Lhasa travel guide, Lhasa travel, Tibet travel information

Source: wikitravel

Lhasa Tibetan: Chinese:(Lasha) is the capital of the Tibet autonomous region in China. It is located at 3650 meters (12 000 feet) above sea level on the northern slopes of the Himalayas.

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 Chinese 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.

Get in
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 sufferring altitude sickness being left off 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 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. However, it is not uncommon for Western climbing groups to keep on Nepali time since this better coincides with the expected times of sunrise and sunset.

Non-Chinese nationals are required to obtain a special permit to visit Tibet. Individual permits are hard to obtain, group permits (at least 5 person) are easier. Travel agents from Kathmandu are very good in obtaining one and also a Chinese visa for you in very short time (one day or two) when you book a trip.

By plane
The Lhasa Gonggar Airport (IATA: LXA) is about 50 km from Lhasa. It takes 1 hours to the center of 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 and Hong Kong.

By bus
Buses run from Golmud in neighbouring Qinghai province, but are almost as pricey as the flight from Chengdu due to the permit issue.

By train

The Qinghai-Tibet (Qingzang) railway connects Lhasa and Golmud, with services continuing onto Xining, Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing.

Total Trains Running To/From Lhasa
T27/8 to/from Beijing (West) – Lhasa – takes about 48 hours
T22/23/24/21 to/from Chengdu – Lhasa – takes about 48 hours
T222/223/224/221 to/from Chongqing – Lhasa – takes about 49 hours
T164/5 T166/3 to/from Shanghai – Lhasa – takes about 51 hours
T262/4 to/from Guangzhou – Lhasa – takes about 60 hours
K917/K918 to/from Lanzhou – Lhasa – takes about 28 hours
N917/N918 to/from Xining – Lhasa – takes about 24 hours
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. A bus costs ¥1 from the railway station to the urban area.

Get around
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 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 located on Barkhor Square in the center of the old section of Lhasa.

The Potala Palace (Podrang Potala) – A stronghold probably existed on Red Hill as early as the 7th century AD when King Songtsen Gampo 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 RMB 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.

The Norbulingka Summer Palace – located about 1km south 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.
The 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.
Drepung Monastery was 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 was 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 RMB 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.

The koras with other pilgrims
Drink tea and eat thugpa in the many teahouses near the Jokhang
Shop in the Barkhor square
Watch people
Blind Massage at Medical Massage Clinic Lhasa, located on the 3rd floor of Number 59 Beijing Middle Road, directly across from the Kichu Hotel (can ask at the hotel for directions). Phone 6320870. Cost 80 RMB per hour. English spoken. A vocational project of NGO Braile Without Borders [1]. Great way to adjust to the altitude or just relax.

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.

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 to the USA. 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.
All types of handicrafts, prayer wheels, and other items can be purchased from small kiosks along the circumambulation route around the Jokhang Temple and around Barkhor square. Bargaining is expected.

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.

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.

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 euro! 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.

Hong Yan
Le Bai Long
Si Fang
inside Lhasa Department Mall
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 traveller 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.

Tibetan butter tea (pöcha) is a must try, though it may not be a pleasant experience for all! It is a salty mixture of black tea and Tibetan butter. Traditionally it is churned by hand with a thick rod in a long upright wooden container. However, when electricity came to the city in recent years, modernized Tibetans turn to use electric mixers to make their butter tea. The tibetan butter is not rancid as commonly described, but has a cheesy taste and smell to it, close to blue cheese or Roquefort. Think of it as a cheese broth rather, that you will appreciate particularly after a long hike in cold weather.

An alternative to Tibetan butter tea is sweet tea which is more familiar to western palates. Sweet tea drinking was introduced in the XXth century by merchants returning from India, first among well-off Tibetans, since sugar was a luxury on the Plateau, then when sugar became more available among the general public. As compared to India, Tibetan do not use spices (clove, cinnamon, cardamon)

(Sweet (milk) tea drinking habit in Tibet probably doesn’t come from contact with British but with Indians and Nepali themselves, a very common drink of these nations. Tea is brewed in a boiling mixture of milk and water with sugar. The British fashion is of not boiling the leaves, and to add sugar and a cloud of milk after pouring tea in a cup, according to individual tastes.

‘Chang’- Don’t miss it. Tibetan beer made of barley has a lighter flavor than a western-type, bottled beer, since they do not use bitter hop. Often home-brewed and with as many taste and strength variants as industrial beers. Beware of chang: the yeast is still alive in it, and will carry on fermenting and producing alcohol in the warm temperatures of your stomach! Usually no germ risk since yeast prevents bacteria proliferation.

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!

Phuntsok Khasang Youth Hostel, 48 Dosenge Road, Lhasa, (0891)6915222.
Banak Shol Hotel, 8 Beijing Dong Lu, Lhasa, (0891)6323829.
Dong Cuo International YHA.
Kirey Hotel, 105 Beijing Dong Lu, Lhasa, (0891)6323462.
Yak Hotel, 100 Beijing Dong Lu, Lhasa, (0891)6323496.

Mid range
Himalaya Hotel, 6 East Linguo Road, Lhasa, (0891)6331300 (fax: (0891)6334855). 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.

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).
Tibet International Grand Hotel, 1 National South Road, Lhasa, (0891) 6832888 (fax: (0891) 6820888).

Stay safe
Lhasa is 3650 meters (about 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. Inland Chinese traveling to the Tibet Plateau always take special drugs to help mitigate altitude sickness. These drugs were originally developed for military personnel to accommordate quickly in high altitude areas. So they can be very useful sometime and are easily available at hotels where you stay. Gao Yuan Kang (A Healthy Plateau, literally)or Gao Yuan Ning(A Peaceful Plateau) are two effecitve drugs among others.

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 beggers in this area at all; giving to one may attract a crowd.

Get out
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 located 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.
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.