Situated in southwest China and southwest of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Tibet covers 1.2 million square km, one eighth of China's total territory, and has a population of 2.25 million, which gives it the lowest population density in China. Tibetans account for 90 percent of the region's population. Mt Qomolangma, 8848 meters above sea level in the Himalayas, is the highest peak in the world.
As Tibet's political, economic, cultural and communication center, Lhasa has a long history, brilliant cultural tradition, unique local customs and beautiful highland scenes. Its scenic spots, such as the Potala Palace and Qoikang Monastery, are all imbued with Tibet's rich Buddhist aura, and attract visitors who come in droves from at home and abroad.
Lhasa has the least polluted air in the world, which makes it a good place to spend the summer. As one of the first famous historical and cultural cities named by the People's Republic of China, it has been dubbed as a 'city in the air' on the 'roof of the world'.
The Potala, which in Tibetan means 'High Heavenly Realm', is named after a stone cliff on Cape Comorin at the southern tip of India. It was sacred to the Buhhda of Compassion, whom the Indians worshipped as Avalokitesvara and the Tibetans believe to be Chenresik, who passed his spirit into the Dalai Lamas.
Built for several purposes, the Potala served as administrative center, seat of government, monastery, fortress and the home of all the Dalai Lamas from the Fifth to the Fourteenth, although from the end of the eighteenth century, when the Norbulingka was built as the summer palace, they stayed here only in winter.
The Potala Palace covers an area of 360,000 square meters, with over 2,000 rooms and 34 Buddha halls. The general layout of the Potala includes the White Palace for the living quarters of the Dalai Lama and the Red Palace for religious functions. The Red Palace contains many halls and chapels- the most stunning chapels house the jewel-bedecked tombs of 5th to 13th Dalai Lamas. The apartments of the 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas in the White Palace offer an insight into the high life.
Drepung, which means rice heap in Tibetan language, lies 8 kilometers west of Mt. Gambo Utse. The monastery covers more than 200 thousand square meters. Once the largest monastery in the world, it was founded in 1416 by Jamyang Chojey, a leading disciple of Tsongkhapa. It was an immediate success and a year after opening there were already two thousand monks in residence and ten thousand by the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-82). The main structures of the monastery include the Main Assembly Hall (known as Tshomchen), four Tantric colleges and Ganden Palace (Ganden Potrang).
The golden-roofed Jokhang is 1300 years old and one of Tibet's holiest shrines. It was built to commemorate the marriage of the Tang princess Wen Cheng to King Songtsen Gampo of Tubo Kingdom (former Tibet), and house a pure gold statue of the Buddha Skyamuni brought to Tibet by the princess in the year of 700 A.D.
In 822, the Tang imperial court and the Tubo Kingdom formed an alliance aimed at keeping friendship forever. This event was recorded and engraved in the Han and Tibetan languages on a stone tablet, which still stands in front of the Jokhang Temple of Lhasa.
Located in the center of old Lhasa, the temple was built by craftsmen from Tibet, inland China, and Nepal and thus features different architectural styles. The temple is also the spiritual center of Tibet and the holiest destination for all Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims.
UNESCO added the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa to the list of World Heritage as an extension of the Potala Palace in December 2000.
With a history of more than 1,300 years, the Barkhor is essentially a pilgrim circuit, which is followed clockwise round the periphery of the Jokhang. Shaped roughly like an octagon, it is also a hive of market activity.
Lined with the shop stalls and teahouses, the outdoor market sells all manner of goods including saddles and stirrups, Chinese army gear, thangkas, jewelry, blankets, carpets, etc. The whole Bakhor area is worth exploring with huge wooden doors set in long white walls leading into hidden courtyards surrounded by traditional stone houses.
Situated about 3 km in the west of the town, the Norbulingka (Norbu means treasure in Tiberan; lingka means garden in Tibetan) was built in 1740's during the reign of the seventh Dalai Lama. It used to be the Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama. Encompassing 360,000 square meters, the pleasant park consists of small palaces, chapels and a zoo.
In the past, each spring a grand procession of lamas would follow the Dalai Lama to move into the park. Before 1959, common people had no access to the palace.
Also called Yamdrok Yumtso, the lake is 110 km southwest of Lhasa. Encompassing an area of 638 square kilometers, it is regarded by Tibetans as one of the three sacred lakes. The lake has an elevation of 4441 meters above sea level with an average depth of 30 meters. The lake is surrounded by many snow capped mountains and fed by the numerous small streams.
