Tibet Travel Guide
Tibet's capital since the 7th century, Lhasa is an intoxicating introduction to Tibet. The Dalai Lamas' splendid but poignantly empty seat, the Potala Palace, dominates the city from its site on top of Marpo Hill. The old Tibetan quarter to the east is Lhasa's most interesting area; its centerpiece is the revered Jokhang Temple. Around it is the Barkhor, which retains its medieval character with smoky temples and cobbled alleys. Most Tibetans come here as pilgrims. The additions of concrete buildings and internet cafés show how the city has changed over recent decades.
Lhasa city center
- Ani Tsankhung Nunnery (4)
- Jokhang Temple (5)
- Lukhang (2)
- Norbulingka (7)
- Potala Palace (1)
- Ramoche (3)
- Tibet Museum (6)
Built on Lhasa's highest point, Marpo Hill, the Potala Palace is the greatest monumental structure in Tibet. Thir-teen stories high, with over a thousand rooms, it was once the residence of Tibet's chief monk and leader, the Dalai Lama, and therefore the center for both spiritual and temporal power. These days, after the present Dalai Lama's escape to India in 1959, it is a vast museum, serving as a reminder of Tibet's rich and devoutly religious culture, although major political events and religious ceremonies are still held here. The first palace was built by Songtsen Gampo in 631, and this was merged into the larger building that stands today. There are two main sections – the White Palace, built in 1645 under orders from the 5th Dalai Lama, and the Red Palace, completed in 1693.
the Lukhang Temple
Picturesquely located on an island in the lake behind the Potala, and cloaked by willows in summer, this temple is dedicated to the king of the water spirits (lu), who is depicted riding an elephant at the back of the main hall. The upper floors are decorated with striking 18th-century murals, representing the Buddhist Path to Enlightenment. Their great attention to detail and vivid stories offered visual guidance to the Dalai Lamas, who retired here for periods of spiritual retreat.
Buddhist myths dominate the walls on the second floor, while the top-floor murals depict the esoteric yogic practises of the Indian tantric masters. They also illustrate episodes in the life of Pema Lingpa, ancestor of the 6th Dalai Lama who is credited with the Lukhang's original design in the 17th century.
The three-story Ramoche, just north of the Barkhor area, is the sister temple to the Jokhang. It was built in the 7th century by Songtsen Gampo to house the statue of Jowo Sakyamuni (Tibet's most venerated Buddha image), brought by his Chinese wife Wencheng. According to legend, the threat of Chinese invasion after the king's death compelled his family to hide the statue inside the Jokhang. It was replaced by a bronze statue of an eight-year-old Sakyamuni, part of the dowry of another of his wives, the Nepalese Princess Bhrikuti.
The reconstructed temple features some huge prayer wheels, and is not as busy as the Jokhang. Next door is the Tsepak Lhakhang, a chapel with an image of Jampa, the Tibetan name for the Future Buddha).
Ani Tsankhung Nunnery
Situated in the old Tibetan quarter, the Ani Tsankhung Nunnery is difficult to find. Wandering through the busy back alleys south of the Barkhor area in search of the place, can, however, be a wonderful experience. It is located in a yellow building on the street running parallel and north of Chingdol Dong Lu. The nunnery's main hall contains a beautiful image of Chenresig, the multi-armed Bodhisattva of Compassion, and behind it lies a meditation chamber used by Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century. An air of quiet serenity pervades this quaint place, with its flower bushes and spotless compound. The nunnery's main attraction is the warm welcome the curious nuns give to the visitors that come here.
The constant bustle, gaudy paraphernalia of worship, flickering butter lamps, and wreaths of heady incense make the Jokhang Temple one of Tibet's most memorable experiences. The Jokhang was founded in AD 639 to house an image of the Buddha brought as dowry by the Nepali Princess Bhrikuti on her marriage to King Songtsen Gampo. Its location was chosen by another wife of the king, the Chinese consort Princess Wencheng. She declared that a giant female demon slumbered beneath the site and a temple must be built over her heart to subdue her. After the king's death, Wencheng's own dowry image of Jowo Sakyamuni was moved from the Ramoche to the Jokhang, where it was thought to be safer from invading forces.
