Travel to China: the city of Lhasa

Lhasa

Lhasa is the historical capital of Tibet and the center of the Tibet Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China, one of the highest elevation cities in the world (3,650 m), the place where the Dalai Lama lived.

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General Information

The city is located in the southern part of the Tibet Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China high on the slope of the Himalayas. “Lhasa” literally translates as “Place of the Gods.” The city appeared more than 1,300 years ago, when the first temples and palaces were built here in the seventh century. Tsongkhapa and his disciples built three monasteries here in the 15th century.

Lhasa is a mystical, mysterious and secluded city with a huge historical past and a heritage of spiritual culture located in the Himalayas. The Kui-Chu River, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, flows near Lhasa.

But don’t get your hopes up; the political and spiritual center of Tibet today is not much different from any other center in a Chinese province: faceless new buildings, wide, straight streets, and satellite dishes.

Attractions in Lhasa

Yokhang Temple

The massive Yokhang Temple consists of three tiers. It houses the most revered Buddha statue in Tibet. Pilgrims walk along three paths (one inside the temple complex and the other two outside it), although walking around the temple is now difficult due to the construction of a busy highway.

Potala Palace

The Grand Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama and once the spiritual and political center of Tibet, is now a museum. The fortress, which has more than 1,000 rooms, is located on Mount Marpo Ri, it was built in the 17th century, during the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama. The inner part of the fortress, the Red Palace is where the temples and burials of the Dalai Lamas are located. The palace was the seat of government and winter residence of the Dalai Lama until he was forced to flee after the failed anti-Chinese uprising in 1959. Read more about Potala Palace

Jokang Monastery

The Dzhokang Monastery is located in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, one kilometer east of the Potala Palace and is the oldest structure in Lhasa, dating back 1,400 years. Read more about Jokang Monastery

Gems Park

In the vast Gems Park in the west of Lhasa stand the summer palaces of the 7th, 8th, 13th, and 14th Dalai Lamas. The 7th Dalai Lama chose this place because of the spring whose healing properties he tested on himself. The palace of the living Dalai Lama, built in 1956, is the first place to visit. It is not very large, quite bright and luxuriously decorated, and therefore quite comparable to the Potala Palace. The wall paintings include one depicting the Dalai Lama visiting Beijing and being received by Mao Zedong. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. 9.00-13.00, 14.30-18.00.

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Drepung Monastery

Drepung, once the largest monastery in Tibet, was founded in 1416 by one of Tsongkhapa’s disciples. Until 1959 it was politically the most influential center of the Gelugpa, the “yellow cap school,” and as its abbots often determined Potala policy, it sometimes made powerful enemies, so it was set on fire several times and partially destroyed. The monastery includes four academies whose buildings are grouped asymmetrically around a large assembly hall.

The Dalai Lama’s Chambers and Palace of Joy

To the west of Lhasa stands the building that houses the former private quarters of the 5th Dalai Lama. Above is the Palace of Joy with the 5th Dalai Lama’s enthronement hall. Both buildings are impressive with their wall paintings, and the same is true of the large assembly hall, which has one hundred and eighty-four columns. The dominant statue in this hall is the image of Maitreya, which reaches to the top floor. To the west of the assembly hall, behind it, stands the Tantric Academy building. It is famous for its extremely noteworthy Dharmapala murals. To the east, below the assembly hall are the buildings of three other academies also containing an exceptional profusion of paintings and statues. 10 km west of Lhasa. Visiting hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., 9 a.m. – 7 p.m. 9.00-17.00.

Sera Monastery

While one disciple of Tsongkhapa founded Drepung, another founded Sera Monastery in 1419. It is not as famous as its eternal rival and is somewhat smaller, but for the same reason it has not suffered as much from historical cataclysms.

Lower Academy

Closest to the parking lot is the Lower Academy. In its great hall is an image of Shakyamuni; but a smaller statue of Shakyamuni in the second chapel on the right near the back wall is more revered. On the other side of the courtyard for scholarly disputations follow two other academies with significant works of art, the Tantric Academy on the left, and the so-called fugitive academy on the right, founded by a monk who left Drepung Monastery as a result of a quarrel. The central shrine shows the reformer Tsongkhapa on the back wall of the great hall of this building, with Shakyamuni on his left and Amitabha on his right, followed by eight Tibetan bodhisattvas as well as guardian deities.

