Lhasa, which means "Land of the Gods" and is over 1,300 years old, sits in a valley right next to the Lhasa River. In the eastern part of the city, near the Jokhang Temple and Barkhor neighborhood, Tibetan influence is still strong and evident and it is common to see traditionally dressed Tibetans engaged on a kora (a clockwise circumambulation or walk around the Jokhang Temple), often spinning prayer wheels. The western part of Lhasa is more ethnically Han Chinese in character. It is busy and modern and looks similar to many other Chinese cities. Much of the infrastructure, such as banks and government offices is to be found there.
A taxi ride between the urban area and the train station should cost a flat ¥30 and no drivers use the meter. Be sure to fix the price in advance as many drivers will try to charge ¥100. As an alternative, take a bus (¥1) to anywhere across the river, and then get a taxi that uses the meter.
The central area with the main tourist attractions (Potala, Jokhang, Barkhor, Ramoche) is easily navigable on foot.
Cycle rickshaws are everywhere, though be prepared to bargain.
Taxis cost ¥10 for anywhere in Lhasa city. Hail them from the side of the street. Be prepared for taxi-sharing - the driver will often pull over if he suspects he can find other passengers heading in the same direction. Each will pay ¥10 and this is a way for the driver to make a better income despite the standard fare.
Public buses are numerous and cost ¥1. Non-Chinese nationals are permitted to travel on the buses within the city, although you make yourself an attraction by doing so, since this rarely occurs. The number of the bus is recognizable but the destination is in Chinese, so you need to know which bus line you need.
Minibuses operate to areas such as Norbulingka, Sera Monastery, Drepung Monastery, and other nearby sites. Most of these are also on public bus lines.
"Pilgrim buses" are available in front of Jokhang Temple or at the parking lot near the temple, departing at 6-7AM for destinations outside Lhasa, such as Tsurphu Gompa, Ganden Gompa, Nyemo (Dazi), Phenpo Lhundrub (Linzhou), Meldro Gungkar (Mozhugongka), Chushul (Qushui), Taktse (Dazi), Gongkar (Gongga), and other nearby areas. Tickets are available at the ticket office at the parking lot or when you board the bus. Whether or not non-Chinese nationals can travel on these is a bit of a grey area. Since you have to have a travel guide with you anyway as a non-Chinese tourist, you can ask them to enquire about this, since it is a more interesting way to travel than always in a private Land Cruiser. However, the rules for organising tourist tours require advance planning, so you probably won't have this chance.
Bicycle hire is available from some hotels or cycle shops and it's a good way to explore if you have half a day free on your tour schedule. Pollution is not as bad as in many Chinese cities but driving habits are. The best tactic is to stick close to a local cyclist or cycle rickshaw when negotiating busy junctions.
Jokhang Temple (Tsuglagkhang) - constructed in the 7th century AD to house the statues of Buddha that princesses Bhrikuti from Nepal and Wen Cheng from Tang Dynasty China brought as gifts for their future husband, King Songtsan Gampo. The temple has been enlarged many times over the centuries and now also houses statues of King Songtsan Gambo and his two famous foreign brides. However, the original statue of Jowo Sakyamuni Buddha that Princess Wen Cheng brought from Chang’an over 1300 years ago is definitely its most sacred and famous possession, and is perhaps the most venerated religious artifact in all of Tibet. The temple, a splendid four-floor building facing west under a guilded rooftop, is on Barkhor Square in the center of the old section of Lhasa.
Potala Palace (Phodrang Potala) - A stronghold probably existed on Red Hill as early as the 7th century AD when King Songtsen Gyalpo built a fortress on it for his two foreign wives. The palace was rebuilt by the Fifth Dalai Lama in three years, while the Thirteenth Dalai Lama extended and repaired it into what it is now. It became winter palace in 1755 when the Seventh Dalai Lama made the Norbulinka into a summer residence. With over 1 000 rooms, the Potala contained the living quarters of the Dalai Lamas while they lived, and their sumptuous golden tombs when they died. As the religious and political centre of old Tibet and the winter residence of Dalai Lamas, the palace witnessed the life of the Dalai Lamas and the important political and religious activities in the past centuries. Potala Palace also houses great amounts of rare cultural relics including the gold hand-written Buddhist scriptures, valuable gifts from the Chinese emperors and a lot of priceless antiques. Admission ¥100. Guided palace tours generally include one hour inside the palace; allow at least that much time to walk up and down the many steps leading up to and from the palace. The palace is 14 stories tall and any visit involves climbing a lot of stairs up/down. Make sure you are fully acclimated before visiting. The Potala was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994, the Jokhang Temple Monastery in 2000 and the Norbulingka Summer Palace in 2001.
