If you want to have a more authentic experience when you travel to Lhasa, Tibet check out this list of Lhasa dos and don’ts. This is not so much a list of the top sites of Lhasa as much as it is our suggestions on how you can have a more meaningful experience and support the local Tibetan economy. *
If you’re looking for a specific trip, try the 7-Day Sky Train and Lhasa Highlights Tour.
1. Do choose a great, Tibetan-owned travel agency
If you are visiting Tibet, the first decision of your trip is the most critical one. Since no independent travel is allowed to Tibet and you must work with a travel agency, 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.
2. Don’t miss walking the koras
Lhasa is chock full of kora – walking paths around sacred sites that one circumambulates, usually while praying, meditating or prostrating. Pretty much every temple and monastery will have a kora, and these are great places to mingle with Tibetans from all walks of life. Notice that Tibetan Buddhists walk in a clockwise direction when circumambulating.
The Potang Shakor:
Walking the koras can seriously change your experience of the common “tourist” sites. Take the famous Potala Palace as an example. Almost every visitor to Lhasa wants to see the inside of the Potala at least once, even though it’s pretty depressing. So sure, go ahead and stagger, oxygen-deprived, to the top floors of the Potala’s lifeless halls to see the rooms in which His Holiness used to live. But then when the tour buses zoom off to another “Tibetan experience,” take some time and walk around the Potang Shakor, the prayer path around the bottom of the Potala. And there you will find Tibetans from all walks of life, Lhasa folk and pilgrims, doing what many of them do every day or as often as they can, circling the Potala, praying for the long life and good health and return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and for all sentient beings.
The Drepung and Sera Koras:
If you are able, you’ll want to walk – or, honestly, hike – the koras around two of Lhasa’s great monasteries: Drepung and Sera. You get a different perspective on the monasteries from the hills behind or around them. You can see more clearly, for example, the ruins of the buildings damaged the Cultural Revolution (as in the photo below). The views alone are worth it, but you’ll also have the company of common Tibetans, and it can be a very peaceful and lovely experience, especially if you have any Buddhist tendencies yourself.
The Jokhang Koras:
There are two great koras around the Jokhang Temple. One is inside the Jokhang enclosure, going around the edge of the temple. The other is the Barkhor, the circular path that circles the Jokhang. The Barkhor supports a lively outdoor market, but at its heart, it is a prayer path around the most sacred temple in Tibet, the Jokhang.
The lingkhor is the big daddy of circumambulations, a 5-mile (8 kilometers) kora that encompasses the whole heart of Lhasa. The path is not at all easy to find or navigate on your own, without a local, so you’ll need to ask your guide. (To be sure you have a good, local Tibetan guide, you need to be sure you have a good, Tibetan-owned agency. Ask us here to connect you to a reliable Tibetan-owned travel agent)
There are no signs and no special starting point. You just join the path from wherever you are (a nice metaphor for the Buddhist path). Because a good deal of today’s lingkhor passes through the city streets of Lhasa, a lot of it is not beautiful or ancient. There is some of that, like the striking red painted walls of the bottom of the Chokpori and the Medicine Buddha area. But it’s just awesome to walk this path early in the morning (we started around 6 A.M.) with a bunch of Tibetans. When you’re done or close to done, you can drop off at a local tea shop along the way for some sweet tea or butter tea with the local mola’s and pola’s (grandmas and grandpas).
3. Do check out the Tromsikhang
The Tromsikhang is a free-wheeling outdoor market off the north side of the Barkhor, with a bunch of closely packed food vendors and some narrow side streets lined with stalls full of truly miscellaneous objects: scissors, clothes, and plastic cups, for example. In the food section, note that the stands with big wedges of what looks like cheese is actually usually butter from the female of the yak species, the dri.