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Assembly Hall.

On the other side of the other disputation courtyard, where monks can often be seen playing question-and-answer games in the afternoon, beyond the surrounding walkway is the main assembly hall, the holy of holies of which is the monumental, two-story Maitreya. 5 km north of Lhasa. Opening hours: every day. 9.00-16.00 (some buildings till 18.00).

Surroundings of Lhasa

Excursions from Lhasa should in principle be arranged through a travel agency. Most often an off-road vehicle is required; therefore the prices for the tours are high and are only justified when four people go together. However, these excursions are highly recommended, primarily because of the beautiful scenery, exploring villages, forts, and solitary monasteries.

Ganden

Ganden, the most important spiritual center of the Yellow Cap School, founded, like Drepung, in 1416, since the 1960s testifies above all to the brutality of Mao’s religious policy. No other shrine in all of China has been so extensively destroyed, so that only ruins and piles of broken stone remain of the massive buildings. Meanwhile, several of the main buildings have been rebuilt with state money and luxuriously decorated to match the original. A visit to this monastery is recommended because of the beauty of the scenery you will pass by and because of the sanctuary’s impressive location in the mountainous landscape. It is about 50 kilometres east of Lhasa. Open throughout the day.

Nam-Tso Lake

Nam-Tso Lake, located at an altitude of 4,590 m and 222 km of road north of Lhasa, is a popular destination for excursions. The peaks of the mountains immediately south of the lake reach 7114 m. Here you should stay overnight, preferably in a monastery on the shore of the lake. You can not count on any conveniences.

Lhasa

Lhasa (Tib. ལྷ་ས་, Chinese 拉萨) is the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region in China. The city is located 3,650 m (12,000 ft) above sea level on the northern slopes of the Himalayas.

General Information

The city of Lhasa, whose name means “Land of the Gods”, has a history of over 1,300 years and is located in the Lhasa River valley. In the eastern part of the city, near the Jokang Temple and the Barkhor area, the Tibetan influence is still strong and visible, and it is quite common to see traditionally dressed Tibetans doing kora (clockwise circumambulation or walking around the Jokang Temple), spinning prayer wheels. The western part of Lhasa is ethnically Chinese in character. It is a busy and modern part of the city, similar to many Chinese cities. Most of the infrastructure, including banks or government offices, can be found here. Hotel reservations can be made on booking and you can check if there is a better price here. Search for private rooms and apartments for rent here.

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How to get there

Non-Chinese nationals need a special permit to visit Tibet as well as a guide.

By air

Lhasa Gonggar Airport (贡嘎机场) (IATA: LXA) is located 61 km south of Lhasa. You can find airfares here.

All arriving non-Chinese must be met at the airport by a guide. You can hire a cab outside the airport. There is also a shuttle bus (25 yuan). Non-Chinese travelers can use transportation provided by the travel agency.

Train

The Qinghai-Tibetan (Qingzang) Railway connects Lhasa and Golmud, with connections to Xining, Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chongqing.

  • T27/28 from/to Beijing-West (daily, 44 hours).
  • T22/23/24/21 from/to Chengdu (every other day, 44 hours).
  • T222/223/224/221 from/to Chongqing (every other day, 45 hours).
  • T164/165/166/163 from/to Shanghai (daily, 48 hours).
  • T264/265/266/263 to Guangzhou (every other day, 55 hours) – the longest train service in China (4980 km).
  • K917/918 from/to Lanzhou (daily, 27 hours).
  • K9801/9802 from/to Xining West (daily, 24 hours).

Tourists of non-Chinese nationality are not able to buy tickets on their own. Foreigners must purchase tickets through a travel agency. The hardest times to get a ticket are during the Chinese New Year (in January and February) and during the summer vacations (July and August).

Moving from the train station

A cab ride between the city and the train station will cost exactly 30 yuan, and drivers do not use meters. Check the fare in advance, as many drivers will try to charge 100 yuan. Alternatively, take a bus (1 yuan) to get to the other side of the river and catch a metered cab there.

When is the season. When it’s best to go.

Lhasa – weather by month.