Norbulingka Summer Palace - located about 1km west of the Potala Palace - The Seventh Dalai Lama constructed the first summer palace in 1755 and each successive ruler added his own buildings. Norbulingka is now undergoing complete restoration. Presently, the complex contains a small zoo, botanical gardens, and a mansion. There is a small entrance fee.
Barkhor Street Market - a circular street around the Jokhang Temple in the center of the old section of Lhasa, it is the oldest street in a very traditional style in Tibet, where you can enjoy bargaining with the local Tibetan vendors for the handicrafts which are rare to be seen elsewhere in the world. Barkhor Street is one of the most important religious paths along which pilgrims walk around Jokhang Temple while turning prayer wheels in their hands through centuries. Buddhist pilgrims walk or progress by body-lengths along the street clockwise every day into deep night. For your first visit to the Barkhor, enter from Barkhor Sq, a large plaza that was cleared in 1985. The square has become a focus for political protest and pitched battles between Chinese and Tibetans on several occasions, notably in 1998(when a Dutch tourist was shot in the shoulder) and most recently in 2008.
Drepung Monastery - founded in 1416 by a disciple of Tsong Khapa, was the biggest and richest monastery in Tibet and its lamas helped to train each new young Dalai Lama. Drepung was also home to the Nechung, the state oracle. At its height, Drepung had over 10 000 monks, and governed 700 subsidiary monasteries and owned vast estates. Drepung belongs to the Gelupa sect.
Sera Monastery - founded in 1419 by one of Tsong Khapa’s (the founder of the Gelupa sect) eight disciples. It became famous for its tantric teachings, while Drepung drew fame from its governing role. Sera was smaller than Drepung, with 7,000 monks, but was very rich and comparable in power. The monks of Sera were considered clever and dangerous.
Tibet Museum Minzulu Road, Lhasa. Admission ¥25. Elaborate museum with artifacts reflecting the entire history of Tibet. Ask for a free audio tour in your language at the entrance. Predictably, the museum presents a very Chinese view of the "Peaceful Liberation" of Tibet, but the museum is worth a visit.
Kora - a meditative circumambulation around a sacred site, such as a temple, practiced by many Tibetans.
Langma Opera - literally "royal music", a traditional Tibetan singing and dancing show.
Blind Massage - at Medical Massage Clinic Lhasa, #59 Beijing Middle Road, 3rd floor (directly across from the Kichu Hotel). Phone 6320870. Cost: ¥80/hour. English spoken. A vocational project of Braille Without Borders. Great way to adjust to the altitude or just relax.
Note that many ATMs do not accept foreign cards; however, foreign cards are generally accepted at Bank of China ATMs. Bank of China also offers currency conversion.
The stalls on Barkhor Street offer fascinating browsing. However, most of the items are junk from Nepal and other parts of China. Examples include bronzes and paintings that are all fake and laughing Buddhas with no connection with Tibetan tantric belief. Despite this, there are still many authentic items. Look for household items and carved wood pieces, such as bowls, pilgrims' stamps, silver items such as gau (amulet cases), silver and brass personal seals, old Tibetan banknotes, knitted satchels, and woven bags. Though it is quite fascinating, buying Tibetan antiques destroys the culture.
If you want a local Buddhist Thangka painting, find a workshop on the back streets where you can watch them being painted. Searching in the back streets around the Barkhor is very rewarding in this respect, and you can find artisans making paintings, furniture, clay sculpture, masks and ceremonial banners and applique. Not all artwork is easily transported home, but it is fascinating to watch.
Tibet was the home of traditional carpet making, though many "Tibetan" carpets displayed in stores in the Barkhor and in front of the Potala are now made in Nepal in factories run by Tibetan exiles and many of the designs on display are Turkomen and Afghan and have no connection with Tibetan tradition. In some workshops you will find a few carpets on looms for display purposes, but the carpets in the showroom will mostly have been shipped in from elsewhere. To find authentic Tibetan carpets, visit the factories and their showrooms. Look closely at what is being woven, and make sure the piece you are buying matches what you are shown on the looms. Check the smell of the carpet: authentic Tibetan wool has a high lanolin content and a distinctive odor. Cheaper wools from Qinghai and Mongolia are dry by comparison. A few older carpets can still occasionally be found on the Barkhor and the shops around, though good, old carpets are much sought after by collectors, so prices tend to be surprisingly high, even in Lhasa.
