For over 10 years I have helped clients from all over the world travel to Tibet. I am often asked what are the best places in Tibet. So here is my list of the top 10 places not to miss during your Tibet tour.
1 - Potala Palace
Potala Palace is a must see in Tibet. Located in the heart of Lhasa city, this fortress like building is an architectural wonder by all standards.
Composed of (2) main sections with the Red Palace at the top and the White Palace surrounding below on both sides.
One can never truly prepare for a trip to the Potala Palace, it is beyond one imagination. Having been there many times, I always feel a sense of astonishment as I assed the long and winding stairs that lead you into the white palace.
Unlike other attractions in Tibet, your entrance tickets need to be arranged in advance and are valid for a certain time of day. This and other rules, I will talk about in a minute are all part of helping to protect the Potala Palace since it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.
As you enter the grounds you are allowed to spend as much time as you like in the lower gardens and steps that millions of pilgrims have climbed that lead to the main gate. It is here where you first enter the White Palace and your tickets are collected.
The white palace was the dwelling place of former Dalai Lamas and the official buildings of Tibet local government. The white color of these palaces symbolizes the peace and quiet found within Tibet.
As you explore the White Palace you will continue to rise up to the 7th floor. It is here where you will enter the Red Palace. Painted deep Tibetan red and richly decorated with paintings, Jewelled work, carving and other ornaments.
The Red Palace was once the religious center where the Dalai Lama would hold ceremonies.
Note that photography is not allowed inside the chapels. If you have some time in Lhasa, hanging out a bit on the Potang Shakor, the prayer circuit around the grounds of Potala with the locals.
2 - Jokhang Temple
Jokhang Temple occupies a greater position than Potala Palace in Tibetan Buddhism. It is regarded as the spiritual heart of Tibet.
Jokhang Temple unlike the Potala Palce is still in use today. It is a gigantic architectural complex which demonstrates a combination of architectural styles. That include Tibetan, Chinese, Indian and Nepal, as well as a Mandala world outlook of Buddhism.
The main building is a 4 story temple, with roofs covered with gilded bronze tiles. Atop of the building you can see a Dharma Wheel (chakra) flanked by two deer, which represents the unity of all things and symbolizes Sakyamuni himself.
Who Is Sakyamuni
Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, is known as the Lord Buddha. His other names include Gautama Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama or simply Buddha. He was born in Lumbini, Nepal and lived there until he turned 29.
Since no written record could be found about the birth and death of this great figure of Buddhism. There is wide controversy over these exact dates, which are between 5 B.C. to 4 B.C.
Today his birthplace is enshrined as a holy site, attracting Buddhists for pilgrimage from all over the world. It is believed that he had left his footprint in the garden of Lumbini.
Legend has it that the Lord Buddha was born into a rich family, and he created Buddhism beneath a sal tree.
Explore for yourself the legend of Sakyamuni by adding a Nepal Extension on your Tibet Trip.
The main hall of Jokhang Tample houses a statue of Sakyamuni at age 12, which is the most precious treasure of the temple.
For all the trips I have helped to arrange, I always budget a few hours for time so clients can explore the surrounding Barkhor Street. This part of Lhasa is home to the old city and a way to walk back into history. A quick warning is be careful of your wallets, as there are pick pocketers throughout.
The walk along Barkhor street is a clockwise manaor helping to complete 1 Kora. Or a religious circumambulation that Buddhist practice around all holy sites, especially Jokhang Temple.
You will see lots of pilgrims wave their prayers wheels and prostrate themselves in front of Jokhang Temple. The surrounding Barkhor Square is a good place to buy some local souvenirs, so have some small change ready.
The Legend of Jokhang Temple
In the local legend, Jokhang Temple was constructed on the site of an ancient lake, The lake site was the idea of Princess Wen Cheng, who was a learned woman and found that the geography of Tibet was much like a hag, with the lake at the heart.
