Things to Do in Tibet
Tucked into Lhasa’s iconic Red Hill, Potala Palace is the highest palace in the world, with its main structure sitting more than 12,000 feet above sea level. Its sprawling structures are divided into two parts, known as the Red and White palaces. Travelers who venture to this religious Mecca will find a center devoted to Buddhist prayer and impressive, detailed murals located inside the Great West Hall. The Dharma Cave and Saint’s Chapel date all the way back to the seventh century, offering visitors a chance to connect with Tibet’s rich history in a truly unique way.
The White Palace, which once housed local Tibetan government, now serves as the living quarters for the Dalai Lama. It’s also home to a school, seminary, printing house, well-kept gardens and even a jail. In addition to breathtaking views, visitors will find cultural relics, brightly colored murals and hand-carved statues dating back to ancient times.
Climbing Mount Everest may not be financially or physically possible for many travelers, but laying eyes on the world’s tallest peak from Mount Everest Base Camp is. A visit to China’s easternmost region wouldn’t be complete without an excursion to take in the spectacular view of Everest’s north face from the Tibet base camp.
One of the most popular tourist attractions in Lhasa, Jokhang Temple is located on Barkhor Square. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site that consists of the historic ensemble of the Potala Palace and is a spiritual center of Lhasa. Constructed in 642 by King Songtsen Gampo, Jokhang became a famous temple after the Buddhist master Atisha taught here in the 11th century.
The site consists of four levels of labyrinthine chapels dedicated to gods and bodhisattvas; the dim light of votive candles creates a glow about the place and the smell of incense is everywhere. The entire structure is comprised of an entrance porch, courtyard and Buddhist hall surrounded by accommodation for monks and storehouses on all four sides. The buildings are of wood and stone with a gold roof, and the whole thing is an outstanding example of Tibetan Buddhist style. Jokhang also reveals influences from China, India and Nepal. More than 3,000 images of Buddha and other deities and historical figures are housed here, along with many other treasures and manuscripts. Climb to the top of the temple for a view of Jokhang Square and the pilgrims who circumnavigate the site as part of their pilgrimage. Many prostrate every few feet, while others walk slowly, chanting sacred mantras and spinning hand-held prayer wheels. The top level of Jokhang Temple also provides one of the best views of Potala Palace in the distance.
The black rock-topped Mt. Kailash (Kang Rinpoche), in the Himalaya of western Tibet, is sacred to Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and followers of the old Bon religion. Every year, thousands of pilgrims visit to walk around the mountain. Mt. Kailash can also be visited by trekkers as part of a broader tour of Tibet or on a dedicated trip.
In the 1930s the Drepung Monastery ranked among the largest monasteries is the world with between 7,000 and 10,000 monks from various countries living on its grounds at any given time. Its colorful halls were once divided into four schools for monks from Mongolia, Khampas and two other nearby regions. And while the number of monks has dropped to approximately 2,000, Drepung is now divided into seven colleges where men venture to learn about lineage, religion and geography.
In 2008, Chinese authorities shut Drepung down after monks led what became a violent protest against Chinese rule. After that, it didn't open to the public until 2013. Now travelers can explore the caves and temples around the grounds and step inside the iconic white pagodas tucked amid the hillside. Ganden Potrang, one of the most popular sites of Drepung Monastery, originally served as a residence for the second, third, fourth and fifth Dalai Lamas, before becoming a political and religious meeting place. While travelers agree the monastery’s buildings are certainly impressive, it’s the vast courtyards and dense forests that make this famous destination a perfect place for finding peaceful reflection.
Known as the home of the "debating monks,"Sera Monastery was built on a hillside in the northern part of Lhasa in 1419. One of the three most important monasteries in the city, it is dedicated to the Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat, sect of Tibetan Buddhism and is a university monastery.
