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" or "City of the Gods" and is still very much a pilgrimage destination among Tibetans.

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 in Lhasa Prefecture, a big, largely rural area, with about 350,000 living in the urban core. Tibetans make about 80 percent of the population of Lhasa Prefecture but in Chengguan District, the main urban area, they make up 63 percent of the population while Han China make up 34.3 percent and others 2.7 percent. This is according to year 2000 data so you would figure there are more Han Chinese. Some figure they now make half the population of the main urban area of Lhasa. There has traditionally been a significant Hui Muslim population but they were a target of the 2008 riots and some may have left. Some parts of Lhasa are becoming more and more like a Han Chinese city. The crowds are mostly Han Chinese. Roads are lined with massage parlors, karaokes, hair salons

Early History of Lhasa

During the reign of King Songtsan Gambo in the 7th century, Potala Palace, the Jokhang Monastery, and the Ramoche Monastery were built. In addition, many small monasteries and palaces were constructed in Lhasa and its surrounding area. For example, the nine-story Pobengang Palace, where Tubo Minister Tome Sambozha created the Tibetan script and Songtsan Gambo studied Tibetan, was built in the northern suburbs. In addition, three monasteries were built for Songtsan Gambo's three Tibetan concubines: One of them was built in the Zhayaba Valley in the eastern suburb for Mamsa Trizun; the second monastery was built for Songtsan Gambo's concubine from Zhangzhung by the Tibogor Fountain north of the Jokhang Monastery; and the third monastery was built for Songtsan Gambo's concubine from Moya on the eastern slope of the Tie (Yaowang) Mountain, where the Pharla Lhufo Cave Temple still exists today. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China, October 14, 2005]

Around the Jokhang and Ramoche Monasteries, Songtsan Gambo built the Prince of Dharma Palace, the Monastery for the Master, military barracks, official residences, civilian housing, and stores. Dams were erected along the Gyiqoi Lhasa River to prevent flooding. Silk and fur markets popped up between the Jokhang and Ramoche Monasteries. At that time, people took ritual walks around the Jokhang Monastery.

Princess Jincheng brought the statue of Sakyamuni, which Princess Wencheng had brought to Tubo, to the Jokhang Monastery, where it was enshrined in the Main Hall. A whole set of rituals were formed for people to worship the statue. Also during this time, three white dagobas were built under the name of Bagagarling between the Red Hill and the Yaowang Mountain, forming the major entrance to Lhasa. Unfortunately, Lhasa did not continue its fast expansion after the deaths of Songtsan Gambo and two of his concubines, Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and the Nepalese Princess Khridzun.

Growth and Naming of Lhasa

20080301-yak hair rug antique tibet222.png
yak hair rug
According to the law enacted by Songtsan Gambo, Tubo was divided into several administrative divisions ruled by various princes. The Tubo King presided over exchanges with the outside world. Under the tsampo (king) were installed five business departments in charge of trade in tea, jade, knives, silks, and salt, and six crafts departments in charge of making iron objects, saddles, bows, swords, helmets, and Buddha statues. These departments played an important role in stimulating the rise of the city of Lhasa. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China, October 14, 2005]

As the Tibetans love tea, the 4th Tubo King, Dorsum Mombogyai (676-740), introduced tea and ceramics from China's hinterland. As a result, the tea trade held an important position in the Lhasa market. Upon death of King Dorsum, his son Tride Zhotsan (704-754) became the Tubo King and married Tang Dynasty Princess Jincheng, another grand event in the history of friendship between the Tang Dynasty and the Tubo Kingdom.

