Get to know all the Lhasa Tibet travel tips you should know before visiting this ancient city and make the most out of your time there.
There is nowhere on Earth quite like Lhasa. Ancient and utterly unique, it’s a place where you can feel millennia of history deep in your soul — in the hum of prayers, the glow of butter lamps and the wild, wonderful sacred art and architecture. And it’s a history made poignant by knowing that the heart of Tibet is still beating despite over 60 years of a political struggle to survive.
Lhasa is a city famous for its beautiful natural scenery and Buddhist culture. There is a lot to see and do in Lhasa, which means the place of the gods. The Tibetan city overflows with historical points of interest, from its well-preserved Potala Palace to the Jokhang Temple – one of the holiest sites in Tibetan Buddhism – to the ancient alleys where you can catch glimpses of traditional Tibetan life.
Visiting the magical city of Lhasa is an excellent idea for those who love history, nature, and unique cultures. Not only that but traveling through Asia via this historical destination allows for some truly amazing and memorable journeys.
But before planning too many adventures while there, make sure you know these 6 things about Lhasa:
1. Some of the Coolest Journeys in the World Start or End in Lhasa
The central Tibetan region around Lhasa is amazing. You will find high mountain passes, sky-blue lakes, and a massive river all in or near the city. A huge bonus is that, from Lhasa, it’s possible to travel to the iconic Everest Base Camp, one of Tibet’s most famous sites.
Everest Base Camp
It’s the ultimate bucket-list goal for many, to personally view the breathtaking peak of the highest mountain on planet Earth.
A 13-day tour to Everest Base Camp on the Tibet side allows you to see the best of sites in Lhasa while on the same journey allowing for enough time to acclimatize to the high altitude.
This tour will allow you to see the views from the Kamba La Pass, achingly blue Yamdrok Lake, the ancient towns of Gyantse and Shigatse, the Karo La Glacier, and of course, majestic Mount Everest.
Recommended read: 20 Mind-blowing facts about Mount Everest
If you have more time, you can even take a trip to Mount Kailash, which will serve up some of the greatest hits of a trip to Tibet.
On that trip, you see the highlights of Lhasa, plus all the glories of an Everest Base Camp trip, as you stop at Everest on your way to the holiest mountain in the world, Mount Kailash.
Once you’re at Mount Kailash, you’ll take a three-day trek around it — another bucket-list journey for many travelers. Tell everyone you reached extreme high altitude once you take this tour, you can boast for the rest of your life that you have reached extreme high altitude since you will cross the 18,372ft / 5600m Dolma La Pass.
Overland to Nepal
How about visiting two countries on one amazing tour? Starting your journey in Lhasa means you can overland to Nepal.
The great thing about this tour is that it takes you through many of the highlights mentioned above with the added benefit of allowing you to take in the fascinating sites of two countries on an epic journey. The tour starts in Lhasa, Tibet, and ends in Kathmandu, Nepal.
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This is the best way to see the two cities in one journey as the reverse doesn’t allow for proper acclimatizing to the high altitude.
2. There is no Such Thing as a Tibet Visa
When visiting Tibet, you do need to secure permission to enter its borders. This special permission however isn’t a visa. You’ll need a visa to enter China, which you may secure via the normal means of obtaining a visa through a Chinese embassy or consulate in your homeland.
To enter Tibet however, you’ll need a Tibet Travel Permit, which you cannot secure on your own. A local travel agent in Tibet will secure this permit for you as part of an official Tibet tour. The tour can be a private one for just you and your party if you wish.
It’s advised that you don’t mention any intention of visiting Tibet when securing your Chinese visa.
3. Tibetan food is Weird and Wonderful
Tibetan food is not your usual Asian flare. It can be a little weird especially to Westerners but it is delightfully flavorful. You’ll fall in love easily with Tibetan food, from drinking buttery tea, eating sweet rice, lots of yak meat, butter, and cheese, and of course, momos.
So what are momos? They’re a favorite in Tibet! They’re meat or veggie dumplings that while they take a great deal of time to make, are common fare at Tibetan parties and gatherings. They’re not to be confused with shabaleps, which are fried Tibetan meat or veggie pies.
Noodle soups, or thukpa, are also very common in Tibet, as is tsampa, a roasted and ground barley flour that is a staple in Tibetan cooking. You’ll find yourself drinking a lot of po cha in Tibet to keep warm. Also called butter tea, po cha is black tea churned with milk, butter, and salt. You may or may not find butter tea delightful once you get used to its unique flavor! Here’s a pro tip for enjoying po cha — think of it as soup rather than tea.
If you have a sweet tooth, you’ll be hard-pressed to find traditional desserts in Tibet to satisfy your cravings as Tibetans aren’t big on desserts. You can grab yourself some sweet rice or a peculiar sweet macaroni and cheese style dish to see if those suit your needs. Of course, you can buy all kinds of fruit, packaged biscuits, candies, and sweets pretty much wherever you travel in Tibet. This didn’t use to be the case but is increasingly true.
4. Flying Directly into Lhasa is a Bad Idea
You may or may not know that Tibet is high-altitude, some cities much more so than others, which leaves you quite open for altitude sickness if you don’t take precautions.
One such precaution is to avoid flying directly into Lhasa, which sits at 12,001 ft / 3,658 m.
Taking the train directly from Beijing to Lhasa isn’t a great option either since it is recommended that you spend at least 24 hours at an immediate altitude to acclimatize yourself before moving on to a higher elevation. (The train doesn’t spend enough time at an intermediate altitude to help you.)
