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  • Samye Monastery

    A visit to Samye, on the north bank of the Tsangpo River around 50km southeast of Lhasa, is a highlight of Tibet. A unique monastery and walled village rolled into one, it is situated in wonderful scenery and, however you arrive, the journey is splendid. You can climb the sacred Hepo Ri to the east of complex for excellent views (1 hour); it was here that Padmasambhava is said to have subdued the local sprits and won them over to Buddhism.

    Tibet’s first monastery, Samye was founded in the eighth century during King Trisong Detsen’s reign, with the help of the Indian masters Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita, whom he had invited to Tibet to help spread the Buddhist faith. The first Tibetan Buddhist monks were ordained here and are referred to as the “Seven Examined Men”. Over the years, Sayme has been associated with several of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism – Padmasambhava’s involvement in the founding of the monastery makes it important in the Nyingma school, and later it was taken over by the Sakya and Gelugpa traditions. Nowadays, followers of all traditions worship here, and Samye is a popular destination for Tibetan Pilgrims, some of whom travel for weeks to reach it.

  • Tashilunpo Monastery

    Something of a showcase for foreign visitors, the large complex of Tashilunpo Monastery is situated on the western side of town just below the Drolma Ridge – the gleaming, golden roofs will lead you in the right direction. Tashilunpo was founded in 1447 by Gendun Drup, Tsongkhapa’s nephew and disciple, who was later recognized as the First Dalai Lama. It rose to prominence in 1642 when the Fifth Dalai Lama declared that Losang Chokyi Gyeltsen, who was his teacher and the abbot of Tashilunpo, was a manifestation of the Amitabha Buddha and the Fourth reincarnation of the Panchen Lama (Great Precious Teacher), in what has proved to be an ill-fated lineage. The Chinese have consistently sought to use the Panchen Lama in opposition to the Dalai Lama, beginning in 1728 when they gave the Fifth Panchen Lama sovereignty over western Tibet.

  • Pelkor Chode Monastery

    In the same compound as Gyantse Kumbum, the Pelkor Chode Monastery was built by Rabten Kunsang some twenty years earlier and used for worship by monks from all the surrounding monasteries. Today, the main assembly hall contains two thrones, one for the Dalai Lama and one for the main Sakya Lama. The glitter and gold and the sunlight and flickering butter lamps in the chapels make a fine contrast to the gloom of much of the Kumbum. The main Chapel, Tsangkhang, is at the back of the assembly hall and has a statue of Sakyamuni flanked by deities amid some impressive wood carvings – look for the two peacocks perched on a beam. The second floor of the monastery contains five chapels, and the top level just one, Shalyekhang (Peak of the Celestial Mansion), with some very impressive, 2m-wide mandalas.

  • Gyantse Dzong

    The original Gyantse Dzong dates from the mid-fourteenth century, though the damage caused by the British in 1904 means a lot of what you see in a reconstruction. Having climbed up to the fort, visitors are allowed into the Meeting Hall, which houses a waxworks tableau, and the Anti-British Imperialist Musuem, where weapons, used by the defenders against the British, are on display. Climb higher and you reach the upper and lower chapels of the Sampal Norbuling Monastery. A few of the murals in the upper chapel date from the early fifteenth century, but most of the other artefacts are modern. The best views are from the top of the tallest tower in the north of the complex. You will need to climb some very rickety ladders, but the scenery is well worth it.

  • Yamdrok Tso

    From Chusul Bridge, on the western outskirts of Lhasa, the southern road climbs steeply up to the Kampa La Pass (4794m); at the top, a car park offers stunning views of the turquoise waters of the sacred Yamdrok Tso, the third-largest lake in Tibet. It is a good place to take a picture, and there are plenty of Tibetans armed with baby goats, yaks and Tibetan Mastiffs-dogs traditionally used by nomads to fend off wolves – who will be only too happy to pose with you. It is said that if the lake ever dries up then Tibet itself will no longer support life – a tale of heightened importance now that Yamdrok Tso, which has no significant inflowing rivers to keep it topped up, is powering a controversial hydroelectric scheme. From the pass, the road descends to Yamtso village before skirting the northern and western shores amid wild scenery dotted with a few tiny hamlets, yaks by the lakeside and small boats on the water.

  • Ganden Monastery

    Farther than the other main temples, Ganden Monastery is 45km east of Lhasa, the final 6km of the journey along a winding track off the Lhasa – Sichuan Highway. It is also the most dramatically situated, high up on the Gokpori Ridge with excellent views over the surrounding countryside.

