Lhasa, which means “Land of the Gods” and is over 1,300 years old, sits in a valley right next to the Lhasa River. In the eastern part of the city, near the Jokhang Temple and Barkhor neighborhood, Tibetan influence is still strong and evident and it is common to see traditionally dressed Tibetans engaged on a kora (a clockwise circumambulation or walk around the Jokhang Temple), often spinning prayer wheels. The western part of Lhasa is more ethnically Han Chinese in character. It is busy and modern and looks similar to many other Chinese cities. Much of the infrastructure, such as banks and government offices is to be found there.
Weather in Lhasa
Drepung Loseling Monastery in Tibet
Drepung Loseling Monastery was one of Tibet’s largest monastic universities. Located in the hills on the northern outskirts of Lhasa, it was established in 1416 as an institute of higher Buddhist education by Khenpo Lekden, a direct disciple of Lama Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), founder of the eclectic Geluk School. The First Dalai Lama was also a disciple of Lama Tsongkhapa, and the Second Dalai Lama built a residence in Drepung, called the Ganden Potrang, which remained a hereditary seat of all subsequent Dalai Lamas.
At its zenith Drepung Loseling housed some ten thousand monk students. These were drawn not only from Tibet, but also from China, Himalayan India, Mongolia, and the Mongol regions of Eastern Russia.
Namtso is the second-largest saltwater lake in China and one of the most beautiful natural sights in Tibet.It is over 70km long,reaches a width of 30km and is 35m at its deepest point.The lake is at 4730m so you’ll need to acclimatise in and around Lhasa for a few days before heading this way.It is not unusual for visitors to get altitude sickness on an overnight stay out at the lake.
How to Go
The Lhasa Gonggar Airport (贡嘎机场) (IATA: LXA) is 61km southwest of Lhasa. There are flights from Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Kunming, Qamdo, Shanghai, Xi’an, Xining, and Zhongdian (Shangri-La). International flights are available to Kathmandu, Nepal.
Non-Chinese nationals are required to be met at the airport by their tour guide. Taxis are available outside the airport. There is also an official shuttle bus . Non-Chinese tourist must take their private car provided by travel agency.
Non-Chinese nationals are not allowed to ride the intercity buses in Tibet. For Chinese nationals, there is frequent and cheap bus service between Lhasa and nearly all parts of Tibet.
The Qinghai-Tibet (Qingzang) railway connects Lhasa and Golmud, with services continuing onto Xining, Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing.
The central area with the main tourist attractions (Potala, Jokhang, Barkhor, Ramoche) is easily navigable on foot.
Cycle rickshaws are everywhere, though be prepared to bargain.
Taxis cost ¥10 for anywhere in Lhasa city. Hail them from the side of the street. Be prepared for taxi-sharing – the driver will often pull over if he suspects he can find other passengers heading in the same direction. Each will pay ¥10 and this is a way for the driver to make a better income despite the standard fare.
Public buses are numerous. Non-Chinese nationals are permitted to travel on the buses within the city, although you make yourself an attraction by doing so, since this rarely occurs. The number of the bus is recognizable but the destination is in Chinese, so you need to know which bus line you need.
Minibuses operate to areas such as Norbulingka, Sera Monastery, Drepung Monastery, and other nearby sites. Most of these are also on public bus lines.
“Pilgrim buses” are available in front of Jokhang Temple or at the parking lot near the temple, departing at 6-7AM for destinations outside Lhasa, such as Tsurphu Gompa, Ganden Gompa, Nyemo (Dazi), Phenpo Lhundrub (Linzhou), Meldro Gungkar (Mozhugongka), Chushul (Qushui), Taktse (Dazi), Gongkar (Gongga), and other nearby areas. Tickets are available at the ticket office at the parking lot or when you board the bus. Whether or not non-Chinese nationals can travel on these is a bit of a grey area. Since you have to have a travel guide with you anyway as a non-Chinese tourist, you can ask them to enquire about this, since it is a more interesting way to travel than always in a private Land Cruiser. However, the rules for organising tourist tours require advance planning, so you probably won’t have this chance.
Bicycle hire is available from some hotels or cycle shops and it’s a good way to explore if you have half a day free on your tour schedule. Pollution is not as bad as in many Chinese cities but driving habits are. The best tactic is to stick close to a local cyclist or cycle rickshaw when negotiating busy junctions.
Tourism to Tibet is strictly controlled by the Chinese government, and restrictions were further ratcheted up after the riots and before the 2008 Olympics. As of 2009, the previous “backpacker” tours, which included the permit and a couple of nights stay in Lhasa is no longer an option and all travelers must stay with an organised trip the entire time they are in Tibet. That means you will not be allowed to travel on an independent basis. Tibetans are usually quite happy to tell foreigners what they thought of the government, provided they are in a safe and private area.
All paperwork (except for the application of the Chinese visa) must be organized through a tour agency. Checkpoints along major roads outside Lhasa are everywhere and foreign tourists are requested to show and register their passports from time to time. Tibet is also the only region of China where travellers have reported being stopped or questioned by the Chinese police, which are normally either courteous or simply uninterested in a traveller’s whereabouts or plans in the rest of the country.
All foreign visitors to Tibet need one or more permits. The basic one is the Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit, which can be issued to you by travel agencies that is registered at Tibet Tourism Bureau in Lhasa. The official price of the permit is zero, but a tour agency usually charges around ¥800 RMB for the permit, as they will be responsible for the behaviour of the tourists during their visit. For every “mistake” the tourist does, the tour agency may be asked to pay a penalty.
From the middle of 2013, the Tibet Tourism Bureau had implemented a new permit policy that all the permit should be applied 15 days in advance, so currently the last minute Tibet Tour planning is not workable. Moreover, the permit regulation changes timely without any prior notice, so it is very important to check the latest Tibet travel permit situation to choose a right time to make your Tibetan journeys.
The Tibet travel permit situation changes all the time based on the political situation in Tibet, so there are always lots of rumours online about the permit situation, but you can find the latest Tibet travel permit situation from some local official websites.
Some parts of Tibet also require an Aliens’ Travel Permit (ATP), which is issued by the Public Security Bureau (PSB) in major Tibetan cities like Lhasa, Xigatse and Ali. The list of regions that require ATPs changes constantly, so enquire locally. Lhasa’s PSB has a poor reputation, while Xigatse and Ali are said to issue permits without any unnecessary difficulties. If your papers are in order, the permit can be issued in several hours for ¥100.
Finally, some remote areas also require a military permit. These are only available in Lhasa, where processing takes several days, and are only granted for an appropriate reason.
Tip: If you enter Tibet without your tour guide, a photocopy of the permit is required, on train station they usually want to leave one copy, on airport just have a look. Officially you can buy the train ticket or air ticket by yourself, but you will need to show the permit once you board the train or flight. This regulation is strictly enforced and the permit is frequently checked in Lhasa or outside Lhasa.
From summer 2014 most of Travel Agencies ask you to pay “deposit” USD 500-1000. This deposit is used to manage your application. This is one of new rules that come from Chinese government.
Every year during March is impossible to apply or obtain permit, TAR is definitely closed to foreigners for one month (sometimes also late February). Offices start to issue permits for tours organised on April during late March.
All pictures by the author
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