LHASA is the capital and largest city in Tibet. Founded in the A.D. 5th century and largely closed to foreigners until the early 1980s, it is a holy Buddhist city dominated by Potala Palace, the former home of the Dalai Lama, and full of prayer wheels and prayer flags (colorful pieces of rag are tied on to strings). Its name means "God's Home."

Lhasa lies on a 3.650-meter-high valley created by the Kyichu River. Snow sometimes sprinkled the peaks but for the most part the terrain around Lhasa is desert like with plots of land occupied by barley fields, fruit orchards, lines of poplar trees and cluster of Tibetan-style houses.In the morning and evening the air is cool and filled with scent of burning junipers.

Maybe 1 million people now live ion Lhasa, roughly half Han Chinese and half Tibetans with some Hui Muslims and other minorities thrown in. Lhasa is becoming more and more like a Han Chinese city. The crowds are mostly Han Chinese. Roads are lined with massage parlors, karaokes, hair salons

History of Lhasa: Lhasa was an important holy city even before Buddhism arrived in Tibet in 642 A.D., and until the 1950s half of its residents lived in monasteries. But all that changed when the Chinese took over the city in 1959. They began their occupation by tearing down the sacred Chorten that marked the entrance to the city and eventually destroyed or severely damaged every religious site in the city.

In the 1940s, before it was taken over by the Communists, Lhasa would have been best described as a village. Its 600 traditional buildings were dwarfed by the massive monasteries and palaces that were home to 20,000 monks. Between 1950 and 2000, the population of Lhasa increased 17 times to around 200,000 and has increased five times since then. The expansion is mainly the result of arrival of large numbers of Han Chinese but has also been affected by a migration of Tibetans from rural areas to Lhasa.

One view of Potala

Development of Lhasa: Not long ago Lhasa was a medieval town of 30,000 people . There were so many Tibetan mastiffs on the loose it was necessary to carry a stick. The pace of life was slow, the clocks displayed the wrong time, herds of cows and sheep wandered the streets, poor women carried baskets of vegetables and dried yak meat, street acrobats performed tricks and prostrating pilgrims and monks were everywhere. Communist rule made itself known with loudspeakers blare military anthems and Communist slogans and soldiers are posted outside temples. Most Han Chinese that were there would have prefered to be somewhere else.

The first wave of modernization and development occurred in the 1990s when Westerners began arriving in large numbers. A Holiday Inn was opened and restaurants like the Hard Yak Café began offering Tibetan and pizzas and yakburgers, with fries and coke. A good proportion of the people on the streets selling souvenirs were Chinese..

The next wave occurred as large numbers of Han Chinese began pouring in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many traditional buildings in Lhasa were torn down and replaced with boxy building with Chinese adornments, karaokes and brothels with Chinese women displayed in windows illuminated with red light. By 2000 only 90 old stone buildings remained and they were mostly in east Lhasa. Within a relatively short time Chinese dominated the markets and commercial activity.

New bridges and roads were built. Car dealerships and a Nike store opened. Before the city’s first five star hotels opened in 2006 there were no elevators in Lhasa. Traffic picked up. Tree lined roads once deserted except for a few bicycles and robed monks became highways with taxis, trucks and military convoys. Prices and rents shot up. A huge cement factory on a road outside Lhasa and an unsightly copper mine on the shores of nearby Lake Yamdrok Tso filled the air with particulate pollutants.

The road to lead to Jokhang temple was lit with red, green, blue and white neon lights and lined with restaurant, karaoke bars, massage parlors, mountaineering stores, fashion shops, and shops with Tibetan souvenirs sold by Chinese dressed like Tibetans. Many of the things that made Lhasa charming have disappeared. Potala Palace no longer dominated the city as it once did.

In March 2009, the Chinese government approved a plan to redesign Lhasa so it will become an “economically prosperous, socially harmonious, and eco-friendly modern city with vivid cultural characteristics and deep ethnic traditions.”

