Top tip: acclimatise!
I’ve been warned that Tibet has changed drastically in the past decade, so I arrived in Lhasa with mixed feelings. Ultimately though, being in a place that has such a rich history and colourful culture made me giddy.
Standing at 3,650 metres above sea level, Lhasa, the capital, is higher than most cities. I was determined not to succumb to altitude sickness so I decided to stay in my hotel on arrival and rest to acclimatise.
In and Around Lhasa
First stop in my itinerary: the beautiful Potala Palace – which is best viewed in sections. In the White Palace, visit the former residential quarters of the 14th Dalai Lama. The Red Palace is completely devoted to religious study and Buddhist prayer. And then there are the chapels, stupas, defensive fortifications and lush gardens. Many of the palace walls are exquisitely covered with frescoes depicting episodes from Buddhist scriptures, landscapes from the surrounding area and historical events.
In the afternoon, we visited Jokhang Temple, considered Tibet’s most sacred temple. Located in the very heart of Lhasa’s Tibetan quarter, Jokhang is the focus of devotion day and night. It’s packed with people chanting, ladling yak butter into lamps, and spinning prayers wheels. In the pilgrimage season, long lines of pilgrims wait patiently for hours just to touch their foreheads to the sacred image of Sakyamuni Buddha, the single most venerated object in Tibetan Buddhism.
I found myself a quiet spot to sit down and soak everything in. The sound of chanting monks, the wafting smell of yak butter candles and incense, and the sight of colourful draperies and prayer flags… it was a delightful sensory overload.
I spent the next couple of days exploring Lhasa including visits to some of the university monasteries: Ganden, Sera, and Drepung. The latter being my favourite. This incredibly picturesque site is easily the largest monastic institution in the world. It’s also the site of the burial stupas of some of the previous Dalai Lamas.
On leaving Lhasa, we embarked on the ride of a lifetime driving to one of the sacred lakes in Tibet: Yamdrok Lake. While taking photos, I had to keep reminding myself that I was photographing an actual place and not a painting. I can still picture the turquoise waters surrounded by snowcapped mountains… not a hint of pollution or smog.
On the other side, I saw a group of Tibetan pilgrims tying prayer flags to a pole. I watched them arrange the colourful flags, while silently saying prayers. The scene was utterly transfixing.
After a long but scenic drive, we finally reached the traditional Tibetan town of Gyantse, a centre of trade and pilgrimage. Our first stop was Gyantse Dzong, a magnificent fortress towering above settlement. It’s a stiff hike, but the views of the ancient alleyways and the jagged surrounding peaks are stunning.
Heading back to Lhasa the next day, we stopped at Shigatse (the second largest city in Tibet) to check out Tashilhunpo Monastery. I gravitated toward the prayer wheels, and started turning them as I walked. Even as ‘Templed out’ as I was, I still found this 1447-built, sublimely peaceful monastery beautiful.
Flight Centre’s Top Tips for Tibet:
– Getting there: If you choose to fly to Lhasa, why not stopover in Chengdu for a night or two and visit the pandas in the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding? Or go old-school romantic and take the train.
– Recommended hotels in Lhasa: Shangri-La Hotel Lhasa (a welcome oasis for a bit of luxury) and St. Regis Lhasa Resort (a great all-round option).
– Best time of year to visit: May to October when the weather is comfortable.
Some other things to bear in mind:
– Due to the high altitude, take it easy and don’t push yourself too hard for your first 1-2 days so your body can acclimatise. Drink lots of water and be sure to bring some warm clothing to wear in the evenings.
– Be respectful of the Tibetan people. It is best to ask permission before you take pictures of the locals.
– The air conditioning can be super drying on your skin. Don’t forget to bring a good moisturiser and lip balm!
What are you waiting for? Your adventure awaits…
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