Have I ever dreamed of visiting one of the world’s highest cities? Set in a mountain-frilled valley, 12,000 feet above sea level? The answer is an enthusiastic, childlike yes. When my Kailash- Mansarovar yatra was taking shape this July, Lhasa was a place that had showed up as an overland route option. So, agog with excitement, I grabbed the opportunity to visit the capital city of Tibet, part of the famous ‘rooftop of the world’. Home to holy sites like the Jokhang and Sera monasteries, Norbulingka Palace, and the Potala Palace (once the winter residence of the Holy Dalai Lama), Lhasa has always been a prominent name in the Himalaya.
The connecting flight via Kathmandu that lands at Lhasa’s Gonggar Airport is said to be one of the most scenic aerial routes in the world, with views of Everest on one side, as well as K2 on clearer days. There’s only one direct flight from Nepal to Lhasa in this sector. So even when the flying time between these two places is a mere one-and-a-half hours, flight rates run on the higher side. Most plains-people in India aren’t used to altitude increases in everyday flights, so it was thrilling to note our elevation jumping from 1,350 metres in Kathmandu to 3,650 metres in Lhasa.
Lhasa has a cool semi-arid climate with mild summers and frosty winters. I was told the atmosphere there contains 68 per cent of oxygen as compared to sea-level, and so we were asked by people around us to take baby steps in completing our daily routines. Running around with a checklist in Lhasa could lead to breathlessness even before any work began.
My morning began with a visit to the Jokhang Monastery—the most important spiritual and religious centre for all Tibetan Buddhists. Spread across six acres in Barkhor Square, the 7th-century temple is currently managed by the young Gelug school, but receives devotees from all sects. The presiding deity is the Shakyamuni, a highly-venerated form of the Buddha. The temple has seen a mixed past, having faced decades of conflict and religious apathy, but has also been a centre for Nepalese artistry and Buddhist excellence. In 2000, it was designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site along with the Potala Palace to amp up conservation efforts.
Meanwhile, the Potala Palace is synonymous with Tibet’s Dalai Lamas. The majestic building was their home until the 1959 uprising, and is regarded as a landmark and the iconic heart of Tibetan Buddhism. The imposing structure stands 13 storeys high with an immense interior of 130,000 sq m. An impeccable display of Himalayan fortress-like design, creativity and scriptures, it also has a 1,000 rooms. Climbing up the 900 steps of the palace, you can get a bird’s eye view of the city—a sight not be missed, but do keep the oxygen depletion and the possibility of dizziness in mind. Rest periodically, sip water, and trudge on.
During my brief trip, I also grabbed every opportunity to saunter around the city’s prominent places looking for Tibetan arts and crafts, as well as their medicine—this included Barkhor Bazaar, dotted with authentic souvenir shops, and the Lhasa open market. Vegetarian food like tsampa, thukpa, and sweet rice was also plentiful, with a joint called Lhasa Kitchen serving up some amazing dumplings. Pencha, a rancid drink made with tea, salt and yak butter, was another concoction that I didn’t want to miss.
Lhasa by night is another beautiful scene that unfurls before you. Tianhai Night Market is the place to be for nightlife and barbecue—you can find Tibetan street food, lip-smacking ramen and Sichuan creations, as well as pick up affordable apparel and handicrafts. Experience the bustle of the city here, and then you can continue to the Potala Palace, which has its own light and water show.
In terms of development, Lhasa is taking the route of Chinese cities with their highrises and wide boulevards. This kind of uniformity might even be diminishing its ‘unlike any other city’ tag, but that’s a story for when we return.
A valid Chinese visa and a Tibet Tourism Bureau permit (secured by registered Tibetan tour operators) is required to visit Tibet. One must allow 15 to 18 days for its processing. The most popular route to Lhasa from major Indian cities, by air or road, is via Kathmandu, in Nepal. Some travellers prefer the direct flight from Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu to Lhasa’s Gonggar Airport, while hardier souls choose the more classic 1,000-plus kilometre journey (20 hrs) by car. One can also fly from New Delhi to Lhasa via carriers like Air China with halts and proper paperwork.