Lhasa, which means "Land of the Gods", is the heart of Tibet. Over 1,300 years old, it sits in a valley right next to the Lhasa River. Tourist resources are plenty, good hotels, tasty restaurants, travel agencies, Chinese department stores and supermarkets, in some parts of the city, you may find no difference to other Chinese cities, but the Tibetan influence is still strong and evident, especially around the old quarters near Barkhor.
The Eastern end of Lhasa is more prominently traditional Tibetan, focusing on the area around the Jokhang and the Barkhor. Traditionally dressed Tibetans engaged on a kora (a clockwise journey around the Jokhang, the major Buddhist shrine), often spinning prayer wheels are a common sight in that area. The Western end of Lhasa is more Han in character (i.e. Han Chinese from the east of the country). It is busy and modern, and many ways a surprise to many tourists. It is there one finds most of the infrastructure, such as banks and contact with officialdom.
It is strictly enforced that non-Chinese nationals are required to obtain a special permit to visit Tibet and hire a tour guide every day they stay in Tibet. Individual permits are almost impossible to obtain for average tourists, group permits (at least 5 persons of the same nationality (July 2012) are easier. (July 2012: Some agencies in Kathmandu are able to obtain a permit for 4 persons of the same nationality. Cost for a 8 day Jeep tour from Kathmandu to Lhasa ~650USD pP + Visa + Flight or Train)
It is possible to visit Lhasa on 3-7 day tours from Kathmandu, Nepal, but there have been reports of tours that do not allow enough time for visitors to adjust to the dramatic altitude change resulting in some travelers suffering from altitude sickness being left along the way (without any refund, of course). You can choose from the options fly-in and fly-out, drive-in and fly-out, etc. Fly-in and fly-out comes at a small extra cost and offers the most comfort and safety.
Chinese Standard Time (Beijing) is used in Tibet, which is 8 hours ahead (+) of GMT and 2 hours 15 minutes ahead of Nepal.
The Lhasa Gonggar Airport (贡嘎机场) (IATA: LXA) is about 50 km from Lhasa. There are flights from Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Kunming, Qamdo, Shanghai, Xi'an, Xining, and Zhongdian (Shangri-La). International flights are available to Kathmandu, Nepal. It used to take 1 hour to the center of Lhasa, but as the new 38-km long airport expressway had opened in September 2011, the travel time is now shorter.
Regular bus connects Lhasa to most other cities in Tibet. There is a bi-weekly bus to Zhongdian in Yunnan province and a weekly bus to Kathmandu in Nepal. A bus ride to Kathmandu costs ¥520.
Bus service from/to Golmud in neighbouring Qinghai province had been suspended as most passengers prefer the train.
Foreigner tourists are not allowed to use the intercity bus service, however.
It is difficult to get a ticket during Chinese New Year (January and February) and summer holidays (July and August). Also you will probably get ripped off on arrival at Lhasa station by the taxi drivers who will not use their meter (starting rate of ¥5 and then 1.8km after the initial distance covered in the ¥5). The normal rate should be ¥40 but sometimes they want ¥100. It is suggested to take a bus to anywhere across the river, and then get a cab, as the bus only costs ¥1 and cabs use meters on the other side of the river. A taxi ride from the urban area to the station usually cheaper and fixed at ¥30 and no drivers use the meter.
The Jokhang area is easily navigable on foot. Cycle rickshaws are everywhere, though prepare to bargain. Taxis are a standard Y10 for anywhere in Lhasa city. Minibuses operate to areas such as Norbulingka, Sera Monastery, Drepung Monastery, and other nearby sites.
Buses are available in front of Jokhang Temple or at the parking lot near the temple for 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.
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.
ATMs and foreign currency conversion can be done at the Bank of China main office west of Potala Palace or at the branch on Beijing Donglu between the Kirey Hotel and the Banok Shol Hotels.
Collectables in Lhasa The stalls around the Barkhor offer fascinating browsing. Though much (predictably) is junk from Nepal and other parts of China. Bronze laughing Buddhas with no connection with Tibetan tantric belief are just one of the many examples. Despite this there are still many authentic items to be had. Ignore bronzes and paintings - they are all fake. Instead, look for household items and carved wood pieces, such as bowls, pilgrims' stamps, silver items such as gau (amulet cases of various sizes worn by men and women), silver and brass personal seals, old Tibetan banknotes, knitted satchels and woven bags and so on.Though this is quite fascinating for a tourist to look at it is good not to buy any Tibetan antiques as it destroys the culture.
The very large shopping emporia that have appeared around the Barkhor should be treated with caution, unless imported souvenirs are your thing. If you want a local thangka painting for example, find a workshop on the back streets where they are being painted in front of your eyes. This way you will get the real thing rather than Nepalese hack work, and have a more interesting experience buying. 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 of it is easily transported home, but it is fascinating to watch.