Lhasa was originally called Gyaixoi Wotang. When the Jokhang Monastery was built, the monastery was named Rosa (the Goats Temple) in memory of the goats that had carried clay to fill up the lake for the monastery's construction. When Princess Jincheng brought the statue of Sakyamuni from the Ramoche Monastery to the Jokhang Monastery, the Jokhang Monastery became the worshipping center. Because of this development, Rosa was renamed Lhasa, meaning "Holy Land of Buddha." The name "Lhasa" didn't make its debut in Tibetan classics until 806, when the Tubo King Tride Songtsan erected the "Tablet to the Geqoin Monastery.'' The tablet's inscriptions read: "During the life of His Holy Tsampo Songtsan, Buddhist doctrines were spread and the Jokhang Monastery was built in Lhasa." So "Lhasa" has been in use for almost 1,200 years.

Lhasa Under the Chinese

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.

Foreign culture and Western tourists arrived with a bang in the 1990s and 2000s, At that time you could party at JJ's Disco, which featured Greco-Roman columns, neon-colors and plastic cut outs of Santa Claus. Babila was popular disco in Lhasa in the mid 2000s. Tanguka Wind was a nightclub that hosted Tibetan rock bands

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.

Tibetan Uprising in 2008

In mid March 2008, a major Tibetan uprising erupted in Lhasa and spread to other Tibetan regions of China. Chinese authorities said 22 people were killed, most of them Chinese killed by "separatist followers of the Dalai Lama." More than 600 people were injured. The violence was more serious than the unrest in 1989, which was primarily confined to Lhasa, and was arguably the worst outbreak of violence in China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

The Tibet-in-exile government says 220 monks, nuns and other Tibetans died, most of them killed by Chinese soldiers and police suppressing riots and demonstrations. and 7,000 were detained and more than 1,000 were injured in the ensuing crackdown. Many Tibetans believe that hundreds if not thousands were killed. Dozens of photographs of bloodied Tibetan corpses were displayed in Dharmasala. It is widely believed though that more people were killed in the riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang in 2009 than in Tibet.

A Tibetan resident told Reuters, “Nobody believes the official death toll, There was too much violence, The things I saw, the burnt out shops, cars and buses, Many more people must have died."The respected Tibetan poet and blogger Woeser, using accounts of those she said she trusts, estimates as many as 300 people may have died at the hands of public security forces. It's impossible to know the exact number because the bodies are always immediately cremated, she said.

During the riots in Lhasa on March 14, hundreds of mostly young Tibetans roamed the streets in mobs and gangs, throwing rocks and paving stones at police, attacking Chinese on bicycles and in taxis and vandalizing and setting fire to Chinese stores. The Bank of China was attacked and quickly turned into a smoldering ruin. Video, camera and cell phone images caught angry Tibetans smashing Chinese shops and setting fire to looted materials in streets.

According to the Chinese government 19 people were killed and 383 people were injured, 57 of them seriously, in the riots on March 14 in Lhasa. The dead included 18 civilians and one policeman. Almost all the victims, according to government acounts, were Chinese, many of whom had been burned, bludgeoned on hacked to death by rioters. The government also said arsonists and protesters set fire to 908 shops 84 vehicles, seven schools and 120 homes and looted 1,367 shops, causing an economic loss of about $47 million.

Muslim shopkeepers and their families were badly hurt and some were killed when fires set in their shops spread to upstairs apartments. The Chinese media reported that Tibetan protesters sliced off the ear of a Chinese woman. In March 2009, the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India, released a seven-minute video that purports to show Chinese police officers brutally beating Tibetans during the 2008 riots. There has been no independent confirmation that the footage is authentic.

Tibetans directed their anger first at Chinese and then at Muslim Huis. An American who witnessed the events told the New York Times, “This wasn't organized, but it was very clear that they wanted the Chinese out." The unrest came as a shock to the authorities, who thought decades of generous investment in Tibet had gone a long way to mollify lingering resentment toward Beijing.

central Lhasa

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.

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.

Orientation and Layout of of Lhasa

Lhasa is the political, economic and cultural center of Tibet and the capital city of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). It is situated in the South Central part of the region, on the North bank of the Kyichu River (Lhasa River) in a mountain-fringed valley. This ancient sprawling city, covers 30,000 square kilometers (11,583 square miles).

