7 top things to do in Lhasa
Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, is the dream destination for almost all travelers worldwide. Known as the Land of Gods and the City of Sunshine, Lhasa is a great place for you to explore the Tibetan culture, and embark on a spiritual journey as you observe the lives of the most pious Buddhists in the world. As the gateway to the "real" Tibet, Lhasa deserves at least 4 days for you to "see it all". Here is my list of the 7 top things to do in Lhasa - the holy city.
1 - Walking in Lhasa Old Town
The fragile Tibetan old town shelters the soul of Lhasa, far from Chinese influence. Exploring the old town of the mesmerizing city is doubtlessly the top recommended activites in Lhasa.
This walk takes in craft workshops, back street chapels and pilgrim path, passing en route some of Lhasa's last remaining traditional architecture.
The popular walk starts at Barkhor Street. You can take a left here and then pass strips of dried yak meat and yellow bags of yak butter to the bustling Tromsikhang Market. Here you can witness a modern market with original Tibetan-style buildings.
As you walk down the street, there is a small but active Meru Sarpa Monastery for you to explore. The main building in the middle of the central housing compound houses a traditional wood-block printing press. In the northwest corner is an atmospheric chapel with a statue of thousand-armed Chenresig.
Take the alley down, you will head deeply into Lhasa old town. The places worth your time visiting include the yellow walls of the House of Shambhala, a nice rooftop restaurant, Tibetan crafts people making statues, cabinets, masks and Tibetan banners.
I encourage you to take a stop at the Eizhi Exquisite Thangka Shop here. To the right you can see more brass ware shop, Tibetan tailor and noodle-making workshop. Here is a great place for you to explore the local customs and purchase some souvenirs for you family and friends.
Keep on heading to the east you will find s stylish Dropenling crafts center, where you can watch local craftsmen from the Ancient Art Restoration Center grinding of mineral paints for thangka-painting.
After loading up with souvenirs, I suggest you go to the Ani Sangkhung Nunnery, which is a part of the popular Lingkhor kora route.
This small and active nunnery is the only one within the precincts of the old Tibetan quarter, which can date back to the 7th century.
Next you will explore the Lho Rigsum Lhakhang, one of the four chapels surrounding the Jokhang at cardinal points. This chapel has almost completely been ignored by travelers.
However, it has a center statue of Tsepame flanked by the four main bodhisattvas and its own inner kora.
Keep on walking along the alley you will get to the southeast corner of the Barhor Street, where you can continue clockwise to Barkhor Square.
2 - Drinking a Cup of Butter Tea
When you are traveling in Tibet, you will find many tea houses in Tibet. Sweet tea houses are good meeting places and spend leisure time for Tibetan people. Guangming Kamqung Sweet Tea House in Lhasa is one of the most famous and oldest sweet tea houses in Lhasa.
Tibetan people love tea very much. To Tibetans, tea is a drink just like coffee to the Westerners-a drink to wake up and start the day. Teahouse also has a long history in Lhasa, and is one indispensable part of people's life. In ancient times, drinking tea was only limited to noble class; however, with time changing, men and even women in all works of lives come to drink tea.
Guangming Kamqung Sweet Tea House
The Guangming Kamqung Sweet Tea House is on Barkhor Street in Lhasa. The tea house is decorated in a simple style with wooden tables and comfortable chairs. Foreign tourists would go there to have a cup of sweet tea with Tibetan noodles or Tibetan Dumplings to experience the local lifestyle.
When you travel to Lhasa, you can find a corner of the bustling teahouse and sit down, order a cup of sweet tea and some Tibetan snacks, and then enjoy them while watching hundreds of local Tibetans drinking tea, chatting or playing dice. The teahouse has become a place for residents to change information, and the news spread in teahouse is much quicker than media.
Lhasa's Cave Teahouse ~ Tibetans sit on bench seats that reach down both side of the long, narrow cave into the heart of this unique teahouse. The patrons, all local, talk over cups of salty yak butter tea or the Lhasa favorite: sweetened milk tea. Expect friendly stares and maybe even a question or two, but rest assured that the locals are pleased that you’ve joined them.
