Lhasa means ‘the place of the Gods’ in the Tibetan language. Lhasa – the name itself brings to mind a multitude images. The city is surrounded by treeless hills and lies in the valley of the Kyi Chu or Lhasa River, which flows southward to pour in to the mighty waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. Above the city of Lhasa rises Marpo Ri, ‘the Red Hill’ and on this hill is one of the world’s largest and most remarkable buildings, the Potala.
Travelling from Kathmandu to Lhasa is regarded as adventure travel extraordinaire. The journey provides an unforgettable collection of contrasts in landscapes and cultures. These days, magic remains the same. All it takes to reach Lhasa from Nepal is booking with a travel agency who helps you to have Tibet Group Visa and Tibet Entry Permit. There are Kathmandu – Lhasa and return flights operated by many airlines.
Lhasa is an easy hour’s flight away. Ninety kilometers northeast of Kathmandu, you cross the Nepalese border, and the road immediately begins to climb then you emerge on to the Tibetan Plateau with a true appreciation of why it’s called the “Roof of the world”.
The Lhasa valley is surprisingly flat, for being at such a high altitude. It is ringed by mountains, the highest rising 5490 m above the sea level. The city itself sits at 3650 m and arriving there can be quite a shock at first, especially if you have flown in from Kathmandu, at 1350 m.
One of the first things you will notice as you begin to explore Lhasa is the pervasiveness of religion. A unique brand of Mahayana Buddhism permeates every aspect of Tibetan society, culture and art. Lhasa is a magnet drawing in pilgrims from the farthest reaches in the region.
Tibet visitors can choose from at least three types of tour services offered by travel agencies in Kathmandu. First, an overland trip of 953 km. over the dusty high altitude road to Lhasa; second, Kathmandu to Lhasa one way overland with a one hour flight back; and lastly, a Kathmandu – Lhasa – Kathmandu air journey, with sightseeing in and around Lhasa. The flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa provides a dramatic view of Nepal Himalaya from Annapurna to Kanchanjunggha.
Important places in Lhasa and around:
It is the center of town, a good place to watch constant parade of visitors. You will see Golok women with their hair plaited in 108 braids, Khampa men ifrom the east with red tassles wrapped around their heads and big knives stuck through their belts, nomads families from the high steppes in sheepskin chubas and felt boots. It is the place for social event.
Lhasa’s life revolves around the Jhokhang temple at the head of Barkhor Square.The temple complex is being encircled by the 800 m long Barkhor pilgrims path where Lhasa lives, shops, prays and plays. The Barkhor circuit honors the Jhokhang temple at its center. The Jhokang is Tibet’s holiest shrine, said to have been built 1400 years ago by king srongtsen Gampo over a magical lake in which visions of the future could be divined.
There are 20 chapels dedicated to various gods, saints and kings on this ground floor. The main shrine is that of Jobo Rinpoche, a gem - studded golden image said to be a faithful portrait of Sakyamuni Buddha, one of three made during his lifetime. The Jobo is perhaps the most revered image in all Tibet. From the upper floor of Jhokang, we can view the Potala Palace.
The Potala Palace:
The Potala Palace is known to the Tibetans simply as Tse – ‘The Peak’ or Tse Potang – ‘The Peak Palace’. This is a pilgrim center. This is visible from throughout the Lhasa River. While roaming around the valley, you don’t have worry getting lost because the palace is constantly visible. The Potala, as we see it today is of two colors, red and white.
It is said to have been built by the greatest, powerful king Srongtsen Gampo in 7th century on the red hill. It was built over the cave where the king said to have been meditated there. So, the part of white palace is original, built by the king. The white palace of today is an expansion of a nine story structure whose foundation was laid by the 5th Dalai Lama in 1645. Desi Sangye Gyatso, the Regent who succeeded him, built the Potang Marpo, the Red Palace which was completed in 1694. The 13th Dalai Lama added the top two stories including the apartments of the 14th Dalai Lama.
The Potala Palace is the former winter residence of the Dalai Lamas, the spiritual heads of the Gelukpa sect of Tibetan Budhhism. Architecturally it is a magnificent piece of work, seeming to grow right out of the rocky hillside. The Potala is equivalent to a thirteen story building, nine above the hill and four under. The 13-story palace was said to have once contained 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines, and 200,000 images. It has fantastic wall murals and priceless treasures, including the mausoleums of seven of the past Dalai Lamas. Some are gigantic treasures, like the tomb of the “Great Fifth” Dalai Lama, covered with 3500 kilograms of gold and studded with gems. It rises 120 m above the ground. It has a floor space of 130,000 square meters and covers 41 hectors of land.
The Red Palace stands surrounded by the white Palace. It contains 35 Lhakangs (God’s rooms). The terrace was expanded to link the original buildings of white Palace, with that of Red Palace. Among many Lhakangs, there are the Lhakangs of old school, dedicated to the Nyingma sect.
The lofty Potala has a very long history and carriesgreat artistic value. It is a sublime gallery of cultural ethics. There are thousands of murals, thankas, and countless sculptures. The library stocks numerous volumes on the Budhha Dharma. Today, the Potala is no longer a Palace, nor is it a monastery. It is simply a museum.
Monasteries near Lhasa:
There are 3 great monasteries of Sera, Ganden and Drepung near Lhasa. They were built in the 15th century. These monastic cities used to play an important role in Tibetan politics.They still carry on the religious practices there. It is worth visiting these monasteries where the monks are found debating philosophical points with great verve and style or chant scriptures in the vast halls.
Sera monastery is 3 km north of Lhasa. Drepung is 6 km to the west. They have both an impressive collections of white washed and ochre- painted buildings. Ganden monastery is on the ridge top, 50 km east of Lhasa. Ganden was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but today a new monastery is growing from the shattered ruins.