- Summer: 9am–6:30pm, winter: 10:30am–5pm
This impressive building pre-sents a rather one-sided version of Tibetan history. If the propaganda is ignored, however, the over 30,000 relics are worth a visit. There are plenty of religious artifacts, but the most interesting displays are of rare Tibetan musical instruments and medical tools.
the Dalai Lamas in the Norbulingka
Today a pleasantly scrubby park, the Norbulingka (Jewel Park) was once the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas. Founded by the 7th Dalai Lama in 1755 and expanded by his successors, the park contains several palaces, chapels, and buildings, and is a charming place for a leisurely afternoon visit. The path west from the entrance leads to the oldest palace, the Kelsang Potrang, used by the 8th to the 13th Dalai Lamas. Its main hall has a wealth of thangkas and a throne. More diverting is the Summer Palace, just north of here, which was built for the present Dalai Lama in 1954. Its audience chamber holds bright murals depicting events from Tibetan history, from the tilling of the first field to the building of the great monasteries, including the Norbulingka. Next to the chamber are the Dalai Lama’s meditation room and bedroom, preserved exactly as he left them in 1959, when he escaped from this palace disguised as a Tibetan soldier and began his journey to India. The Assembly Hall where he held state has a golden throne and colorful murals depicting scenes from the Dalai Lama’s court, and episodes from the lives of Sakya Thukpa (Sakyamuni, the Historical Buddha) and Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa order of monks.
Street-by-Street: The Barkhor
Lhasa’s liveliest neighborhood, the fascinating Barkhor bustles with pilgrims, locals, and tourists eager to visit the Jokhang – by dusk the crowds are enormous. The pilgrimage circuit or kora that runs clockwise around the Jokhang is Tibet’s holiest and has been since the 7th century; market stalls have always lined the route to serve the pilgrims staying in the area. Many of the buildings in the Barkhor are ancient, some dating back to the 8th century. Despite the efforts of conservationists, some important buildings have been demolished and replaced with less attractive traditional architecture. Still, the Barkhor’s cobbled alleyways maintain a unique, archaic character.
Stalls along the kora
Stalls selling all manner of intriguing bric-à-brac, from cowboy hats to prayer flags, line the entire pilgrimage route. The shops behind the stalls have better quality goods, including religious statuary, and carpets.
A stall selling yak butter for burning candles. Widely available, it gives Jokhang its distinctive smell.
The magnificent Jokhang, Tibet’s most important religious structure, sits at the heart of the Barkhor, and is the structure around which the rest of Lhasa developed.
Two poles laden with flags stand outside the Jokhang. Vertical flag poles originated in the Amdo region, and represent battle flags that have become signs of peace.
Juniper bushes are burnt in the four stone incense burners, or sangkang, which mark the route of the kora.
Exploring around Lhasa
Lhasa’s environs are dotted with the major monasteries of Drepung, Nechung, Sera, and Ganden. Easily accessible from Lhasa by bus, minibus, or hired vehicle, these are ideal for day-trips, especially for those unable to venture farther afield in Tibet. Agencies in Lhasa hire out landcruisers along with a driver and guide. Vehicles can take up to five people – if looking to share the cost with others, check the bulletin boards in backpacker hotels. A Tibet Travel Permit is needed before you enter Lhasa.
- 5 miles (8 km) W of Lhasa
- 8am–4pm daily (chapels close between noon–3pm)
Drepung meaning “rice heap,” was founded in 1416 by Jamyang Choje, a disciple of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat order of monks. In its heyday in the 17th-century, it was Tibet’s richest monastery, with four colleges and 10,000 monks; today there are around 500 to 600.
