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Things to Do in Lhasa

Few places in the world inspire a sense of mystery and magic quite like the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Closed off to outside visitors for generations, it has only been within the last 50 years that Tibet’s 12,000-foot (3,657.6-meter) capital has been accessible to a handful of lucky visitors. As an area that is still very much protected from the influences of foreign tourists, nearly all travelers must obtain a Tibetan Tourism Bureau permit and be part of an organized tour group. While pockets of semi-rogue travelers have found ways to skirt the stifling Chinese regulation surrounding Tibetan travel, virtually all visitors to Lhasa will be doing so as part of a packaged experience. For the chance to stand on the roof of the world, however, and marvel outside the steps of the Potala Palace—former home of the exiled Dalai Lama—all of the hassle and prior arrangements are undoubtedly worth the effort.

While many visitors to Lhasa opt to enter the region on a flight from Kathmandu, visitors approaching from the east oftentimes choose the Sichuan capital of Chengdu as their jumping off point for the Tibetan Plateau. From Chengdu it’s possible to embark on your trip to Lhasa through a variety of transportation options including planes, trains and automobiles. While the flight from Chengdu to Lhasa lasts little more than two hours, oftentimes those who have flown from the 1,600-foot (4,876.8-meter) elevation of Chengdu to the towering heights of Lhasa are more prone to altitude sickness due to lack of acclimatization.

For those Lhasa bound travelers departing from Chengdu, popular overland options include multi-day overland tours, which weave their way through the Gongha Mountains and high alpine lakes, as well as the 44-hour train ride which gradually ascends its way into the high Tibetan Plateau. Though Lhasa may be the capital city and heart of many Tibet tourist itineraries, the sweeping and rugged landscape which exists on the eastern boundaries of Tibet and western Sichuan province make the journey from Chengdu to Lhasa a memorable part of a mystical Tibetan experience.
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Potala Palace
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The Potala Palace, winter palace of the Dalai Lama for over 1,300 years, towers above downtown Lhasa. Recognized with UNESCO World Heritage status, the vast structure stands 13 stories high on a hilltop and contains over 1,000 rooms. Echoing chapels and jewel-encrusted tombs create a spectacular effect.

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Jokhang Temple
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One of Tibetan Buddhism’s most sacred sites, the 6-acre (2.5-hectare Jokhang Temple sits at the heart of Lhasa and holds UNESCO World Heritage status. With a history dating back over 1,300 years, throngs of pilgrims and red-robed monks come to worship at the Jowo Shakyamuni golden Buddha statue, lighting lamps, and spinning prayer wheels.

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Sera Monastery
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Known as the home of the "debating monks,"Sera Monastery was built on a hillside in the northern part of Lhasa in 1419. One of the three most important monasteries in the city, it is dedicated to the Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat, sect of Tibetan Buddhism and is a university monastery.

Visitors flock here to see the debates. a tradition young monks take part in as part of their training. In a series of debates, the senior monks drill the younger ones on various doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism and the teachings of Buddha. It’s a very physical display: the senior monks are standing, seeming to shout at the younger ones and then slapping their hands together dramatically—the hand slapping is the signal for the seated monk to respond. The debates may also be punctuated by screams (to throw the other person off). While it’s a very entertaining display for visitors, it’s a serious matter for the monks and a crucial part of training. Also of interest at Sera Monastery are the sand mandalas, beautiful works of art created from sand. These pieces take days to complete and, when finished, are swept away and started again.

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Drepung Monastery
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In the 1930s, Drepung Monastery ranked among the largest in the world with around 7,000 monks living on its grounds at its peak. While the number of monks has dropped to approximately 600 monks, Drepung Monastery’s four colleges continue to teach lineage, religion, and geography.

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Barkhor Street
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Ancient Barkhor Street circles the square surrounding Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple. The street doubles as a thoroughfare for pilgrims on their way to the temple, as well as home to the bustling Tromzikhang Market, host to a wide variety of vendors selling everything from prayer wheels to yak butter to tea kettles.

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Norbulingka
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From the late 1700s to the 1950s, Norbulingka was used as an official summer home for the Dalai Lama. Today, it is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Tibet’s top historical attractions. In addition to a 374-room palace, the park is home to hundreds of rare plants, rose bushes, fruit trees, and even a bit of wildlife.

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Ganden Monastery
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Ganden Monastery on the slopes of Wangbur Mountain is one of the oldest and largest Buddhist monasteries in Tibet. Together with Sera and Drepung Monasteries, Ganden is part of the three great university temples of Tibet, with a history dating back to the 15th century, when it became the main temple for the Yellow Hat Buddhists.

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