Lhasa

Overview

Introduction

The Himalayan city of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, sits at an elevation of 12,000 ft/3,660 m. Lhasa is located 800 mi/1,300 km west of Chengdu, China, and 375 mi/600 km northeast of Kathmandu, Nepal.

A good introduction to Lhasa is the Barkhor Bazaar, where you could spend hours just watching people haggle for carpets, antiques or thangka, Buddhist scroll paintings. In the midst of the bazaar is the fabulous Jokhang, holiest of Tibetan Buddhist temples. It's filled by a steady stream of pilgrims who have gone to pay respect to their gods, represented in the temple by an incredible array of devotional art. Be sure to wander around the second floor, and don't be shy about sticking your head into rooms where craftsmen are creating additional gods.

Sadly, recent reports coming out of Tibet indicate that the 1,300-year-old Jokhang temple is being dismantled by Chinese authorities to make way for new construction, amid rumors that the government plans to replace the old town with a tourist city similar to the one in Lijiang. Tourists and Tibetans-living-in-exile have appealed to UNESCO to help save this important ancient city from the government's unquenchable thirst for modernity.

Visible from almost any point in Lhasa is the Potala Palace. Once the Dalai Lama's winter residence (he has been in exile in India since 1959), it's one of the world's architectural wonders—the entire building, consisting of thousands of rooms, was created without the use of a single nail. Each of the 70 or so rooms that are open to the public has an atmosphere all its own, although most are lit only by wicks stuck in yak butter. The light reflects eerily off the gods, murals and gold-plated figures. Allow four hours to explore this magnificent building; as with other great museums, it's better not to try to see everything in one day.

Other sights around Lhasa include Sera and Drepung monasteries and the summer palace. The famed sky burials (where corpses are flayed, cut up and fed to the vultures) of Sera have caused increasingly aggressive confrontations between foreign tourists taking photos and domden (undertakers) trying to carry out their religious duties. You really need a strong stomach to observe this, and most people don't bother with it.

Lhasa can be seen in two days, but because of the altitude, allow three or four days. You'll want to do nothing but rest on the first full day. Be careful when opening tubes of coffee or sunscreen purchased from local stores, as altitude can lead to messy explosions.

Note: A special travel permit is required for Tibet, and depending on political events, travel access to Tibet is not always possible.

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