Today, large swaths of Lhasa are dominated by Chinese-style billboards, Chinese-style buildings and streets with Chinese names. Chinese is the language of business and trade. At the night markets nearly all the vendors all Chinese and many of the things they sell are geared for Chinese consumers. Even the stores that sell Tibetan trinkets and souvenirs are almost all owned and run by Chinese. The road that passes on front of Potala Palace is called Beijing Road. Even Chinese tourist are disappointed by the extent of the Chinese presence. In March 2009, restrictions on adverting and construction were tightened round the palace after complaints by the United Nations that better measures were need to take care of the site.

central Lhasa

Juvenile crime and alcoholism are on the rise, Pool halls and alleys are filled with unemployed young men. Prostitutes walk the streets and work out of hair salons, beauty parlors and karaoke bars. The red light district is expanding and on weekend nights appears to have no shortage of customers, mostly Chinese who work in construction crews. Migrants from rural areas---most of them Han Chinese but some of them Tibetan---sleep ten to a room in Lhasa flea bag hotels and hang out on the Second Ring Road hoping to get jobs as day laborers and use their meager wages to support not only their immediate families no jobs but also their parents and siblings. These days the city is filled with plain clothes police in track suits. When asked who they are they say: “students.”

Still Lhasa is not completely spoiled. Some Tibetans still live in traditional whitewashed stones houses with painted window frames. Lhasa still resembles a large town more than a city. It takes only about a half an hour to walk from one side to the other. A fifteen minute walk from the center brings you to mountains and rivers that can be crossed in yak-skin boats. Further afield are meadows with wild flowers and glaciers.

Tourist Office: Lhasa Tourism Bureau, 19 East Jinzu Rd, 850001 Lhasa, Tibet China, tel. (0)-891-35675 Web Sites: Wikipedia Wikipedia Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Maps: China Map Guide China Map Guide China Highlights China Highlights Hotel Web Site: Sinohotel Sinohotel Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Travellerspoint (click China and place in China) Travellerspoint Getting There: Lhasa is accessible by air, bus and train. The bus journey to Lhasa is long and arduous. Flying can be expensive. These days most travelers arrive on the new train (See Above). Travel China Guide (click transportation) Travel China Guide Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Lonely Planet

Orientation: Lhasa is divide into distinct Tibetan and Chinese quarters. The Tibet quarter is centered around Jokhang Temple and retains a Tibetan atmosphere. Pilgrims mill around, Hui Muslims and local Tibetans sell nuts, dried fruit, dried yak meat, prayer wheels, daggers, and semiprecious stones. The Chinese quarter known as Chinatown has streets organized in grids, high-rises, supermarkets, karaokes bars and restaurants.

Pilgrims in Barkhor Square

Entertainment, Restaurants and Shopping: Restaurant serve spicy, salty yak meat and mutton. JJ's Disco features Greco-Roman columns, neon-colors and plastic cut outs of Santa Claus. Babila was popular disco in Lhasa in the mid 2000s. Tanguka Wind is a nightclub that hosts Tibetan rock bands. There are also jazz clubs.

Souvenir shops sell “Buddhist Accessories” such as beads, bells, incense and payer wheels. Tours of a carpet factory, a tannery, and the boot and shoe factory available. In the hotels the mostly Chinese staff dresses like in Tibetan clothes.

Barkhor Market (outside Jokhang Temple) is usually busy and bustling with activity. Vendors sell pictures of the Dali Lama that were forbidden not long ago, storytellers and draw crowds, entertainers, fortunetellers read faces, and old women in black robes and rainbow-colored aprons twirl prayer wheels. Items on sale include antiques, silver, pewter, semiprecious stones, knives, swords, saddles, horse harnesses, whips, carpets, Buddhist prayer wheels, and heavy Tibetan jewelry with turquoise and coral, pigs feet, frozen ducks, peaches and plums, bowls of Sichuan-style bean jelly noodles, eggplants, chili peppers and Chinese string beans.

Transportation : The railway station in Lhasa is grand structure with white-and red sloping walls. The new railway bridge over the Kyichu River is inspired by khatags (Tibetan silk scarves). A new station serves the more southerly Sichuan-Tibet Railway.

Gonggar Airport (75 miles from Lhasa) is the world's highest airport (3,650 meters, 14,315 feet) and so far out of town that many people go there the night before to catch their morning flights. The airport also has a reputation for being dangerous. The bus from the airport takes three hours to get to Lhasa. Gonggar handled more than 1 million passengers in 2006, a 20 percent rise from the previous year, with much of the increase attributed tourism. Competition from the new railroad to Tibet has caused air ticket to Tibet to fall. A new highway cut the driving time from airport to Lhasa by about 30 minutes.

