Tranquil Tibet

I have wanted to visit Tibet since I first moved to China in 2013. Unlike other places in the country, foreigners require special permission to visit Tibet and must be part of a tour to visit the area. Because of the administrative hurdles and the price involved in joining a tour, I have always pushed aside going to Tibet and chose to visit somewhere else. But with the pandemic, Jun and I decided that 2021 would be a good time to visit.

My instincts in getting permission and booking a tour to Tibet being cumbersome were correct. Jun found a great travel agency—Tibet Vista—that worked with us to navigate through all the paperwork and tailored a tour for us. When the Tibet government officially opened up visitor permits in the window when we wanted to visit, Jun and I submitted the paperwork as soon as we could compile all the documents. Then we waited. And we waited until the week of our trip. Then we waited until two days before we were to leave. Finally, we received word that I was permitted to visit Tibet. They would ship my permit to the hotel we were staying at overnight for our layover in Chongqing.

I was finally going to Tibet!

Day 1

The first day of our trip had us fly to Chongqing. Jun had asked the tour agency to send the permit to the hotel immediately and we would pick it up when we checked in. When we arrived in Chongqing, though, Jun noticed that the package was in the city but not at the hotel. He called SF Express to see what the deal was. They said that there was some issue in delivering it, but they would deliver it by 6:00 pm the next day. Jun was furious since our flight left at 6:00 am the next day and the package was supposed to have arrived the day before—today at the latest. After talking to different service representatives he was told they would look for it and call him back by 8:00 pm.

A bit down that my permit might be lost we decided to go out to a local hot pot restaurant near the hotel. The place was built in the basement of a building and was a tiny place. The food was amazing, and we were able to distract ourselves from the predicament.

Around this time we got word from SF Express that they had found the package and we could come to their distribution hub near the airport to pick it up. When we got there, we had to wait a bit to get it. Eventually, an agent finally handed the package to us. We both felt relieved.

We went back to the hotel and got ready for bed before our early flight the next day.

Day 2

Early the next morning we went to the airport and checked in. They didn’t even check my permit at the airport. After quickly going through security as there was no one there, we walked to the boarding gate area. Soon we were on the plane flying to Lhasa.

When we got there, I had to get my permit checked and given the official okay to enter Tibet. That went quickly. Soon Jun and I were meeting our tour guide—Tenzin—who would help us over the next week.

From the airport, we drove north for about an hour before we got into the city. Tenzin asked us if we wanted to go straight to the hotel or if we wanted to visit Norbulingka. We decided that we were ready to start to explore Lhasa and would wait to check-in.

Norbulingka is the traditional summer residence of the Dalai Lama. The seventh Dalai Lama Kelsang Gyatso built it in the mid-eighteenth century. The grounds cover an area of about 36 hectares. There are 400 rooms inside the complex. The complex is a nice mix of traditional Tibetan architecture and gardens. Visiting the palace was a nice start to introduce ourselves to Lhasa. Although Jun had visited the city before, this time was the first for him to have a guide to inform us of the intricate stories weaved with the built environment.

After we had walked around Norbulingka, we drove to the InterContinental Lhasa Paradise where we would stay for most of the week. Our tour guide and driver left us for the day. For the rest of the afternoon, we would be free to roam around the city. Check-in went quickly and we were even given complimentary drinks. Our room was nice and spacious. After settling in we decided to go get lunch.

From the hotel, we went to a local restaurant called Jixiang Shengxue. It’s a family-owned restaurant with a house museum within it. As you waited for the food, one of the owners gave a short tour of the house and shared some stories of the family and restaurant. Each customer also received a small gift. It was a sweet way to make us feel welcomed. When we got back to our table our food arrived and we were amazed at how the food tasted. It was a nice first meal in Tibet.

After lunch, we spent the rest of the afternoon at Lalu Wetlands National Nature Preserve. Located north of Potala Palace, the park is the largest urban and wetland park in the world. From the northern areas of the park, you had wonderful views of Potala Palace. Walking around the park was nice and we got to see many different flowering plants and animals. Being surrounded by so much vegetation also helped us better acclimate to the higher altitude. We were mostly fine. When we exerted ourselves, though, we did feel the change in altitude.

After we reached the southeastern gate of the park we decided to go back to the hotel and rest before dinner. When we got back, we realized how exhausted we were after the long day we had. We decided to just eat at the hotel and call it a day. Well, I ate as Jun had lost his appetite by then. With that in mind, we went to bed early to rest up and hopefully feel better the next day. 

Day 3

On the morning of the third day of our trip, we visited Drepung Monastery. The monastery is one of the largest monasteries of the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Built in 1416 along the West Valley Mountain north of Lhasa, the monastery houses three monastic colleges. The size of the monastery is like a small village. Jun and I enjoyed going around the complex to see the intricate details within each hall and temple.

