Top of the World
The magnificent Himalayas and spiritual essence of Lhasa afford the journey of a lifetime.
As the political and spiritual heart of Tibet, Lhasa comes alive here, and many Tibetan pilgrims complete a popular devotional walk, or kora, encircling Jokhang Temple clockwise, spinning intricately embellished prayer wheels.
Even before your plane touches the tarmac, there’s a sense upon descent that there’s something special about Lhasa – a clue perhaps offered by the striking snow-capped mountains that appear to graze the clouds. Aptly named “Land of the Gods” in Tibetan, it’s easy to see why, with the city’s skies almost too blue to be true, and lakes equally vivid in reflection.
Situated 3,650 metres above sea level on the northern slopes of the Himalayas and sitting atop the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, the 1,300-year-old city is one of the highest inhabited regions on earth. As such, it can take a while to acclimatise to the extreme altitude, and visitors are advised to take it easy during the first few days. General Manager Ester P. Marcaida advises, “Walk slow, talk slow, eat slow” to allow your body to get used to the thin air. She adds that Lhasa is the perfect place to relax, anyway, to really take in the enthralling sights and charismatic faces.
Renowned for its warm hospitality, there’s no better place than Shangri-La Hotel, Lhasa to settle in to the elevated surroundings, where the friendly hotel staff make you feel right at home. A slower pace is embraced at CHI, The Spa, and a blissful foot massage will ease you into holiday mode, the ultimate cure-all for hours spent on a plane.
Before heading into town to explore, stop by all-day dining restaurant Altitude to sample local specialities, such as a juicy yak burger or tsampa, roasted barley flour usually mixed with salty yak butter tea and an array of international delights. If Cantonese or Sichuan fare appeals more, the chilli prawns, kung pao chicken and sautéed local mushrooms at Shang Palace are a highlight.
Local delicacies also abound in the heart of town. Director of Communications William Wong visits Barkhor Street on his days off, especially a small shop specialising in yak yoghurt. He recommends the osmanthus flower flavour, its sweet syrup made from delicate petals balances the tart yoghurt. The quirky café’s friendly owner can always be found chatting and swapping stories with visitors, a testament to how the laidback lifestyle tends to bring out the best in people.
Close to the hotel, vibrant Barkhor Street offers a wonderful introduction to local life, and the best spot to people watch. As the political and spiritual heart of Tibet, Lhasa comes alive here, and many Tibetan pilgrims complete a popular devotional walk, or kora, encircling Jokhang Temple clockwise, spinning intricately embellished prayer wheels. Tibet’s most sacred temple, the four-storey building houses the original statue of Jowo Sakyamuni Buddha that Tang Dynasty’s Princess Wencheng was believed to have brought from China as part of her dowry.
The city’s most renowned attraction, Potala Palace is a must, though preferably not on the day of arrival due to the 14-storey climb at an altitude of 3,700 metres. The Dalai Lama’s iconic red and white winter palace comprises more than 1,000 rooms that include living quarters, golden tombs and rare cultural relics, Buddhist scriptures and antiques. It is worth the trek to the top as the bird’s eye view of the city seem to go on forever.
Another highlight is the tranquil Sera Monastery, one of the ‘great three’ belonging to the Gelukpa order, famed for its tantric teachings and among the largest in Lhasa. Visit during one of the daily monk debates over Buddhist doctrines. Held in a picturesque courtyard, the tradition encompasses an established procedure between defenders and questioners, with plenty of vigorous gestures for added theatrical value.
Quieter reflection can be found in the meditation caves of the Drak Yerpa Monastery perched on the Yerpa Valley’s majestic limestone cliffs. Although the ascent may leave you slightly breathless, the mesmerising temple shrines and hermitages tucked away in the rock faces offer the greatest reward yet.
A two-hour drive away, Yamdrok Lake, one of the three sacred lakes in Tibet, is quite literally divine. Revered as a talisman, the lake is considered an essential part of Tibet’s life spirit and pilgrimages have been made there by the Dalai Lama and local villagers. If heaven on earth existed, the union of wispy clouds, sepia earth and cyan water are exactly what it would look like.
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That's a funny picture of Sydney, isn't?