Lhasa: First Impressions

YoWangdu’s Yolanda O’Bannon shares with you her first impressions of the ancient and utterly unique Tibetan capital of Lhasa. If you’re thinking of visiting Lhasa, you want to be sure to choose a Tibetan-owned agency, which hires Tibetan guides only. The simplest way to do this is ask us to connect you to a reliable Tibetan-owned travel agent to plan a great trip for you that also supports the local Tibetan economy and culture.

I couldn’t stop crying the first day in Lhasa, not exactly tears of joy, though there was some of that, and not because some fierce Khampa butcher called me either “fat” or “shithead” when I photographed his yak head. (My practically non-existent Tibetan cannot discern the difference between those two, though I choose to think it was shithead.)

It’s more feeling overwhelmed, in a good way, by the smoke billowing from the incense burners in front of the Jokhang, the hum of prayers surrounding you on the Barkhor, the life and cheer and spirit in spite of everything that pervades Lhasa. It’s bustling and alive and full of Tibetans from all walks of life and far-flung places who gather here to live, work, pray, shop, visit friends and family and see the sights. We dream that maybe one day we can live here.

We have spent a fair amount of time being very generously hosted and treated like royalty as we acclimate to the nearly 12,000 foot altitude of Lhasa. I still don’t get the hierarchy — usually monks and the elderly are served by everyone else, but in this case, guests from far off get served by everyone, which is very discomfiting, being served by a monk and a 63-year old man. We try to resist, but are shouted and sometimes literally pushed down by the Lhasa locals who are famous among Tibetans for their extremely polite manners.

We are served heaping plates of snacks: gorgeous peaches, fried breads, fresh cheese, candies, butter tea, sweet tea, bananas, grapes, and my Texan heart’s delight, watermelon. Meals have been delightfully healthy plates of veggies — Chinese celery, cauliflower, some stuff I don’t recognize, rice, yak meat, which is beef-like and tender and good.

Yesterday I bought a little pilgrim girl a pair of shoes — this is no great philanthropy — they were $3. She and her mother were doing full-body prostrating around the Barkhor, the prayer circuit around the main temple, the Jokhang, that is the beating heart of Lhasa. The Jokhang houses an ancient precious statue of the Buddha Sakyamuni when he was 12 years old called the Jowo Rinpoche.

Roof of JoKhang Temple


A lot of people prostrate around the Barkhor, with worn wooden sliders strapped on their hands to protect them, and usually a long thick filthy apron that is dragged repeatedly along the stony ground, and sometimes some sort of kneepads — because this protrasting business is rough on the body, despite which it is not uncommon for pilgrims to prostrate from some distant province to Lhasa, taking months or years. Some folks are less well equipped and they have little squares of cardboard instead of wooden sliders, and no apron and nothing for their knees.

This little girl caught my eye not only because she looked only 6 or 7, but because she didn’t have wooden sliders, or even cardboard. Instead, she had a single glove, so one hand was just out there on the rough stones. I went looking for a pair of good gloves or wooden sliders but found neither — I reckon nobody even sells the slider thingies — it’s probably a make-your-own-slider kind of deal. What I did find was shoes, and I reckoned she could use that too.

I was very proud, by the way, to have an entire conversation with shoe stall lady in Tibetan — barbaric Tibetan to be sure, with some sign language, but hey a victory is a victory. It was tricky because the girl was out of sight, far behind me on the circuit, because it takes much longer to prostrate than to walk, so I had to ask for shoes for a little girl about “this” high — no idea what shoe size.

This is not a problem for Tibetans, who are generally fine with guestimating because they are so completely accepting and non-picky about things that are not quite right. Anyway, I haggled a bit and bought the shoes — pink sports shoes with a Playboy logo — they were the best, really — and brought them back to the little girl.

I asked the mother if I could give them to her, and was relieved that she said yes, and thanks, instead of calling me fat or a shithead…

The little girl looked sort of stunned but I think happy.

Sort of how I feel here with the gifts that just drop out of nowhere.

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Updated on February 6, 2020. First published on November 19, 2011.

Your Tibet travel guides, Lobsang and Yolanda

Most people who want to go to Tibet don't know how to get there or who to trust for help. We’re Lobsang Wangdu and Yolanda O’Bannon, and we help make Tibet travel more simple, safe and ethical so you can feel peace of mind about your trip.

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  1. Carlos Dantas says

    This was a very good information abaout Lhasa and I’d like to thank you for your mankind with the little girl…

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