Lhasa is the official capital city of Tibet, which as this point in time is officially an autonomous region of China. Situated on the northern slopes of the Himalaya mountain range, the high altitude of the city, which is about 12 000 feet, validates the nickname “the roof of the world.”
More than 1000 years old, the city is the heart and soul of Tibet, and former home to the Dalai Lamas. Flowing right next to it is the Lhasa River. Despite the country’s political struggles with China, a number of tourists still venture a trip to Lhasa, because they consider it a great opportunity to learn about the Tibetan culture and identity which are currently under restraint and may soon disappear.
The western section of Lhasa is very much like other Chinese towns. The area is newer, more modern and geared towards commercialism. Here, you can find plenty of hotels, restaurants, shops and supermarkets. However, Lhasa is still exuding a strong Tibetan influence, especially on its easternmost section. In this area, you will find the main reason to visit Lhasa: the old quarters of Barkhor.
The four-story Jokhang Temple sits on Barkhor Square, the center of Old Lhasa. This temple is considered to be the most sacred in the country as it houses the Jowo Sakyamuni Buddha statue, the most important religious artifact in Tibet. Jokhang is where most tourists will witness the uncanny spirituality of Tibetans. Pilgrims usually wear traditional garments and conduct a kora, which refers to the walking around the Jokhang temple on a clockwise manner, while spinning the prayer wheels.
The Potala Palace dominates the skyline of one of the highest cities in the world. Situated on the Red Hill since the 7th century AD, the sight of this fortress is simple breathtaking. It is in Potala where the Dalai Lamas are to live and to be buried in golden tombs. It is indeed a religious and political icon that represents old Tibet. A guided tour around the place is possible after paying an entrance fee.
A number of visitors coming from China opt to fly to the Lhasa airport, which is the only airport in the country. However, if you don’t mind a more unique and more memorable yet challenging experience, consider taking the Lhasa Express, which is the train service from China to Tibet. This service passes through the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, considered to be the highest railway in the entire world. With the construction of this railway, it is now possible to travel by train to Lhasa from major Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Chengdu, and Guangzhou.
The main advantage of traveling to Lhasa by train is to gain access to the spectacular Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau landscape, adorned with deserts, grasslands, snowcapped mountains, green pastures, lakes and natural reserves. Riding a train will also make it easier for you to adapt to the high altitude in a gradual manner. The China-Tibet train service offers various berth classes, from hard sleeper to first-class soft sleeper. Aside from washrooms and dining cars; oxygen supply and medical services are also available to those suffering from altitude sickness. During peak times like Chinese New Year, Lhasa Express tickets usually sold out. So, it is crucial that you obtain a ticket well in advance to secure a spot.