Tianhai Night Market, in the western suburbs, is known for its great variety of goods and for being cheaper than the market on Barkhor Street.
Tibetan Rugs - Snow Leopard Industries, #2 East Zang Yi Yuan Road, Lhasa (next to the Snowland Hotel and near Barkhor Square). Phone 0891-6321481. Small shop with a wide variety of traditional and contemporary Tibetan designs made at their own factory. Rug prices are fixed and very reasonable. Owner Phurbu Tsamchu speaks English and can explain about the different Tibetan designs and the process of making rugs. This store also has a fixed-price souvenir shop with very low, set prices. Can arrange shipping of rugs overseas. Credit cards accepted.
Tibetan Rugs - The Tanva Carpet Workshop, at Nam village on the road between Lhasa and Gongkar airport, is a new Tibetan carpet workshop using only handspun Tibetan highland wool to make both traditional and contemporary carpets. You can see the whole carpet making process from start to finish and also buy carpets (including 'seconds' at reduced prices) in the showroom on site. To get directions and arrange a visit call factory manager Norbu on his mobile 1398 990 8681. Tanva makes the carpets that are sold in Torana stores in Beijing and Shanghai. There are photos and details on the Torana website .
Oil Paintings - Kharma Gallery, on the 2nd floor across from the Snowland Hotel, phone 86-891-6338013. Art gallery offering quality oil paintings by Tibetan artists on Tibetan themes (landscape, people, religious, animals, etc.)
Gedun Choephel - This gallery, on the corner of the Barkhor, roughly at the furthest point from the Jokhang temple, is the meeting place of Lhasa's most avant-garde group of artists, several of whom have recently exhibited in Beijing and London. The gallery runs rotating exhibitions and is well worth a look.
Handicrafts - Dropenling Handicraft Development Center , 11 Chak Tsal Gang Road, phone 0891-6360558. Call for directions, or from Barkhor Square, head to the Lhasa Mosque, then turn left. This shop is not the cheapest but has very high quality items made in Tibet. Profits go to artisan development programs. Credit cards accepted.
See Tibet#Eat for descriptions of typical Tibetan food.
A lot of nice and comfortable restaurants are located near the Jokhang Temple along Beijing Zhong Lu (or called Beijing Road Middle) and its tributary road Zang Yiyuan Lu (or called Tibetan Hospital Road). Some of them serve western food, Nepali and Indian food. Meals can be as cheap as ¥20 per person, including drinks. The smaller Tibetan restaurants, especially the teahouses, may not be decorated as nicely, but are much cheaper than the tourist restaurants and serve more tasty food. Note that most of the Chinese restaurants serve Sichuan's spicy cuisine. Although Tibetan restaurants are more traditional and full of history, to the western traveler the Chinese food might seem more diverse and more appealing than the greasy boiled yak meat typically served in the Tibetan ones. Westerners also might want to avoid the traditional Tibetan tea which is in fact black tea with yak butter in it and is typically being kept warm in heat insulating containers for quite some time.
Snowland Restaurant Tenjieling Road #4, near Jokhang Square, phone 0891-6337323 Large menu features a mix of Western, Napali, Indian and Tibetan food. Good service, good food, very popular.
New Mandala Restaurant with roof top Garden, located in front of Jokhang Temple, phone 86-0891-6342235. Indian, Nepali, Tibetan and some Western dishes. Roof top has good views of the city. Try the Yak sizzler.
Tengyelink Cafe. Great Yak Steak, great atmosphere. Best food to be found in Lhasa. Cheap breakfast options are available.
Apart from eating at restaurants, you can buy food or snacks in the main supermarkets, all around Beijing Zhong Lu.
Hotels in Lhasa are not up to international standard. A four star hotel in Lhasa is probably equivalent to a three star in Europe. Also, some hotels have branches of KTV (Chinese Karaoke) next door or even as part of the hotel. You should ensure that your room is not above one of these establishments or it may be difficult to sleep!