Located at the bottom of a small basin surrounded by mountains at an elevation of 3,658 meters, Lhasa exercises jurisdiction over seven counties (Damshung, Tolun Dechen, Chushur, Medro Gongkar, Taktse, Nyemo and Lhundup) and one district (City Proper). It has a downtown of 544 square kilometers and a population of 500,000; 140,000 of its people live in the downtown area. The Old Town of Lhasa is near the Lhasa River. The Lhasa River, known as the "merry blue waves," runs through the snow-covered peaks and gullies of the Nyenchen Tanglha (Nyainqentanglha) Mountains and extends 315 kilometers and empties into the Yarlung Tsangpo River at Quxu.

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.

Lhasa is mostly located on flat land. Tradition has it that the three main hills of Lhasa represent the "Three Protectors of Tibet": 1) Chokpori, just to the south of the Potala, is the soul-mountain of Vajrapani (one of the earliest-appearing bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism). 2) Pongwari is the hill of Manjusri (a bodhisattva associated with insight whose name means "Gentle Glory". Marpori, the hill on which the Potala stands, represents Avalokiteśvara (the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy).

Pilgrims in Barkhor Square

Weather and Environment of Lhasa

Lhasa has has blue skies, crystal clear river water, refreshing air, and a beautiful environment. It is one the least polluted and most beautiful cities in China if not the world. Blessed with mild weather, Lhasa is free of frigid winters and unbearably hot summers, having an annual average daily temperature of 8 degrees F. It enjoys 3,000 hours of sunlight annually, much more than all other cities in the area, giving it the title of "sunlit city." Lhasa enjoys an annual precipitation of 500 mm. It rains mainly in July, August and September. The rainy seasons in the summer and fall are the best seasons of the year, when it rains mostly at night and is sunny in the day. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China, October 14, 2014]

The Central Government invested 3.9 million yuan to build a natural environment-monitoring station in August 1990. This was followed by the construction of 3 air-sample gathering stations, 5 environmental-noise monitoring stations, 27 traffic-noise monitoring stations, 6 drinking-water-sample gathering stations, and 3 water-quality monitoring stations. The time when the Tibetan environment was not monitored is over.

Monitoring results show that the Lhasa area is basically free from pollution, with the carbon dioxide density in the air being less than 0.1 mg (milligram), much lower than the national standard. In the downtown area, which is densely populated, the air contains slightly more soot than the other areas, a result of Buddha worshipping activities. Still, the soot content of the downtown air nevertheless remains below 0.4 mg per cubic meter. The Lhasa River is free from lead, zinc, copper, and other metallic trace elements, and towns and villages on both banks of the river cause no pollution to the river.

The Tibet Autonomous Regional Government and the Lhasa government have been planting trees in Lhasa for decades. Statistics gathered in 1991 show that the green area in the city covers 669.7 hectares, including 50.2 hectares of parks, 336 hectares of lingka woods, 233.3 hectares of lawns and flower beds, 13 hectares of seedlings, and 37.2 hectares of trees and lawns flanking roads. The greenery averages 12 square meters, ranking among the first in all of China.

The three-river project, the system for the development of the valleys in the middle reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo, Lhasa, and Nyang Qu rivers, brings benefit to the whole area of Lhasa. Several 100-hectare forests or tree belts have been built in the Nyemo Mountain gully and Painbo River valley, as well as along the Lhasa River banks.

Resources and Agriculture in the Lhasa Area

Lhasa embraces seven counties (Damshung, Tolun Dechen, Chushur, Medro Gongkar, Taktse, Nyemo, and Lhundup) and one district (City Propers). Damxung and parts of Nyemo, Doilungdeqen, Lhunzhub, and Maizhokunggar, which are north of Lhasa, form the southern rim of the North Tibet Grasslands. These grasslands feature thriving livestock breeding, and produce quality beef, mutton, butter, and cow and sheep wool. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China, October 14, 2005]

The Lhasa River Valley, in the middle part of the Lhasa area, belongs to the middle reaches of theYarlung Tsangpo Riverand is home to one of the granaries in Tibet. It produces qingke highland barley, wheat, rapeseed, and beans. Lhasa No.1 soya beans are well known in and outside of China for their quality.

