Beijing Getaways: Lhasa ལྷ་ས་གྲོང་ཁྱིར
Sampling the High Life: Lhasa offers a breathtaking window onto Tibetan culture
Lhasa, capital of the mountainous region of Tibet (or "Xizang" in Chinese) means "Land of the Gods", and sits in a valley adjacent to the Kyichu (Lhasa) River. The city, which is over 1300 years old and currently has a population of around 500,000, is located in south-central Tibet, and is a fantastic place to relax and soak up Tibetan culture before heading off into the remote and rugged countryside.
Generally the period from April to October is the best time to visit Lhasa and Tibet. Since Lhasa is located at such a high altitude (3650m) travelers should be well prepared before starting their journey. Due to the large temperature differences possible on any given day, warm clothes should be taken to keep away the cold. However, because of the strength of the sun, sunglasses, sun block and a baseball hat are also indispensable.
Travelers should also take a few days to acclimatize themselves to a change in altitude. On arriving in Lhasa (from other provinces) it is not uncommon to suffer headaches, shortness of breath and nausea. However, as time passes these symptoms should disappear, and medication for altitude sickness is available. Gentle treks around town are recommended for the first couple of days, especially for more elderly visitors.
Lhasa is clearly divided into two quarters - Chinese and Tibetan. Most foreigners opt to stay in the Tibetan part of Lhasa simply because it is far more interesting and authentic. There are a wide range of accommodation options in the Tibetan Quarter, offering everything from dorm beds to 3 and 4-star luxury hotels. Lhasa has plenty of taxis and rickshaws which make getting around very easy there is a flat taxi fare for short journeys. The Tibetan Quarter also has many restaurants offering Western, Tibetan, Chinese, Nepali and Indian cuisine - yak butter tea can be an acquired taste!
The pulsating heart of the Tibetan Quarter is the Barkhor, essentially a pilgrim circuit that proceeds clockwise around the exterior of the 1300-year old, golden-roofed Jokhang Temple. In a sign of respect, Buddhists always circumambulate shrines, temples and other religious objects such as stupas in a clockwise direction, walking in slow, measured steps and keeping their right side towards the object of veneration. As a hive of streetside market activity and enthralling pilgrim jamboree, a trip to the Barkhor makes a perfect introduction to Tibetan life.
On their first day in Lhasa, standing close to the Jokhang entrance, visitors to Lhasa will be mesmerized by the ceaseless flow of highly colorful Tibetans tramping around the Barkhor. From wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked toddlers in ethnic-style papooses to wizened, sun-darkened octogenarians with walnut-like skin, it seemed like the whole of Lhasa turns out to pay homage to the Buddha. Some women complement their eye-catching ensembles with designer sunglasses and ribbons in their braids, and it's hard not to visualize them sashaying down the catwalks of New York and Milan introducing a new line in Tibetan haute couture.
The Jokhang Temple is the spiritual center of Tibet, the Holy of Holies, the end point of countless Tibetan pilgrimages. Unlike the nearby lofty Potala Palace, the Jokhang has intimate, human proportions, bustling with worshippers and redolent with mystery. The outer courtyard and porch of the temple are usually filled with pilgrims making full-length prostrations toward the holy sanctum. In Vajrayana Buddhism, the predominant form of Buddhism in Tibet, prostrations are seen as a means of purifying ones body, speech and mind of karmic defilements, especially pride.
No trip to Lhasa is complete with a tour of the supremely imposing Potala Palace. Perched on Marpo Ri (Red) Hill, 130 meters above the Lhasa valley, the huge red and white structure rises up a further 170 meters and is by far the greatest man-made edifice in the whole of Tibet. Originally intended as a wedding gift, the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo had the first Potala built for his new wife, the Tang Dynasty Princess Wencheng, in 614. Rebuilt after the 17th century, the present Potala Palace is divided into the Dalai Lama's living chambers, and those areas housing holy stupas and various Buddhist halls.
The interior of the Potala is a seemingly never-ending succession of dark, smoky rooms, each invariably home to one or more oversized golden Buddhas and giant, candle-lit cauldrons filled to the brim with molten yak butter. Greasy soot coats roof beams and stone floors, saturating everything with the stench of stale butter. Much like the British Museum in London, it is unfortunate that very few of the Potala's myriad treasures are viewable today. The tomb of the Fifth Dalai Lama, three storeys high, is made of a staggering 3,700kg of gold, and hints at the untold fortunes withheld from public scrutiny.
Another must-see in the Lhasa area is Drepung Monastery, formerly the largest in the world. Situated at the foot of Mount Gambo Utse, 5 kilometers from the western suburbs of Lhasa, Drepung Monastery is one of Tibet's three "Three Great Monasteries" (the other two are Ganden Monastery and Sera Monastery). Seen from a distance its white walls are said to give the monastery the appearance of a heap of rice, and "Drepung Monastery" in Tibetan means the Monastery of Collecting Rice.
Other highlights in Lhasa include the Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's former summer residence, and Sera Monastery, both located in the suburbs, plus the scenic Nam-tso Lake and Ganden Monastery which can be reached on day trips. Most of the hotels and hostels in the Tibetan Quarter run tours - check on the notice board outside each one for other travelers looking to share transport. Longer trips to Everest Base Camp and Mount Kailash are also possible.
Book hotels in Lhasa - Most visitors to Lhasa stay in the Tibetan Quarter where there is a wide range of accommodation options available for every budget from backpackers to millionaires.
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