Spiritualists long to experience the lost Shangri-La, Buddhists desire to explore the Dalai Lama’s former land and travellers yearn to discover forbidden Tibet for themselves. Tibet finally opened up to worldwide tourists in the mid 1980s and has significantly built up its tourism infrastructure ever since, with an estimated 10 million plus tourists expected this year alone.
Tibet has been through significant, often violent change and recently the Tibetans have begun restoring their cultural and historical heritage across their monasteries, temples and buildings. Images of Buddha are once more commonplace as devotees chant and swing prayer wheels openly. As well as stunning high altitude trekking opportunities there are also a wealth of cultural sights waiting for those that make the journey;
Potala Palace in Lhasa
When traveling to Tibet, the first stop on most travellers’ itineraries is the iconic city of Lhasa and specifically the imposing Potala Palace, pictured above, which is located on the Marpori (Red Hill) above Lhasa. This spectacular palace opened in 1649 and was named after Mount Potalaka, stretches skyward to approximately 12,000 feet at its highest point, and was built by the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1645. The Potala Palace is 13 storeys high and has housed every Dalai Lama since its construction, until the 14th Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India in the 1950’s. Potala Palace was built with over 15,000 artists and workers, 7,000 labourers, and at its completion stood 13 stories tall with over 1,000 rooms. The Palace is divided into two sections, the White Palace, which was the former living quarters of the Dalai Lamas, and the Red Palace, which is completely devoted to religious study and contains numerous religious complexes. Open 7 days a week from 8am to 4pm.
Repeats of the Michael Palin: Himalaya series are currently being shown on BBC where Palin visits both the Potala Palace and Tibet as a whole – catch it if you can either on TB or YouTube (such as the clip below) as the area looks absolutely stunning! And if you're inspired check out PureTravel's Tibet tours.
Drepung, Sera and Ganden Monasteries
Any trip to Tibet would be incomplete without taking in the awe and wonderment of the many monasteries. Drepung Monastery is located a few miles West of Lhasa at the base of Mount Gephel and is the largest monastery in Tibet, with approximately 10,000 monks residing there. Located on the corner tower of the Drepung Monastery is a massive prayer wheel adorned with hand painted artwork to inspire the faithful. The Sera Monastery is another holy place in the Lhasa area and is located on top of Tatipu Hill in northern Lhasa. The Sera Monastery contains several monastic academies for the training of religious leaders. Visitors are welcomed into the Sera Monastery early in the morning, but will enjoy going in the afternoon when the Monks are finished with their classes and assemble in the courtyard for their famous monastic debates on the teachings of Buddha. The Ganden Monastery, which stands at 4,300m, is the religious home of the strictly disciplined Gelug Buddhists, who exercise a strict discipline of intellectual and religious studies. Inside the Ganden Monastery, visitors will enjoy seeing the Holy Stupa Hall which houses the bodies of religious leaders adorned with silver and gold coverings.
Drepung monastery along with Sera monastery and Ganden monastery are widely considered to be the "great three" of the Gelukpa university monasteries.
Founded in 1447, the Tashilunpo Monastery is a massive complex spanning nearly 300,000 square meters, or 3,229,279 square feet. Its size has prompted habitants to warn visitors to pay attention to their surroundings, as they could easily become lost. The symbolic Maitreya Chapel, with a nearly 100 foot high image of Maitreya Buddha, is a photo opportunity and a sight to see for any traveller visiting Tashilunpo. The unique Ganden Monastery is located approximately 30 miles from Lhasa and sits atop Wangbur Mountain.
Tibetan Mount Everest
Any journey to Tibet would be lacking without seeing the breathtaking peaks of Mt. Everest, even if just admiring it in the distance. Standing at approximately 8,848m (29,029 feet), Mt. Everest is known as Chomolungma in Tibetan, which means “mother goddess of the universe.” Mt. Everest acquired its name sake from Sir George Everest who first recorded the height and location of Mt. Everest in 1841. Giving testimony to the awesome power of planet Earth, Mt. Everest rises a measurable few inches every year due to the overpowering forces of geology beneath it. Would be climbers of Mt. Everest would be cautious when climbing because hurricane winds, caused by the jet stream, pummel the area almost year round. For a taste of glory Everest base camp treks can also be organised for real adventure seekers.
Lake Manasarovar and Mt Kailash
Mount Kailash is considered a holy site not only by Buddhists, but by Hindus and Jains as well and forms part of the Transhimalaya in Tibet. Tourists will find great joy and serenity by embarking on the Pilgrimage Circuit around Mt. Kailash. True Pilgrims take weeks to complete the trek, walking 108 circuits, but the average tourist can complete a one circuit trek in three days. Mount Kailash stands at 6,638m tall and offers a challenging Himalayan trek.
Lake Manasarovar is a pristine freshwater lake, which offers visitors a pilgrimage journey around the 60 mile wide lake that lasts around five days. The reason for the journey is to visit the sites of the eight Buddhist monasteries that once stood around the lake; signifying the Wheel of Life. Circumnavigating the lake represents one turn of the wheel, and is an overwhelming journey for visitors. Lake Manasarovar is about 940km from Lhasa and lies just to the south of Mount Kailash.
Located in the southern part of Tibet, Lhasa sits approximately 11,975 feet above sea level and is surrounded by three hills: Marpori (Red Hill), Chakpori (Iron Hill), and Barmari (Rabbit Hill).
Lhasa, as the administrative capital, has an abundance of Tibetan Buddhist and spiritual sites such as the Potala Palace (detailed above) as well as the Jokhang Temple which, at 1,350 years old, is one of Tibet’s holiest places and the stunning Norbulingka Palace. These 3 sites are all situated in the Chengguan District which makes for easy exploring.
Travelers will enjoy breathtaking scenery in Lhasa, such as the Lhasa River, with its crystal clear water, emptying into the Yarlung Zangbo River giving visitors a spectacular show of blue and white water waves. Visitors will find the lush green landscape of Lhasa surreal thanks, in part, to a Tibetan government program that has actively planted trees near Lhasa for decades. Lhasa proudly claims some of the cleanest and freshest air on Earth, with scientific readings of Carbon Dioxide density being less than 0.1 milligrams. Lhasa has a moderate climate and boasts over 300 days of sunshine a year.
Advice for getting into Tibet
Tibet is notoriously difficult to get into with closures this year during March and May. Use a good tour operator that specialises in travel to Tibet and follow the situation and advice very closely. The Tibet Tourism Bureau ultimately decides who enters the Lhasa and Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Many areas of Tibet are off limits to foreign travellers at various times; so again, do check very carefully prior to planning your trip.