We spent all morning there. Our guide explained the history of Tibetan Buddhism and the significance of the different statues and artwork found throughout the complex. It was a lot of information to take in but brought to life how rich and beautiful Buddhism is.

From there we went to visit Sera Monastery on the other side of northern Lhasa. When we got to the area, we first had lunch at a local Tibetan restaurant. The owners only spoke Tibetan, so Jun and I had to rely on our tour guide and other customers to help us converse with them. The food was great and their milk tea delicious.

After lunch, we went and visited the monastery. Built in 1419, it is the second-largest monastery in Tibet. The entire complex is quite impressive. Walking around the place without a guide can be a bit confusing as there are halls and temples where you have to climb up to visit them. The entire place was quite beautiful and serene.

After we visited the monasteries, we went back to the hotel to rest for the rest of the afternoon. In the early evening, Jun and I went to Potala Square to see the palace at dusk. Looking up at the palace for the first time so close was amazing. Pictures don’t do it justice as it is massive. Jun and I took many pictures as we walked around the square and surrounding park.

Soon though we were hungry, and we ended up having dinner at a Xinjiang restaurant near the square. They had a nice tea is some of the biggest teacups I have ever seen. It was a nice meal to end our day.

Day 4

On this day we first visited Potala Palace. Built in the seventh century by Songtsen Gampo, it had been the residence of the Dalai Lama from the fifth Dalai Lama to the fourteenth. The palace is divided into two main sections. The bottom White Palace and the upper Red Palace. The White Palace had been the administrative area for the government of Tibet. The Red Palace had been for the office of the Dalai Lama. The palace is a dzong fortress or a fortified monastery. From most places in Lhasa, you can see the palace.

Photos are prohibited for the interior of the palace, but it was fascinating to see the different rooms within the Red Palace. Many of the rooms have remained in a state of stasis since the late 1950s when the Dalai Lama left. Yet, at the same time as a palace museum, the rooms have morphed into exhibitions and places of worship for people.

After we had walked through the Red Palace, we walked down the back to Zongjiao Lukang Park. While we waited for our driver, Jun and I watched local Tibetans dance in one of the dancing squares. It was interesting to watch as there were people of all ages.

From the park, we went to the area around Jokhang Temple. Before visiting the temple, we had lunch at Lhasa Kitchen. We enjoyed our Nepalese and Indian meals. I especially liked the masala tea we had. It was a nice way to get ready for the afternoon.

After lunch, our guide took us through the security check into Barkhor Square so we could go to visit the temple. Jokhang Temple is the most sacred and important temple in all of Tibet. King Songtsen Gampo founded the temple in the seventh century. The temple is located in the middle of an ancient network of Buddhist temples in Lhasa. Pilgrims walk around the market square surrounding the temple to show their devotion and to pay homage.

The temple is quite small compared to many of the other temples we had seen, but it is rich in cultural and religious relics. The temple is wonderfully maintained, and it was a joy to visit the temple. After viewing the different rooms of the temple, we walked around Barkhor and did some shopping.

From there Jun and I went back to the hotel to rest before we went to visit Nanshan Park to see the city at twilight. The park is quite extensive, and you can hike up one of the mountains that surround the city. Being late and with the high elevation, Jun and I opted not to go to the top. We did hike up to some of the lower scenic viewpoints to see the city. It was quite nice to be out in nature and to see the city from the vantage points offered by the park.

Once it started getting dark, we went to have dinner at a new fusion restaurant near the park called Senchu ForestFood. The restaurant has a wild décor of outdoor ruins. The tables sit on sand with plants all over the place. Mixed in with the plants are replicas of ruined Greco-Roman statues. It was a bit odd but fun, nonetheless. The food was great, though.

By then it was late, and we both were ready to go back to the hotel.

Day 5

Our fifth day in Tibet had us venture out of Lhasa. We drove south towards Yamdrok Lake and the Lhagoi Kangri mountain range. The drive south was beautiful as the weather in Tibet was becoming more autumn-like. While there were still wildflowers in the fields, many of the trees were starting to turn a beautiful shade of yellow. Before we ventured through the Ganbala Mountain Pass, we first stopped by the Yarlung Tsangpo River to take some pictures and stretch our legs a bit.

We then drove through the pass and stopped at the Yajiang Hegu Sightseeing Platform to see the views of the river and the lake. The view from up here was stunning. The lake itself was an amazing turquoise color. With the rolling clouds moving across the sky, it was a bit magical.

From there we went down to the lake to walk along the shore. Yamdrok Lake is one of the three largest sacred lakes in Tibet. The view from the lakeshore was equally amazing. It was also nice to be a bit lower in elevation.

After we had walked around the lake, we went to the small town of Langkazi where we ate at the Lhasa Restaurant. The restaurant caters to foreigners as we saw when another group of foreigners was leaving as we arrived. When they left we were the only ones left at the restaurant. The food was amazing. I particularly enjoyed my hot ginger lemon tea.