Religious Sites in Lhasa There are three important circumambulations in Lhasa: 1) the Barkhor around Jokhang; 2) the Tsekhor around Potala; and 3) the eight-kilometer-long Lingkhor around the old city. Lhasa has several mosques.

Another view of Potala

Potala Palace

Potala (north side of Lhasa) is the massive fortress-like building that is often depicted in photographs of Lhasa. Situated on a slope of Moburi (Red Mountain) and considered the quintessence of Tibetan architecture, it is a massive white and brownish-red structure that casts an imposing shadow over the rest of the Lhasa. Until the Tibetan rebellion in the late 1950s it was the home of the Dalai Lama.

Built in the 17th century by the fifth Dalai Lama on the site of the surviving rooms of fort built by Tibetan King Gampo in the A.D. seventh century, Potala is composed of two parts: the central Red Palace at the top, which is used for religious affairs, and the secular White Palace at the bottom, which is used for politics and daily life.

Potala contains 1,000 rooms---including assembly halls, government offices, and temples--- 10,000 altars and 200,000 statues. Constructed of wood, stones and mud bricks and fastened together without steel or nails, it covers an area of 41 hectares and is 13 stories high. The roofs are covered with gilded bronze tiles that glitter in the sun and can be seen miles away.

Huge wooden struts overarch the main throne room. The Dalai Lama's bed chamber is the room filled with white scarves. It has been preserved exactly as he left when he was forced to flee. Here, pilgrims reverently prostrate themselves in front of possessions used by the Dalai Lama including thrones and couches, his art-deco bed, bathtub, toilet, tape recorder (a gift from Nehru) and his radio.

In almost every chapel, a housekeeping lamas collect donations and sits on a cushions sipping tea. Murals and thangkas are illuminated with wax candles rather than smelly yak butter ones. The gold-embossed tombs of the Dalai Lama at Potala have the whole mummified bodies inside.

Potala is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and museum largely viewed by Beijing, it seems, as an opportunity to make money. Only a few dozen of the thousand or so rooms are open to visitors. Chinese tourists with cell phones, ignoring tour guides giving memorized speeches. outnumber Tibetan pilgrims with prayer wheels. In front of Potala Palace there are many souvenir stands and trinket hawkers. A short distance away there is even a miniature car ride.

Inside Jokhang

The seven-year $43.9 million renovation of Potala Palace and Norbu Lingka summer palace was completed in August 2009. The government said the aim of the renovation was to foster tourism and promote Tibetan culture. Potala reopened to tourists in August 1994 as the centerpiece of the Chinese Government's campaign to expand tourism in Tibet. A complete renovation of Potala by Beijing began in the late 1990s. The work has drawn protests from human-rights groups, who have alleged that valuable objects have been taken and murals have been damaged while work was going on.

Regardless, Potala needed some sprucing up. Before the renovation began, pillars leaned over, ceilings were held up with poles and thousands of window frames had been chewed up insects. But not all the work done by Chinese workers was in the best interest of the building. Part of restoration scheme involved the installation of an elaborate security system with close circuit televisions that the Chinese government is intended to protect the palace from "hooligans" but Human Rights groups asserted were put there to keep on eye on Tibetans. In August 2006, the number of people allowed to enter Potala lace was increased from 1,500 to 2,300 people per day. UNESCO World Heritage Site Map: (click 1001wonders.org at the bottom): UNESCO Also try the UNESCO World Heritage Site Web site (click the site you want) World Heritage Site

Jokhang Monastery


Jokhang Monastery (in central Lhasa) is the most important shrine in Lhasa and one of the holiest places in Tibet. Originally constructed in A.D. 647 to commemorate the marriage of a Chinese princess to a Tibetan king, this four-story monastery covers over 25,000 square meters and incorporates architectural styles of India and Nepal. The roofs are covered with gilded bronze tiles; numerous small chapels house relics and statues; and a life-size gilded statue of Buddha as a young man occupies the holiest shrine.