The Lhasa area is also rich in mineral and water resources, and is home to various wild life and plants. Several counties are richly endowed with peat (decomposed and carbonized vegetable matter) and geothermal resources, with dozens of geothermal sites that can be developed for economic and medical purposes. The Qusang Hot Spring in Doilungdeqen and the Dezhong Hot Spring in Maizhokunggar are famous throughout Tibet. Other mineral resources with impressive proven reserves include iron, copper, and limestone.

Tourism and Entertainment in Lhasa

Restaurant serve spicy, salty yak meat and mutton.. There are some discos, places with live music and jazz clubs. Souvenir shops sell “Buddhist Accessories” such as beads, bells, incense and payer wheels. Tours of a carpet factory, a tannery, and a boot and shoe factory available. In the hotels the mostly Chinese staff dresses like in Tibetan clothes.

Barkhor Market (outside Jokhang Temple) is the heart of the Old Town of Lhasa. A crowded and colorful neighborhood of shops, hawkers, teahouses and market stalls, it was designed to accommodate visitors, pilgrims and monks visiting Jokhang Temple. The area between Barkhor and Jokhang Temple is filled with pilgrims with kneepads and elbowpads repeatedly prostrating themselves.

Barkhor is a neighborhood of ancient streets and a public square surrounding Jokhang Temple in the old area of Lhasa. The oldest street appeared about 1,300 years ago after Jokhang Temple was built in 647, attracting thousands of Buddhist pilgrims. The streets are full of religious atmosphere and show the original Lhasa. Shops offer prayer wheels, chubas (traditional Tibetan clothing), Tibetan knives and religious articles for sale. Walking in a clockwise direction along the street is recommended. Because of many lanes there, it is better not stay too late in the street.

Barkhor 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.

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 of Lhasa: chinamaps.org ; China Highlights China Highlights Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; 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. Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Transportation and Getting to Lhasa

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 (98 kilometers south of Lhasa) is one of 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. Located in Gonggar County in Tibet's Shannan Region, it serves flights to many major cities in China and has a reputation for being dangerous. Flight delays possible in late spring and summer due to sand storms. Transportation between city and airport is provided by shuttle buses. The bus from the airport takes about two to two and a half 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 prices to Tibet to fall. A new highway built in the 2000s cut the driving time from airport to Lhasa by about 30 minutes.

According to ASIRT: Expressways link the city with several main cities in mainland China. Lhasa-Gonggar Airport Expressway, toll-free, four-lane road, links Lhasa Railway Station and Gonggar Airport. City's road network is inadequate for rapidly growing vehicle fleet. Private vehicles account for 70 percent of vehicle fleet. Traffic is often congested. Road crash rate is increasing 13 percent annually. Residents' lack of road safety awareness contributes to high risk for road users and pedestrians. Traffic lights and pedestrian bridges or underpasses are often lacking. Pedestrian fatalities are common. Traffic management is inadequate. Parking is inadequate in city center. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), 2011]

Minibuses provide public transport in the city. Full size buses provide inter-city transport between main cities. Many buses and taxis are overloaded. Taxis are available; fares are fixed. Pedicabs also provide transport. Rental bikes available at most hostels. Western Bus Station is open longer than other bus stations.

Shopping and Markets in Lhasa

Carefully examine jewelry, textiles and crafts for quality. Though lots of jewelry and textiles are of excellent quality is available, there is also a lot stuff that poor in quality. It is very easy to find appealing items that are uniquely Tibetan. Exotic Tibetan opera masks and costumes are really attractive. Brightly colored, beautifully homespun Tibetan rugs and khaddar are also popular souvenirs. As in other traditional markets throughout the world, you should try to bargain with the shopkeepers so as to buy nice things at lower prices. Cutting half of their asking prices is usually proper. Except shoppers, you may be accompanied by hundreds of prostrating pilgrims. It is a thrilling experience that will certainly remind you that you are in Lhasa.

