In this post we’re going to show you exactly how to experience the real local life when you first travel to Lhasa, Tibet.
These are the same things that we do when we travel to Tibet, in order to have a more meaningful, and less “touristy” experience.
2020 Travel Advisory: Due to the current health crisis, Tibet is temporarily closed to all foreign travelers. There has been no announcement regarding a re-open date. However, travelers can pre-book travel for a later date. At the same time, you will support local Tibetan-owned businesses at a time when they are struggling to survive. To learn more, ask us for an introduction to a reliable Tibetan travel agency here.
This is not a list of the top sites of Lhasa. Rather, it is a list of our suggestions for how you can feel a part of the real Tibet and and support the local Tibetan economy.
Let’s dive right in:
Do Visit the Small Chapels Just Off the Barkhor
Go where the locals go
Every traveler to Lhasa walks the barkhor, the circular prayer path around Tibet’s most sacred temple, the Jokhang.
But surprisingly few people check out the tiny chapels and spots hidden just off the main path. If you are aware, you’ll see that these are where the locals make their daily prayers, or offerings for special holy days. (Like the Palden Lhamo festivities in winter, for example.)
You can find three of these small chapels not far from where the barkhor begins at the front of the Jokhang. Walking clockwise with the crowd, you will turn a corner to the right, then find yourself on a longish straight stretch. About halfway down that stretch on the right is a square white building lined with prayer wheels, with a large incense burner in front of it.
The Mani Lhakhang
This is the Mani Lhakhang, and is generally full of Tibets turning a giant prayer wheel inside. Head inside, find a spot on the wheel and help turn it. You can go around once, and if you have time, go three times. If you wish to do as the Tibetans do, say a prayer as you go around, or give a blessing to someone near or far.
The yellow building just behind the Mani Lhakhang is the Jamkhang, a chapel with a large statue of the Buddha Maitreya, the future Buddha. If you go up the stairs you may find a monk dispensing holy water. You can join the queue to receive it, too, if you wish. Even though we like to receive this blessing, we don’t fully drink the holy water as the local Tibetans do, but instead wet our lips with it, and pat the rest of it on our heads, as they do.
Meru Nyingba Monastery
If you turn right when you exit the Jamkhang, you will find Meru Nyingba Monastery. The entrance is down a tiny alley lined with prayer wheels and sellers of chang and butter offerings which you’ll find to the right when you are heading away from the barkhor after the Jamkhang. Ask for “Meru” if you’re having trouble.
These chapels are delightfully off the beaten tourist track, even when there are hordes of tourists in Lhasa.
Do Visit Local Tea and Noodle Shops
Have a cuppa with local Lhasa people
Tibetans love their tea. All kinds of tea — mostly the Tibetan butter tea and sweet milk tea. They spend a good deal of time chatting and drinking copious amounts of both.
And you can have the very real experience of joining them at local Lhasa tea and noodle houses.
Like at the famous, always crowded, Gamchung Tea House (Gamchung means “little box”) located not far from Barkhor Square. Gamchung is known for its sweet milk tea and simple noodles. (Ask for “cha ngarmo” for sweet tea, and for “thukpa” (noodle soup) if you don’t know what else to ask for. That will get you simple noodle soup with a little yak meat. )
Don’t fear, yak is lean, tastes pretty much indistinguishably like beef and is not strong at all! If you find Tibetan noodle soups a bit on the greasy side, try a plate of noodles instead. If all else fails, point to what you want on another table.
Most of these places are hole in the wall spots that you will find if you wander the alleys around the barkhor (see next tip). As you’re walking, when you see a little place with Tibetans inside, drinking tea or having noodles or maybe momos, just duck in.
Don’t expect fancy, at all, as these are local spots not spiffed up for tourists.
If you find the tea shops and local restaurants are a little too grubby for you, you might prefer a coffee shop. Several branches of the Summit Cafe and similar places are popular hangouts for younger Tibetans (and tourists) who have a little extra income to spend.