She suggested that this witch must be demolished by filling and leveling the lake using 1,000 goats to carry soil from a mountain far away, or it will destroy every temple in the region. Finally the temple was completed and was named Ra-Sa-Vphrul-Snang ('ra' meaning goat and 'sa' meaning earth in Tibetan) to commemorate those goats.
3 - Namtso Lake
There are many holy lakes in Tibet. However, Namtso Lake is one of the three main holy lakes.
It offers spectacular views and a tranquil feeling that makes it a true pearl. It is also the largest salt water lake in the vast Qinghai Tibet Plateau.
The pure and turquoise lake sleeps at the foot of the snow capped Nyenchen Tanglha range. Clear skies join the surface of the lake in the distance, creating an integrated and scenic vista. Here even a simply glimpse will take your breath away.
You can choose to have a one-day trip from Lhasa, which involved about a 4 hours drive each way. Or there is some basic accommodations at the lake side, which provides the only way to truly experience the Namtso Lake sunrise.
In Tibetan, the word Nam Tso translates to "Heavenly Lake" as the locals believe the pure lake water is able to clean the soul of every visitor who has ever been here.
Best Time to Visit Namtso Lake
Summer is the best time to visit Namtso Lake as it is the time of the year that Namtso is full of life and activities. You can see lots of wild animals living in harmony with nature. Wild yaks and hares leisurely look for food along the lake's shores. While countless migratory birds fly here to lay their eggs and fnurse their young.
If luckily you will witness a pilgrims who is walking a complete Kora around Namtso Lake to receive god's blessing.
4 - Tsedang Yarlung Valley
Located in the Central Tibet, Tsedang Yarlung Valley is the cradle of Tibetan civilization.
It offers spectacular opportunities to capture photos of the daily life of locals. During one trip in 2011, I recall stopping for over an hour to take photos of one local farmer that was moving his flock of sheep.For thousands of years Yarlung culture has had a significant impact on the development of Tibet.
At Yarlong Valley you will find many "First. All worthy of your time and visit, for example:
- The first monastery, Samye.
- The first Tibetan palace, Yumbulagang.
Getting to Samye Monastery can offer the choice of either an overland 3 to 4 day hike from Ganden; or travel by land cruiser and cross the Yarlong River. Each having their own unique benefits.
Samye Monastery has several unique architectural features that take a trained eye and qualified local guide to truly appreciate. They include the (4) stupphas that surround the Monastery, each one painted a different color to match with the natural elements.
Further as you ascend within the main chapel building each floor presents a new and unique architectural theme that truly makes you feel like you have entered into a different monastery.
I have captured several amazing photos myself during my several trips here.
Mystical Chimu Cave near Samye Monastery
Yumbulagang Palace the first Tibetan Palace is located about a 1.5 hours drive from Samye Monastery. It perches atop a small hill east of the Yarlong River.
The palace only requires 90 minutes to visit but can easily be extended based on how deeply you begin to absorb the local feel. It all begins with the choice or riding a horse or walking up to the palace's gate.
Upon arrival at the gate be greeted by a care taker who will encourage you to light some incents and make an offering. Which does include giving him some money, so keep some small bills handy. Next you will see several small stores that are selling prayers flags and butter wax for pilgrims to continue to make their offerings.
Perhaps the best part besides the spectacular view of the surrounding Valley and Yarlong River. Is the opportunity to wander beyond the palace to the summit. Here it is customary for pilgrims and travelers like us to hang prayer flags.
I cannot say it enough, to travel to Tibet you need take in Tibet and explore the culture. Buy and hang prayer flags. Not just at one monastery but at key places that you feel warms your heart. Perhaps it is a mountain pass on the Friendship Highway, or Everest Base Camp. No matter embrace all Tibet has to offer you
5 - Gyantse Kumbum
Beyond being a must see attraction along the Friendship Highway from Lhasa to Kathmandu. Gyantse is a great place to stop and stretch your lets.
This 35 m. (115 ft.) high stupa, has 77 unique chapels inside, where no 2 are the same.
Commissioned by a Gyantse Prince in 1427, Gyantse Kumbum is an unexpected treasure for those who are interested in the unique Tibetan culture.
