The journey from Xining to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, was a comfortable scenic journey on the Qinghai-Tibet railway with a travel time of just over 24 hours. I had spent a couple of days in Xining before heading to Lhasa organising the special travel permits that are required for the region and train tickets. Unlike the rest of mainland China, Tibet can only be visited on prearranged itineraries with special permits, guides and drivers. You cannot travel freely or use public transport which can make a trip to Tibet a little expensive. For this trip I used Snow Jewel travel agency, the same operator that I used to visit Mt Kailash some months earlier. It was a custom trip that I organised based on what I wanted to see and Roger’s (travel agent) recommendations – It was well organised and I would definetly recommend Snow Jewel for any trips to Tibet, link here.
When we arrived in Lhasa we were greeted at the train station and driven to the Yak Hotel which is located in the Tibetan area (there is now a Chinese area) of the city which is just a short walk to Jokhang Temple and about 15 or 20 minute walk to the Potala Palace. The rooms here were new, nice, clean and run by a local Tibetan. The first day we spent relaxing and exploring the local area by foot, given Lhasa is at an altitude of 3,750m, altitude sickness is a real risk so it is important to take it easy and spend a few days here before moving on as the average altitude of the plateau is 4,500m and there is no way to get down quickly without taking a flight.
The kora around Jokhang temple sees a never ending stream of Tibetan pilgrims walking and completing prostrations which is a great sight to see. What isn’t so nice is the Chinese guard posts every fifty metres or so keeping an eye on the peaceful Tibetans. There are also guards stationed on every rooftop in the area watching and recording everything that is going on. Each station is also equipped with fire extinguishers so that they can act quickly if there is any self-immolations which unfortunately is the way that local Tibetan’s have decided to cry out for help from the rest of the world as all other means has failed them. You can read more about the self-immolations here. Despite the hundreds of Chinese troops throughout the city for the most party the Tibetans simply ignore them and go about their business.
On our second day in Lhasa we visited Sera and Drepung Monasteries which were on the outskirts of Lhasa. These two monasteries were two of the three great Gelugpa Monasteries, the other being Ganden. Since the Chinese occupation many of the original buildings have been destroyed and the number of monks has fallen. All three of these monastery’s have since been re-established in exile in the south of India where thousands of monks now study. Both monasteries were good visit with Drepung having large murals painted on the rocks up behind the monastery and while visiting Sera we were fortunate enough to see the monks debate which is the picture at the top of the page.
On our final day in Lhasa we visited the Potala Palace, which was the primary residence of the Dalai Lamas until the Chinese occupation, today is just a museum. Construction was started by the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1645 and it is believed to be on the site that Songtsan Gampo built a previous fortress. Songtsan Gampo was the seventh century king of Tibet, he built the first buddhist temples in Tibet and was largely influenced by his Nepali wife Bhrikuti and Chinese wife Weng Chen who both brought buddhist statues with them to Lhasa. Sontsan Gampo also established a set of laws based on the buddhist principles, had his ministers develop the Tibetan script and started the translation of buddhist writings from Sanskrit to Tibetan. The Potala Palace is huge and towers over Lhasa, it seems to be visible from anywhere in the entire city.
The following day we moved on to Samye.