Tibetans are super friendly in general, but keep in mind that no one is likely to initiate an interaction with you at one of these local spots. Folks are there enjoying their friends and family. We like to go in without expectations and just drink, eat and enjoy the atmosphere.
If you really want to make some connections, it’s good to do what you would do anywhere — invest some time and energy. Maybe ask (with sign language if you need to) if it’s okay to join a table. Definitely don’t pull your iPhone out and start shooting if you’d like to connect with folks. If we hang out a while, connections and laughs seem to rise naturally.
Do Walk the Barkhor on Your First Day
Become one of the crowd with Lhasa folks and nomads
If it’s your first day in Lhasa, a GREAT way to throw yourself into the local life is to walk the barkhor.
In fact, any time you want to feel a part of real Lhasa life, head to the barkhor, where you can always find a crowd of Tibetans humming mantras as they walk the circuit, day and evening.
Like the Tibetans, you get a little easy exercise, earn some spiritual merit, and become part of the vibrant heart of Lhasa. It’s flat and easy, so you don’t have to worry about over-doing it while you are acclimatizing to Lhasa’s high altitude.
Plus, strolling the barkhor offers world-class people-watching.
Notice that Tibetan Buddhists walk in a clockwise direction when circumambulating. Just walk the way the Tibetans are walking and you will avoid being one of the few gauche clueless tourists who go against the flow.
You can join the Tibetans any time. The barkhor is easy to find on any map of Lhasa. Or ask your guide or hotel desk to point you to the Jokhang.
There are security gates everyone needs to go through to enter the barkhor, locals and tourists alike. You need to show your passport, but you don’t have to have a guide with you. The easiest entry point to find is on the square in front of the Jokhang. (That’s on the west side of the Jokhang.)
Actually, you will probably want to walk around the Barkhor many times while you are in Lhasa. It takes about 15 minutes to walk it. (Assuming you are not shopping or chatting.) It never gets old.
But the barkhor is not the only places you can mingle with local Tibetans.
Do visit the Ramoche Temple and the Tsepak Lhakhang
Get up close and personal with real Tibetan Buddhists
The Ramoche Temple, about a kilometer north of the Jokhang, is surprisingly little visited when you consider that it is second only to the Jokhang in historical importance.
They were both built around the same time, and share deep history of housing the famous Jowo Rinpoche that now resides in the Jokhang.
The lovely main image in the Ramoche is similar to the Jowo Rinpoche in that it represents Buddha Shakyamuni as a child, though the Ramoche Jowo is of Buddha at an even younger age — eight years old.
Even if Ramoche is not as splendid as the Jokhang, tons of local Lhasa folk visit on a daily basis.
When you leave, be sure to make a prayer circuit at the lively nearby Tsepak Lhakhang (Long-Life Shrine). The sign for the entrance is to the left when you are standing facing the temple outside the ticket office and main gate of the Ramoche.
Do Choose a Reliable, Tibetan-Owned Travel Agency
Make the right choice where it counts the most.
If you are planning to visit 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 trustworthy, Tibetan-owned agency, which hires only Tibetan guides.
The simplest way to do this is ask us to connect you to one of the reliable Tibetan-owned travel agencies that we use ourselves. The agent will plan a great trip for you that also supports the local Tibetan economy and culture.
Do Walk the Potang Shakor around the Potala Palace
Rub shoulders with Tibetan grannies, kids and pilgrims
The barkhor is only the most famous of Lhasa’s many kora – walking paths around sacred sites that one circumambulates, usually while praying, meditating or prostrating.
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 feels depressingly like a museum.
Go ahead and huff your way to the top floors of the Potala’s halls to honor the history and see the rooms in which His Holiness used to live. (Do yourself a favor, and read our beginner’s guide for avoiding altitude sickness.) But then when the tour buses zoom off to another “Tibetan experience,” take some time and join the living Lhasa folk on the prayer path around the bottom of the Potala, called the Potang Shakor (or the Tsekhor).