The site is vast and the easiest way to get around is to follow the pilgrims, who circle the complex clockwise. From the entrance, turn left to the Ganden Palace, built in 1530 as a residence by the 2nd Dalai Lama. His rather plain apartments are upstairs on the seventh floor. The courtyard is usually busy with woodcarvers and block-printers creating prayer prints at great speed. Next is the Tsogchen or Main Assembly Hall, the most atmospheric building in the complex. About 180 pillars hold up the roof, and the room is draped with thangkas and hangings and decorated with suits of armor. There is plenty of statuary, with the finest images in the Chapel of the Three Ages at the back of the Main Assembly Hall.
At the hall’s entrance, stairs lead to the upper floor from where it is possible to see the massive head and shoulders of the Maitreya Buddha, the future Buddha or Jampa, rising up three stories. Pilgrims prostrate before it and drink from a holy conch shell. The Tara Chapel next door contains wooden racks of scriptures and a statue of Prajnaparamita, the Mother of Buddhas and an aspect of the goddess Tara; the amulet on her lap contains a tooth said to belong to Tsongkhapa. Behind the Tsogchen, the little Manjusri Temple has a relief image of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Jampalyang, chiseled out of rock. The circuit continues north to the Ngagpa College, then to various colleges toward the southeast.
Each building contains fine sculptures, though some might prefer to skip them and rest in the courtyard outside the Tsogchen. Those who are acclimatized can walk round the Drepung kora or pilgrim circuit, which passes rock paintings and the cave dwellings of nuns, and offers great views.
Thangkas and Mandalas
Thangkas are religious paintings mounted on brocade that carry painted or embroidered images inside a colored border. Seen in temples, monasteries, and homes, they depict Subjects as diverse as the lives of Buddhas, Tibetan theology and astrology, and mandalas or geometric representations of the cosmos. The Tashilunpo Monastery displays gigantic thangkas during its festivals each year. Mandalas are often used as meditation aids by Buddhists and are based on a pattern of circles and squares around a central focal point. The Potala Palace in Lhasa has a splendid three-dimensional mandala made of precious metal. Monks spend days creating mandalas of colored sand that are swept away on completion to signify the transient nature of life.
at Nechung Monastery
A fifteen-minute walk southeast from Drepung, Nechung Monastery was the seat of the Tibetan Oracle. The Oracle not only predicted the future, but also protected the Buddha’s teachings and his followers. During consultations with the Dalai Lama, the Oracle, dressed in an elaborate and weighty costume, would go into a trance before making his pronouncements, concluding the session in a dead faint. Tibet’s last Oracle fled to India in 1959, and now the monastery has only a few caretaker monks. Nechung’s decor is startling as the courtyard outside is filled with gory paintings and demon torturers. Within the chapels, leering sculptures of skulls loom out of the gloom. The airy Audience Chamber on the second floor is a welcome respite. Here, the Dalai Lama used to consult the Oracle. The roof-level chapel is dedicated to Padmasambhava, the Tantric Buddha, also known as Guru Rinpoche.
at Sera Monastery
Founded in 1419 by disciples of the Gelugpa order, Sera Monastery was famous for its warrior monks, the Dob-Doa. Once home to 5,000 monks, today there are less than one-tenth that number, although the energetic renovation suggests that this may improve.
Activity centers around its three colleges, visited in a clockwise circuit. Turn left from the main path to reach the first college, Sera Me, that was used for instruction in Buddhist basics. Sera NgagPa, a little farther up the hill, was for tantric studies and Sera Je, next to it, was for teaching visiting monks. Each building has a dimly lit main hall and chapels toward the Back that are full of sculptures. The largest and most striking building in the complex is the Tsogchen located farthest up the hill. It features wall-length thangkas, a throne that was used by the 13th Dalai Lama, and images of him and of Sakya Yeshe, the founder of Sera monastery. At the top of the path stands the open-air debating courtyard. The monks used to assemble here for debates and their ritualized gestures – clapping hands and stamping when a point is made. Though fascinating to watch, these are indefinitely suspended at present. The Sera kora, or pilgrim circuit which heads west from the main entrance, takes about an hour to complete and passes some beautiful rock reliefs.