Visitors flock here to see the debates. a tradition young monks take part in as part of their training. In a series of debates, the senior monks drill the younger ones on various doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism and the teachings of Buddha. It’s a very physical display: the senior monks are standing, seeming to shout at the younger ones and then slapping their hands together dramatically—the hand slapping is the signal for the seated monk to respond. The debates may also be punctuated by screams (to throw the other person off). While it’s a very entertaining display for visitors, it’s a serious matter for the monks and a crucial part of training. Also of interest at Sera Monastery are the sand mandalas, beautiful works of art created from sand. These pieces take days to complete and, when finished, are swept away and started again.
Like a treasure trove or something out of Aladdin’s cave, Barkhor Street is an ancient road that circles the square that houses Jokhang Temple. Most significant as a thoroughfare for pilgrims on their way to the temple, Barkhor Street is also home to the Tromzikhang market, host to a wide variety of vendors selling everything from prayer wheels to yak butter to tea kettles.
According to local history, when Songtsen Gampo built Jokhang Temple, its grand scale immediately began to attract millions of pilgrims from the area. So many walked around the temple that they wore a path, which came to be the original Barkhor Street. Today, visitors can see pilgrims walking clockwise around the temple, holding prayer wheels. Many of these pilgrims have come from the outer regions of Tibet, walking for days, weeks or months to reach the temple. Some move only by bowing, crossing just a few feet during each prostration. A visit to Barkhor Street is an immersion in Tibetan culture, a multi-colored and fascinating glimpse into the wide diversity of people who inhabit this land.
With approximately 50,000 residents, the sprawling city of Shigatse (Xigaze) is Tibet’s second-largest town. Home to thriving businesses, unique shopping and a number of religious and historical sites, Shigatse attracts travelers from across the globe—in part, because the central police station proves one of the easiest (and quickest) places to get a Nepal tourist visa.
The city is divided into two distinct sections: the tiny Tibetan town, which serves as a nod to the city’s roots, and a contemporary Chinese neighborhood that offers travelers a bit more modern flare. Travelers can venture to the Tashilhunpo monastery, where Panchen Lamas come to worship at the feet of the world’s largest bronze Buddha. The free market and gift market in the city’s Old Town neighborhood are great places to spend an afternoon searching for handmade crafts from local artisans, while the nearby Shigatse Fortress offers travelers an impressive look at the city's past.
Between the late 1700s and the 1950s, Norbulingka was used as an official summer home for the Dalai Lama. Today, it is recognized not only as a World Heritage site, but the premier garden and quintessential historical site of Tibet. In addition to a 374-room palace, the park is home to hundreds of rare plants, rose bushes, fruit trees and even a bit of wildlife. The expansive grounds offer travelers and locals a quiet escape from the hustle of the city, and on warm, sunny days, dozens of people can be found picnicking on the well-kept grounds.
In addition to Norbulingka’s unmistakable natural beauty, travelers will find some 30,000 cultural relics from ancient Tibet scattered around the grounds. Visitors should be sure to check out Kelsang Palace, the oldest building in Norbulingka, as well as the Lake Palace on the southwest portion of the grounds. Three islands connected by small bridges and a row of quaint horse stables make this a picturesque stop on a visit to the garden.
Ganden Monastery is one of the oldest and largest Buddhist monasteries in Tibet. It is nestled into the slopes of Wangbur Mountain, at 4,300 meters above sea level, and with a stunning view over the southern bank of the Lhasa River. Together with Sera Monastery and Drepung Monastery, Ganden Monastery is part of the three great university temples of Tibet. This cultural and religious significance began early in the 15th century, when the leader of the Yellow Hat Sect, Tsongkhapa, was calling for a reformation of religion. His ideas were so popular, that the Yellow Hats became the biggest and most influential religious group in Tibet and Ganden was established as the sect’s main temple.
In total, the monastery consist of over 50 buildings painted in blocks of white, maroon and ochre and topped with gold-capped roofs. Chituokhan Buddhist Temple is one of the earliest buildings within Ganden Monastery and is the location where Tsongkhapa and other abbots of the monastery lived. Another highlight is Tsokchen Hall, the monastery’s main assembly hall that can house 3500 monks and is decorated with over a hundred pillars and skillfully carved bronze statues. The tomb of Tsongkhapa, or rather what is left of it after China’s cultural revolution, can be found at Serdung.