Shopping tips in Tibet: 1) At a big supermarket in Lhasa you can buy local specialties, such as the Tibetan tea, dried yak meat, the chang, and highland barley products for relatively cheap prices. 2) For buying Tibet medicine, try the Tibet hospital on Jokhang square, but the prices are kind of high. A famous Tibet medicine is seventy pearl pill. 3) You can shop while doing the kora around Jokhang temple. Follow the clockwise flow. 4) The turquoise and red coral on jewelry is often fake. Turquoise is often sold in grams, If its three to five yuan a gram its proobably fake. Around fifteen to eighteen yuan a gram is what you expect to pay for the real thing. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

On the largest farmers' market in Lhasa, chinaculture.org, reported; “Busy putting vegetables onto their stands for sale, vendors begin their business very early in the morning. Every type of farm product grown around the country can be found here. The market is divided into different sections for vegetables, meat, and other foods. 55-year-old Lao Pan is one of the most successful stallholders in the market. After starting independently, he now has his wife, daughter, son and daughter-in-law involved in the business. Now, he's got eight stands in the market, and business is growing bigger. [Source: chinaculture.org, September 24, 2005]

“A vendor said: "I started this business in 1986. Initially, very few categories of farm products were available, and delivery was not easy either. But things have now changed, we can get our hands on a variety of farm products, locally-grown or brought in from other areas. I can say we have wider range of farm products than any other city across the country, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi'an." What he said is echoed by local buyers in the market. A local resident said: "The changes have been huge. We couldn't buy so many kinds of farm products in the past, but we can now buy almost everything available elsewhere in the country."

Shopping Areas in Lhasa

There are many department stores in Lhasa, mostly on Yuthok Lu that supply everyday needs. For example, Lhasa Department Store, located on the west end of Yuthok Lu, is the largest and best known department store in Lhasa. There are also some supermarkets in Lhasa, such as Hongyan Supermarket Chains mainly distributed in Lhasa downtown. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org]

Barkhor Street is a traditional Tibetan shopping center, where shopkeepers with small shops and stalls on the street supply more traditional and fascinating Tibetan artifacts and handicrafts. These items include prayer flags, Buddha figures, conch-shell trumpets, rosaries, amulets, fur hats, horse bells, bridles, copper teapots, wooden bowls, inlaid knives, and jewelry inlaid with turquoise and other gems. The Tibetan knife is a special item that is not allowed on airplane, but you can certainly mail it to your home by post office.

Tibetan carpet can be bought at the Tash Delek Tibetan Rug Factory. If you need maps, Xinhua bookstores are good choice. There are three Xinhua bookstores in Lhasa respectively located on Yuthok Lu, east Barkhor and Beijing Zhong Lu.

One view of Potala

Sights in Lhasa

Lhasa, the capital of Tibet Autonomous Region, means "Holy Land" or "Buddha Land" in Tibetan. The city, dating back 1,300 years, is Tibet's political, cultural, economic and religious center. The magnificent Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple Monastery and Norbulingka (Garden of Treasures) are listed as world heritage sites. Other must-see attractions include Barkhor Street, Sera Monastery and Drepung Monastery.

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. A circumambulations is a walk that pilgrims do in a clockwise direction around something. Lhasa has several mosques. Admission: Potala Palace: 100 yuan; Jokhang Temple Monastery: 85 yuan; Norbulingka: 60 yuan; Namtso: 80 yuan; Yamdrok Lake: 40 yuan; Best time to visit: May to September

Kundeling Monastery (one kilometers west of Potala, near Beijing Middle Road) 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. The monastery is located at the foot Bar-ma ri (Parma Ri) mountain, below the Ges-ar Temple, which is owned. By the monastery. Two restored chapels are open to visitors. On an upper level there is a mural of the original temple, which was mostly destroyed. In 2011 it was reported that there were 42 monks, down from 80 in the 1990s.