    Founded by Tsongkhapa himself in 1410 on a site associated with King Songtsen Gampo and his queens, the main hall was not completed until 1417, two years before Tsongkhapa died after announcing his disciple, Gyeltsab Je, as the new Ganden Tripa, the leader of the Gelupga order. The appointment is not based on reincarnation but on particular academic qualifications. The Chinese have always particularly targeted Ganden, possibly because it is the main seat of the Dalai Lama’s order, and what you see today is all reconstruction.

  • Sera Monastery

    Sera Monastery, 4km north of central Lhasa, will be included on most tour itineraries. Established in 1419 by Sakya Yeshe, one of the main disciples of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa order, Sera is situated below a hermitage where the great man spent many years in retreat. Spared during the Cultural Revolution, the buildings are in good repair, although there is always a fair amount of ongoing building work. Pilgrims proceed on a clockwise circuit, visiting the three main colleges – Sera Me, Sera Ngag – Pa and Sera Je – and the main assembly hall, Tsokchen. All are constructed with chapels leading off a central hall and more chapels on an upper floor. They are great places to linger and watch the pilgrims rushing about their devotions.

  • Norbulingka

    Situated in the west of town, the Norbulingka (Jewel Park), the Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama, is not in the top league of Lhasa sights, but is worth a look during the festivals of the Worship of the Buddha(July) or during Shotun, the Yoghurt Festival ( Aug/Sept), when crowds flock here for picnics and to see masked dances and traditional opera. The park has been used as a recreation area by the Dalai Lama since the time of the Seventh incarnation.

  • The Jokhang Temple

    The Jokhang – sometimes called Tshuglakhang (Cathedral), and the holiest temple in the Tibetan Buddhist world – can be unprepossessing from afar, but get closer and you will be swept up by the anticipation of the pilgrims and the almost palpable air of veneration. It stands 1km east of the Potala Palace, in the centre of the only remaining Beijing Dong Lu and Jinzhu Dong Lu. Inside, you are in for one of the most unforgettable experiences in Tibet. Devout pilgrims turn left to move clockwise and enter each chapel in turn to pray and make offerings, though they do not hang around; Tibet, it is often difficult to know exactly what you are looking at. Some of the statues are original, others were damaged during the Cultural Revolution and have been restored either slightly or extensively, and others are replicas; in any event, all are held in deep reverence by the pilgrims. The best time to visit is in the morning, when most pilgrims do the rounds.


  • Barkhor Square

    The main entrance to the Jokhang is from Barkhor Square, which is to the west of the temple. Two bulbous incense burners in front of the temple send out juniper smoke as an offering to the gods, and the two walled enclosures here contain three ancient engraved pillars. The tallest is inscribed with the Tibetan – Chinese agreement of 821AD and reads: “Tibet and China shall abide by the frontiers of which they are now in occupation. All to the east is the country of Great China; and all to the west is, without question, the country of Great Tibet, Henceforth on neither side shall there be waging of war or seizing of territory.”

  • Potala Palace

    Perched 130m above Lhasa atop Marpo Ri (Red Mountain), and named after India’s Riwo Potala - holy mountain of the god Chenresi - the Potala Palace is dazzling inside and out, an enduring landmark of the city. As you revel in the views from the roof, gaze at the glittering array of gold and jewels and wend your way from chapel to chapel, you will rub shoulders with excited, awestruck pilgrims from all over ethnic Tibet, making offerings at each of the altars. But be aware that, beyond the areas approved for tourists and pilgrims, the Potala Palace is a shadow of its former self: most of the rooms are off limits, part of a UNESCO World Heritage grant was spent on a CCTV system and the caretaker monks are not allowed to wear their robes.

    Though close enough to town to reach on foot, do not tackle the Potala on your first day at altitude – the Palace is a long climb, and even the Tibetans huff and puff on the way up; you will enjoy it more once you have acclimatized. Morning is certainly the best time to visit, when the place bustles with pilgrims. Photography is banned inside, and neither, bizarrely, are you supposed to take pictures of the fabulous views from the roof. Snapping away in the palace’s courtyards is tolerated, however.

  • Samye Monastery
  • Tashilunpo Monastery
  • Pelkor Chode Monastery
  • Gyantse Dzong
  • Yamdrok Tso
  • Ganden Monastery
  • Sera Monastery
  • Norbulingka
  • The Jokhang Temple
  • Barkhor Square
  • Potala Palace
 

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