Popular Places – TIBET
Lhasa has an age-old mystique, largely due to its isolation from the rest of the world. Tibet’s capital is situated at 3683 metres, next to the Kyichu, or Happy River.
These days there is an evidently Chinese facade to much of Lhasa, but this cannot hide the fact that the city is rich in history, dating back to its creation in the 6th century, when King Songtsen Gampo moved his capital there from the Yarlung valley.
After a king called Langdrama was assassinated in 842, Lhas lost its political importance, but acquiring a more spiritual significance instead.
It was only in the 17th century that Lhasa once again became the seat of Tibet’s government.
In the 1950s Tibet’s history took a dramatic turn with the Chinese occupation in 1951, leading to Chinese administration being imposed after the uprising in 1959.
1965 marked the founding of the Tibet Autonomous Region, with Lhasa designated as the capital.
In September 1985 celebrations were held to mark the 20th anniversary of this autonomy, but restrictions on Tibetans and foreigners turned the policy into an unconvincing charade.
Lhasa has many historical and cultural attractions including the two palaces of the Dalai Lama, Potala Palace and Norbulinkha, the Jokhang Temple with the surrounding Barkhor bazaar and two major monasteries – Sera and Drepung.
Potala Palace (Lhasa):
Famous as the winter residence of successive Dalai Lamas, the Potala Palace is effectively a double palace, with the Red Palace nestling between the flanks of the White Palace, perched high above Lhasa on the Marpori, or Red mountain.
The name Potala comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Bodala’, or ‘Buddha’s mountain’ and its situation has made it a key place for spiritual pilgrimage, a tradition which has continued during the last 50 years, despite the Dalai Lama’s continued exile in India.
King Songtsen Gumpo first selected the Potala site for a small meditation pavilion – followed by a palace. These buildings were struck by lighning and destroyed in the ninth century.
It was the 5th Dalai Lama who commissioned the Potala Palace in 1645. His death before the building work started proved not to be a problem, because of an ingenious plan he had hatched. Aware of his impending death, the Dalai Lama asked his Prime Minister to keep his death secret. A monk was found who looked convincingly like the deceased leader – and the concealment ensured that all 13 storeys of the Palace could be completed between 1690 and 1694.
Norbulinkha (The Summer Palace)
Translated as “Island of Precious Jewels”, Norbulinkha possesses intriguing murals in excellent condition and a maze of small palaces and chapels within a walled garden.
Situated about 4km west of the Potala Palace, Norbulinkha was started in 1755 by the 7th Dalai Lama.
Tourists can see some of the rooms in the New Palace (completed in 1956), preserved in the same state as when they were last used by the present Dalai Lama before his flight in 1959. These include his meditation room, sitting room (complete with Philips radiogram), bedroom (with a Russian radio) and throne room with a superb mandala and fresco showing the Dalai Lama with foreign heads of state.
The centre point of Lhasa both literally and spiritually, this is the place to witness the incredible dawn-to-dusk display of chanting and prostrating pilgrims. Awash with colour and character, the spectacle of hundreds of worshippers swirling round in a gigantic whirlpool of religious fervour is unforgettable.
Running round the Jokhang Temple is the Barkhor, the inner pilgrimage circuit of Lhasa. Buzzing with vibrant activity, the Barkhor is an octagonally shaped bazaar, lined with an array of market stalls and shops, where many street vendors also ply their wares.
Sera was once famous for its fighting monks, who spent years perfecting their skills in the martial arts and were hired out as bodyguards for the wealthy. Many of the Sera monks renounced their vows to join the 1959 uprising.
Nowadays only 100 or so monks carry on the tradition of this grand old monastery, which was once home to 5000.
Dating from 1419, the Sera Monastery, about 3km north of Lhasa, suffered crippling damage during the Cultural Revolution, but still has fascinating temples and chapels, as well as a fantastically panoramic view of Lhasa to reward those prepared to hike up the mountainside behind.
Six km west of Lhasa, with great views across the Lhasa Valley, this was once the largest monastery in the world !
In its heyday it was basically a monastic University, extended during the 17th century from its 1416 origins. Though Drepung was once home to a community of 10,000 monks, few still remain and Drepung today has a rather desolate and ghostly ambience.
While the lack of human presence is apparent, Drepung has a thriving dog population, harking back to the belief that dogs are believed to be the reincarnation of past monks who failed to come back in a higher form.
Stunningly beautiful in its splendid isolation, Mount Kailash (6714m) is also the most sacred mountain in Asia, and is situated at what was the heart of the ancient Shangshung kingdom, the supposed land of origin of Bon, the religion which preceded Buddhism.
Kailash was their ‘soul mountain’, and was also called the ‘Swastika’ mountain, because of the distinctive horizontal and vertical striations (long before the Nazis adulterated the significance of the swastika, it had been the Buddhist symbol for spiritual strength).
Kailash is also the point where Tonpa Shenrab, the founder of the Bon sect, is alleged to have descended from heaven to earth.
It is possible for pilgrims to do one circumnambulation of Kailash in a day and thus absolve themselves of a lifetime of sin. More rigorous pilgrims will sometimes complete 13 tours of the base (13 being another holy number), while the minority of ascetics who circuit Kailash an astonishing 108 times are said to have achieved enlightenment.
