Best Things To Do in Tibet
Tibet's two biggest points of interests are its religious culture and its natural wonders, which are surprisingly linked. Tibetans consider some of their most beautiful lakes and mountains to be holy, including Lake Manasarovar. Though Mount Everest, which straddles the border of Tibet and Nepal, is in a league all its own. If you can stomach the high altitude, consider a sleepover at Mount Everest Base Camp. But if you'd rather keep your cultural experiences closer to sea level, visit one of the many holy monasteries and temples that dot the region. The sky-high Potala Palace is where the Dalai Lama used to reside, while Tashi Lhunpo Monastery is where his second in command, Panchen Lama, held power. But one of the best ways to soak up Tibet's intriguing spirituality is to watch pilgrimaging Tibetans at the Jokhang Temple. And while there, don't forget to pick up a souvenir or butter tea at Barkhor Street.
Updated November 30, 2017
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Alongside Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple is one of the most important sites in Tibet. The Jokhang Temple was built in the seventh century to promote Buddhism in Tibet, and as such earned the distinction of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The name Jokhang translates to "house of Buddha," or more specifically "chapel of the Jowo." And it lives up to its name. The temple houses more than 3,000 images of Buddha, deities and other historical figures in the religion, including the Jowo Shakyamuni.
Jowo Shakyamuni, or also referred to as the Jowo Rinpoche, is considered to be the most sacred image of Buddha in Tibet. It is said that the statue was sculpted by Vishwakarma – the Indian god of architecture – between the fifth and sixth century B.C., when Buddha was still believed to be alive. This has led to the belief that the Jowo Sakyamuni, as one of the earliest accounts of Buddha, is the most accurate visual representation of Buddha. Research has shown that this story is factually inaccurate, but that hasn't stopped crowds of Tibetans from coming to the temple to pray. The statue depicts Buddha the moment he reached enlightenment – legs in lotus position, one hand gesturing meditation with the other gesturing the "earth to witness."
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After days of visiting temples, palaces and monasteries, treat yourself to some souvenirs on Barkhor Street. Barkhor Street is one big circular street that goes around Jokhang Temple and is filled to the brim with shops and stalls catering to those who want to take a little piece of Tibet home. Here, you can find tons of jewelry, including silver and colorful stone jewelry, traditional Tibetan wooden masks, Tibetan knives and even yak wool blankets. There are also religious articles for sale too, including Buddha statues, prayer beads, prayer wheels and beautiful Thangka, or Tibetan scroll paintings.
The presence of all these cultural souvenirs as well as the street's spiritual significance has helped earn Barkhor Street the distinction of being the "window of Tibet." Bakhor's spiritual significance is all thanks to Jokhang Temple. Part of the pilgrimage to Jokhang includes walking the circular route of Barkhor clockwise from dawn to dusk while reciting mantras, often with prayer wheels. Don't be alarmed if you see people prostrating on the ground, it's part of prayer. You will most likely see these pilgrims carrying out this tradition during your visit here. You are more than welcome to observe and take the walk yourself, but don't stop the pilgrims praying. Give them space, refrain from walking with them and don't take pictures, as the locals find it disrespectful.
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It's hard to miss Potala Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This grand, imposing structure stands more than 12,000 feet above sea level on Marpo-ri, or Red Hill, in the middle of central Lhasa. Potala's larger-than-life presence physically embodies the great historical, cultural and religious significance it holds for the Tibetan people. Not only does the palace serve as the winter home of the Dalai Lama but it also houses the remains of many other Dalai Lamas throughout history. At one point, Potala also acted as the seat of the Tibetan government.
Potala Palace is actually broken up into two palaces. The White Palace is where the Dalai Lama took residence and also where the government once operated. The Red Palace is where you'll find the stupas (a dome-shaped structure in Buddhism used to commemorate a sacred person, place or event) where former Dalai Lamas are buried.
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One of the best places to immerse yourself in Tibetan Buddhism is the Sera Monastery. Situated about 5 miles north of central Lhasa, this monastery is one of the most important in Lhasa. It focuses on Gelugpa, a sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and houses monks in training. As a part of the monks' training, every afternoon at 3 p.m. (except Sundays), young monks are required to gather in the monastery's courtyard to debate important Buddhist doctrines with their superiors. The gathering is quite lively, with young monks sitting and waiting to be called on by older monks. But instead of raising their hand when they know the answer, older monks aggressively slap their hands together to signal a younger monk's participation in the lesson. And thus, the spirited debate begins.
This ritual alone has drawn travelers in droves to the Sera Monastery. Travelers say being able to witness such an important part of Tibetan Buddhist monks' training was incredibly fascinating. As for the monastery itself, there were mixed reviews. Some found the monastery to be beautiful while others said it was nothing special. Either way, if you're looking for an immersive cultural experience in Tibet, watching these debates is one way to do it.
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Tibet's mountain ranges get a lot of love, but the region's many alpine lakes are just as noteworthy. In fact, the Tibetan people consider these lakes to be holy and take pilgrimages to them. The most popular (and the most sacred) are Yamdrok Lake, Lake Namtso and Manasarovar Lake.
Yamdrok Lake is a freshwater lake that is lauded for its vibrant blue waters. The color of the water varies depending on the position and intensity of the sun. The lake, which is surrounded on either side by rolling hills and mountains, is known to be a very pretty landscape. The best way to take in Yamdrok is to climb one of its hills for panoramic views of its grandeur (the lake is a whopping 45 miles long).
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A trip to Tibet would not be complete without getting an eyeful of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. Everest sits on the border of Nepal and Tibet and each area has its own base camp. The base camp serves as a place for climbers, scientists and tourists. Tibet's base camp sits at a lower elevation and offers better accessibility (think: driving instead of hiking) than the one in Nepal. Another benefit to visiting Tibet's base camp is that it offers unobstructed views of Everest. In Nepal, Everest's surrounding mountains obscure the full view.
Tibet's Everest Base Camp is composed of camping grounds and some small shops, including the world's highest "post office" (it's a tent). How long you stay at the base camp depends on the kind of tour you choose. If you're interested in camping, it's important to be aware of the conditions. The higher the altitude, the lower the oxygen content (Lhasa is 11,996 feet above sea level while Everest Base Camp is 17,060 feet above sea level). Most travelers complained of altitude sickness while at the camp, with many saying it was difficult to fall asleep at night. Plus, the accommodations are basic at best (bathrooms are in separate tents, toilets are eastern in style and electricity is run by a generator).
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Like the Potala Palace, the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery holds a lot of significance in Tibetan Buddhism. Not only was the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery founded by the first Dalai Lama, but later it became the seat of power for the Panchen Lama, the most important spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama. The monastery comprises multiple gold-trimmed buildings that feature chapels, accommodations for monks, colleges, the stupas, or tombs, of past Panchen Lamas and one of the largest gilded statues in the world, Future Buddha (found in the Chapel of Jampa).
This monastery is also the site of one of Tibet's biggest cultural celebrations, the Buddha Unfolding Festival. The festival centers around the debut of a giant, new thangka (Buddhist painting whose images aid followers in meditation and prayer). The unveiling of this vibrant and detailed depiction of Buddhist deities is meant to spread good fortune and peace. If you can, try to make it to this festival (typically held in the mid- to late summer) as throngs of pilgrims and Buddhists gather in excitement to witness the ceremony.
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