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 US$12 million credits the Communist Party with preserving Tibetan culture. The seven-year US$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.


Visiting Lhasa

My Lhasa-Everest tour began with our arrival in Lhasa by train in the afternoon. After the police checked our permits we were taken to our hotel. We were advised to rest to adjust to the altitude but I ventured out to check out the Potala and do the kora (clockwise circumambulation) around it. As I said before the Potala is an awesome sight and so large — more than 1,000 rooms, 10,000 altars and 200,000 statues, with some saying it is the largest palace in the world — that is best appreciated from a distance. There is a large Chinese-made square across the street from the palace that serves as a good viewing spot. The next day my group visited the inside of Potala in the morning. Although certain places are off limits much of its open, including the modest places where the current Dalai Lama slept, meditated and met visitors before he was forced to flee Tibet in 1959.

In the afternoon we visited Jorkand temple, the most sacred site in Tibet. Inside we saw important Buddha statues and Tibetans making offerings of yak butter, money and tsampa (barley flour). Outside the kora was a moving stream of Tibetans — with some, mostly Chinese, tourists — about 15 people wide, many in traditional clothes. Among them were women with colorful aprons, long strings of braided hair and children on their backs; old men with fur hats and coats with sleeves that extend a foot or so beyond their hands; monks of varying ages in burgundy-colored robes; and young men from Kham (eastern Tibet and western Sichuan Province) with their long hair wrapped around their heads like turbans and decorated with red ribbons.

The second full day in Lhasa was spent visiting Drepung and Sera Monasteries, both within 20 kilometers of downtown Lhasa. Among the highlights of this day were the debating monks, slapping their arms and seemingly haranguing one another, in the Sera monastery courtyard; Sera’s intricate, preserved sand mandalas; and the kitchen at Drepung with its room-size pots used to feed the 6,000 monks who once lived at the monastery (now there are only about 600 of them). Drepung was a focal point of the protest that launched the 2008 riots in Lhasa. We had to go through a metal detector to enter the monastery as we did at other important sites in Lhasa.

As for Lhasa itself, yes it is being swallowed by the Chinese, but Tibetan life endures. There are large highrises in the Chinese part of the city, the roads are choked with vehicles, but the Tibetan old town is still very Tibetan and very robust. In the winter, I was told by our guide, Lhasa fills with farmers on pilgrimages, as there isn’t much farm work to do in the cold weather.

All’n all, on the surface anyway, it doesn’t seem like the Tibetans have such a bad lot. They are allowed to have two children — and many have more — while many Chinese still are only allowed to have one, and they seem to be able to go about their daily lives as they choose. Many Tibetans have embraced modernity — smart phones, Western clothes, Bollywood films and music — to varying degrees. But I guess one sign of how things really are between the Chinese and Tibetan is that they don’t seem to mix much.


Barkhor Market (outside Jokhang Temple) is the heart of the Old Town of Lhasa. A crowded and colorful neighborhood of shops, hawkers, teahouses and market stalls, it was designed to accommodate visitors, pilgrims and monks visiting Jokhang Temple. The area between Barkhor and Jokhang Temple is filled with pilgrims with kneepads and elbowpads repeatedly prostrating themselves.

Barkhor is a neighborhood of ancient streets and a public square surrounding Jokhang Temple in the old area of Lhasa. The oldest street appeared about 1,300 years ago after Jokhang Temple was built in 647, attracting thousands of Buddhist pilgrims. The streets are full of religious atmosphere and show the original Lhasa. Shops offer prayer wheels, chubas (traditional Tibetan clothing), Tibetan knives and religious articles for sale. Walking in a clockwise direction along the street is recommended. Because of many lanes there, it is better not stay too late in the street.

Barkhor 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.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site; Beifan.com; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in September 2022

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