For Hindus, Manasarovar (4588m) is the sacred lake floating beneath the shadow of Kailash and created in the mind of God as a way of demonstrating the omnipotence of Brahma. The Tibetans also know the lake as Maphan Tso, ‘the Unconquerable Lake.’
It is without doubt the holiest lake anywhere in Asia and coupled with the fact that it nestles between two spectacularly high snow ranges, it exerts a huge attraction for anyone who appreciates breathtaking landscape.
While Manasarovar represents the light, Lake Raksas, a smaller lake to the West, symbolises dark and evil forces and is therefore shunned by pilgrims, who believe that flesh-eating demons lurk in its forbidding waters.
The water levels of a channel called Ganga Chu, which links Manasarovar and Raksas, are monitored closely by Tibetans because they are believed to augur the overall fortunes of the country, with high levels indicating well-being.
Everest : The Khangshung Face and the Kharta/Karma Valleys
East of Mount Everest is a fabled and astonishingly beautiful part of Tibet, which to this day remains virtually unknown to all but a few explorers.
Our company is proud to be one of the very few to offer the opportunity to explore this amazing region, with its lush and pristine vegetation, the verdant Valley of the Lakes, with a string of 14 enticingly glittering emerald lakes and an aspect of Everest – the east or Khangshung Face, which is less often seen – but nonetheless totally awe-inspiring.
The Kharta river originates in the Kharta Glacier, which descends from the Everest massif. It joins the Phung Chu and the combined waters flow south through a gorge. Because of the construction of the landscape, the dry barren plateau climate gives way to a moister climate. of which the rich vegetation of the Kharta and Karma valleys is a result.
The Karma valley, in particular, boasts magnificent Alpine scenery with varied flora, as well as the highest forests in the world.
Three of the world’s highest peaks – Everest, Lhotse and Makalu – overlook the valley and the views, especially of Makalu, are magical. To the extreme west of the Karma Valley is the legendary Khangshung Glacier, which hangs from Everest’s eastern face.
A route following the glacier’s northern perimeter passes beneath the jagged peaks of Chomo Lonzo and Makalu, allowing a close look at Everest’s eastern approach.
Namche Barwa and the Tsangpo Gorge
The Tsangpo is the highest flowing river in the world and its monumental gorge – a staggering three times deeper than the Grand Canyon – is a uniquely awesome spectacle.
Add to this the largely unheralded splendour of the Namche Barwa peak (7756 metres), first scaled only in 1992, and you have the makings of a journey, the drama and beauty of which will be forever imprinted on your memory.
Very few trekkers have ever witnessed the hidden treasures of this fabulous region and it is our privilege to be one of only a handful of companies offering you this once-in-a-lifetime trekking opportunity.
Namche Barwa, which was conquered for the first time in October 1992 by a combined Chinese/Japanese group of mountaineers, has a base camp at an unusually low altitude (1600 metres) – and this affords great views of the bulky mountain’s snow-swathed peak.
The Tsangpo river makes a huge loop round the mountains’ massif before continuing on its way south to India. As the Tsangpo plunges an incredible 7000 metres it has created the astounding gorge outrivalling the Grand Canyon or the Kali Gandaki in Nepal. The whole region is also a treasure trove for nature lovers, with an area near Dostong La nicknamed ‘Rhododendron Fairyland’ and an abundance of other diverse and exotic flower species.
Ganden suffered the most devastating damage of any of Tibet’s ‘Great Six’ monasteries during the Cultural Revolution. However, great efforts have gone into reconstruction work at this, the first Gelukpa monastery, situated about 45km east of Lhasa. The four main temples still house a residual population of 200 monks – and the views into the Kyichu Valley and across to the snowcaps beyond are stunningly beautiful.
The small city of Gyantse still retains its distinctively Tibetan character, despite the impact of the years on some of the buildings. You can step back in time here and be a witness to an age which would otherwise be irretrievably lost.
Gyantse developed because of its situation on the caravan routes from Sikkim and Bhutan. Though its population is only around 10,000 Gyantse is still the fourth largest city in Tibet, after Lhasa, Shigatse and Chamdo. It is well known for wool and handicrafts and its castle has some rare Newari paintings.
Palkhor Choide Lamasery
This area has the qualities of a ghost town, the intact main walls of the monastery surrounding a town which has been largely razed to the ground. The pilgrims who come to pay homage sometimes camp out inside the walls, making them seem like the last remaining inhabitants.
A chorten, or kumbum, is an outsized pagoda consisting of multi-levelled rows of superimposed chapels – and the Pangmo is Tibet’s most impressive example of the genre, principally because of its innovative architecture and fantastic sacred art. There are no less than 70 chapels, each ornately decorated with innumerable frescoes, statues, gold and silver artefacts and precious Buddhist texts.
Situated off the main Shigatse to Tingri route, Sakya ( meaning grey earth) was the base for the Sakyapa sect (Red Hats) in the 13th century. The sect, which was involved in sorcery and magic, still has many followers in Tibet and so Sakya is an important pilgrimage site for them. Unusually, abbots of this sect were allowed to drink – and to marry, which led to the development of hereditary rank and an unfortunate reputation for worldliness.