After lunch, we continued our drive to visit Karola Glacier. Before we got to the glacier, our tour guide had us stop at what appears will be a new park or viewing platform, but it hasn’t officially opened yet. The views from this area are gorgeous and I understand why they would wish to open it up for others and to protect it from unintended harm from visitors.

A short drive from there we arrived at Karola Glacier. The glacier originates on Mount Noijin Kangsang, one of the four holy mountains of Tibet. The walk around the based on the glacier was amazing. The views of it were spectacular and it was nice having the place essentially to ourselves. As we were walking, we even saw Himalayan marmots hopping out of their burrows and looking around. They were so cute. I wished I had my long-range zoom lens with me at the time. They were so adorable.

While it is possible to go up higher to see the glacier, Jun and I decided to only go halfway as our bodies felt taxed the more we exerted ourselves in the high altitudes. The views from even halfway up were still impressive.

After we had walked around the area we started our trip back to Lhasa. Along the way, we stopped again at Yamdrok Lake to stretch our legs and enjoy the view. Soon, though, we were on our way back to Lhasa. When we got back to the hotel, Jun and I decided to order some food to the hotel and just relax the rest of the night by ourselves.

Day 6

On our sixth day of the trip, we went north of Lhasa to visit Namtso National Park. The drive up to the lake led us to traverse through different mountain valleys with different micro-climates. We left the relatively nice and sunny fall weather of Lhasa for the colder and rainy weather of these valleys.

The drive up to the national park was beautiful. Although along the way I had to stop for a bathroom break which ended up adding 30 minutes to the trip since the nearest bathroom was one that we had passed before. Strangely and fortunately there was a U-turn in the highway that we used to go back to the public rest area.

When we got back on track, we first stopped in the town of Dangquka to check-in at the hotel we would stay for the night and to have lunch. Once we had everything settled, we were on our way to the national park.

We drove through the Lagenla Mountain Pass to traverse the Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains to get to Namtso Lake. The pass was beautiful. It was great to see snow and to see the views from both ends of the pass.

When we got down to the other side of the mountains, we got out tickets to take the bus to the area of the lake most visitors explored. Jun and I soon found ourselves on the Tashi Dor peninsula. From there we walked around the area for a bit and enjoyed the scenery. The reflection of the landscape in the water was quite spectacular.

Walking around the lake was nice, but we did notice that there were thunderstorms in the distance that were approaching. One side of the lake was sunny with white marshmallow-like clouds. The other side of the lake was dark and ominous. We realized our time would be short, but we took every opportunity we had to enjoy our time there.

Like we thought, it soon started to rain and we could see lightning and hear thunder in the distance. Jun and I found our tour guide and we got back on a bus to head back to the entrance. And from there we went back to Dangquka. As we drove through the mountain pass it started to snow and hail lightly. We had left at a good time!

When we got back to the hotel, Jun and I rested a bit before we went out to dinner at a dry hotpot restaurant called Damxung Yuxiaochu. The place was nice, and the food was great. By the time we were done, it had started to rain again. We quickly walked back to the hotel to call it a day. I enjoyed falling asleep to the drops of rain hitting the room windows.

Day 7

Early the next day we got back on the road to head back to Lhasa. Along the way though, we stopped at two places.

The first place we visited was a rustic nunnery called Chimelong Nunnery or Phyirmil Lung Nunnery. The nunnery is situated in a quaint mountain village within a mountain pass. The outside is well maintained and inside the main hall the artwork was amazing.

From the nunnery, we then went through another mountain valley pass to visit Tsurphu Monastery. This monastery is what is known as a gompa, or a Buddhist fortification of learning. The surrounding area was gorgeous, and the complex was significant in size. This monastery is the seat of the Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery was founded in 1159, destroyed in 1966, and rebuilt in the 1980s.

The complex is quite impressive and there are meditation halls for laypeople in the mountains. Jun and I enjoyed walking around the complex and learning about the history of the place. Before we left, we had a simple lunch at the monastery with some great milk tea.

We then drove back to Lhasa. Our tour guide and driver dropped us at the InterContinental and then we rested for a bit before we went out to Barkhor Square. Jun and I decided we would have dinner at Makye Ame. The food there was amazing. After dinner, we walked around the area and ended up near the Great Mosque of Lhasa. From there we decided to head back to the hotel and call it a night.

Day 8

Our last day in Lhasa had us have a leisurely morning at the hotel. We had a nice breakfast and walked around the hotel. We then packed our things and checked out. Our tour guide and driver then drove us south to the airport. We had a quick lunch there and then soon found our way to Chongqing for our connecting flight back to Shenzhen.

Overall, the trip to Tibet was great and it was a wonderful place to be. In many ways, it was like traveling to a different country within China. While I did not enjoy having to deal with all the paperwork to visit, I would certainly entertain the idea of visiting Tibet again one day.