A couple of years before my trip to Tibet, a friend proposed that we spend Chinese national holidays in Lhasa. We were both working in China and very busy, and we didn’t have much time to travel.
I dismissed her idea. I thought that such a short trip to Tibet wouldn’t be enough to get a sense of the Tibetan culture. Certainly, it didn’t seem enough to me. I had been waiting to visit Tibet for 20 years. I wanted to spend there more time. But what options did I have, afterall? My hesitation depended on two main reasons:
- I was already bothered by the thought of being “escorted” through Lhasa and of being compelled to join a group of people I didn’t know (as the Chinese government regulations for travels in Tibet required).
- A trip to the main town in Tibet would imply spending most of the time with other tourists.Tibet was my dream destination and I wanted the trip to be special!
At that time, I didn’t realize that Lhasa, first of all, is the top destination for the majority of Tibetan pilgrims. The city, and its monasteries and temples, are the ideal spots in which to observe Tibetan people performing their devotional practices. I waited two more years, and then I couldn’t wait anymore, and I booked my flight from Xiamen to Lhasa. Very soon I realized that Lhasa is a delight for anybody passionate about Tibetan Buddhism and portrait photography!
4-DAY TOUR of LHASA
I arrived at Lhasa airport on a bright day in June. The arrival hall was small. However, I couldn’t see the guide who was supposed to pick me up at the airport. I had forgotten what the Tibetan travel agent told me on the phone. Most of Tibetans weren’t able to get a passport for political reasons, and so they would wait for me just outside the airport.
I found a guide and a driver waiting for me in the car park right in front of the exit gate. Tashi, the guide, was very friendly. As we were driving from the airport to Lhasa, he conversed with me in fluent English. He made me feel completely at ease. They left me at the Yak Hotel, a three star Tibetan-style accommodation in the city center. They suggested that I spend the afternoon resting and getting used to the altitude of 3656 m. Even though I had just switched from subtropical weather to the Himalayas I was feeling well.
I went out to get water and dinner, and after that, I fell asleep quickly. I was at peace with myself: I had finally realized my old dream of visiting Tibet!
The next morning, I went downstairs for breakfast, and the concierge informed me that breakfast was served on the rooftop terrace of the hotel. Just awesome! I sat at a long wooden table and had an abundant buffet meal while contemplating the city rooftops and the mountains stretching out in front of me.
The Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple
Later that morning, I was waiting together with a small group of travelers for the guide appointed by the agency. Gyaltsen was cheerful and couldn’ t wait to show us the city gems: the Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace. The morning offered a clear blue sky, the encounter with the colors and shapes of Lhasa architecture, and the pure air of a town built almost in the clouds. The Potala Palace rises up on the Potala Hill, 117m. Its white profile dominates the city. The Potala Hill was once the place where where bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, Chenrezig in Tibetan used to meditate. The first Tibetan King, Sontsen Gampo erected his palace on the sacred Potala Hill. When the political and religious figure in Tibet united, the Potala Palace started being the home of the Dalai Lama.
The Jokhang Temple also was erected by the first Tibetan king. The king, following the example of his Nepali wife, embraced Buddhism and built a magnificient temple.
TIBETAN SPIRITUALITY IN LHASA
The most touching experience of the few days spent in Lhasa was getting to see Tibetan people: relentlessly and rhythmically turning their beads and prayer sticks, most of the Tibetan come to the holy city from remote places to climb to the palaces and pay homage to their divinities at sacred altars. All the photos from my trip to Tibet are here and here. Walking through the Barkhor circuit, as in other streets of Lhasa, I could sense the spirituality that permeates the city, expressed in the prayer, chants, and prostrations of thousands of devotees.
WHAT ABOUT TIBET’S POLITICAL ISSUES?
Lhasa is also in the thoughts of the exiled Tibetan monks and families, and of His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama, who resides in Dharamsala, India. Gyaltsen, the Tibetan guide escorting us, asked us to avoid talking about the Chinese government or politics or the Dalai Lama inside the sanctuaries, because of the constant presence of Chinese inspectors in civilian clothes who monitor whether anyone is trying to incite hard feelings about political issues regarding the “Tibetan Province.”
If you wish to make your visit to Tibet successful and unforgettable, I recommend you get in touch with Wonders of Tibet Tibetan travel agency.
OUTSIDE LHASA: SERA MONASTERY AND DREPUNG MONASTERY
Just a few km outside Lhasa it’s possible to visit two more ancient monasteries. Drepung Monastery is the largest monastery in Tibet. It was home to ten thousands monks at once starting from it’s foundation in the 15th century. It requires many hours to visit the halls and the temples. The most popular tme to visit is during the Shoton Festival. Sera Monastery offers the opportunity to observe the traditional monks’ debates in the courtyard. The debates are mysterious and rather impossible to understand for the common, ignorant audience, but still interesting to watch.
After visiting Sera Monastery, we returned to Lhasa historical center. We had time to walk a bit more and get something for supper. The road trip from Lhasa to Shigatse and the Everest Base Camp was our next adventure.