Bai Yun Guesthouse, House No.13 Sanglam 2 Banakshok Lhasa Tibet, ☎ (0891) 6342222 6342288 6342299. Very nice place, renovated in 2014, very friendly place.Several possibilities from 50 yuan for a bed in a five beds dorm to 200 yuan for a double room. edit
Four Points Sheraton, No.5 Section 1 Lin Kuo East, Lhasa, ☎ (0891)634 8888. English-speaking staff, international standard rooms with humidifiers, Excellent restaurant that serves Chinese as well as international selections.. edit
Hotel Kyichu, 18 Beijing Zhong Lu, Lhasa, ☎ (0891)6331541 (fax: (0891)6320234). a very nice midrange hotel. Located near the main tourist sights. Staff is quite nice and helpful. Restaurant is top-notch in quality and presentation.. edit
Lhasa Hotel (Lhasa Fandian), 1 Minzu Road, Lhasa, ☎ (0891)6832221 (fax: (0891)6836651). Formerly the Holiday Inn, this now government owned hotel has been neglected, and most locals recommend people to stay elsewhere. While it may be expensive, the quality is about as good as a 1-star hotel at best.edit
Tibet Hotel (Xizang Binguan), 221 West Beijing Road, Lhasa, ☎ (0891)6834966 (fax: (0891)6836787). edit
Tibet International Grand Hotel, 1 National South Road, Lhasa, ☎ (0891) 6832888 (fax: (0891) 6820888). edit
St. Regis Lhasa, No.22, Jiangsu Road, Lhasa,Tibet, ☎ (86)(891) 680 8888 (fax: (86)(891) 630 8888), . Stunning design coupled with impeccable service - rare as hen's teeth in this area, let alone the rest of Chinaedit
Read the article on altitude sickness and study its symptoms, precautions, and treatments before traveling to Lhasa. Altitude sickness can easily ruin a holiday and can even be fatal. Lhasa is 3,750 meters above sea level, so there is considerable risk of altitude sickness, especially if you fly in from a much lower altitude and your body does not have time to acclimatize. If you must fly to Lhasa, it would be wise to fly via an intermediate destination such as Kunming at 1,950 meters and spend several days there to acclimatize before flying to Lhasa.
Do not under any circumstances give or show to monks or locals pictures of Dalai Lama as this can get you in trouble and cause severe trouble for the recipient. Keep in mind some monks may collaborate with the authorities, or may not be monks at all.
Take common sense precautions when shopping at the many small kiosks around the Barkhor and along the Jokhang Temple circumambulation route. While problems are few, leaving large backpacks at your hotel and keeping your wallet well guarded are both good ideas.
On the street east of the Yak Hotel, buses wait for passengers early in the morning for destinations such as Shigatse, Tsethang, Samye, Nakchu and Danzhung. From the long distance bus station, buses are available to Golmud, Chengdu (via Xining and Lanzhou), Nakchu, Chamdo, Bayi, Tsethang, Shigatse and Dram. Depending on your paperwork, you might not be allowed to purchase tickets for all these destinations.
A 7-day trip to Kathmandu typically includes hotel and breakfast, a 4-wheel drive jeep, a driver and a guide. The guide will take care to register you at the police when you leave one city and when you arrive in another one. This is standard procedure.
It is easy and trouble-free to fly out of Lhasa, with many daily flights to various major Chinese cities and several times a week to Kathmandu, Nepal.
Samye Monastery was constructed in 779AD under the patronage of King Trisong Detsen and overseen by Santarakshita and Padmasambhava, two prominent Buddhist teachers from India. It was the first Buddhist Monastery established in Tibet and as such remains one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the region. Samye is located near Dranang, 150 kms south-east of Lhasa. Buses and minivans are available to take you to Samye. Plan a two day trip. If you can spend more time, go to nearby hermitages at Chimpu, and feel more spiritual vibes than in Samye proper. Permit imperative if you want to avoid police hassle and fines.
Ganden Monastery is on the south side of Kyi-chu River 45 km east of Lhasa. It is the head monastery of the Gelukpa (Yellow Hat) order of Tibetan Buddhism. Built in 1409 by Tsongkhapa, the founder of Gelukpa and recently reconstructed, this monastery offers outstanding views from its mountainside location.
A popular trekking route is available between Ganden and Samye Monasteries. The average is 4-5 days with fast walkers taking 3 days.
Do not wear a hat inside the Jokhang, Potala or other sacred sites. Please no short pants or tank tops. When visiting shrines it is customary to leave a small money offering, especially where you do not have to buy a ticket!
Circumambulate stupas and other sacred objects in a clock-wise direction.
Do not climb onto statues, mani stones or other sacred objects.
Avoid eating garlic before visiting a temple. Tibetans find the garlic breath in a temple disrespectful.
Photography is NOT allowed inside the Potala Palace. You can take photos in the Jokhang temple. Some monasteries will allow photography upon payment of a small donation or fee. Monks begging will often allow a photograph after you make a small contribution. When in doubt, ask before snapping your camera.