The first thing that will grasp your attention is the crown-like golden dome that is supported by the 5 lower angular foundations. This place is very different from the other monasteries in Tibet as its architecture fully represents a typical style of monasteries from thirteenth century to fifteenth century in Later Tibetan area.
Nearby is Gyantse Dzong or Gyantse Fortress that was build in 1390. It is best preserved dzong today and accessible to the public.
6 - Mount Everest
Many clients have told me that Mount Everest is the reason why they want to travel to Tibet. I personally have been to Everest several times. And I have to admit that anyone who witnesses the pyramid peak of Everest will get a visceral understanding of the force of nature.
The access from Tibet is lot easier than from Nepal as there is a road all the way up. And the vistas of Mount Everest provided by Tibetan approach are much better than those on the Nepal side.
Located at an altitude of 5,150 m. (16,900 ft), Everest Base Camp is the furthest point you can get to gaze on the magnificent north face of the world's tallest peak, Mount Everest.
The best time to visit Mount Everest is the middle of April to early June and the middle of September to middle of October. Both of these times are most likely to offer you clear skies, unobstructed view and of course, the famous sunrise over Everest.
In fact, no matter the sunrise or not, capturing Everest in the morning is definately a remarkable Tibetan experience. You will watch the bright-white snow mountain appears from a silhouette outlined by stars and prayer flags to the 8,848 m (29,029 ft) obstacle before you.
7 - Mount Kailash
Along with the holy lake Manasarovar, Mount Kailash is referred to as the center of the world by Buddhist and Hindus. Because of the bad road condition, it is a less visited destination at the far western corner of the Tibetan Plateau. However, it is one of my favorite places in Tibet.
When visiting Kailash, I strongly recommend you to spend at least 3 days hiking along the the age-old pilgrims’ path around Kailash. This kora is the most popular way to visit and show your respect to this holy mountain. The alluring factors include close-ups of the majestic pyramidal Mount Kailash, and chances to meet pilgrims from across Tibet and other countries.
The highest point of this route is Drolma-la, located at an altitude of 5,630 m. (18,471 ft.), making this trek as a true test of the mind and spirit.
Saga Dawa Festival and Mount Kailash
Saga Dawa Festival is believed the day that Sakyamuni was born, became Buddha and entered Nirvana. So every year in the fourth month of Tibetan calendar, the Tibetan Buddhists gather together at Mount Kailash to worship their Buddha.
When coming to the Mount Kailash during Saga Dawa, you will be invited to participate in the celebration with the locals. Remember to hang up your own prayer flags together with other thousands of multi colored flags. Each represents a prayer that someone wants fulfilled.
8 - The Friendship Highway
The Friendship Highway from Lhasa to Kathmandu in Nepal is the most popular travel route in Tibet. It involves the 2 major urban centers of Shigatse and Gyantse, as well as other important attractions such as Sakya and Mount Everest.
Both the 8 and 10 days are 2 options to enjoy a good overland trip along the Friendship Highway. The road conditions is very good. discussed above will travel along this route. Joined with several historical and cultural attractions along the way makes it an obvious choice.
9 - Qinghai - Tibet Railway
Taking the train to Lhasa is a unique experience you should not miss in Tibet. The Qinghai - Tibet Railway is the highest train in the world. The stunning landscape with vast grasslands, high plateau lakes, yak herders's tents and snow capped mountain ranges are unforgettable.
Among the 45 stations, nine are designated as sightseeing stations and have special sightseeing platforms for travelers to capture the marvelous landscapes.
Famous sights include the Kunlun and Tanggula mountain ranges, Qinghai Lake, Tuotuo River, Grassland etc. Together with the rare wild animals will reward you with remarkable memories.
10 - Sera Monastery
If you ask me where is the best place to witness the life of the Tibetan monks. My answer will always be the same, Sera Monastery.
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. 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.
For centuries Tibet has long held on on western mind because of its marvelous landscapes and unique cultures. By visiting the 10 places listed above, you will be rewarded the panoramic vews of Tibet.
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