Main attractions. What to see

Potala Palace (Phodrang)

The citadel probably existed on Red Hill before the 7th century when King Songtsen Gyalpo built a fortress for his two wives. The palace was rebuilt under the V Dalai Lama for three years and then the XIII Dalai Lama expanded and rebuilt it. This is how we see the palace today. In 1775, under the VII Dalai Lama, Norbulinka became a summer residence and the Potala became a winter palace. In the Potala one can find the rooms where the Dalai Lamas lived, as well as their luxurious golden tombs. As the religious and political center of old Tibet and the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas, the palace has witnessed not only the lives of the Dalai Lamas, but also the major political and religious events of recent centuries. The Potala Palace houses a huge number of rare cultural relics, including a handwritten golden Buddhist scripture, valuable gifts from the emperors of China, and many priceless antiquities. You can get into the palace for ¥100. You will take an hour-long guided tour of the palace; at least you will be given the necessary amount of time to climb up and down the many steps leading up to the 14-story high residence. Make sure you are acclimatized before you visit. The Potala Palace was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994, the Jokang Temple in 2000, and the Norbulinka Summer Residence in 2001.

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Norbulink Summer Palace (Summer Residence)

Located about 1 km west of the Potala Palace, it was built in 1775 by the VII Dalai Lama and was expanded under each successive ruler. The residence is currently undergoing restoration work and features a small zoo, botanical gardens, and a mansion. The entrance fee will be 60 yuan (2015).

Churches and temples. Worth visiting

Jokang Temple (Tsuglahan)

Built in the 7th century for the Buddha statue that Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal and Wen Cheng of China’s Tang dynasty brought as a gift for their future husband, King Songtsen Gambo. Over the centuries, the temple has been rebuilt many times and now serves as a shelter for the statues of King Songtsen Gambo and his two famous brides. However, the statue of Buddha Jowo Shakyamuni, brought by Princess Wen Cheng from Chang’an some 1,300 years ago, is the most sacred and famous attraction and perhaps the most revered religious shrine in all of Tibet. The magnificent four-story, gilded-roofed temple faces west and is located in Barkhor Square in the center of old Lhasa.

Drepung Monastery

Founded in 1416 by a follower of Tsong Kapa, it became the largest and most magnificent monastery in Tibet, where the Lamas participated in the training of new Dalai Lamas. Drepung became the abode of Nechung, the state oracle of Tibet. Throughout history, Drepung has had about 10,000 monks and has 700 “minor” monasteries and extensive possessions under its authority. Drepung belongs to the Gelugpa sect.

The monastery is located 10 kilometers west of the old part of Lhasa and can be reached by buses 17, 24 and others for 1 yuan. Bus No. 24 runs between Drepung and Sera. The fee to enter the monastery will be 50 yuan (2015) and it will take half a day to see it. It is recommended to stock up on water and snacks. There are several small restaurants in front of the monastery (at the ticket office).

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Sera Monastery

Was founded in 1419 by one of the eight disciples of Tsonga Kapa (founder of the Gelupa sect). The monastery became famous for its tantric teaching, while Drepung became famous for its political involvement. Sera was smaller than Drepung, the Sera brotherhood numbered 7,000 monks, but the monastery was not inferior in wealth and was similar to Drepung in power. The monks of Sera were considered clever and dangerous.

The monastery is located 5 kilometers north of the city center, which can be reached by buses No. 6,16, 24 and others for 1 yuan. Bus No. 24 runs between Drepung and Sera. The entrance fee to Sera will be 50 yuan (2015) and it takes 3 hours to walk around the monastery. Ten meters from the ticket office, there is a path on the right side that leads to the entrance to the monastery, which can be entered without a ticket.

Museums. Worth a visit

Tibet Museum

The entrance fee will be 25 yuan. This is a museum of carefully selected artifacts reflecting centuries of Tibetan history. At the entrance, you can take a free audio guide in your language. As you might expect, the museum presents a Chinese perspective on the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet, but it is well worth a visit.

Tourist Streets

Barkhor Street Market

Located on the oldest typically Tibetan street surrounding the Jokang Temple on all sides, in the center of old Lhasa, where you can haggle with local Tibetan sellers of handicrafts rarely found anywhere else in the world. Barkhor Street has for centuries been one of the most important religious routes pilgrims use to make their way around the Jokang temple, spinning prayer wheels. Buddhist pilgrims make a clockwise stroll down the street every day until nightfall. On your first visit to Barkhor, visit Barkhor Square, built in 1985. Many times the square has been the site of political protests and clashes between Chinese and Tibetans.

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