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 of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and for all sentient beings
Don’t Eat at the Monastery Cafeterias
Be on the safe side…
We have found the food at the monasteries to be pretty gnarly in general and got sick after some momos from Drepung.
The huge monastery cafeterias for visitors are interesting but grimey, and don’t seem to change much over the years.
Check it out yourself if you are interested but we would suggest you bring your own day snacks and just have a cup of tea there if you think you’re going to be at Drepung or Sera at meal time.
Or just wait until you get out of the monastery complex as there are almost always rows nearby with some local Tibetan lunch spots that are more healthful and appealing, at least for us.
Do Get to Know Your Tibetan Food
Get familiar with some beloved, and some weird, Tibetan classics
The only way to experience the “real” Tibet is to try some of the foods Tibetans most love to eat — butter tea, dumplings, noodles, barley flour dishes. Most western tourists are surprised that Tibetans are not big vegetarians. Far from it, yak is a major part of the traditional Tibetan diet. Lucky for most of us, it is a very lean and mild meat, hard to distinguish from beef.
It’s good to know some basics before you go. You can get a start by checking out our How Well Do You Know Your Tibetan Food? post.
Or dive in and buy our Tibetan Home Cooking cookbook, for a full introduction to classic Tibetan home cooked dishes. (We are Amazon affiliates and earn a small commission and royalties when you buy our book on Amazon.)
Do Check out the Alleys Around the Barkhor
Lose yourself in the fascinating market lanes
The shops that line the barkhor are just the beginning of the fascinating market scene in the Tibetan old heart of Lhasa.
If you wander anywhere in the little alleys that radiate from the Jokhang and barkhor, you will find a fascinating world of little shops. Tibetan jackets and boots, hunks of butter and dried yak meat, statues, souvenirs, blessing scarfs (katag), prayer wheels, dried fruits, combs, and a million household items.
In the area between the barkhor and the pedestrian overpass that connects the barkhor area to the main street that runs in front of the Ramoche, there is a bustling outdoor scene where Khampas walk around selling gemstones and jewelry to local Tibetan buyers. They wear the fancy necklaces and gemstones they have for sale. There’s also a huge indoor market that’s fascinating to check out at that intersection of alleys.
The easiest way to find the general area is to find the pedestrian overpass that crosses the Beijing East street just east of the Yak Hotel. The stairs on the south side of that overpass lead right into the bustling market area we are talking about. Follow the crowds south a bit, down into a triangle-shaped intersection of alleys where you’ll find the khampa gemstone sellers. An entrance of the indoor market is on the northeast side of that area. Or just lose yourself in the fun of hanging out here and following the little alleys to your hearts content.
Don’t buy fake “Tibetan” medicine
Avoid getting duped
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. (Ask your guide.) You will need to know what you’re looking for in terms of medicine.
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 understand from our friends in Lhasa that most of the Tibetan souvenirs you will find on the barkhor and in the surrounding alleys are produced in mainland China or Nepal. You can get authentically Tibetan-made items at the Dropenling Lhasa Villages Handicraft Shop, though the prices are high and items tend to be contemporary.
If you’re looking for clothing, ask your guide to help you find a Tibetan-owned tailor shop. (You can usually buy off the rack or have them make something.)
Generally speaking you need to be sure your guide is a local Tibetan, and then ask him or her to help you find Tibetan-owned businesses for authentically Tibetan products. Keep in mind that this is not always possible, like for little souvenir trinkets. (Ask us for a referral if you need to find a Tibetan-owned agency with Tibetan guides.)
Do Hike the Drepung and Sera Koras
Get a little exercise while you tour the monasteries
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 in the Cultural Revolution when you walk the kora at Drepung Monastery.
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.
