Sitting in rarefied air within one of the most mystical lands on the planet, the capital of Tibet, Lhasa, has been a beacon for culture vultures from all around the world for generations. Being the traditional homeland of the present incarnation of the Dalai Lama, this country hasn’t been itself since China asserted its authority over this territory several decades ago. However, even though His Holiness currently lives in exile in neighbouring India, the cultural sites surrounding Tibetan Buddhism still operate normally (even though they are likely being watched closely by the authorities) and they are available to view as a visitor.
Outside the city in the surrounding countryside, the natural scenery will appeal to your spiritual side even if you don’t subscribe to a religion per se, as the mountains here are among the highest on Earth, and the lakes that stud the spaces between them will fill you with a peace that will stay with you long after you have departed this land.
The bureaucratic process that you need to go through to visit this place may be a pain, but it is certainly worth the effort it takes to get to Tibet.
Upon arrival in Lhasa, first acclimatize to the altitude (more later on why) to Potala Palace, the place where the Dalai Lama once reigned prior to being forced to take an indefinite vacation by the Chinese authorities. This place has been the residence of every reincarnation of the Buddha (which is what the Dalai Lama is) for well over 1,300 years, dating back to the fifth Dalai Lama, and is filled with vital religious relics collected over the eons.
This place is MONSTEROUS, composed of over 1,000 rooms and standing fourteen stories high. You will be doing a lot of stair climbing on your tour here, hence the importance of being adjusted to the thin air, lest you may pass out!
Next up on your cultural tour of Lhasa should be Jokhang Temple, a Buddhist hall of worship that has stood for 1,200 years. It was built to house statues of the Buddha brought over from Nepal and China by princesses from those two countries as gifts for the king of Tibet, Songtsan Gampo. These Buddha images are venerated as perhaps the most sacred relics in all of Tibet, so a trip here is worthwhile just to immerse yourself in the atmosphere that this place engenders.
To connect any dots that are not linked in your understanding of this area’s history, head to the Tibet Museum. While there is a perceptible bias towards the current Chinese overlords who have asserted their control in this area over the last several decades, it is an excellent resource for those seeking the entire backstory of Tibet. 1,000 artifacts give shape to its history, which contains items from as far back as 30,000 years in the past.
Before leaving Lhasa to explore the countryside, stop by the Barkhor Street market to pick up some provisions for the road, or souvenirs to take home. Among the finds to be had here include authentic prayer wheels and flags, traditional clothes and Tibetan scroll paintings … nothing like the t-shirt stalls back in Thailand, that’s for sure!
One of the most gorgeous places in all of Tibet is Namtso Lake, which combines awe-inspiring mountains and hills that are laden with snow for much of the year with a deep blue lake. This place is an excellent place to observe the lives of a vanishing breed of people, Tibet’s nomads, and the beasts of burden they employ, the warmly-dressed yak. This lake sits at 4,700 metres above sea level, so spend a few days in Lhasa before even attempting to travel to this area, as altitude sickness can become a serious medical condition if not respected.
There are many humbling peaks throughout Tibet, but the one that Tibetan Buddhists, Jains and Hindus consider to be the holiest mount in their religion is none other than Mount Kailash. Considered the centre of the world in the religious texts of these religions, a trip here involves multi-day treks amongst five sacred (but ruined) temples and the wild beauty of this unpredictable land – alpine meadows, lush valleys, snowy peaks and striking lakes. Facilities here are basic though – don’t come expecting the Hilton!