As you walk further from the light and down into the cleft, the air gets more dank and stale, but the experience is worth it.
Deep within the cave is a large kitchen, which in typical Tibetan teahouse fashion only serves 2 dishes: Tibetan noodles (thick, barley noodles cooked in a soup with bits of yak meat) and ‘shamdre’ (curry potatoes and yak meat, served with pickled vegetable and rice). The noodles are good, but the shamdre is definitely the best choice – rich curry and surprisingly generous portions of meat, which go well with a glass of sweet Tibetan milk tea.
3 - Taste the Local Tibetan Food
Tibet is unlikely to become a hot place for tasting food. However, it is still an important way to experience the local cultures. I encourage you taste at least one time Tibetan food in an authentic local restaurant.
The main Tibetan meal is tsampa, a kind of dough made with roasted-barley flour and yak butter. Tibetan people prefer to mix it with water, tea or beer.
Tibetans like eating meat to fight the cold. The meat of yaks and sheep is the most favored. The meat of goats is disliked, while that of dogs, horses, and donkeys is taboo.
Tibetans are used to eating raw meat. In winter, they cut the meat into slices and hang them high up. The meat will keep fresh in the coldness and gradually dry. In the next spring they can either eat the air-dried meat as it is or cook it.
There are not too many vegetables in traditional Tibetan food. In recent years, the situation has changed a lot, but vegetables are still much more expensive than those in mainland China.
Snow Land Restaurant (Xueyu Canting) is one of the most popular place that offers Tibetan, Indian and Nepali food. All the dishes are made to more meet Westerners' taste. The small but tasty chicken tikka masala and cakes are easily the best in town. Menu in English.
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4 - Pilgrims Kora
Following the Tibetans on their pilgrimage path is one of the highly recommeded things to do in Lhasa. Kora is a transliteration of a Tibetan word that means "circumambulation" or "revolution".
A Kora is performed by the practitioner making a circumambulation around a sacred site or object, typically as a constituent part of a pilgrimage, ceremony, celebration or ritual.
In Lhasa there are 3 popular kora. All offer you a great chance to have a glimpse of the Tibetan pilgrims and their religion.
The pilgrim path that encircles the food of the Potala makes for a nice walk before or after a visit to the main event. Here you can witness plenty of pilgrims, especially in the morning.
Starting from the western chorten, I recommend you to follow the prayer wheel s to the northwest corner, marked by 3 large chortens.
From the northeast corner you can see a splendid prayer hall occupied by nuns. Keep heading you will get to a Chinese-style square, where pilgrims often prostrate in front of the Potala.
You will be impressed when you firstly get to Barkhor Street as it presents the original outlook of Lhasa city. Due to the holy Jokhang Temple, the street has been endowed with religious meaning.
There are many pilgrims every day hold the prayer wheels to walk clockwise through the street, or even prostrate themselves, facing to the entrance of Jokhang Temple. The way they express their piety could makes you understand the holiness of Tibetan Buddhism.
Along this route you will pass several lhakhang with small chapels and prayer wheels. Continue down the alley you will pass through a doorway into the old Meru Nyingba Monastery. This small but active monastery is a real delight and crowded with Tibetans thumbing prayer beads or swinging prayer wheels and chanting under breath.
During this kora, you will also have a chance to visit some local handicraft shops. Tibetan knives, prayer wheels, long-sleeve "Chuba" (Tibetan people's traditional clothes) and some other religious articles. Numerous shops stand on both sides along the street and thousands of floating stands are on every corner, which makes the street become one of the largest markets in Tibet.
This walk follows the most interesting section of the city's main pilgrimage circuit. It's best walked in the morning, when you'll be joined by hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims.
The starting point of this kora is at Jiangsu Lu. Ask your local guide to help you find this place. Then all the way heading to the Potala Palace.
After several minutes' walk you will first get to the base of Chagpo Ri, the Iron Mountain, and keep heading west to past a motley collection of rock paintings, shrines , stone mantras and carved yak skulls. At the southwest end of the hill you will find a lovely collection of painted rock carving around a huge image of Tsepame.