Sometimes called the "Vatican of Tibetan Buddhism," it is filled with gold statues, drums and flutes made from human bones, garish murals of heaven and hell, and incense burners filled with sandalwood and cypress leaves. In the corner of one chapel, there is a small stone buffalo that the faithful say miraculously materialized one day. In the shrine of the holiest Tibetan figure, Jowo Shakyamuni, the Precious Lord, the Chinese kept pigs during the Cultural Revolution. Other shrines were spared by direct intervention by Zhou Enlai.

Everyday thousands of pilgrims arrive at dawn to walk clockwise around the temple three times. Pilgrims come from all over Tibet to Jokhang. They include half-naked beggars with matted hair and monks in crimson robes. Some of them have spent years traveling on foot to reach it. They are joined by old ladies with dogs, businessmen with cell phones and Western tourists. These days few monks seen there and they are outnumbered by armed police.

Many pilgrims circle the temple, prostrating themselves at body length intervals, like a giant inch-worms. So many pilgrims have circled the temple on their hands and knees, that the stones around the temple have a polished finish. They also light yak butter lamps and pray before each of the hundreds of statues within the temple, and kneel, circle and prostrate themselves in front of the shrines and images fond there.

Monks at Jokhang complain they are so busy keeping the place maintained for tourists they have no time to study and meditate. The monastery is located in the middle of Barkhor Bazaar.



Norbulinga (west of Lhasa) is the summer place of the Dalai Lama. Built starting in 1755, it was shelled in 1958 during a Tibetan uprising, defaced in the Cultural revolution and rebuilt since then. The room filled with white scarves was the ones used by the Dalai Lama. Norbulinga Park contains some of the few stands of trees that exist in Tibet. There are also some chapels built during the rule of the seventh Dalai Lama.

Tibetan Museum (across the street from Norbulinka) opened in 1999. Dedicated to Tibetan culture it houses more than 1,000 Tibetan cultural artifacts, including the golden seal of the 5th Dalai Lama, a jade vase given by Mao Zedong to the present 14th Dalai Lama and a snow leopard skin. A sign at the $12 million credits the Communist Party with preserving Tibetan culture. The seven-year $43.9 million renovation of Potala Palace and Norblinka summer palace was completed in August 2009. The government said the aim of the renovation was to foster tourism and promote Tibetan culture.

Drepung Monastery

Drepung Monastery (seven kilometers east of Lhasa) was once the largest monastery in the world. Built in the 15th century and nicknamed the "Rice Mound," it housed 12,000 monks at its height. During the Cultural Revolution the monastery was all but deserted. By 1988 about 500 monks In 2000, there were around 800 monks down from 10,000 before the Chinese invasion.

Almost as impressive as Potala Palace, Drepung is built on a high cliff and consists of a multitude of whitewashed building scattered over a ravine. Frescoes decorate the walls and statues line many of the halls. The library houses a large collection of sutras and rare books.

Sera Monastery (four kilometers north of Lhasa) is also large. Only 100 of the 5,000 monks that once lived here remain. These monks, who belong to the Yellow Hat sect, are famous for their martial arts skills. About 2,000 devotees visit every week.


Ganden (45 kilometers east of Lhasa) is one of the most magnificent monasteries in the world. Reached by a road with 17 hairpin turns and Built in the side of rocky mountain, it was founded in 1409 and became one of Tibet’s most influential monasteries, producing the dynasty of Dalai Lamas, who ruled Tibet from 1642 to 1950. Ganden Monastery was destroyed by explosives in the 1960s Its 3,300 monks were scattered, killed or imprisoned. In late 1980s monks and local volunteers began rebuilding the monastery.

Tsurphu (60 kilometers northwest of Lhasa) is a 12th century monastery in the Drowolung valley in central Tibet. The Karampa Lama was enthroned in a ceremony here.

Kenduling Monastery (to the west of Lhasa) contains a famous six-mile- long circular pilgrim's path. Some pilgrims follow the entire route prostrating themselves with their bodies lying flat on the ground.


Shigatse (five hours by bus from Lhasa) is the second largest city in Tibet, with a population of maybe 100,000 people. It is the center of the Red Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism and the seat of the Panchen Lama, who has traditionally lived in Tashihunpo Monastery. Like Lhasa, Shigatse has become overun with Chinese. Thousands of residents are Chinese. There are Chinese-style billboards, Chinese-style buildings and streets with Chinese names. Shigatse is alsoe spelled Xigaze.

