Sat high on a stark plateau amongst the colossal peaks of the Himalayas, Tibet is a kingdom shrouded in mystery. Still every bit as magical as the stories tell, you'll find yourself swept up in the wonders of Lhasa, watched over by the magnificent Potala Palace and the indescribable views of the mighty Mount Everest from Base Camp.
Lhasa is not only Tibet’s capital but its heart and soul. Even with the rapid expansion of recent years the city has managed to retain its air of the mystical – whilst the new buildings go up around its edges, at its core you’ll come across a world that is still a million miles from the modern one. Join the traditionally dressed pilgrims on their circuit of the Barkhor, feel the devotion in the sacred Jokhang, explore one or two of the many major monasteries and admire the former residences of the Delhi Lama, the Potala Palace that watches over the city from its hilltop seat, and the Norbulingka.
The seat of the Tibetan government might now be sitting empty but from its perch atop Marpo Ri (Red Hill) the Potala Palace is still Lhasa’s most magnificent sight. Built in 1645 the Potala has been both the year round and then winter palace of the 5th to the 14th Dalai Lamas and has over 1,000 rooms in total. Whilst you can’t visit them all, the series of chapels, stupas and prayer halls that you can visit will take your breath away. You will be joined by a line of astounded Tibetans from all over the country, giving a great showcase of ethnic Tibetans who have travelled to Lhasa on pilgrimage.
Located 3 kilometres from the Potala Palace, the Norbulingka was the summer residence of the Dalai Lama, begun in 1755 by the 7th incarnation. Set in a large landscaped park the complex contains a number of palaces and chapels, the most fascinating of which is the New Summer Palace. Built by the current Dalai Lama in the 1950s, the rooms within have been left exactly as he left them when forced to flee Tibet and so they give an interesting insight into life as the Dalai Lama.
A kora (pilgrimage circuit) around the sacred Jokhang, the Barkhor is the perfect introduction to Lhasa and arguably the city at its most atmospheric. Get swept up in crowds of pilgrims, spinning their prayer wheels or prostrating their way round, who come from all over Tibet, presenting you with a microcosmic view of the people who call this stark land home. During the day the route is lined with stalls selling all sorts of trinkets and goods but the Barkhor is at its most atmospheric in the early morning hours before the stall holders have set up and you can see, hear and feel the devotion of the worshippers.
The Jokhang is the spiritual heart of Lhasa and the whole of Tibet, and the holiest temple of Tibetan Buddhism. The original temple was built 1,300 years ago by King Songsten Gampo, and whilst within you will find some original features, much has been renewed and resorted. Upon entering it is hard to not get swept up in the deep reverence of the pilgrims – shuffling through the yak butter candle lit darkness with them is the best way to experience the true meaning of Buddhism to the Tibetan people. Within the temple there are a number of statues to admire, but the most sacred is the Jowo Sakyamuni.
Before the 1950s Tibet’s greatest monasteries were like small towns in their own right, supporting populations of thousands of monks who spent their days worshipping and studying. Today, though closely monitored by the authorities, they are flourishing again.
Ganden Monastery was the first Gelagpu monastery founded in 1409 and still the seat of the sect today. Set high above the Kyi-chu valley it was heavily bombed by the Red Guard and is still being restored but the views and its picturesque kora are well worth a visit. Drepung, once the world’s largest monastery, was founded in 1416 and the least damaged by the Red Guard, leaving much of interest intact from its long history. Sera Monastery, founded in 1419, is best known for its debating. Visit the monastery’s debating courtyard to watch the monks discoursing on Buddhist doctrine, as a part of their learning process, along with the traditional gestures, such as clapping, pushing and even screaming, that go with it.
At 5,150 metres above sea level, you certainly do feel on the roof of the world at Everest Base Camp. A little tent town set in a valley with uninterrupted views of the mighty mountain, Everest Base Camp is like nowhere else on earth. Basic facilities include a Tea House, a few tent hotels and the world’s highest post office but with views like these, what else would you need? Whilst this is not the official climbers base camp (which is another few kilometres up the valley) there are opportunities to do some limited trekking.
Rongbuk, at 4,980 metres above sea level, is said to be the world’s highest monastery. At the far end of Dzakar Chu Valley, with magnificent views down to Everest, the monastery is 8 kilometres from Everest Base Camp and offers a rewarding hike between the two (as long as you are properly acclimatised). Founded in 1902, Rongbuk has been visited by many climbers hoping to conquer the mighty Everest. It was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but after much restoration has a thriving community of monks once more. There is also a little guesthouse and restaurant here.
The traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, second in the Tibetan Buddhism ranks after the Dalai Lama, Shigatse is Tibet’s second city. 250 kilometres from Lhasa the city appears modern at first glance but wander along its attractive boulevards to the old town to find excellent examples of traditional Tibetan houses. Shigatse’s main sight is the Tashilunpo Monastery, a miniature walled city sprawled down a hillside to the west of the city. The monastery of the Panchen Lama, Tashilunpo managed to get through the Cultural Revolution relatively unscathed, meaning that wandering through the cobbled streets amongst the old buildings is like a step back in time. A bustling place, this is the largest religious institution in Tibet with a vibrant population of monks living here. The must visit is the Chapel of Jampa where a 26 metre gilded golden statue of the Future Buddha, which took 900 artisans four years to complete is waiting to be admired. The Shisatze Dzong, residence of the kings, then governors of Tsang, is also an impressive sight, looming over the city from its hilltop perch.
A chilled out and charming city, Gyantse was once a stop on a trade route between India and Tibet. Reachable in 6 to 7 hours from Lhasa along an exceptionally scenic route that passes the sacred lake of Yamdrok Tso, Gyantse must see sight is its Kumbum, which means 100,000 images. Famous for its art, this fascinating monastery is also home to the largest, and most important of its kind, chörten in Tibet. Join the line of pilgrims making their way through the series of chapels that are beautifully decorated with 14th century murals. Climb up to the mighty 14th century dzong for wonderful views back over the old town and Pelkor Chode, once a huge monastic complex, today home to about 80 monks.
One of Tibet’s four holy lakes, Yamdrok is encircled by snowcapped peaks and, in clear weather, a gorgeous shade of turquoise. Worshipped by Tibetans, you’ll spot plenty of pilgrims making their circumambulations of the lake, which takes them about a week. The land surrounding the waters is particularly verdant, giving a somewhat rare glimpse of pastoral life in Tibet. The best views of Yamdrok are from the summit of Kamba-la, which if you are travelling to Gyantse you will be passing over.
For those feeling a little more adventurous and with a little extra time, western Tibet is home to a sacred mountain that dominates the mythology of Buddhists, Hindus and Jains – it being the centre of their universe. To join the many pilgrims who come to complete a kora of Mount Kailash you will need three days – the walk is reasonably easy as long as you are fit and acclimatised. If you would rather just see this mythical place, combine it with visits to the holy Lake Manasarova.
The St Regis was the first five-star international hotel in Tibet and features architecture inspired by local designs. Experience refined elegance and luxurious accommodation in a beautiful setting. Be seduced by three remarkable restaurants, experience healing Tibetan treatments in the splendid Iridium Spa and bask in the warmth of the sparkling Golden Energy Pool.
The Shangri-La does luxury in a Tibetan style to perfection. All rooms are elegantly decadent with mountain views plus an overlaying peaceful ambience that makes total relaxation a breeze. A drink in one of the stylish lounges is the perfect way to round off a long day of discovery.
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