After 2 to 3 hours' walk you will get to the Potala Palace. End the walk here with a well-deserved cup of sweet tea in the hot and humid cave teahouse (You can check it in the first part.)
5 - Explore Tibetan Buddhism at Ganden Monastery
If you only have time for one monastery excursion outside Lhasa, Ganden Monastery would probably be the best choice. It is one of “the great three” Gelugpa monasteries in Tibet.
During the visit in the Ganden Monastery, there are three sights should not to be missed at Ganden Monastery:
- Serdung, which contains the tomb of Tsongkhapa
- The Tsokchen Assembly Hall
- The Ngam Cho Khang, which houses many artifacts which belonged to Tsongkhapa.
Ganden Monastery is also well-known for its kora. There actually are two parts to the walk, the high kora and the low kora. No matter which way you choose, enjoy the superb views over the braided Kyi-chu Valley along the way and see large numbers of pilgrims and monks offering prayers, rubbing holy rocks and prostrating themselves along the path.
Brief Knowledge of Ganden Monastery:
Ganden Monastery is unique in that is situated atop of the Wangbur Mountain, 50 km. (31 mi.) northeast of Lhasa, at an altitude of 4,300 m. (14,107 ft.).
There are generally two principal original colleges in Ganden Monastery, Jangtse and Shartse, meaning North Peak and East Peak respectively.
Even though it’s considered to be the smallest one among “the great three”, the monastery still remains three times as large as the Potala Palace.
More Information About Ganden Monastery:
Ganden Monastery was the first monastery established by the founder of Gelugpa Sect, Tsongkhapa himself in 1409. The monastery has always been a symbolic shrine to all the disciples of the Gelugpa sect. When Tsongkhapa died in 1411, his preserved body was buried there in a silver and gold encrusted tomb, and the abbot of the monastery passed to his disciples. From that time forth, Ganden Monastery has become to be the main seat of Geluk administrative and political power.
The Tibetan word “Ganden” came from the name of the Western Paradise, which means joyous, it’s the dwelling place of Jampa, which is the Future Buddha. The head of the monastery came to be known as the Ganden Tripa, and what’s interesting is that this post was earned through scholarly merit, not reincarnation.
6 - Discover the Holy Caves in Drak Yerpa
If you are interested in Tibetan Buddhism, Drak Yerpa Hermitage, about 16 km. northeast of Lhasa, is one of the holiest caves to explore. This peaceful site offers lovely views and is a great day trip from Lhasa.
When visiting the caves, you should always keep in clockwise. The largest chapel is the Dawa-puk, where Guru Rinpoche (which is the main statue) is said to have spent 7 years meditating. Here you will find the painting of Ekajati (Tsechigma) in the left corner.
Below the main caves and to the east you will see the Neten Lhakhang, where the practice of worshipping the 16 arhats was first introduced. In addition, there are several caves and retreats higher up the cliff-face and some fine hiking possibilities in the hills if you have time. You can also enjoy the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains - Alpine meadows.
7- Listen Monks Debating in Sera Monastery
If you ask me where is the best place to observe the life of the Tibetan monks. My answer will always be - Sera Monastery. This is surely one of the most exalirating top things to do in Lhasa.
What makes Sera different is the famous debating tradition. It is a learning process for Tibetan monks on the Buddhist doctrines, and the sera’s debating is said to be exclusive among the other several Tibet monasteries.
I personally advice you to visit Sera after lunch as the debating practice are usually in the afternoon ( 3 - 5 pm.). Here you will see the monks supplement their efforts by using a variety of gestures including clapping their hands, pushing their partners for an answer, or plucking their prayer beads to win the virtue of the Buddha.
An early arrival time is required if you want to have a clear view of this special and holy event. Note that most Buddha halls will be closed at 3 pm.
These 7 top things to do in Lhasa are highly recommended in Tibet tour, and not only by me, but also by countless overseas travelers. If you have plenty of time and have other things in mind, please contact your China travel agency, WindhorseTour, to make the tour just the way you want. There are certainly more things to do during your stay in Lhasa! Learn More about Tibetan Etiquettes and Taboo.
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