More Things to Do in Tibet
Lake Manasarovar was once surrounded by eight Buddhist monasteries that represented the Wheel of Life. While many of these holy structures have now crumbled to the ground, the lake’s religious significance has not been lost and Buddhist from across the globe still travel to this sky-high freshwater lake each year.
The lake’s circumference measures 64 miles around and takes most travelers some four days to complete. But visitors who prefer to skip the trek can still pitch a tent along the shore of Lake Manasarovar and enjoy epic views of its crystal-clear blue and green waters.
Samye Monastery was the first monastery to be established in Tibet and the location where some of the earliest Tibetan monks were ordained. Built in the 8th century, the site isn’t only famous for its age, but also for being constructed in the shape of a giant mandala symbolizing the Buddhist universe. The prominent centerpiece of the mandala is the main temple, which represents the legendary Mt. Meru. This main temple is surrounded by four additional important structures, the lingshi temples representing the four continents. Additional flanking buildings embody islands, there is a sun temple to the north and a moon temple to the south and a thick wall topped with tiny white chortens encasing the whole world.
The buildings are all painted in the typical red, white and ochre colors and topped by gabled golden roofs glittering in the sun. Equally as impressive as the facades are the rooms of the monastery. Samye Monastery is renowned for the vivid art and there are hidden murals, huge and intricate mandalas covering the ceilings and carefully painted statues waiting to be discovered everywhere. One of those statues, and maybe even the artistic highlight of the temple, is a depiction of Chenresi, the patron deity of Tibet. He can be found inside Chenresi Lhakhang and is shown having a thousand arms to aid all the suffering beings in the world.
The bright turquoise Yamdrok Lake (Yamdrok-tso or Yamdrok Yumtso) is sacred in Tibetan tradition and one of the three biggest lakes in the country. Its color and location amid dry snow-capped peaks add to its allure. Most visitors’ first glimpse of the high altitude lake is after crossing the Khamba La Pass at 15,731 feet (4,795 meters).
Namtso Lake is the second-largest salt lake in China and a major tourist attraction in Tibet. Its reflective blue waters are surrounded by snow-capped peaks and the occasional nomad camp. The lake sits at a high elevation—15,479 feet (4,718 meters)—and has spiritual significance for Tibetans.
Tucked into the hillside of the Mount Everest Base Camp in Tibet, the Rongbuk Monastery offers travelers incredible views of not only of the world’s most famous mountain, but also the breathtaking scenery that surrounds it.
Visitors venturing into high altitude will likely have to catch their breath as they climb rocky steps and wander the monastery’s peaceful grounds. Its unique location makes it the highest monastery in the world, and epic mountain landscapes prove the perfect backdrop for colorful prayer flags flapping in cold winds.
Travelers can stop en route to Mount Everest Base Camp or stay the night in quiet rooms perfect for evening reflection. No heat, no electricity and no modern amenities means a monk-like experience, and visitors agree there’s nothing more incredible than waking up to pristine views of the world’s most iconic snow-capped mountain.
Once a hub for trade with India and later a battlefield under British attack, Gyantse is a city steeped in history with a culture and people still deeply rooted in tradition. Travelers who venture to this destination, which is located along the Nyang-chu River, will find sprawling fields in quiet residential neighborhoods, while Buddhist temples and lively local markets exist closer to the center of town.
Gyantse’s size makes it easy to navigate on foot, and several sites are certainly worth making a visit. Pelkor Choede, known as the center of Gyantse, is a yellow hat monastery that, despite a lack of upkeep, showcases local religion and tradition through interior paintings and traditional architecture. Travelers learn about the city’s past at Gyantse Dzong, an ancient fort that’s also home to an Anti-British Imperialists museum. And the eight-story Gyantse Kumbum showcases ornate artwork and highly detailed Buddhist images that are sure to impress most any traveler.
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