Determined to discover an otherworldly, high-altitude land, packed with palaces, temples, monasteries and mountains, Dorothy Ainsley takes a virtual trip to Tibet
How good it must feel to stand on the roof of the world, 4,500 metres above sea level, and surrounded by imposing mountain ranges that harbour the world’s two highest summits, Mount Everest and K2. With its breath-taking, high-altitude landscapes, huge salt lakes, magnificent palaces and monasteries, and inspiring spiritual and cultural life, Tibet has to be one of the most magical places on my bucket list.
The best time to visit Tibet is from April to June and in the early autumn, when the weather is not too harsh and most areas are accessible. The winter months are inhospitably cold, falling to around minus 9ºC at night, and you’re also well advised to avoid a visit in high summer (July and August), since that’s when Lhasa, particularly, gets inundated with tourists.
If time permits, give yourself a week in Lhasa to acclimatise to the high altitude and see the sights before heading off on a grand overland adventure. Be aware that the Chinese government requires foreign travellers to visit Tibet as part of a pre-arranged tour with a guide, driver and vehicle.
Place of the Gods
Grandly enfolded by the Himalayas, Lhasa, literally ‘Place of the Gods,’ stands 3,650 metres above sea level. The Tibetan capital has been the centre of Tibetan Buddhism for over a millennium and the highlights of your stay are, to a greater or lesser degree, going to be of a spiritual nature. Expect an otherworldly mix of chanting monks and prostrating pilgrims, magnificent monasteries and ornate prayer halls.
Your tour begins in Barkhor, the charming, whitewashed old Tibetan quarter. The highways of the modern city threaten to overwhelm its winding alleys but for now, at least, Barkhor is still yours to enjoy. The bustling backstreet temples and markets provide you with your first taste of traditional Tibetan life, and you get to join the tide of pilgrims on the Barkhor Circuit, as they make their way around Jokhang Temple, the most sacred in Tibet.
Jokhang Temple was built in 642 by Songsten Gampo, the Tibetan king who is credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibet, and legend has it that pilgrims have been walking the 1-kilometre Barkhor Circuit ever since. Today, locals and foreigners alike crowd into Barkhor to make their way clockwise around the temple, swirling prayer wheels and
prostrating themselves in prayer as they go.
Packed with people chanting, ladling yak butter into lamps and spinning prayer wheels, the religious enthusiasm within Jokhang Temple is intense. Pilgrims queue patiently for hours just to touch their foreheads to the image of the Jowo Shakyamuni statue. It’s the single most venerated object in Tibetan Buddhism, said to have been personally blessed by the Buddha.
Right across from Jokhang Temple, the jaw-dropping red-and-white Potala Palace soars 100 metres above Barkhor. Founded in 637, the ‘new’ palace was constructed in 1645 and it’s now a museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Encompassing palaces (containing opulent residential quarters and chapels), as well as the defensive fortifications and glorious gardens, it’s best viewed in sections, ideally over the course of a day.
In the White Palace, you can view the 14th Dalai Lama’s former residential quarters, left just as they were in 1959 when he fled to India during the Tibetan uprising. The Red Palace is completely devoted to religious study and Buddhist prayer. The interiors are dark and atmospheric – a blur of wafting silk brocades, flickering yak-butter lamps and gleaming golden Buddha statues.
Next up is a visit to at least one of Lhasa’s three great university monasteries – Drepung, Ganden and Sera. The largest, 1416-built Drepung, houses the burial stupas of the second, third and fourth Dalai Lamas (only the Potala Palace has more). Built on the slopes of Mount Gambo Utse, just 5 kilometres out of town, it’s blessed with amazing views across the Lhasa Valley and mighty Nyenchen Tanglha mountain range. Accompanied by your guide, you are free to explore the colleges, residential compounds and chapels – and watch the monks in lively debate.
Goddess Mother of the World
Once you’ve acclimatised to the high altitude, it’s time to hire a car (and a driver) and get out of the city. Immediately on leaving Lhasa, as the road winds its way round the mountains, you’ll start spotting groups of nomads tying their rainbow-hued prayer flags to poles, while silently saying prayers. Be sure to stop and greet them; Tibetans are unfailing friendly. In fact, your lasting memories of Tibet are likely to be of chance encounters such as these – drinking yak-butter tea with a monk in a remote monastery, sharing a bottle of Lhasa Beer with a villager in a hilltop teahouse, or picnicking with a herding family on the shores of a far-flung lake.
After crossing the mighty River Brahmaputra, which originates in the Angsi Glacier, on the northern side of the Himalayas, the steep, gradual climb to Kamba-La Pass (elevation 4,700 metres) begins. Here you get your first sight of breath-taking, fan-shaped Lake Yamdrok. Drive on for an hour or so, and you arrive at Karo-La Pass (elevation 5,010 metres) for more spectacular views of snow-capped mountains, notably the sublime, glacier-dripping Mount Nojin Kangtsang, which soars 7,191 metres above sea level.
As you head further inland towards Nepal, Gyantse, an incredibly appealing and seemingly ‘untouched’ frontier town, 260 kilometres from Lhasa, is a great place to overnight. Situated on the trade route to Bhutan and India, it remains a bustling centre of commerce and pilgrimage. Be sure to explore the 1450s-built fort, which perches high above the settlement on a huge rock spur, and 1497-built Gyantse Kumbum, a 34-metre-high, octagonal stupa – the largest in Tibet.
Rounding off your trip in spectacular style, Mount Everest’s North Base Camp lies just 360 kilometres from Gyantse. While two-week trekking routes on the Nepal side offer only fleeting glimpses of the peak, in Tibet you can drive on a paved road right up to unobstructed views of Mount Everest’s incredible north face. Make your way to Rongphu
Monastery, the highest monastery in the world at 5,000 metres, and your view of Chomolungma, Goddess Mother of the World, is framed by prayer flags. How good it must feel!