Visited Lhasa in Tibet with my dad. In the past year I visited many Tibetan communities in Sichuan and Yunnan (1,2), Lhasa represents to me the centre of Tibetan culture and definitely an important visit.
We took the train, saw a beautiful lake and learned about history and Buddhism.
Xining (西宁) to Lhasa ལྷ་ས་ (拉萨) by train
We flew to Xining and took the train to Lhasa from there. We wanted to avoid altitude sickness, landing by plane above 3,000m can lead headache, dizziness. We figured the train would take us up slowly and limit the effects.
Xining is a city located between Chengdu and Mongolia. It’s centre is completely rebuild around the new train station. Majority of population is Muslim, we had the opportunity to visit biggest mosque of China, on the inside too.
From Xining, we took the world’s highest altitude train line. Most of the track is above 4,500m, with a peak at Tanggula Pass at 5,200m. The special train has an oxygen supply in the cabin, emits a hissing sound. (Picture below, right bottom)
The 1,960km long train ride from Xining to Lhasa took little less than a day.
- We took a soft sleeper (slightly more expensive, but good place to sleep)
- We shared the cabin with two others going to Golmud (first stop), the wake up service woke me up as well! (Woman suddenly opening door and shouting to them to get ready) – I was sitting up straight before I realized what was happening.
- There is good food on the train.
- Watched the sunrise above the moon like landscape.
The train left in the evening dark, but the moon light revealed the mountains outside. The next morning we enjoyed the sunrise and just looked outside for hours on end. Left my book alone, no need.
The mountain moonlight silhouettes changed to blue sky with green hills, then rolling yellow hills with grass. Here and there some yak. Nomads fetching sheep with motorcycles, then finally snow-covered giant mountains in the distance.
We read a book about the construction of this train line. Build above permafrost, which ice can sink meters at any time, they put most of the train line on poles, elevation and put isolating stones at critical places.
Since it’s a plateau above 4,500m, there are no trees, the stretched out hills have snow on them. There is a highway being constructed along the way.
A few hundred kilometers before Lhasa we passed the holy Namtso Lake (གནམ་མཚོ།) even though I took the picture though the train window, you can imagine how vibrant it was.
Lhasa ལྷ་ས་ (拉萨)
Finally we arrived in Lhasa. We had to get permits checked and our guide picked us up at the station.
We had read up about this place, but didn’t know that KFC and Burger king opened up in Lhasa. I guess that can tell you enough about how this city is changing. In a lifetime, it went from a secluded place and grew tenfold and construction is everywhere.
But there is still a lot authenticity to explore, and particularly trace roots of Buddhism that came here from India.
We enjoyed traditional Tibet food, but also Indian and Chinese food is available. There are local restaurants that sell momo (yak dumplings) and yak butter, yak butter tea, yoghurt and meat based dishes.
Potala (ཕོ་བྲང་པོ་ཏ་ལ་) (布达拉宫)
Ah, the iconic the Potala Palace. There are many written books about this place, and they explain it better than I could so I won’t go into it’s significance here, just very brief. The king of Lhasa meditated in a cave in this hill. Then later the white part was built by the fifth Dalai Lama, and later the red. (Tomb)
Just want to say some things from visitor perspective:
- It’s a nice mix of tourists and pilgrims visiting this time of year. (After harvest)
- It houses eight Dalai Lama mummies inside beautiful golden tombs.
- Tourists can only visit the red-painted wall parts, all white wall areas are off bounds.
- The white part paint with lime and milk.
- No pictures are allowed inside. (Fear of replicas to be switched with real artefacts)
- In the past, up to 6000 visitors came each day, now it’s limited to 2300. Also each tourist must be accompanied by a guide. Inside you can spend 50 minutes.
Some wise words from the 6th Dalai Lama that stuck: You need compassion, wisdom and energy to achieve anything.
Outside I realised the right side is on the 50 RMB bank-note. (Below)
In the evening there is light and fountains show. We enjoyed beers in the park. The Potala looks flat if you look up from front.
Johkang temple (ཇོ་ཁང།) (大昭寺)
The center of Lhasa is Johkang temple. Our guide explained that you can compare it to Mekka but then for Buddhism. It is the original center of Lhasa.
He was right, hundreds of people walk around the and pray in and around the temple, even late at night. Some bow constantly while going around, kneeling and putting their forehead on to floor. Knee protectors to keep going.
Inside the temple, the monks from red, white, black, yellow sects (in order of creation) come down here to maintain the temple for several months at a time. Currently the yellow (Gelug) sect is maintaining it but they accept worshippers from all sects.
The Jowo Sakyamuni statue represents Buddha at age twelve. There are many chambers with statues and art. Our guide explained that other Buddha statues everywhere are modelled after this one. When they make a statue, they come here to bless it.
Picture from tibetdiscovery.com
Yamdrok lake (ཡར་འབྲོག་གཡུ་མཚོ་) (羊卓雍錯)
We visited one of the holy lakes in Tibet, Yamdrok lake. It’s a hundred kilometers south of Lhasa, close to Bhutan.
The lake is turquoise coloured and lies at 4,441 meters. Our guide and our driver took us the 3 hour ride there. Whilst it was rainy in Lhasa, the sky opened up along the way.
To get to the lake, you have to cross a 4,800m pass by car. We met some Chinese tourists and took some silly photos. Then we drive down and felt the ice-cold water. Enjoyed nice Tibetan noodles.
On the way back the sun was out and the fall colours came out.
The lake trip offered some new sights from the bus. And you can pose with Tibetan dogs for 10 RMB.
Drepung འབྲས་སྤུངས་ (and Sera)
Two important monasteries close to Lhasa. Drepung hosts 7700 monks and nuns.
- this is where the first five Dalai Lama resided before Potala was build (between Drepung, Lhasa and Sera) by the fifth.
- Lots to see inside including an 800 years old Buddha from India.
The amount of monks is decreasing. Now they all assemble in the central Hall, instead of their building.
Before most young monks have teacher, and when teacher get old, they take care of them. Now amount of students are decreasing. So they put all old monks together close to assembly house to take care for them. A bit like a retirement house.
Back to Chengdu 成都
Even though I did many travels to Tibetan autonomous region in Sichuan, I had no idea about Lhasa. It’s more touristic and busy (some how I imaged lots of meditation)
I’m really happy we choose the train as we got a good look at Qinghai plateau and the incredible construction to realize a train to Lhasa.
Lhasa is connected to the world by airport and train, and expands quickly, it will change rapidly.