Pristine paintings and frescoes from the 13th century make Sakya monastery the home of probably the finest existing artworks anywhere in Tibet. The basic architecture of the monastery, thought to date back to the 13th century, has changed little to this day.
In Samye you can see the Mindolin monastery, another important ‘Red Hat’ site. Founded in 1671 by Dieda Linba, it has four main temples, one of which contains a statue of Sakyamuni.
NamTso (Sky Lake)
A renowned holy lake, NamTso has an isolated situation on the northern Changtang plateau. Hoerver this does not deter pilgrims, who visit regularly, with some performing the full circumnambulation, which takes 18 days. The lake (70km by 30 km and 4718 metres above sea level) is also the second largest saltwater lake anywhere in China or Tibet.
There is a bird sanctuary, home to many species of water fowl and assorted migratory bitds, at the south-east corner of NamTso, while at the end of a nearby peninsula is Tashi Dorje, a deserted cave hermitage, where many primitive paintings can be seen inside the caves.
Famous as the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama (the second highest reincarnation after the Dalai Lama), Shigatse, with a population of 40,000, is also Tibet’s second largest city.
Tashilhunpo Monastery, built in 1447, became the official Panchen Lama’s residence nearly 200 years later.
This is a monastery on a grand scale – a vast spread of buildings faced in cream, brown and ochre, which is the largest monastery site in Tibet.
Founded by Gedundrub, the first Dalai Lama, in 1447, Tashilhunpo is the only one of the Great Six which remains a truly vibrant monastic community, though many of the 700 monks spend their day working on a barley and yak farm 20 km east of the monastery proper.
The centrepiece of Tashilhunpo is the Hall of the Maitreya, housed in a fortress-like building on the west side of the site.
There are distant views of Mount Everest and Cho Oyu from this hillside village, perched at 4300 metres. Tingri was once a Tibetan/Nepali trading centre for grain, wool and livestock. Trade dwindled to a standstill after the 1959 uprising, but is beginning to be revived.
Tsedang – The Tombs of the Tibetan Kings
Tibetan kings were interred in tombs, rather than being accorded the more traditional sky burial, in which the dead body is dismembered and left for the vultures to consume. The propensity for burial is believed to have occurred either because of Buddhist influence – or the influence of the Chinese Tang dynasty. Nine tombs have been found at Qonggyau, though historical records suggest that there were origially 13.
Congye – Tombs of the Ancient Kings
Unique in Tibet, these colossal burial chambers have yielded a wealth of information about society between the 7th and 9th centuries. Eight tombs are visible as giant earth knolls along the lower slopes of Mount Mura and the entrance of the Dongkar valley. The most scared is the tomb of King Songtsen Gampo, closest to the main valley road.
Legend has this pegged as Tibet’s very first building, created as a palace for Nyathi Tsanpo, the first King, who was believed to have miraculously descended from the sky to Mount Yala Shampo at the head of the Yarlung Valley.
Yamdruk Tso (The Turquoise Lake)
Fathomless and shimmering blue, the waters of this 600 sq.km lake, 100km south-west of Lhasa, surround 10 hilly islands, which provide homes for flocks of wild ducks. Some of the locals in this area earn their living by fishing, a very unusual occupation in Tibet! The lake is also sometimes known as ‘The Scorpion Lake’ because of its two pincer-shaped arms !
The Ruins of Guge Kingdom
This hillside area spanning 180,000 square metres of the Tsada region of Ngari includes five magnificent temples and palaces, more than 300 chapels and a network of hundreds of caves.
First developed in the 10th century, the area was home to a dynasty of 16 kings
Renowned principally for its spectacular murals in the Newari tradition, the Shalu Monastery, a four hour walk from Shigatse, has inspired generations of artists and played a pivotal role in the development of a truly Tibetan style of art.
More than 1000 years old, the monastery, combining features of the Han and Tibetan dynasties, has relics and religious objects, including Buddhist scriptures written on ‘pattra’ leaves, as well as the sacred decree of Pagpa, a Sakya abbot.
Once an important trade centre, this town (3750 metres), straddling the Tibetan plateau, now reveals a good deal of Chinese influence, with commune-style buildings intermingling with traditional flat-roofed mud and brick houses. A botanical asset during the summer months is the abundance of Alpine flors on the surrounding slopes.
The Karo Ruins
A Neolithic site dating back almost 5000 years, Karo (3200 metres) near the town of Chamdo, shows basic living structures, paved roads, stone walls and cave dewellings and many kinds of chipped stone implements have been unearthed.
The discovery of Karo was very enlightening, providing new information about migrations and communications between people in different parts of the region.
Rongbuk (Everest Base Camp)
The highest monastery in the world was founded in 1902 at the foot of the Rongbuk Glacier, near Mount Everest’s North Face base camp. For 200 years previously a small but hardy group of nuns, living in primitive meditation huts at 4980 metres, paved the way for the foundation of the actual monastery.
The guest house at Rongbuk affords spectacular views up the Everest Valley.