Lhasa (ལྷ་ས་) has been considered the capital of the Tibetan peoples since as early as the 7th century. After conquering several surrounding kingdoms and two significant political marriages with Chinese and Nepali princesses, Songtsan Gampo became the first leader of a unified Tibetan Empire. He began construction on a palace which formed the foundation and determined the design of the current Potala Palace. In 641, he built the Jokhang Temple to house a treasured gold statue of Siddartha Guattama dating back to the Buddha’s lifetime.
Modern day Lhasa is interesting in and of itself. Though there is a larger Chinese population in the city than Tibetans these days, they have predominatly settled on the Western side of the city. The Central and Eastern parts of town are where you will find the majority of the Tibetan population and all of the significant cultural sights.
When traveling to Lhasa, there are a few things to remember. Due to it’s location within the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), you will need both a Tibet Travel Permit (TTP) and a Chinese Visa to enter Lhasa as a foreign traveler. Once you arrive, especially if you have come by air, it is important to remember that with such a dramatic change in elevation every traveler will experience at least minor discomfort. This includes minor headaches, disturbed sleep, lack of appetite, and sometimes minor dizziness, so take things easy for the first couple of days. The body naturally adjusts within two to three days, although some find themselves fine after the first day, but watch yourself and your traveling companions for elevation related symptoms. While the vast majority of people will be fine after two or three days, in serious cases medical evacuation may be neccessary, so don’t take this too lightly.
Lhasa (or Lasa (拉萨) in Mandarin) is home to many cultural relics, including three UNESCO world heritage sites – the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, and Norbulingka (and Summer Palace). The three most popular Gelugpa sect monasteries can all be accessed from Lhasa: Drepung and Sera monasteries sit just outside of the city; Ganden monastery is just over an hour away, so many make a day trip out of it. Sera Monastery is famous for their live debates starting at 3pm Monday to Friday (sometimes Saturday), and many visitors are drawn like a bug to the flame to watch these lively conversations. Barkhor Plaza and Old Town surrounds Jokhang Temple with bustling foot traffic. Souvenir shops, jewelry and clothing stores, and restaurants abound, which makes walking the stone paved alleys around Barkhor Plaza and Old Town a cultural experience in and of itself.
A variety of cuisine can be found in Lhasa, and often all within the same menu. You can enjoy a decent burger and fries while, your companion can choose anything from Nepali set meals to Indian curries or Tibetan momos. The majority of chefs at Lhasa’s best restaurants are Nepali.
Your guide can help you book tickets to visit the Potala Palace, which is a must see. The maze of candle lit rooms on the inside is fascinating, and the park on the backside of the palace is refreshingly beautiful. Take an evening after dinner to stroll in the square, and snap some night photography of the Potala Palace.
Though the ticket price is high (seats start at approximately $60 USD), the live outdoor theater performance of Princess Wencheng is impossible to describe with words or capture with a camera. It has a cast of 800 members, along with live yaks, sheep, and horses all featured on the 150m wide stage. With the mountains south of Lhasa as the backdrop, the show begins at dark, and lasts for an hour and a half.
While visiting Lhasa, many travellers make their way outside of the city to Yamdrok Lake. Yamdrok is a freshwater lake over 72kms long, and it is one of the biggest sacred lakes in Tibet. Being located only 100km south of the city makes it a popular day trip.
For travelers who are interested, the New Year (Losar), Saga Dawa, and Chökor Düchen festivals are three of the biggest yearly festivals celebrated in Lhasa. Particularly the New Year and Saga Dawa festivals see the city splashed with colour, with thousands of pilgrims coming to the holy city from all corners of Tibet.