Our First Full Day in Lhasa

The sun doesn’t come up in Lhasa until 8AM. Nothing really seems to get stirring until even later. What this means for me is – sleeping in! I felt exhausted upon our arrival to Lhasa, mostly due to the altitude. We slept in until 10 and then decided to see what the city has to offer. First we stopped by the roof terrace of our hotel, to see if we could still get some breakfast. There was no breakfast, but there was a sort of Tibetan celebration going on. All the hotel workers were there, dancing around a pile of burning incense and cypress branches. As we looked around the city rooftops, we saw that people were doing the same all over the place. Some people were replacing the prayer flags that adorn most every rooftop, fluttering in the wind.

Lhasa Rooftop with incense
The Potala Palace from hotel rooftop. The haze is from
burning incense. Usually it would be brilliantly clear.

Downstairs in the lobby, the receptionist told us it was a “good day” and most shops and restaurants would be closed. Turns out that many restaurants and shops are closed all week for the Tibetan New Year, which falls the same time as the Chinese New Year. Some places are also closed just because it is winter.

Winter in Lhasa. You’d think it would be unbearably cold, right? No, not really. Not if temps between -7 and 10 celsius are unbearable for you. We found the weather to be incredibly comfortable – bright, sunny skies and cool breezes. All you need is the right gear. If you are only going to be in Lhasa, you can get by with jeans, sweaters and a good coat. I’ve worn my Chuck Taylor converse shoes everyday – that’s right, canvas shoes in the Himalayas. Of course, we are not doing any serious hiking.

Our first day we wondered around the old Tibetan neighborhood. It is made up of small, twisting and turning alleyways. You just never know what you will find down an alley. At the heart of the neighborhood is the Johkang Temple, revered by Tibetan Buddhists and the site of pilgrimage for thousands of Tibetans. The pilgrims walk a kora, or a clockwise circuit around the Johkang, through the small winding streets. Some pilgrims walk carrying their spinning prayer wheel, others prostrate themselves over and over again on the ground. Some just walk, chanting quietly to themselves. Eventually, they will enter the Johkang, and if you have the opportunity, I encourage yourself to join in line with them and experience what incredible passion and devotion they have.

Johkang Temple

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Incense & Prayer flags

Once inside, we had to pay 70RMB each, but the pilgrims enter for free. We then got back in line, moving slowly from Buddha statue to statue as the pilgrims pressed their foreheads against the glass in front of the statues, gave money donations, or poured some yak butter into the burning candles. The dim lighting, the strong smell of burning yak butter and the fervor of the pilgrims all combine to completely overwhelm. It was quite emotional.

At the end of the visit, tourists are allowed to climb up to the roof where there are great views of the Potala Palace and the Barkhor Square in front of the Johkang.

Barkhor Square

My parents both grew up in the Southwest US around the Navajo and Ute Indians. All of my life I have seen ropes of turquoise, coral and silver worn by family and friends. I have seen many Navajos on our trips back to visit the area. After observing many of the Tibetans more closely, I firmly believe that the Navajo had to have come from the same stock. There are so many similarities in their appearance, style of dress, jewelry, hair styles and lifestyles.

The rest of our day was spent walking, exploring and appreciating the city. It is so much smaller than I expected, after living in monstrous Chinese cities. It is also very dirty, and I think the dirt, litter, beggars and overall commotion may be a bit much for a new traveller. I love it. I love the pilgrims in their traditional dress, many of them quite old. I love how they smile at me and tell me Tashi Delek. They are genuine and kind and their wrinkles tell of a hard life but a happy heart.

Lhasa Mosque 1

Muslim Mosque in Chinese style

Heather with fried dumplings

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Yummy street food – whatever you can think of fried, on a stick!

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