It is a highland freshwater lake with a dozen of islands, the largest of which is about 3000 square meters. In the summer, many different types of aquatic birds fly here to mate and lay eggs. There are shoals of fish in this lake. Every year from April to October, the local people catch fish here and sell in the market of Lhasa.
Restaurants in Lhasa serve the best food and accommodation in Tibet. The food includes Tibetan cuisine, Sichuan cuisine and western style dishes. Some hotel restaurants even provide Nepalese and Indian food. It's worth noting that Sichuan dishes in Tibet are more expensive than in other parts of China. Tourist restaurants also serve delicacies and almost every hotel has western food. Most of the restaurants can be found clustered around the Jokhang Temple and Barkhor Street, the center of Lhasa City, so that travelers can find places to eat and drink within easy reach.
Crazy Yak Saloon lies next door to Kirey Hotel on Beijing East Road. It has uniquely Tibetan decor and furnishings. Tibetan food has a good reputation here and the yak meat comes recommended. The other highlight is the Tibetan song and dance show from 19:30 to 20:30 every evening.
Ethnic Restaurant lies opposite the Kirey Hotel, on East Beijing Road, and it is one of the largest Tibetan restaurants in Lhasa. The restaurant serves aweto chicken and aweto beef as well as some common dishes.
Snow-Deity Palace Tibetan Style Restaurant is located just west of the Potala Palace Plaza. It is one of the only slap-up Tibetan Style restaurants in Lhasa. There is authentic Tibetan food on offer such as freshly fried mutton chops and Tibetan steamed stuffed buns.
Snowland Restaurant next to Snowland Hotel on Mentsikhang Road has a range of western food, Tibetan food and Nepalese food. Its Nepalese food and pizza are delicious. The price is moderate when compared with the excellent quality of the food.
Tashi Restaurant, close to Penthoc Guesthouse and Tashi 2 in the Kirey Hotel is a favorite of many travelers. It is clean, quiet and the staffs speak good English. They offer Tibetan food including Tibetan momos, tsampa, thukpa and fried yak meat as well as spaghetti, mashed potatoes and fries.
Tibetan Cafeteria is located west of Middle Beijing Road. It offers Tibetan food such as fried mutton chops, radish stew, yak meat and potato buns.
Thangka is a kind of scroll painting using complicated lines, bright colors and is rich with religious flavors. Most of the Thangka focuses on the motifs of Tibetan Buddhism. It is often made either by painting, embroidery or sometimes sewn with pearls. The pearl Thangka is the most desirable of all. Tibetan Thangka is valued for its precision, balance and variety.
Tibetan costumes are inconvenient to take home as most of them are made from woolen cloth and are bulky. However, you might consider buying colorful aprons, fur hats or caps to take home, they can make unique decorations for your rooms.
Lots of tourists like to buy Tibetan medicine for its herbs such as saffron, aweto and snow lotus. Tibetan doctors and their traditional medicines made by secret methods attract much curiosity. The best places to buy Tibetan medicines are the Tibetan Hospital, right opposite the Jokhang Temple Square or the medicine company on the west outskirts of Lhasa.
Don't forget to check out the gold and silver wares of Tibet and Nepal either. Nepalese and Tibetan silver ornaments and other artworks should definitely be on your shopping list. But beware of imitation goods and be sure to compare goods and prices in several shops before you buy!
The Tibetan knife or the Tibetan broadsword is still used by Tibetans as a necessity but visitors can buy it as an ornament.
Note: You cannot take these items on a plane or as consigned goods, but you can send them anywhere via the post office. The Post Office in Lhasa at Middle Beijing Road is the best choice. Goods will be sent much more quickly than at any of the smaller post offices.
Barkhor Street is the famous commercial center of Tibet. Over 120 handicraft and artwork shops and 200 or so market stands in the Barkhor Street: it is a must-go place for all souvenir shopping. Tibetan rugs, knives, broadswords, traditional clothes, gold and silver jewelry and all sorts of traditional handmade craftwork can easily be found in this street. One tip, Tibetan beads especially are very expensive, so don't forget to bargain with the vendors, whatever you buy! You can also find fabulous Tibetan food on Barkhor Street.
It's a good idea to go shopping on Barkor Street in the morning or evening, because Tibetan people always value highly their first customer and their last one.