In this article, I highlight some of the most interesting things to see in Tibet on your first trip.
In my previous travel guide, I explained when and how to organize a trip to Tibet, along with some of the challenges you’ll surely face during your exploration of this amazing province.
To summarize, the months from April to October are the best, you’ll need a local travel guide (it’s not possible to visit Tibet independently), and generally speaking, foreigners have many more restrictions than Chinese people.
Despite all of these challenges, I still believe Tibet is worth a visit. Its millenary culture and incredible landscapes will surely take your breath away.
One of the first things you’ll have to decide is which tour will you choose. When contacting a tour agency (I recommend this one) they’ll provide a list of different tours ranging from a short 3/4 nights only in Lhasa, to all the way up to several weeks trekking around the Tibetan plateau. I opted for a standard 6 nights tour of the main highlights of Tibet, adding 1 night in Lhasa to get adjusted to the high elevation. I didn’t opt for the Everest Base Camp tour for a couple of reasons: first I didn’t see the point in driving several hours and wasting 2 days just to see a rock and a bunch of tents. Second, the camp has been brought back to 4800 meters, so it’s not even the highest place you’ll visit anyway, since the Karola Glacier viewpoint and Namco lake pass are located at around 5200 meters.
If it’s your first time in Tibet, one of the standard tours that include Lhasa, Shigatse, and Namco lake, will probably be your best option.
These are some of the things you’ll explore if you pick the 6 days tour.
Day one and two: Lhasa
As soon as you arrive in Lhasa, you’ll be welcomed by your tour guide and usually, you’ll have the first day for yourself. It’s a good suggestion to take it easy and try to get some good sleep since Lhasa lies at an elevation of 3600 meters. Most likely you’ll have a headache for the first few days. Another good suggestion is to avoid eating too much for dinner.
On your second day, you’ll start the tour. The highlight of the day will certainly be the Potala Palace.
Firstly built in 641 AD, and listed as a world heritage site in 1994, the Potala Palace is the most sacred place for Tibetan people. It covers an area of 36 million square meters and you’ll see only a small part of it. The palace is actually divided into two parts: the white palace which used to be the political part of the building and the red palace which used to be the religious part of the building. Today only the red palace is open and is technically considered a museum.
The tickets have to be booked well in advance and the visit can last only one hour. The tour guide will book it for you. The Potala Palace is one of the places you cannot visit without a tour guide. Photography is forbidden inside the palace and, as I mentioned in the previous article, foreigners are not allowed to use drones in Tibet.
The tour will probably include a short visit to the Canggu temple, the only nunnery in Lhasa. There are currently about 60 nuns and you’ll see some very young girls busy studying and learning some Tibetan scriptures.
Barkhor Street is the heart and the historical center of Lhasa. It’s the place where local Buddhists and pilgrims alike do the religious circumambulation to erase their sins. You are supposed to walk only clockwise and if you see someone walking in the opposite direction, even if they are dressed like locals, they are Chinese (Han) tourists: don’t be like them…
Tip of the day: don’t forget to take a break in one of the several teahouses with a rooftop, to have a great view of the street.
There are checkpoints to enter the Barkhor and technically you’ll need to be with your guide. But I didn’t have any issue going by myself the day before when I had some time alone.
You’ll visit Jokhang temple either on your second or last day of the tour, depending on how much time you have left. It’s one of the most famous Tibetan Buddhist temples and dates back to about 1300 years ago, like the Potala Palace. It’s also listed as a World Heritage site.
It’s located within Barkhor Street. Like any other temple, no pictures are allowed inside.
Day three: Yamdrok Lake – Karola Glacier – Shigatse
You’ll spend most of the day traveling by car, driving along some epic mountain gorges and high plateaus. If you spot some interesting place feel free to tell your guide to stop for a few minutes. I’m glad I did because in one of the locations we found some cute Pika, which is becoming increasingly hard to find in the Tibetan Plateau. A few kilometers away we also found a herd of Blue Sheep.
Blue Sheep are also known as Bharal in other parts of the Himalayas and are the major prey of the Snow Leopard, as I had the chance to personally witness on a previous trip to the Tibetan Plateau.
The first official stop will probably be in one of the lookouts along the road, which have nothing really interesting to see and are basically a tourist trap.
You’ll be surrounded by people asking you to pay some money to take some pictures with the several Tibetan Mastiffs, baby goats, and White Yaks parked there.
Yamdrok Lake is a freshwater lake and one of the three largest sacred lakes in Tibet. It’s over 72 km long. The lake is surrounded by many snow-capped mountains as you can see in the picture. According to local mythology, Yamdrok Lake is the transformation of a goddess.
You’ll stop near a panoramic lookout with a gorgeous aerial view of most of the lake.
After the lake, you’ll then head to the Karola Glacier, one of Tibet’s three major continental glaciers.
This imposing glacier is visible from the main highway which links Lhasa and Shigatse, as it’s just 300 meters from the road. It’s backed by the southern slope of Naiqin Kangsang Peak (7,191 meters), one of the four highest peaks in Tibet.
The viewpoint is located at an elevation of about 5200 meters. It’s very likely that you’ll experience some headaches as a result of the high elevation. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water.
After the glacier, you’ll finally arrive in the city of Shigatze (also called Shitagse or Rikaze in Chinese).
Day four: Shigatse Tashilumpo Monastery – Nimu – Mountain Donggula – Yampachen Grassland in northern Tibet – Damxung County
Shigatse is the second-largest city in Tibet, and personally, I like it way more than Lhasa. It has more Tibetan people than Hans (Chinese people) so it’s culturally more preserved. It’s also way less developed, and although in some parts it still looks like any other Chinese city, you’ll definitely feel like you are in Tibet.