Monastery to infuse the wind with prayers
The farthest of the monasteries from Lhasa, Ganden is probably the one most worth visiting, with its scenic setting high on the Gokpori Ridge. To get a feel of the place, it is best to travel with the excited pilgrims on the bus that leaves from Lhasa’s Barkhor area every morning at 6:30am, returning at 2pm. The monastery was founded in 1410 by Tsongkhapa, and its main building, the Serdung Lhakhang, has as its centerpiece a huge gold and silver chorten (stupa or funerary mound) with Tsongkhapa’s remains. However, the buildings are not its main appeal. Its highlight is the kora, which takes an hour to walk. The circuit offers fine views of the landscape and a chorten or two that pilgrims (and visitors if they wish) must hop around on one leg.
surrounding Ganden Monastery
With its ordered design, wealth of religious treasures, and stunning location, Samye makes a deep impression on visitors. Tibet’s first monastery, Samye was founded in the 8th century during Trisong Detsen’s reign with the input of the great Buddhist teacher, Guru Rinpoche. Indian and Chinese scholars, invited to Samye to translate Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan, argued over the interpretation of doctrine, and so Trisong Detsen held a public debate to decide which form of Buddhism should be followed in Tibet. The Indian school won out and Chinese-religious influence gradually waned. Today the monastery has a well-worn and eclectic feel, having been influenced by numerous sects over the years.
- 93 miles (150 km) SE of Lhasa
- Travel to Samye must be arranged by a travel agency
- unless fee paid
- Samye Festival, 15th day of fifth lunar month
Exploring the Ütse
The Ütse is dimly lit, so take a flashlight to explore. The entrance leads directly into the Main Hall, with the Chenrisig Chapel to the left and the Gongkhan Chapel to the right. The Jowo Sakyamuni Chapel is at the far end of the Main Hall. Numerous chapels and the Dalai Lama’s quarters are located on the second story. The third story has an open gallery lined with impressive murals.
An 8th-century monk-king from Swat in modern-day Pakistan, he is said to have subdued evil demons and established Buddhism in Tibet. Images of him carrying a thunderbolt are found throughout the complex.
Quarters of the Dalai Lama
This simple apartment, consisting of anteroom, bedroom and throne room, is full of relics, including Guru Rinpoche’s hair and walking stick.
View of Samye Monastery
A superb view of the monastery can be had from the surrounding hills. From here it is easy to see that the monastery is laid out as a 3-D mandala.
This chapel centers on a stunning statue of Chenresig, with an eye painstakingly painted on each of its thousand hands.
Jowo Sakyamuni Chapel
Samye’s most revered chapel centers on an image of Sakyamuni at age 38. He is flanked by two protector deities and ten Bodhisattvas.
Plan of Samye Complex
Samye’s design echoes Tibetan Buddhism’s cosmology of the universe. Many of the 108 buildings have been destroyed, but the four ling chapels representing the island continents that surround Mount Sumeru (the Ütse) are still intact. Jampa Ling holds an impressive mural of the complex as it once was. The circular monastery wall is topped with 1,008 chortens that represent Chakravla, the ring of 1,008 mountains that surrounds the universe.
- Jowo Sakyamuni Chapel
- Chenresig Chapel
- Tolung Valley. 45 miles (70 km) W of Lhasa
- daily from Barkhor Square in Lhasa. Last bus back to Lhasa, 3pm
- 4WD rented from Lhasa, 2–3 hrs
- 9am–2pm daily
Situated at an altitude of 14,700 ft (4,480 m), this monastery was founded in the 12th century by the Karmapa or Black Hats order and is important as the home of the Karmapa Lama, the third most important religious leader in Tibet after the Dalai and Panchen Lamas). The present incumbent, the 17th Karmapa, fled to India in 1999 at the age of 14. His departure was significant as he was the only senior Tibetan Buddhist official recognized by both the Chinese authorities and the Dalai Lama. The flood of daily pilgrims who came for blessings has now stopped and the monastery is rather quiet, though several hundred monks still reside here.