To walk a monastery kora, ask your guide to point you to the start of the path. If they don’t walk with you, it’s a simple matter to follow the Tibetan locals, or just the path that circles the outer edges of the monastery grounds. There are almost always lines of prayer wheels and piles of stones carved with mantras to guide you.
After walking one or two monastery koras, you will easily recognize where you need to go at pretty much any monastery.
Do Know Your Buddhist Culture
Avoid making rookie mistakes about Buddhist etiquette.
Tibetans, as you probably know, tend to be Tibetan Buddhists. Most of the sites you will visit as a traveler in Tibet are related in some way to Tibetan Buddhism.
Most travelers have very little idea of the basic etiquette that most Tibetan Buddhists follow.
You can learn some of the basics in this post on basic Buddhist etiquette.
Though Tibetans are generally easy-going and not sticklers for rules, of course they appreciate you taking basic steps to be respectful.
Do Consider Visiting in the Winter
Reap the rewards of off-season travel to Tibet
Though it is cold, for sure, Lhasa in the winter is wonderful.
There are far fewer tourists, and many more Tibetan pilgrims and nomads .
Prices are lower and it’s easier to book trains and hotels.
Check out our free short class on winter travel to Tibet here: https://www.yowangdu.com/tibet-travel/webinar-why-travel-to-tibet-in-winter.html
Do test yourself on the longer lingkhor
Make the full prayer circuit of Lhasa
The lingkhor is the big daddy of circumambulations, a 5-mile (8 kilometers) kora that circle the whole heart of Lhasa, including the Jokhang and the Potala Palace.
The path is not easy to find or navigate on your own, without a local. There are no signs and no special starting point, because it’s a loop. You just join the path from wherever you are (a nice metaphor for the Buddhist path).
If you’re keen to do it on your own, the easiest way to get started is to ask your guide, the day before, to give you a rough outline on a map of the path. We recommend also that you ask them to show you how to get to a point on the lingkhor somewhere just south of the barkhor.
(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)
You will need at least a couple of free hours, and you’ll want to do it in the morning, when there are the most number of Tibetans on the path.
Once you are at your starting point, you can follow the groups of praying, mantra-humming Tibetans with prayer beads dangling from their hands.
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 Chakpori Hill at the Sangye Dongu (Thousand Buddhas) rock-carving area.
But it’s just awesome to walk this path early in the morning (we started around 6 A.M. in summer or 8:30a in winter) with a bunch of Tibetans.
When you’re done or if you lose the path (which can easily happen), you can drop off at a local tea shop along the way. Don’t stress if you can’t find the whole kora. You can have a great local experience just joining local mola’s and pola’s (grandmas and grandpas) for some sweet tea or butter tea.
Don’t visit the Tibet Museum
Skip the hype
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.”
No Tibetan-owned agency worth it’s salt will give you a Tibet tour that includes this place. (If you want ideas for some of the most popular tours, try this post on the top 5 Tibet tours.)
Do Stay at Tibetan-owned Hotels
And support local Tibetans while having a more authentic trip
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.
Do Visit the Ling Temples
Get off the beaten path
There were four Regency Temples built in Lhasa during the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama. We think of them as the “Ling” temples, located to the north, south, east and west of the old city.
Today you can visit three of them: Tsomon Ling, Tengye Ling and Kunde Ling. It’s a fun adventure to find each of them. Since it’s almost impossible to describe how to get to them, we’ll leave it to you to ask your guide for directions.
Hidden in plain site in the heart of Lhasa, these temples give you a wonderful perspective of the smaller, more local places where Lhasa folks pray.
Tengye Ling and Tsomon Ling are both very lively in the days leading up to Palden Lhamo festival held each winter.
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What Do You Think?
Now we’d like to hear from you:
What are you most excited to try first when you visit Lhasa?
Will you head for the Ling Temples, or hike the Drepung kora?
Either way, let us know by leaving a comment below.