4. Do request Tibetan hotels and restaurants
Once you have chosen your Tibetan agency, and have your Tibetan guide, you should request that the agency book you exclusively into Tibetan-owned hotels, and bring you to Tibetan-owned restaurants and shops. (Of course ask for clean and good restaurants!) By these simple actions alone, you will avoid a wide range of fake “Tibetan” experiences, will have a much more authentic experience, and will further support the local economy. Note that you can get Western-style food at some Tibetan-owned places, if that’s what you want sometimes. We don’t have a list (yet) of great Tibetan-owned hotels and restaurants in Lhasa, but your guide can help you with this.
5. Do visit the Ramoche Temple and the Tsepak Lhakhang (Long-Life Shrine)
The Ramoche Temple, about a kilometer north of the Jokhang, is historically significant, built as a companion to the Jokhang. The Ramoche’s main image represents the Buddha Shakyamuni at eight years old, and interestingly, may have come from the Jokhang temple, as a replacement for the precious Jowo Rinpoche statue, also of Shakyamuni as a child – which is the soul of the Jokhang now – but which originally sat in the Ramoche. We should say that the Ramoche may seem a poor, drab cousin of the Jokhang and definitely lacks its splendor. The Lonely Planet travel books note that some people may think the 20 yuan entry fee is not worth it, and that may be true. Still, we recommend that you check it out, as a spot that tons of local Lhasa folk visit on a daily basis. Walk the kora, and then when you leave, check out the lively nearby Tsepak Lhakhang (Long-Life Shrine), with long-life prayers filling the air.
6. Don’t eat at the monastery cafeterias
We have found the food at the monasteries to be pretty gnarly and got sick after some momos from Drepung. Check it out yourself if you are interested but we would suggest you bring your own day snacks if you think you’re going to be at Drepung or Sera at meal time.
7. Don’t buy fake “Tibetan” medicine or fake “Tibetan” anything if you can help it
There’s a lot of fake “Tibetan” stuff floating around Lhasa, and one of these is fake Tibetan medicine that supposedly comes from the Mentsikhang, the Tibetan Medicine Institute, but is actually produced by Chinese vendors. If you are interested in Tibetan medicine, go the Mentsikhang itself, just off the Barkhor Square. You’ll find also a bunch of fake Tibetan antiques for sale in Lhasa. Unless you yourself are an expert, we suggest you don’t buy any antiques, especially since even if something is by chance real, it could very well be stolen from the original source. We will look into trying to find reputable vendors for carpets and art in Lhasa, but at the moment, we don’t know of any way to be sure you’re getting the real thing.
8. Do visit the Ani Tsamkhung (Nunnery)
This calm little oasis near the Barkhor is one of the main nunneries in Lhasa. It’s nice just be in the flower-filled courtyard, and you can visit King Songtsen Gampo’s meditation place.
9. Don’t visit the Tibet Museum
The main purpose of the museum appears simply to be espousing a one-sided view of Tibetan history. It’s described by some TripAdvisor reviews as “boring,” “pedestrian,” and “pure propoganda.”
10. Do visit the Nyetang Lhachemo and the Nyetang Dolma Lhakhang
You can visit both of these on the way to or from the airport if you fly. The Dolma Lhakhang is significant partly because it is one of the very few temples to survive the Cultural Revolution. So the temple is the real deal.
The Dolma Lhakhang is famous for the “Talking Dolma” statue (Dolma Sungjun), now lost, which was a bronze statue of Green Tara which is said to have spoken prophecies to certain people. The temple is also known for its relation to Atisha, the renowned Indian Buddhist master. The name Nyetang signifies Atisha’s joy among the Tibetans in that place. The lhakhang is not spectacular to look at, but it is a truly special place all the same.
About 5 kilometers away, just off the road, is a large (two or three stories tall) painted rock carving of the Buddha Shakyamuni, with a bunch of khata, blessing scarves, thrown up onto the rocks.
*There are definitely things you will want to see that are not listed here, like the murals at the Norbulingkha’s Kelsang Potrang, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s former summer palace.)
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