Lhasa’s Monasteries: The Verdict

May 24 – 27, 2014
Photo set on Flickr

You would think the feeling of reaching one of the most remote corners on Earth would be astonishment, but the word most commonly used by travelers to describe Lhasa turns out to be disappointing. A massive modernization drive has transformed the Tibetan capital into a disheartening concrete mess that looks like an impromptu creation on Minecraft by a three-year-old, or in other words a typical contemporary Chinese city. Most people treat it as a mandatory pit stop, a place to acclimatize to the high altitude and stock up on necessities before moving on to the countryside where the presence of Han Chinese is less pervasive.

But wait – isn’t Lhasa home to countless esteemed monasteries and monuments, some of which are even inscribed as World Heritage Sites? That’s technically true; on paper Lhasa has a long list of centuries-old religious institutions, headlined by a trio of WHS: Potala Palace, Jokhang Monastery and Norbulingka. Unfortunately the Cultural Revolution, like everywhere else across China, brought an irreversible amount of destruction to Lhasa’s cultural legacy.

The physical infrastructure has been gradually rebuilt over the subsequent decades, but money can only buy so much – the spiritual nature of these sites are in perpetual decline under the Communist Party’s despotic rule. Thousands of monks have exiled to India and Nepal, and the remaining minority’s freedom of speech is severely curtailed. And similar to everywhere else across the Middle Kingdom, Lhasa’s attractions are prohibitively expensive. Adding the crucial fact you should take it slowly in Tibet’s thin air, Lhasa, perhaps more than anywhere else, is a place where you shouldn’t follow an ambitious to-do list.

Here is where I come in – below is my take on which sites are truly worthy of your time to save you some energy and cash before both take a huge hit when you hit the road out of Lhasa.

Potala Palace 布達拉宮

I will begin with a gutsy recommendation: Don’t visit the Potala Palace. No, I am not telling you not to marvel this grand structure from the outside; heck, it is almost impossible to miss this most prominent symbol of Tibet from anywhere in central Lhasa. What I am saying is you shouldn’t pay the hefty price to get in.

Constructed under the rule of the 5th Dalai Lama in 1649, the Potala Palace had served as the residence of the Dalai Lama as well as the seat of the Tibetan government until the 1959 Tibetan uprising. Today the palace continues to dominate Lhasa’s skyline and looks as spectacular as ever from the outside. But, as with most religious institutions in Tibet over the past five decades, Potala Palace now is merely a shell of its former glorious self, the only function being a relic of Tibetan culture that no longer resembles what’s happening in today’s Tibet.

Of the 1,000-plus rooms in the palace, only a handful is renovated and opened to public, the most notable being the Great West Hall and its beautiful murals. Your visit is also limited by three factors:

1) Your route is set from east to west and you can’t backtrack
2) Your visit is limited to one hour
3) Photography is not allowed

Despite these restrictions, the Potala Palace remains the top draw in Lhasa even when the authority charges an insane ¥200 per person during the high season, and you are required to go to the palace one day in advance of your intended day of visit to reserve a spot.

Now, not ponying up for the Potala Palace remains a cavalier choice, and one that I have personally followed through without regret. Every backpacker I have met in Lhasa gives the faintest of praise about the palace’s interior before ranting about the expensive admission and unfriendly ticketing scheme. Yes they have ticked off a must-see on the list, but I would much rather invest my time on getting up before dawn and photographing the palace from the lookout on Yaowang Mountain (藥王山), and then join the pilgrims on their morning circumambulation around the holy site.

Even big name attractions can become letdowns when you see them in person. Stop following the herd and try another angle, and you just might be able to come home free from the sour sting of dissatisfaction.

Verdict: Go around but not inside

Opening hours: 9:00 – 12:00 & 15:00 – 17:00
Admission fee: ¥100 (Nov 1 – Apr 30); ¥200 (May 1 – Oct 31)
Photography: Not allowed
Transport: 20-min walk west from the Barkhor

Jokhang Monastery 大昭寺

If the Potala Palace is the symbol of Lhasa, then the Jokhang Monastery is its beating heart. The Jokhang’s main chapel and temple ground are two of the four most important pilgrimage routes in Lhasa, and every day in the early morning and late afternoon pilgrims pray in front of the temple and circumambulate thrice around the complex.

Constructed by the first emperor of a united Tibet Songsten Gampo in the 7th century, the temple was first designed according to India’s vihara style and later incorporated some Nepalese and Tang Chinese aspects. The arrival of the Indian preacher Atisha in the 11th century lent legitimacy to the Jokhang and established it as the leading institution in Lhasa. This status regrettably couldn’t protect the Jokhang from widespread looting and destruction during the Cultural Revolution.

The Jokhang is likely most people’s introduction to a Tibetan temple. Natural light and air circulation are not important aspects for Tibetan architecture as the interior is very dim and filled with the smell of butter lamps. The temple has four floors; located on the first floor is the main hall where the monks meditate and pray in the middle while the outer corridors are lined with thangkas and Buddha statues. The rooftop contains the iconic golden Dharma wheel and a fine view of the Barkhor and the Potala Palace.

Verdict: Everyone shows up for this introduction

Opening hours: 9:00 – 18:00
Admission fee: ¥35 (Oct 20 – Apr 20); ¥85 (Apr 21 – Oct 19)
Photography: ¥90 for permit to photograph the main hall
Transport: Barkhor Square

Norbulingka 羅布林卡

Confession: I didn’t bother with Norbulingka. This former summer residence of the Dalai Lama was almost razed to the ground during the Cultural Revolution and the current buildings were rebuilt only in 2009.

