Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet

Last visit we were telling you that the best way to appreciate the scale of the Three Parallel Rivers WHS was to fly over it from Tibet, so now let’s talk about what to do before you fly, and that is visit the central monuments of Tibetan Bhuddism:

Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace, Lhasa


Enclosed within massive walls, gates and turrets built of rammed earth and stone the White and Red Palaces and ancillary buildings of the Potala Palace rise from Red Mountain in the centre of Lhasa Valley at an altitude of 3,700 metres.

As the winter palace of the Dalai Lama from the 7th century CE the complex symbolizes Tibetan Buddhism and its central role in the traditional administration of Tibet. The White Palace contains the main ceremonial hall with the throne of the Dalai Lama, and his private rooms and audience hall are on the uppermost level. The palace contains 698 murals, almost 10,000 painted scrolls, numerous sculptures, carpets, canopies, curtains, porcelain, jade, and fine objects of gold and silver, as well as a large collection of sutras and important historical documents.

To the west and higher up the mountain the Red Palace contains the gilded burial stupas of past Dalai Lamas. Further west is the private monastery of the Dalai Lama, the Namgyel Dratshang.

The Jokhang Temple Monastery was founded by the regime also in the 7th century, in order to promote the Buddhist religion. Covering 2.5ha in the centre of the old town of Lhasa, it comprises an entrance porch, courtyard and Buddhist hall surrounded by accommodation for monks and storehouses on all four sides.

The buildings are constructed of wood and stone and are outstanding examples of the Tibetan Buddhist style, with influences from China, India, and Nepal. They house over 3,000 images of Buddha and other deities and historical figures along with many other treasures and manuscripts. Mural paintings depicting religious and historical scenes cover the walls…

There are very few buildings anywhere that have the visual impact of the massive Potala Palace soaring above the Lhasa Valley, it is quite the monumental construction indeed, especially at 3700m altitude where just walking around is an achievement —

Potala Palace

— three of our nine tour members (you can’t travel independently in Tibet) were hospitalized with altitude sickness and missed all four days in Lhasa, and apparently a 33% casualty rate is not particularly unusual on these tours.

So, y’know, if you want to brag about your extreme travel … just showing up here counts!

But back to Potala Palace, here’s a shot from Jokhang roof showing how it soars above the city:

Lhasa Old Town

The monastery itself, the second part of the Ensemble, is much less visually arresting; fits right into the middle of the Old City, and we actually spent like an hour walking around it the night we arrived before we realized it was the curved wall everything radiated out from.

Jokhang Temple Monastery

Would have figured it out earlier probably, but we were fascinated by the diving prostration of the pilgrims to the Old City. Check out the video there — you ever seen any religion worship like that? Some particularly hardcore Catholics will go a ways on their knees, but we’d never seen anything like that before.

Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to take any pictures inside the temples and monasteries in Tibet, so you’re going to need to take our word for it that they are spectacular.

Moving on to general Lhasa travel tips, we learned something on this visit: The best comfort food in the world is Tibetan cuisine. Sipping butter tea with a belly full of yak stew tucked into the couch of a traditional Tibetan restaurant

Butter Tea

is just about the most soothingly content way to pass an evening there is.

Spoaking of yaks, we also did not realize until we got here that yak cheese was a thing:

Yak Cheese

If you fancy yourself a connoisseur of dairy products, there is a whole new world of yakness to explore in these parts!

Personally, we’d put Tibet on a level with Machu Picchu, the Pyramids, and Angkor Wat as cutural icons that should be on everybody’s bucket list. However, getting here is a much more involved process than most places; special permits, no independent travel.


p dir=”ltr”>So given that you have to have a guided tour to get here at all, we have a recommendation for you: Tibet Vista. Nobody else that we researched had near the breadth of information available on their site, and the entire planning and permit process went smoothly. Thoroughly recommended for your Tibet visit too!


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