Tip of the day: my recommendation is to head for the sunrise to the mountain behind the Tashilumpo monastery, where you can have an amazing panoramic view of the city with the Shigatse Dzong (Little Potala Palace) in the background.
The imposing Shigatse Dzong was built in the 17th century as a smaller prototype of the Potala in Lhasa. It was destroyed in 1961, after the 1959 Tibetan uprising, but was rebuilt in 2007 at the same location, though on a smaller scale.
Tashilumpo Monastery was founded in 1447 CE by Gedun Drub, the disciple of the famous Buddhist philosopher Je Tsongkhapa and later named the First Dalai Lama. The construction was financed by donations from local nobles.
It’s the seat of the Panchen Lama (whose current identity is the subject of the controversy between the Chinese and the Tibetan government in exile) the second most important Tibetan Leader, after the Dalai Lama.
To understand a bit better the local culture it’s important to explain the difference between the two Lamas:
The First Dalai Lama gained the title in 1391, whereas the First Panchen Lama gained his title in 1385. They were both disciples of Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.
According to the Tibetan Buddhist belief, Panchen and Dalai have already been very close long before they were humans: Dalai is considered to be the incarnation of Guanyin/Avalokiteśvara, while Panchen is the incarnation of Amitābha.
Historically in Tibet, Dalai had more political power as the leader of both the regime and the religion. The influence of Panchen was more or less limited to the Shigatse area. But, there were cases where the power of Panchen surpassed that of Dalai. Regardless, in the eyes of the Qing and Republic of China governments, they both had the same level of religious status (as most high-ranking monks in Tibetan Buddhism). Traditionally, the younger one between the two shall become the disciple of the older one. Exceptions only apply if both are too young or they have serious conflicts with each other.
The Panchen Lama bears part of the responsibility of the monk-regent for finding the incarnation of the Dalai Lama and vice versa.
Pilgrims circumambulate the monastery on the lingkhor (sacred path) outside the walls. Although two-thirds of the buildings were destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, they were mainly the residences of the 4,000 monks. The monastery itself was not as extensively damaged as most other religious structures in Tibet because it was the seat of the Panchen Lama who remained in Chinese-controlled territory.
According to Wikipedia, however, in 1966 Red Guards led a crowd to break statues, burn scriptures and open the stupas containing the relics of the 5th to 9th Panchen Lamas, and throw them in the river. Some remains, though, were saved by locals, and in 1985, Choekyi Gyaltsen, 10th Panchen Lama, began the construction of a new stupa to house them and honor his predecessors. It was finally consecrated on 22 January 1989, just six days before he died aged fifty-one at Tashi Lhunpo.
Well, after this history lesson, is time to move on and head for Damxung County where you’ll spend the night. But before that, you’ll pass through some amazing places.
One of them is the Yampachen Grassland, where you’ll see herds of Yaks and incredible views of the prairie with snow-capped mountains in the background.
Don’t forget to stop from time to time to take some pictures and listen to the incredible absence of any human sound. You’ll also see some scattered villages, which makes you wonder how people have managed to survive for so long at an elevation of well more than 4000 meters.
Unfortunately, you’ll also spot the highest geothermal power station in the world.
In the late afternoon, you’ll arrive in Damxung a small town, built around a train station, with surprisingly heavy traffic. This place is used as a base to visit lake Namco on the following day.
Day five: Namco Lake then back to Lhasa
On day five you’ll drive from Damxung to Namco Lake (also called Namtso Lake), probably the most beautiful place in Tibet. It’s the highest saltwater lake in the world and the largest lake in Tibet. It covers an area of 1920 square kilometers and is the second-largest saltwater lake in China (Qinghai Lake is the largest one).
Unfortunately, when you first arrive in the main area you’ll probably be a bit disappointed since you’ll have the feeling of being in an amusement park, rather than in one of the most sacred places for Tibetan people. There is a huge building with hundreds of buses waiting for the tourists. You’ll have to take one of the buses that will drive you to a small peninsula on the lake.
Don’t get me wrong, the lake is still definitely worth a visit, just don’t expect it to be the remotest place on earth. Luckily when I went there there were basically no tourists but I was told it can be very crowded and you might have to queue for an hour or so to get on the bus.
Namtso has five uninhabited islands of reasonable size, and they have been used for spiritual retreats by pilgrims who walked over the lake’s frozen surface at the end of winter, carrying their food with them. They spend the summer there, unable to return to shore again until the water freezes the following winter. This practice is no longer permitted by Chinese authorities.
Tip of the day: when you arrive on the peninsula you can hike a small hill where you’ll have a panoramic view of the lake, and you’ll probably avoid most of the crowds, who’ll stay on the banks of the lake taking pictures with the White Yaks.
After Namco, you’ll return to Lhasa and visit, if you haven’t yet done so, Jokhang Temple. I recommend you to visit the temple earlier, during your second day, because you’ll be quite tired, especially after hiking in Namco. Also, if you spent quite a lot of time in the lake, you won’t have much left for the temple.
And this is it if you choose the shorter tour. If you picked the longer tour, you’ll probably also visit the Everest Base Camp and Nyingchi. Keep in mind that Nyingchi is famous for the peach blossom but it only happens around April. I’m not really sure if it’s worth visiting it during the rest of the year.
In this article I explain how you can get the Tibet Travel Permit.
If you have some questions please feel free to leave a comment. Here you can see some other pictures I took in Tibet. Here is my travel guide to China and here are some of the most interesting to see in northern Yunnan, close to Tibet.