A better way to get to Lhasa while avoiding altitude sickness is to fly into Xining, a great spot to begin to acclimatize, at 7464 ft / 2275 m. Spend at least one night, and preferably 2-3 nights there. There are wonderful Tibetan sites to see in and near Xining that will help you to pass the time.
Then, you can take the train from Xining to Lhasa, which if you book your trip to begin in the evening, you’ll see the most amazing views between Golmud and Lhasa in the daytime.
You should know that altitude sickness is no joke. A small percentage of people do get pulmonary edema, which is potentially fatal, by flying from low altitude to an altitude as high as Lhasa’s directly.
5. Tibetan Buddhism is Inseparable from Tibetan culture
The Tibetan religion of Buddhism is inextricably tied to Tibetan culture. The two are impossible to separate because Buddhism in Tibet has heavily influenced the culture and customs of the land.
To appreciate the culture, start with a visit to the Jokhang Temple. For the people who are not Tibetans, visiting Jokhang Temple is like a window into their culture.
The temple is considered the most sacred of all temples in Tibet, for its part in the development of Buddhism here. It is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists who come to this place to pray and get blessed.
Visitors will get the chance to get acquainted with Buddhist culture by visiting the temple. The rare, magnificent architecture and statuary is something that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime.
Recommended read: Learning about Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism in India
Drepung Monastery is often referred to as one of Tibet’s three great monasteries. The other two are Ganden Monastery and Sera Monastery. Drepung Monastery is famous for its picturesque location at the foot of Mount Gephel.
It will be a highlight of your trip to hike around the monastery. It’s worth planning to spend time meandering through the chapels and learning more about Tibetan culture while being in awe of the beauty of the architecture and the glorious natural surroundings.
You can also plan to walk the Drepung Kora, a ritual path around the monastery that is seen as a meditation practice and pilgrimage journey in reverence to the holy site. Buddhists take part in these kora practices as part of their search for enlightenment. There is nothing quite like walking a kora with local Tibetans and visiting pilgrims in such a historic and highly revered place.
The Sera Monastery, another member of the “great three” is worth a visit on its own. It was established in 1419 and suffered from collapse during the Cultural Revolution in 1959. Now only a shadow of its former glory in population size, it is still a functioning monastery with three colleges and is home to unusual and sacred artwork worth seeing.
You can also see monks debating here and also walk the kora that circles Sera.
The Potala Palace is a beautiful architectural landmark and as the highest place in the city, it’s the best place to get a bird’s eye view of Lhasa. For centuries, the sight of its golden roofs has been like a beacon at the end of many long journeys.
Whether you’re a pilgrim or a visitor, laying your eyes on its magnificence somehow signals that you’re witnessing something welcoming, and magical.
The palace was built to be a monastery and seat of government but it is now a mere museum with the absence of the Dalai Lama, reducing it to a shell of its former glory days.
There are over 13 stories to explore and it’s still very much worth a visit, though perhaps you will wait until you’re properly acclimated to the altitude before making that trek because you must walk all those steps.
The highlights of your visit will include standing in the revered rooms where the current and past Dalai Lama lived, seeing the magnificent Chapel of the Dalai Lamas’ Tombs, and laying your eyes on the Phakpa Lhakhang, an original part of the Potala, holding the most precious statue, the Phakpa Lokeshvara. This is a small image of Avalokitesvara, bodhisattva of compassion.
6. Walking is the Way to Go
To get a real taste of Tibetan life, you’ll want to walk the city with the people of the land. As we have noted, in Tibet, walking around a sacred place is called a kora. This tradition has been around for centuries and still has special significance today.
The word “kor” means circle in Tibetan. The word “kora” is often translated as circumambulation, from the Latin circum (around) and ambulare (to walk). Many of the footpaths you’ll notice in and around Tibet are meant for these sacred walks. It’s a path to enlightenment for the people of Tibet and visitors are welcomed to participate.
Circumambulating locations usually have high spiritual powers — the Jokhang Temple mentioned above being one example. Just by being near them, you’ll be blessed by these powers. It is common to recite a prayer or chant as you make your trek, to deepen the practice.
Going for a kora with sincere motivation helps to accumulate good karma and spiritual awakening. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to do this correctly — if you just join in with the Tibetans, with an open heart and an intention to generate spiritual merit for yourself and others, you will be okay. One tip, though, is that Tibetan Buddhists always walk a kora in a clockwise direction!
If you’re looking for an early taste of Tibetan life, head to the Barkhor — the famous old trade route in Lhasa. You’ll always find Tibetans there reciting mantras while walking around.
Like Tibetans, if you walk this kora you will get some exercise while earning some spiritual merit and becoming a part of Lhasa’s energetic heart. It’s flat and easy to do so it is safe for most people to walk while becoming acclimatized to the altitude.
If you’re feeling ambitious, the Lingkhor is the kora for you. It’s over 5 miles long and circles the heart of Lhasa. Go early in the morning when the path is bustling with local Tibetans then stop in for some sweet tea to congratulate yourself on making or attempting this trek.
Armed with these six tips, you are more than prepared to explore the scenic landscapes, vibrant culture, and rich Buddhist tradition of Tibet.
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Yolanda O’Bannon is a Tibet expert, travel writer, and photographer with a long-time passion for Tibet and Asia. Along with her husband Lobsang, Yolanda is obsessed with making Tibet travel simple, safe, and ethical at YoWangdu Experience Tibet.
Images via YoWangdu, Unsplash, and A World to Travel.
Contributing members are responsible for the accuracy of content contributed to A World to Travel.