Have you dreamed of visiting Tibet? Did you see Seven Years in Tibet and imagine what it would like to befriend the Dalai Lama or have your own spiritual awakening? Have you ever imagined exploring the Tibetan High Plateau? Then this guide is for you.
In my own way, I’d dreamed of doing all of that. During this series, I will share my experience traveling on a three-week trip through Tibet to hike around Mount Kailash and also to visit Everest Base camp.
But today, I’ll tell you about Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and the starting point of most journeys to the Tibetan plateau. Lhasa sits at just under 12,000 feet (11,994.75 feet to be exact; or 3656 meters). That means that by most standards, it is high elevation. But in Tibet, Lhasa is where you go to get used to the high elevation before going to even higher elevation!
When I was in Lhasa, I spent 4 days acclimating and exploring the many beautiful places this city offers. Lhasa was the seat of the Dalai Lama before the Chinese invaded Tibet, so many of the activities in Lhasa still center around the Dalai Lama and Buddhism.
If you are planning a trip to Tibet, you will probably have to go with a guided tour or at least organized through a tour company, as the Chinese government has very strict control over the area. Here are some of the amazing things you can do in Lhasa to get you excited for the trip:
1. Potala Palace
The Potala Palace, also known as the Winter Palace of the Dalai Lama. This exquisite center of spiritual life for Buddhists involves lots of climbing up stairs, which at altitude, you are sure to feel. Take it slow, but not too slow. There is a time limit for how long you are allowed to stay in the Palace.
I especially enjoyed the rooms with the ancient books, and the statues of the various Tibetan masters. Take your time and take in the spiritual atmosphere.
Norbulingka, also known as the Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama, includes exquisite flower gardens and a large park. There are often festivals and community events you can witness in the central areas of the park.
The Summer Palace is where the Dalai Lama was when he was forced to flee the country. Despite the old (and dusty) furniture, you can feel both the past opulence. Be sure to leave time to enjoy the flowers, gardens, walk around and even have a picnic!
3. Jokhang Temple
Located in central Lhasa, Jokhang temple is the heart of the Tibetan culture and the heart of the community. It is also the most holy and important temple to the Tibetan people.
You can circle the temple and spin the prayer wheels, or go inside and take in all the deities and great masters, and feel the spiritual power. Be sure to go up onto the roof for beautiful views of the mountains in the distance. You may also like to sit quietly and meditate on the roof to take in the spiritual atmosphere.
4. Barkhor Street
After visiting Jokhang Temple, you can head to Barkhor Street, the central shopping district of old Lhasa. You can find unique incense, beautifully woven shawls, medicinal mushrooms, silver and turquoise jewelry, and more. This is an excellent street to wander and take in the interesting and unique Tibetan cultures and also feel the peace even in the busy shopping area.
5. Sera Monastery
For a glimpse into a working monastery and ancient Tibetan culture, visit Sera Monastery. Sera Monastery is located just a couple kilometers (about a mile) outside of Lhasa and is an easy 10-15 minute drive.
If you arrive in the mornings, you can see the monks deep in debate, a traditional way to keep the Buddhist knowledge lively. When one monk finishes his point, he claps his hands together emphatically and sits down. I loved it!
You can visit their main temple, and also sit in the peaceful gardens under the trees. It is amazing to see all the ancient practices maintained in these modern times.
6. Drepung Monastery
Drepung Monastery was once the largest in the world, with over 10,000 monks living there. Now, you feel the deep peace (and higher elevation) of the area. Drepung Monastery is an excellent day trip from Lhasa, where you can enjoy the peace of the mountains and also for incredible views down to the valley.
Depending on when you visit, you may get to witness one of the religious festivals, or temple ceremonies of the approximately 800 monks still living in the monastery.
7. Nechung Monastery
Nechung Monastery is only 10 minutes walk down the hill from Drepung Monastery, so the two can be visited during the same trip. This monastery was the seat of the Buddhist Oracle, who was consulted by the Dalai Lama for all important decisions.
This monastery has a distinctly different décor and feeling than other Buddhist monasteries, and is often associated with rituals involving possession, exorcism, and other spiritual practices pre-dating Buddhism. As it is just a short hike, it is worth it for the walk and to understand the different influences within Buddhism.
While dipping into all that ancient culture, you can also see the Chinese influence. For example, the grocery stores, modern cafes and fast food restaurants with Chinese characters are in abundance. It is almost like visiting two cultures in one!
I recommend stopping in one of the traditional Tibetan teahouses, and if you’re not ready for salty tea, you can still enjoy a simple latte and some of the delicious Tibetan pastries. I’d love to hear: have you ever been to Tibet? Are you planning a trip? What would you like to do?