Verdict: Forget about it

Opening hours: 9:00 – 18:00
Admission fee: ¥60
Photography: Allowed
Transport: No. 14 bus, get off at Norbulingka station

Ramoche Temple 小昭寺

The sister temple to Jokhang, Ramoche was commissioned by Songsten Gampo’s wife Princess Wencheng to house the Jowo Rinpoche statue she brought along from the Tang Empire. The statue was soon transferred to Jokhang upon the threat of a Tang invasion, and that’s just the beginning of Ramoche’s turbulent history. Originally built in Chinese style to commemorate the arrival of the Tang princess, it was destroyed by the Mongols and a Tibetan three-storied structure was constructed in 1474. During the Cultural Revolution the building was again sacked. What’s standing today is a product of the last rebuild in 1986.

After seeing Jokhang there is not much reason to see this twenty-year-ago replica, but it is a good excuse to wander away from the Barkhor to the less touristy Ramoche Road where locals aren’t outnumbered by tourists.

Verdict: A passable digression from the Barkhor

Opening hours: 9:00 – 17:00
Admission fee: ¥20
Photography: Allowed
Transport: 10-min walk north from the Barkhor

Drepung Monastery 哲蚌寺

The largest monastery in Tibet and famous for its thangka-basking festivity during the Sho Dun Festival, Drepung is located at the foot of Mt. Gephel on Lhasa’s western outskirt. This six-hundred-year-old monastery is one of the three great Gelugpa monasteries in Lhasa (along with Drepung and Ganden) and was once home to ten-thousand monks, yet sadly today a mere 300 are sheltered under its roof due to a mass exodus to India and Nepal. Those who remains are strictly monitored by the Chinese authority, as seen when some Drepung monks organized a celebration for the awarding of the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama in March 2008. Their immediate arrest triggered a large scale protest and later erupted into a violent riot in Lhasa. According to human rights groups around 100 Tibetan died in the ensuring crackdown. Drepung was shut down for five months.

It is no longer the bustling religious center of the past, and Drepung’s slightly out-of-the-way location means this sprawling complex receives very little traffic outside of the Sho Dun Festival. If you can’t make it to Drak Yerpa (will cover later) then this is your best bet to get away from the crowd in central Lhasa. Here you can quietly take in the many details of a thangka or a Buddha statue in an unobtrusive setting without being pushed out of the way by tour groups.

Verdict: Go if you can’t make it to Drak Yerpa

Opening hours: 9:00 – 13:00
Admission fee: ¥55
Photography: Allowed
Transport: No. 3 bus, get off at Drepung Monastery. 30 min uphill walk from the station to the main temple

Sera Monastery 色拉寺

Of the three great Gelugpa monasteries in Lhasa, Ganden is the most likely to be skipped because of the two-hour commute required. Sera on the other hand attracts tourists in droves – all of them are drawn by the monastery’s daily (except Monday) debate session. While debate is an integral part of Buddhism learning, only a few monasteries encourage their pupils to reason not only with words but also physical gestures.

Only the junior monks participate in the open session – their daily practice has become a major tourist draw and the atmosphere resembles that of a goofy spectacle more than a solemn religious exercise. Some have even speculated Sera is completely in charge by the Communist authority and the monks who participate in the debate session are non-believers hired to keep tourists entertained.

If you are easily perturbed by a perceived lack of authenticity, you can give Sera a pass. But it is best to see this unique practice in person and form your own judgement afterward.

Verdict: Come visit but temper your expectation

Opening hours: 9:00 – 18:30; Debate starts at 15:00 (n/a on Mondays)
Admission fee: ¥25 (Oct 20 – Apr 20); ¥55 (Apr 21 – Oct 19)
Photography: Allowed
Transport: No. 5 bus, get off at Sera Monastery station

Drak Yerpa 扎葉巴寺

Last but not least, Drak Yerpa is by far my favorite place in all of Lhasa. Located 25 km northeast of Lhasa, it takes some effort to reach, but your reward is a dramatically located monastery on a hillside that appears to have been forgotten by the rest of the world. Songtsen Gampo (the same king who built the Jokhang) founded this monastery 1,500 years ago for his queen. One century later his heir Trisong Detsen invited the Indian sorcerer Padmasambhava to his kingdom, who subsequently converted 108 caves along the cliffs into meditation chambers.

Today some of the caves are still in use, but like most other temples in and around Lhasa most buildings of Drak Yerpa were damaged during the Cultural Revolution. What makes this monastery memorable is not the recently rebuilt buildings but its location. I am not simply referring to the scenery; Drak Yerpa’s remoteness offers a buffer from the bureaucracy in Lhasa to allow the few dozen monks who remain to ever so marginally open up a little and have a genuine chat with the very few who do visit.

Unless transport improves this place will remain off the beaten path, and I hope it will always remain as such. Visit only after you have spent a few days in Lhasa as there is some uphill climbing.

Verdict: I can’t recommend this place enough, but limited transport options means most people will skip it

Opening hours: 9:00 – 17:30
Admission fee: ¥30
Photography: Allowed
Transport: Bus at Jokhang Square between 7:30 – 8:00

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