China is home to a rich and multi-layered culture textured with breathtaking vistas and complex intricacies. One of the most intriguing areas of the country is the often romanticized and always mysterious region of Tibet. It conjures up images of a deeply spiritual mountain land where robed monks keep vigil, and a higher uncomprehensible consciousness exists. The beautiful monasteries of Tibet uplift the travelers who dare to seek them out. It is a journey well worth taking. You can visit these spectacular Tibetan monasteries on your next trip to China for a one-of-a-kind experience.
Ganden Monastery lies on the southern banks of the Lhasa River and is one of the earliest monasteries built in Tibet. Its towering location on Wangbur Mountain offers visitors a panoramic view of Lhasa Valley and the Shannon countryside. Ganden is the primary monastery in the Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism and remains an important example of Gelugpa tradition. The architectural integrity of the monastery’s buildings and cultural centers are intact and, in themselves, well worth exploring.
The many chapels, shrines, and pagodas are adorned with colorful murals with historical relics remaining inside. You will want to wear your walking shoes and take advantage of the one hour Kora monastery tour. It is a steep slow walk around the grounds rewarded by the sight of prayer flags blowing in the wind and the sound of chanting monks at prayer. Your camera will get a workout trying to capture the spectacular scenery around every corner and the unique cultural symbols encountered along the way.
You can stop for lunch at the Ganden Monastery Restaurant after the tour where they offer both vegetarian and non-vegetarian choices. The Ganden monks grow a special herb called Ganden Khempa which is blessed by the monks and made into incense available for purchase as a souvenir. It is believed this natural product possesses a variety of health benefits when burned. You can get a peaceful night’s sleep once the day is through at the posh St. Regis Resort in nearby Lhasa.
Jokhang Temple is the oldest and holiest of all the monasteries in Tibet. It sits in the heart of old town Lhasa drawing pilgrims and scholars from all over the world to its architecture and the secrets within. Jokhang Temple’s history is colored with fantastical legends adding romance and intrigue to its majesty. The original temples were built over 1400 years ago by King Songtsen Gampo to house the statues of Buddha gifted to him as a dowry from his new wives.
There is much to see and appreciate at Jokhang Temple including the incredible life-sized statue of Shakyamuni, a brilliant-colored icon of Buddhist imagery. As you make your way among the labyrinth of small chapels in the monastery complex, you will be mesmerized by the hundreds of Buddha statues surrounded by votive candles. It is an atmospheric, moody experience and one you will likely not forget. Climb the steps to the golden rooftop, and you can overlook the square where pilgrims gather below in ceremonial worship.
The multicultural streets of Lhasa are bursting with vibrant eateries, the spicy aromas sure to entice you in after a day visiting the temples. You might want to try the Tibetan Family Kitchen for local cuisines including momo dumplings and sweet rice. The friendly staff speak English and are happy to treat you like family. You can relax later at the Zhaxi Quta Style Hotel with its classic, spacious rooms, free buffet breakfast, and WiFi. The hotel is centrally located and in walking distance to many of Lhasa’s attractions.
Potala Palace has been the renowned winter residence of the Dalai Lama since the 7th-century and still stands as a symbol of traditional Buddhism. This castle-like structure reaches over 12,000 feet above the town! The palace is a Tibetan architectural wonder with golden roofs visible from miles away and a regal presence even among the other monasteries. It is an iconic tribute and mecca to practicing Buddhists from all over the globe, and many devotional events are held there each year.
The interior of Potala Palace is a rich combination of decorative stone and wood with exquisite carvings as well as artwork depicting Tibetan history. There are more than a thousand rooms showcasing a variety of murals, painted scrolls, and statues made of jewels and gold. Photographers can ascend the winding path up Chakpori Hill beside Potala Palace for a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape and a rare opportunity to capture an image of the palace as the sun rises or sets. The resulting photos will be worthy of hanging on your wall.
Once you have had your fill of all that wonder, you can wander down Lhasa’s Bakuo Street until you come upon another of its landmarks, the Makye Ame Restaurant. Its bright yellow facade will draw you in, and you will be greeted by a homey atmosphere and live Tibetan music. You can sip on freshly-brewed local barley wine while enjoying a feast of leafy greens and yak-inspired main courses. The Four Points by Sheraton Hotel is the perfect place to reflect on your day and rest in luxurious comfort and tranquility.
Tourism in Tibet is strictly regulated, and foreign travelers are required to arrange their visit to the monasteries through a tour company. There are many reputable tour operators to choose from including WildJunket, a young-at-heart guide company for adventurous travel. Additionally, Tibet is known as the “roof of the world” because of its high altitude so some visitors might require a day or two to adapt to the change.
Visitors are not allowed to take photographs inside shrines and chapels or of people without asking for permission. Much of the food will be unfamiliar, and goat and yak meat are commonly on the menu though vegetarian dishes are delicious and plentiful. Tibet is an ancient, exotic land and one of China’s most remarkable destinations. You just might have the time of your life!