The Karmapa’s throne, an object of great veneration, is in the audience chamber of the main hall. Here, a chorten (stupa or funerary mound) contains the relics of the 16th Karmapa, who died in Chicago in 1981. The kora from behind the monastery takes three hours, and provides magnificent views but beware – visitors must be acclimatized.
Beautiful Namtso Lake, with its classic Tibetan scenery of azure water beneath snowcapped peaks and grasslands dotted with herds of yak, has made it the most popular overnight jeep trip from Lhasa. About 45 miles (70 km) long and 19 miles (30 km) wide, it is the second largest saltwater lake in China after Qinghai Hu. The flat land around it offers good grazing, and is usually ringed with nomad encampments in summer. From November to May, the lake freezes over and is impossible to reach. Most people stay a night at Tashi Dor, a monastery on a lakeside hill. Bring a flashlight and a warm sleeping bag. The lake is situated at the incredible height of 15,500 ft (4,718 m), so visitors must be thoroughly acclimatized.
- 158 miles (255 km) SW of Lhasa. Minibus: alternate days from Lhasa bus station
- 4WD from Lhasa
- Travel Permits required
An attractive, if dusty, small town, Gyantse is the sixth largest town in Tibet, famous for its carpets and usually visited en route to Nepal. Often called “Heroic City,” it was originally capital of a 14th-century kingdom, and the remnants of its old Dzong, or fort watches over the town. Heavily bombarded during the British invasion in 1904, when it was captured at great loss of life to the Tibetans, it is today a dramatic ruin with a small museum. Here, Chinese propaganda describes the “heroic battle fought to defend the Chinese motherland,” although at that time China had no authority over Tibet. The Dzong offers good views from its roof. About 650 ft (200 m) northwest is a compound housing the Kumbum and Pelkor Chode Monastery.
The Kumbum, constructed around 1440, is a magnificent six-story and 115-ft (35-m) high chorten, honeycombed with little chapels. It is built in an architectural style unique to Tibet and this is the finest extant example. A clockwise route leads up past chapels full of statuary and decorated with 14th-century murals – kumbum means “a hundred thousand images.” On the fourth floor, painted pairs of eyes, signifying the all-seeing eyes of Buddha, look out in each of the cardinal directions. The staircase in the eastern chapel leads into the chorten’s dome. There are dramatic views from the top. Built 20 years after Kumbum, the Pelkor Chode Monastery was designed for all the local Buddhist sects to use; its murky Assembly Hall has two thrones, one for the Dalai Lama and one for the Sakya Lama. The main chapel at the back of the hall has a statue of Sakyamuni, the Historical Buddha, and some impressive wooden roof decorations. At the very top, the Shalyekhang Chapel has some fine mandalas.
On the way to Gyantse it is worth taking a detour to see beautiful Yamdrok Lake, one of the four holy Tibetan lakes.
Kumbum & Pelkor Chode Monastery
The British Invasion of Tibet
Alarmed by the growing influence of Tsarist Russia in the 19th century, Britain’s viceroy in India sent a diplomatic mission to Tibet in an effort to build links and facilitate the free flow of trade. When the mission failed, an expeditionary force – part of the Great Game – of 1,000 soldiers and 10,000 porters, led by the dashing 26-year-old Colonel Francis Younghusband, invaded Tibet in 1903. As the force traveled inward, they killed almost 700 peasants, who were armed in part with magic charms to ward off bullets. Then, in the world’s highest battle, the British captured Gyantse Fort with only four casualties, while the Tibetans lost hundreds of men. The force proceeded to Lhasa, where an agreement allowed Britain to set up trade missions.