Shigatse boasts a new $7 million ship-shaped central shopping center built with money donated from the Shanghai government. Among its attractions are state-of-the-art bowling alley. In front of the shopping center is a sculpture of Chinese woman in go go boots and a miniskirt holding a "belt of friendship" with a Tibetan woman in traditional clothing.

Shigatse's tallest building is 10 stories. It was built with a $10 million from the Shandong provincial government. It features a wine cellar and massage parlor. Many people feel that money would have been better spent on something like a water treatment plant or streetlights.


Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Lonely Planet Lonely Planet Map: China Highlights China Highlights Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Shigatse is accessible by bus, minibus, taxi or hired vehicle. Travel China Guide (click transportation) Travel China Guide Lonely Planet (click transportation) Lonely Planet

Tashilunba Monetary (in Shigatse) is the largest Yellow Sect Temple in Tibet and the home of the Panchen Lama. Situated on the slopes of Neseri Mountain, it contains a large Palace Hall and a large Scripture Hall. The latter contains the 80-foot-high Maitreya, the largest copper Buddha in the world. Records show that this Buddha was cast from 6,700 ounces of gold and over 115,000 kilograms of copper. At its peak the monastery contained 4,000 monks, now it only has 600. In 1989, a giant gold reliquary chorten was constructed for the body of the 10th Panchen Lama.

Gyangze (between Lhasa and Shigatse) is the forth largest city in Tibet. It contains 68 chapels, 15th-century murals, a dzong (fort) attacked by the British in 1904, Kumbum (a lovely stupa built in 1440) and the Palkhor Monastery. Baiju Monastery in central Gyangze is a monastery that embraces all sects of Buddhism. Inside is Wanfo Pagoda, which took 8 million man hours to build and has 11 stories, 108 doors, 77 halls and shrines and walls containing tens of thousands of murals and inscriptions. Web Site: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Sakya (230 kilometers west of Shigatse) is a wonderful places with blue stone houses that look something you would see in Yemen. The monastery has thick red wooden doors with prayer scarves tied to the handles, chapels reached by rough-hewn ladders, and a library containing tens of thousands of ancient books and high ceilings. The books were spared because the Red Guards did not find the library. Web Site: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet


Tsetang (two hours southwest of Lhasa) is Tibet’s third largest city. Situated on the Yarlung River in the Yarlung Valley, it is the mythical birthplace of the Tibetan people. According to legend a monkey mediating in a cave was seduced by a female demon who refused to wed another monster. She married the monkey and produced six children who grew up to form the six major tribes of Tibet.

Tsetang (also spelled Tsedang and Zetang) is home to around 100,000 people. It is large enough to have a significantly large Chinese population, many of them vendors and construction workers, and its own red light district. Nearby the People’s Liberation Army has a large base, guarded by soldiers with bayoneted rifles and fronted by a sign that reads “Maintain National Unity, Safe Guard Territorial Integrity.” Web Site: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet and Lonely Planet


Samye Monastery (30 kilometers west of Tsetang) is said to be the oldest monastery in Tibet. Situated in the Yarlung Valley, it is said to have been built where the Tantric yogi Padmasambhava built an enormous mandala to exocise evil forc from the area. At the center of the temoke is a large golden Buddha with four corners

Road between Gyangze and Tsetang (beyond Lhasa airport) is spectacular. The route passes through three passes---Gonsidi La, Dunga La, and Shuge La-which range in height from 14,000 feet to nearly 18,000 feet, making this the second highest road in the world. The road also goes near Lake Yamdrok, one of the largest in China. A steep narrow road from Tsetong leads to the ruined palace of Yambu Lhang which, according to legend, was built by the first Tibetan king, Nyatri Tsanpo, and is reputedly the oldest structure in Tibet.

Image Sources: Maps from China-Panda tours and Map-of-China.com. Photographs of places from 1) CNTO (China National Tourist Organization; 2) Nolls China Web site; 3) Perrochon photo site; 4) Beifan.com; 5) tourist and government offices linked with the place shown; 6) Mongabey.com; 7) University of Washington, Purdue University, Ohio State University; 8) UNESCO; 9) Wikipedia; 10) Julie Chao photo site.

Text Sources: CNTO New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

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