Louise Southerden mixes with monks and pilgrims in the breathtaking heart of Tibetan Buddhism.
Yak-butter lamps, murmuring monks, prayer wheels, prostrating pilgrims - you don't have to be interested in Buddhism to visit Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but it helps.
Buddhist temples and rituals, monks and monasteries occupy a central place in the lives of most Tibetans. That's not all there is to Lhasa, of course. Fifty years of Chinese government has brought much development, for one thing: new roads, the railway from Beijing, new rules. Still, Lhasa retains its essential Tibetan-ness, especially in the quarter called the Barkhor. Base yourself here and there's a good chance you'll feel the beating heart of Tibet.
Rising at this hour means getting up in the dark, even in summer - China has only one time zone and Lhasa is more than 4000 kilometres west of Beijing - but it's worth it because this is when the city is most alive. After breakfast (the aptly named Snowland Restaurant has great pancakes), join the procession of pilgrims walking clockwise around the Potala Palace on a half-hour pilgrimage circuit called a kora.
Snowland Restaurant, next to Snowland Hotel on Zangyiyuan Road in the Barkhor.
Two things can take your breath away in Lhasa: the altitude (it's 3600 metres above sea level) and the Potala. Situated on a hill overlooking the Barkhor, it has an imposing presence - and a lot of steps (about 300). Once a self-contained world, with chapels, schools, tombs, even jails, the Potala is now an enormous 13-storey museum comprising a White Palace (where Dalai Lamas once lived and received visitors) and a Red Palace (containing the elaborate tombs of the fifth to the 13th Dalai Lamas). Because it's so popular, only 2300 tickets are issued daily so a time slot must be booked the day before by your guide. Security is tight, too, and photography inside is forbidden.
Potala Palace, Beijing Donglu (Beijing East Road), entry 100 yuan ($16), open 9am-3.30pm.
After seeing what was once the Dalai Lama's winter palace, it makes sense to visit his summer one: Norbulingka, a short drive west of the Potala. The current 14th Dalai Lama lived here until 1959; it is the place from which he fled, disguised as a Chinese soldier, to begin his life in exile on the other side of the Himalayas, in Dharamsala, northern India. It's also where you'll find the only remaining picture of him in Lhasa: a painting in a dimly lit corner (images of His Holiness are banned in Tibet). Unlike the Potala, Norbulingka looks eerily familiar. It's a two-storey house with chrysanthemums lining the garden path, 1950s furnishings and bathroom fittings, even a radio. There used to be wild deer and a zoo in the grounds; now there's a pond inhabited by ducks bought in the market and released here by locals.
Norbulingka, Norbulingka Road, entry 60 yuan, open 9am-6.30pm.
Tibetan offices and shops often close for long lunches but there are plenty of tourist-friendly restaurants that stay open, such as Tibet Steak House, which serves sandwiches and pizzas if you don't fancy yak steak (there are yak pizzas if you want to compromise).
Tibet Steak House, 49 Middle Beijing Road, open 8am-10.30pm.
Lhasa's two great Gelugpa monasteries (Gelugpa is the "yellow hat" sect of Tibetan Buddhism), named Sera and Drepung, are both worth visiting. Sera, built in 1419 and five kilometres north of the city, is best in the afternoon, when you can see Buddhist monks debating. Pop in to a chapel or two, such as Yamantaka, where parents bring their children to be blessed by a horse-headed Buddha. Then wander to the shady courtyard where you'll see 20 or 30 pairs of maroon-robed monks: one monk stands, firing existential questions; the other monk, seated, tries to answer them. It's all in Tibetan, so it's like watching a foreign-language movie without subtitles, but it's energetic and fun.
Sera Monastery, entry 55 yuan, open 9am-5pm, debating is on weekdays 3-5pm.
Back in the Barkhor, head for Jokhang Temple, the most revered and popular temple in Tibet. If you're lucky you'll see monks chanting in the main meditation hall. One of the most interesting things about monasteries in Tibet, however, is the Tibetans who visit them: Khampa women with pieces of coral, turquoise and bone braided into their hair; nomads from outlying districts who bring melted yak butter in thermoses to pour into the lamps; people stooping under cabinets piled high with Buddhist scriptures to receive blessings. From the roof there are views of the Barkhor, the mountains surrounding Lhasa and the Potala.
Jokhang Temple, entry 80 yuan, open 9am-5.30pm.
The kora around the Jokhang takes about 20 minutes and is an ideal way to browse the souvenir stalls on Barkhor Street, which encircles the temple. There's everything from cheap (and probably Nepali-made) prayer wheels, turquoise necklaces and strings of mala beads, to chubas (long coat-dresses), striped aprons worn by married Tibetan women and cowboy hats (hats are big in Tibet, in both senses of the word, because the alpine sun is so strong). There's a labyrinth of backstreets to explore, too, where you might even glimpse old Lhasa: women sitting at sewing machines in cobbled alleyways, tiny shopfronts selling monks' robes, tables stacked with slabs of yak butter, children playing on wooden carts.
When you've completed your kora, find a spot to sit and watch people prostrating on the flagstones in front of the Jokhang's west-facing entrance in the day's last light. Their concentration and dedication is something to behold. Many wear wooden paddles and heavy canvas aprons to protect their hands and chests as they slide along the ground. It's a popular hangout for Tibetans and tourists alike; don't be surprised if a young Tibetan wanders over to practise her English with you.
One of the best spots in the Barkhor, especially on summer evenings, is the rooftop terrace of the New Mandala Restaurant, which has views across to the Jokhang. For less than $10, you can feast on yak-filled momo (Tibetan dumplings) or a yak burger with fries, some tsampa (barley flour, a Tibetan staple) with yoghurt and a Lhasa beer. Don't expect to see fish on the menu: Tibetans would rather eat yak because, in line with Buddhist ethics, they believe if an animal gives up its life, it ought to feed as many people as possible.
New Mandala Restaurant, Lubu Road, in front of Jokhang Temple, open 7am-10pm.
It's a 10-minute walk from the New Mandala to the paved square in front of the Potala, via a man-made lake, where you can see reflections of the floodlit palace - the lights are switched on about 8pm and turned off about 10.30pm. From the square, where fountains are synchronised with rousing orchestral music, it's hard not to be impressed: the Potala is even more striking at night than in the daytime.
There's not much in the way of nightlife in Lhasa - most Tibetans head home as soon as the stalls on the Barkhor close to watch TV or play mahjong. Take a pedal-powered rickshaw back to your hotel and hold on - it's not for the faint-hearted. If the altitude is giving you insomnia, head for the Tibet Summit Fine Art Cafe, run by an American photographer in the courtyard of the Shangbala Hotel, for a late-night espresso, frothy chai or slice of New York cheesecake.
Tibet Summit Fine Art Cafe, 1 Denjielin Road, see thetibetsummitcafe.com.
Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Helen Wong's Tours.
The nearest major airport is Chengdu. For about $1000, China Eastern Airlines flies to Chengdu via Shanghai. (Fare is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.) Most major Asian airlines fly into Chengdu via their hub port — for example, Cathay Pacific flies via Hong Kong. Air China has a one-way fare from Chengdu to Lhasa for $246, including tax. Australians require a visa for China and a Tibet travel permit. Independent travel is not permitted in Tibet.
Helen Wong's Tours has several itineraries, including a seven-day Lhasa and Chengdu tour, from $3470 a person, twin share, not including international air fares and visas; and a 20-day Tibet and Yangtze tour, from $6990 a person, twin share, including air fares, visas and a two-day rail journey from Beijing. See helenwongstours.com.