Tibet is the home of traditional carpet making, though the industry suffered a decline after 1959 from which it has only slowly begun to recover. Today many "Tibetan" carpets are in fact made in Nepal in factories run by Tibetan exiles. For the visitor, a little caution is needed when buying Tibetan carpets in Lhasa since the majority of pieces displayed in stores in the Barkhor and in front of the Potala are in fact imported from non-Tibetan parts of China, and many of the designs on display have no connection with Tibetan tradition, Turkomen and Afghan designs being common!. 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.
So how to find authentic Tibetan carpets? By all means 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.
A lot of nice and comfortable restaurants can be found in Lhasa old district. Most of them 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. Examples are Snowland Restaurant, Lhasa Kitchen, Naga French Restaurant, Tashi Restaurant. Each meal can be as cheap as USD$3 per person (price at 2005 October). On the southeast corner of Barkhor Street, there is a well-known Tibetant restaurant among backpackers -- Makye Ame - means beautiful woman. Sitting at this second-floor restaurant gives you an amazing view, especially at sunset, of the part of the Barkhor Street which is full of pilgrams moving in clockwise direction. The location of Makye Ame is unbeatable, but the food is nothing to write home about. The smaller Tibetan restaurants, especially the teahouses are much cheaper and serve more tasty food.
Tengyelink Cafe. Great Yak Steak, great atmosphere. Best food to be found in Lhasa. Cheap breakfast options are available.
For Chinese restaurants, though usually poorly-decorated, meals are much cheaper. A plate of beef noodles can be as cheap as USD$0.7 and you can have a full meal including drinks for less than €4! Most of the Chinese restaruants, however, serve Sichuan's spicy cuisine. In recently years, a lot of Chinese, most of them from Sichuan and Shannxi provinces, moved to Lhasa for business.
Apart from eating at restaurants, you can buy food or snacks in the main supermarkets, all around Beijing Zhong Lu.
Yak meat. Most restaurants sell Yak meat and it is a must try in Tibet. Yaks are actually cattle that are adapted to the highlands. Dried yak meat is available at all supermarkets, as is another Tibetan staple, tsampa.
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 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.
Be prepared with at least a few basic food describing words as in many of the restaurants they only speak chinese! Be prepared to learn to use chop sticks as some restaurants do not have forks, spoons or knives.
For those Homesick after weeks of Chinese food, tuck into steak and red wine at Oxygen in the Four Points Sheraton on Lin Kuo East.
See Tibet for typical Tibetan drinks.
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!
Lhasa is 3750 meters (12 000 feet) above sea level, so there is considerable risk of altitude sickness, especially if you fly in from a much lower altitude so your body does not have time to acclimatise. This is a serious concern; altitude sickness can easily ruin a holiday and can even be fatal. There are several components to high altitude illness, including: 1) acute mountain sickness: is characterised by headache, nausea and lassitude developing 6 to 24 hours after ascent to altitude; 2) high altitude cerebral oedema: has similar symptoms to acute mountain sickness but other symptoms, such as confusion and impaired balance, may develop; 3) high altitude pulmonary oedema: typically develops on the second or third day after ascent and initially produces a dry cough followed by increasing shortness of breath and a frothy phlgem due to accumulating fluid in the lungs, and; 4) high altitude periodic breathing of sleep, which can cause poor sleep and lethargy.
Certain drugs are available to reduce the risk of or treat the different components of high altitude illnesses, including acetozolamide (Diamox), salmeterol (Serevent), temazepam (Temaze), nifedipine and dexamethasone. Some of these drugs are found in capsules sold in China eg. Gao Yuan Kang (高原康), which contains dexamethasone. Some herbal preparations are also purported to prevent/treat high altitude illness, such as gingko biloba and a combination capsule called Gao Yuan Ning (高原宁), sold in China. The effectiveness of these preparations remain scientifically unproven, although Gao Yuan Ning (高原宁) is used by Chinese military personnel in cases of rapid ascent.
It is extremely important to note that all these drugs can have significant side effects, especially dexamethasone, a potent steroid medication. Tourists are advised to consult their doctor prior to obtaining these medications. Foreign tourists should procure any necessary medications in their home countries and note the ingredients contained in the medications. The information in this page is in no way a substitute for official medical advice.
If you must fly to Lhasa, it would be wise to fly via an intermediate destination such as Kunming at 1950 meters (6200 feet) and spend several days at that intermediate destination completely acclimatizing there 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 recepient. Keep in mind some monks may colaborate 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. Do not give to children begging and be cautious before giving to any beggars in this area at all; giving to one may attract a crowd.
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.
A popular trekking route is available between Ganden and Samye Monasteries. The average is 4-5 days with fast walkers taking 3 days.