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Third pole's enthralling experience

ON stepping outside of Lhasa Gonggar Airport, rather than being struck by altitude sickness, which any first-time visitor would expect, my initial sensory experience of Tibet Autonomous Region is visual. The afternoon sunshine dazzles, even though it is the middle of the winter, and a crystal-blue sky I've never seen before quickly enthralls my eyes and captures my heart.

Traveling in Tibet is a truly thrilling experience. Breathtaking natural scenery, mysterious history and culture, and the physical hardship caused by the high elevation of the so-called "3rd Pole of the World," contribute toward a uniquely charming trip. For travelers from non-elevated areas, the high-altitude conditions experienced at such a great height are short-lived and a small physical price to pay for a beautiful journey that is displayed in some of the world's most extreme forms.

While it may take weeks to travel across the Tibetan Plateau to appreciate the magnificent snow-covered peaks, turquoise-colored and mirror-like lakes, vast grassland as well as glorious monasteries, a packed trip of only a few days to the area's capital is also worth it, even though it will be mainly confined to visits to temples plus some dining and shopping around the city.

Palace and temples

As the most recognizable architectural landmark in Lhasa, if not the whole of Tibet, the Potala Palace is a vast group of buildings containing more than 1,000 rooms where about 10,000 shrines are housed. Sitting on top of the Red Mountain in the center of Lhasa Valley, the soaring red, white and yellow palace fits perfectly with the crystal-blue sky and delivers an ambience of holiness and grandeur with its facade alone.

A visit to the palace can be physically demanding and a few stops are absolutely necessary during the ascent.

A guide-accompanied tour, which usually takes about one hour, is highly recommended to make your trip much more informative when you wind through the dimly lit, museum-like labyrinth which has only a very small section open to the public to ensure its preservation.

The first palace was built in 637 by Songtsen Gampo, the founder of the Tibetan Empire, to greet his bride Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

The grand construction of the Potala Palace, as a seat of government, was actually started in 1645 by the Fifth Dalai Lama and lasted until 1694, 12 years after his death. The Red Palace was devoted to religious study and Buddhist prayer while the White Palace served as the living quarters.

The palace also looks awesome at night.

With Red Mountain standing silently as dusk prevails, Potala Palace is enveloped by subdued but warm light, adding a further veil of mystery to the sacred buildings.

With roofs covered with gilded bronze tiles, Jokhang, which means the "House of the Buddha," is the most sacred and important temple for most Tibetans.

Sitting on Barkhor Square in the old section of Lhasa and covering an area of about 25,000 square meters, Jokhang boasts a large and very important collection of Buddhist sculptures among which Jowo Shakyamuni - a bronze statue of the Buddha when he was 12 years old, carried by Princess Wencheng to Lhasa when she married Songtsen Gampo - is the most sacred.

All through the year, pilgrims circumambulate the temple following a route marked by four large stone incense burners placed at the corners of the temple complex before making their way to the main hall of the temple where the Jowo Shakyamuni statue is housed.

The rooftop of the four-story building provides an ideal bird's-eye view of the entire Jokhang Square where tourists and prostrating pilgrims remain a seldom-changing sight.

Monk debate

Watching monks debate on Buddhist doctrines is a must-see for visitors to Tibet. Among the many locations to witness this experience, Sera Monastery, about 2 kilometers north of Lhasa, is probably the most renowned.

A tradition to facilitate better comprehension of the Buddhist philosophy to attain higher levels of study, the debate, which usually begins daily at around 3pm in the debating courtyard of the monastery, is punctuated with physical gestures such as hand-clapping and palm-striking.

Monks playing the role of the questioner will present a case - on Buddhism-related topics usually - while those playing the defense are required to answer within a fixed time frame, mainly through intense verbal exchanges.

Even though the content of the debate is mainly confined to monks themselves, such enlivened debating, rarely seen in other parts of the country, makes a wonderful sight.

Owing to Tibet's unique geographic location and climate, locals have their own distinctive cuisine. Lacking vegetables and depending heavily on barley, the most common Tibetan food consists of tsamba - the staple food for Tibetans made from barley flour - ghee, air-dried meat, usually beef and mutton, as well as butter tea.

There are many nice restaurants and bars in Lhasa, decorated in traditional Tibetan styles and serving authentic local dishes. Some of those around the Jokhang Square and Barkhor Street area are wonderful places for doing nothing but idling away a whole afternoon in some upper level of a cosy bar surrounded by the plateau sunlight.

Teahouses that local Tibetans visit frequently may also offer you a brief escape from your busy, temple-centric schedule in Lhasa. Often packed with locals, those teahouses sell mainly sweet milk tea as well as Tibetan noodle soups, both at very cheap prices. Unlike butter tea, a daily beverage for Tibetans made from tea leaves, yak butter and salt, the sweet tea, made of black tea with milk and sugar, is more palatable to visitors due to its delicious taste.

Barkhor Street, an ancient shopping street around Jokhang Temple, is one of the busiest tourist attractions in Lhasa.

Here you will witness Buddhist pilgrims kowtowing along the street clockwise every day but for those in search of less-cultural pursuits such as shopping, the small alleys around the main street are a better choice.

Those with a long shopping list should avoid visiting between November and March, as many small shops are closed during the winter.

But it is a good time of the year to see Tibetan people from all over the region, many dressed-up, come to Lhasa to pray at the temples as well as do some new year shopping and take part in the celebrations.

How to get there and where to stay

Direct flights are presently not available between Shanghai and Lhasa with stops being made most frequently in Chengdu, Xi'an and Chongqing.

Lhasa has been accessible by train since 2006, when the Qinghai-Tibet Railway inaugurated its 1,142-kilometer section between Golmud in Qinghai Province and Lhasa.

As the political, economic and tourism center in Tibet, Lhasa offers travelers broad accommodation options - from international luxury resorts, midrange hotels to budget inns catering for backpackers. Advance booking is necessary during the peak season.

Last November, The St Regis Lhasa Resort was unveiled as the first international luxury resort in Tibet. Scheduled to fully open in the second quarter of this year, the hotel boasts awe-inspiring views of the Himalayas and the Lhasa Valley from each of its rooms which feature distinctive architecture and decor that entwine modern luxury with traditional Tibetan elements.


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