location
Sera Monastery, once home to over 5,000 Buddhist Monks, is now home to 400 Monks. It is one the the three great university monasteries of Tibet. Founded in 1419, it was heavily damaged during the 1959 revolt in Lhasa.
Situated on the outskirts of Lhasa, the setting of the monastery is dramatic with size of the complex and the mountain backdrop. The monastery contains many small chapels, statues and images of bodhisattvas, frescoes on the walls and stuppas of past Dalai Lamas. I was again introduced the the Buddhas of the Three Times, past, present and future.
The large Grand Assembly Hall and courtyard in front are reminders of the heyday of the monastery when it was flush with students. Inside the hall, cushions were placed where the monks sit for their daily prayers. It was sad to see that only a small portion of the seats were set up, and were surrounded by a sea of empty benches.
The monastery complex is maintained by dontations of visitors and pilgrims, and the upkeep is done by the monks who live there. As such, it is apparent that the monastery is suffering from lack of support.
Expect to spend 1-2 hours touring the monastery complex. As with Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple, the smell of yak butter candles is pervasive.
On leaving the monastery, I stopped at the cafateria for some hot tea. It was wonderful to sit in the sun, sipping hot tea alongside other Tibetans and enjoying the atmosphere....Oh, and play with the puppies too.
Following a wonderful lunch with a Tibetan family (relatives of our guide), we were off to the Drepung Monastery. Founded in 1416, Drepung Monsastery was once among the world's largest monasteries. Once home to 7,700 monks, Drepung is now allowed to have 400 monks.
Much of the monastery was destroyed after the Chinese arrived in 1951. The main buildings of the monastery were preserved and construction is evident as the monks build new dormitories in advance of an impending celebratory event. It was clear to see that many buildings were empty and in disrepair. Given the size of the complex, it is not hard to understand why. With so few residents, the monastery complex cannot be sustained.
There are a few interesting points of this monastery that were unique.
First, I noticed a lot of children had black marks on their nose. According to my guide, children can get a blessing at the monastery which promotes health and wards off sickness.
Second, there is a chapel dedicated to the Nature Buddha. There is a Buddha image that was discovered in the rock (naturally occuring). That was how the sight was selected for the monastery. It is considered to be great luck to visit the Nature Buddha.
Third, as I was leaving, I saw a small group of people putting their finger in a small indent in the wall. My guide explained that if you stand 12 feet away from the wall, close your eyes and walk forward an put your finger in the indent, you will see your deceased relatives. It was quite fun to watch one person after another attempt to get their finger in the indent. Most of them cheated and peaked.
Fourth, and most amazing was watching the monks debate. I think I watched the vibrant debates for about 30 minutes. After listening to a teacher in the morning, the monks then go to a courtyard where they pair off and debate what they have just learned. It looks like the monks are fighting, with wild gestures, shouting and slapping their hands together to make a point. By making arguments and counterarguments, the monks develop a deeper understanding of the concepts. I really enjoyed witnessing this tradition and seeing how the monks really immersed in the topic they were discussing.
I spent about 2 hours to see the Drepung Monastery. From there, I was dropped back off at the hotel where I made my way back through the alleys to Barkhor Market.
Barkhor Market Place - Evening Stroll
My hotel was well situated so that we could easily walk to Barkhor Market. I made my way through the alley shops, and made a few small purchases along the way using cash that we got from an ATM. It was so interesting to see all the different types of traditional clothes for sale. While Barkhor Market is commercialized, the alleyways are simpler and more traditional. You can find some souvenirs here, but the little shops are geared to serve locals.
I made my way through the security checkpoint and onto Barkhor Street once again. The street lamps and pilgrims circumnavigating the temple made a magical sight. I wandered around Barkhor Market, looking in some stores, but mostly just people watching, and being watched by people. New Years is not a normal time for tourists, but it is a high time for pilgrims. I think most of them had never seen a blonde foreigner before, just as I had never seen people as exotic as them. There was definitely a mutual fascination.
As the temperature continued to drop, I stopped for dinner before heading back to the hotel. I had so many great photos and so many great memories from our exploration around the Market. It was truly my favorite experience in Tibet.
Day 4 - Flight from Lhasa to Kathmandu
Trip time: 2 hour flight
I had made the most of my time in Lhasa, and it was time to head back to Nepal and continue my exploration there. After breakfast, my driver and guide brought me to the airport. My guide took such good care of me for the entire visit, and he even stood and watched as I checked in and then went through security. It was like a parent watching their child get on the bus and keep watching until the bus drives away.
I arrived at the airport early and had to wait for Immigration to open so that I could go to the gate. The airport was freezing cold, and the plane was late. The hour delay in departure felt like an eternity. I could not wait to get on the plane and feel heat again.
The return flight to Kathmandu was pleasant. With the time change, we essentially landed at the same time we took off. No time lost to continue my Nepalese adventure.