Lhasa is growing by the second—a juxtaposition of ancient, sacred sites with modern architectures and technologies that can easily be seen on a day’s walk around Lhasa’s main temple.
The Jokhang Temple was built around 640 CE by Tibet’s Dharma King Songtsen Gampo. Today, the Jokhang is still a main pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists, who come from all over Tibet—on foot, by car, by bus, and by train—to visit the sacred sites around Lhasa.
If you approach the temple from its Western-facing entrance, the square constructed in the late 1980s will offer a nice view of the architecture. Standing two and three stories high, the temple is painted a sparkling white, accented by a red rim at the top and black outlines around the windows. On either side of the square are open-air stands, stacked with jewelry, prayer flags, khata scarves for offerings, protector charms and other goods. Foreigners will often be met with cries of “Hello! Lookie, lookie!” from vendors as they pass. If you want a more pleasant experience of the Jokhang and its surrounding Barkor area, go early in the morning, when the vendors have yet to set up their stalls. The walking area around the Jokhang has a more calming atmosphere at this time, and it’s easier to pay attention to the ancient buildings without being distracted by the shiny stones and relics for sale.
The entrance to the Jokhang is packed with Tibetans performing full-body prostrations all day, and the air is filled with the sound of wood sliding across concrete. Some mornings, when the sun has not yet dawned on the front of the building, one can’t hear anything else over the noise. If you have time, pay the 80 yuan entrance fee to the small wooden ticket booth to the right of the main entrance, closer to the secondary entrance. The Jokhang Temple has been restored in recent years, but the dark interior still feels ancient, and a glimpse at the architecture, not to mention the famous Jowo Rinpoche statue, is worth the entrance fee. The Jowo Rinpoche is considered the most sacred statue in Tibet, and was brought to Lhasa from China by one of King Songtsen Gampo’s wives. As if that weren’t enough of a reason to go, the roof offers a spectacular view of the square below, and even looks out onto the Potala Palace—the thirteen-storied winter residence of the Dalai Lamas.
From the Jokhang, follow the crowd in a clockwise direction around the temple, which is known as the Barkor. This area is Lhasa’s ancient city, where Tibetans perform circumambulations around the Jokhang, and where you can find various temples mixed together with modern shops and Tibetan apartment buildings. On the backside of the Barkor circuit lies the Xinhua Bookstore, which carries Tibetan language books, as well as those printed in Mandarin Chinese, and even some English books. Here you can buy a handheld electronic translator that works for Tibetan, Chinese, and English—a useful tool if you’re thinking of tackling a new language.
Nearby, you can find Makye Ama—a Tibetan-style restaurant that also has a branch in Beijing. Makye Ama sits above the Barkor’s southeastern corner, a bright yellow building with a round face makes it easy to find. If you climb the stairs to the restaurant, you’ll find a tastefully decorated interior, a variety of cuisines on the menu, but with hefty price tags. A simple hot water with a few tea leaves floating inside costs 10 yuan, which may not sound pricey, but take in to consideration the fact that most restaurants will serve you this hot water for free.
If you weave your way East, down the narrow street away from the Barkor, you’ll find the Muslim quarter, which is home to Lhasa’s only mosque. Nearby, down a winding alleyway, you can find Droepenling, an artist cooperative that sells handmade, high-quality goods, for a high but fair price.
Keep heading East, through the Muslim gate to the Barkor, take a right, and you’ll find yourself on an intersection that crosses Jiangsu Luo. From this intersection, you’ll notice a walled-in compound, complete with two-to-six-storied buildings painted white with red and black accents. This is the St. Regis Lhasa Resort, which was opened in November of 2010. On the outside, the St. Regis looks like a modernist twist on Tibetan architecture. On the inside, it hosts handmade Tibetan artifacts, paintings by a Shanghai-based French artist, and most notably, the lobby has floor-to-ceiling windows with a birds-eye view of the Potala Palace. If you’re looking to relax in style but can’t afford the steep room rates, the St. Regis has a tea room and restaurant on the same floor as the lobby, as well as a gift shop that carries handmade Tibetan goods and imported English-language magazines—Vogue and National Geographic, to name a few.
If the St. Regis isn’t your style, head back to the Barkor to grab food and drinks from the myriad number of restaurants and cafes. Gangkyi restaurant lies at the head of the square in front of the Jokhang, and offers a decently-priced menu as well as a beautiful view of the happenings on the street below. Summit Café, in the entrance to the Shambhala Hotel, is an American-owned café that employs Tibetan workers, and offers the best cup of coffee in Lhasa (as well as the cleanest toilets). Across from Summit lies Café Nomad, a warm Tibetan-owned restaurant that has nice views of the street from the window, as well as great food. Spin Café, a Tibetan-owned café located in an alley off of Beijing Luo, is a low-key little place to hole up in with a cup of tea. Lastly, La Bon Vie—Summit Café’s sister restaurant—lies on the second story of a building on Beijing Luo, the entrance of which is on Ramoche Road. In addition to great coffee, La Bon Vie serves pizza, salads, and French fries, if you’re feeling homesick.
If you’ve spent hours around the Barkor and want to explore Lhasa’s more modern side, head West on the road leading out of the Jokhang square, and you’ll quickly start seeing a change in scenery. Small Tibetan shops morph into clothing stores and malls that boast well-known brands like Nike and the like. At the end of the road lies the Lhasa Department Store, opened in the fall of 2010. The department store and the nearby Baiyu Supermarket offer hours of entertainment. Even if shopping isn’t your thing, it is still worth a look to expose yourself to Lhasa’s new-found modernity. If you’d rather not window shop, try your hand at a game of snooker—a popular sport some locals play avidly in Lhasa. There is a snooker hall conveniently located just across the way, on the fourth floor above a second Xinhua Bookstore.
When the sun sets, a good place to end your night is in the giant park in front of the Potala Palace, where water fountains have been installed in the middle of the giant square. Much like Disney’s Epcot, synchronized water shoots from the ground, accompanied by lights and music, with the enormous Potala lit up in the background. The park also holds a lake, with beautiful trees and walkways winding through it, and even benches to rest your feet after your walking tour of Lhasa.