A fine night of rest had rejuvenated our bodies. Angela decided to rest a little longer at the hotel to tackle her altitude reactions. Maggie and I headed out at around 6:45am for a special mission. We walked to the nearby main street Jiangsu Road and hopped on a shared taxi (all taxis in Lhasa are shared taxis, meaning that the driver can take other customers along the way as long as everyone are heading for the similar direction). We got off near the west gate of the Potala Palace. Our mission was simply to queue for a time slot of our visit at the next day. Apparently during the high season (May to October), visitors of the Potala can only line up for a time slot a day in advance. On the actual day of visit, one would then need to arrive at a specific checkpoint at the given time slot, in order to get onto the main path that goes up to the ticket office high up in the palace.
We were told that even obtaining a time slot the day before would involve considerable amount of queuing time. Luckily we were not visiting Lhasa during the hottest time of the year, namely in August or the October 1st golden week of the Chinese National Day, when visitors would arrive at Potala’s west gate before 5:30am to guarantee a visiting time slot for the next day (according to bloggers online). It was mid September and we were told to come at around 7:30am for the queue. We arrived at around 7:20am and there were about 40 people standing in front of us. Every individual visitor must have an ID in order to obtain a single time slot ticket for the next day.
The sun wasn’t entirely up yet at 7:20. The sky was getting brighter by the minute. We stood at the parking lot in front of the reservation office, and admired the majestic Potala under the morning sun. At around 8:40am, Maggie decided to get some takeout for breakfast. She set off to a small eatery over at another parking lot nearby. Two minutes after she walked away, the queue began to move. I had no choice but to follow. Fortunately I had the ID of my two travel buddies with me, so had no problem reserving a 9:20am time slot for everyone of us in the next morning. Time was still early after we got our reservation tickets. Maggie and I decided to hop on a taxi to visit Drepung Monastery in the western suburb of Lhasa.
We arrived at the time reservation office at 7:20am.
There were about 40 people standing in front of us.
While we stood at the queue, the sky to the east was getting brighter.
Most shops near the reservation office were tourist related such as travel agents.
At around 8am, the morning sun began to cast a golden glow onto the sacred palace of Potala.
The golden glow on the Potala lasted for about 10 minutes. The splendid architecture of the red and white palaces created a perfect harmony in a majestic manner.
At around 8:15am, there was no sign that the reservation office would open any time soon. We watched the golden glow gradually disappeared on the Potala.
After we got the reservations for the next day, we walked over to the main street in front of Potala. The street was full of pilgrims walking the kora around the palace, which takes appropriate half an hour to complete.
Devoted pilgrims stopped in front of the Potala to read prayers and spin their ritual wheels.
As we walked east along Beijing Road in front of the Potala, we passed by the central gate of the palace where we would return the next day for our visit.
Looking from the southeast, the Potala looks as if surrounded by rows of young evergreen.
After we put down our bags into the hotel room, we couldn’t wait but to venture out into the alleyways of Barkhor Old Town. Soon we arrived at a security checkpoint where we needed to show our ID and put our bags through the x-ray. A little further beyond the checkpoint was a much wider stone paved street where almost all pedestrians moved in one direction. We knew we had arrived at the famous Barkhor Street (八廓街). We were all sleepy from the red eye flight. Angela got a bad headache from the high altitude. We had no particular itinerary for the day. We took our time to walk around the Barkhor Street, taking in the energy and Tibetan atmosphere of the ancient street, and dropping by the nearby Summit Cafe and Spinn Cafe for brief breaks.
Kora (སྐོར་ར) is the term for a pilgrimage circumambulation for Tibetan Buddhism around a sacred site or object in the clockwise direction. In Lhasa, if not the entire Tibet, the most popular kora route is undoubtedly the Barkhor Street (八廓街), the pedestrian circuit around the Jokhang Monastery (大昭寺). For over 1300 years the stone paved circuit was the most sacred pilgrim route for Tibetan Buddhists. Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo erected the Jokhang Monastery in 647, and the pilgrim path around the temple soon followed and had since then evolved into Barkhor Street. On the hand-polished stone pavers, uncounted pilgrims stepped on the Barkhor everyday, some would even perform prostration while moving clockwise along the Barkhor. Apart from prostrating, some pilgrims also spin their prayer wheels, chant mantra, or count their rosary beads.
Nowadays, other than its spiritual identity, Barkhor Street has also become a prime tourist destination of Lhasa. Souvenir shops have lined up along both sides of the famous street. For tourists, following the local pilgrims to stroll along Barkhor Street is compulsory. Beyond souvenir stores and gemstone shops, visitors may find religious shops selling all kinds of items for the pilgrims. For us, the Barkhor Street was the place that we walked by several times each day during our stay in Lhasa.
The route from our hotel opens to the Barkhor Street at the south side of the Jokhang Monastery, near a colourful flag post.
Many locals were dressed in traditional clothing while walking the kora on the Barkhor.
A turn near the colourful flag post led us to the square in front of Jokhang Monastery, where a group of pilgrims and tourists congregated.
At the Jokhang Square, local pilgrims passed by another colourful flag post.
There were constantly pilgrims prostrating in front of the Jokhang Monastery.
Visitors can no longer get in the original main entrance of Jokhang Monastery.
The original main entrance of Jokhang Monastery has become a small plaza for prostrating pilgrims and spectating tourists.
Going north from the Jokhang Square, the Barkhor Street gets narrow again into a retail street.
The Barkhor Street is flanked both sides by traditional Tibetan houses.
Along the Barkhor, there are quite a number of benches and seating areas for the pilgrims.
Makye Ame is a famous restaurant bar at the southeast corner of the Barkhor. Legend has it that Tsangyang Gyatso, the 6th Dalai Lama, met the girl he loved at this bar in the 17th century.
There are also hidden courtyards behind the traditional Tibetan houses on the Barkhor, where young artists and artisans gather to promote a new generation of Tibetan culture, as well as cool cafes and interesting bookstores targeted at the local youngsters.
Late afternoon is a popular time to walk the Barkhor, when the fierce highland sun becomes a more bearable.
Apart from Jokhang Monastery, there are a number of historical buildings at Barkhor, including this former office of the Qing government representatives.
Smaller in scale than the famous monasteries, local Buddhist temples such as this one on the Barkhor Street is equally interesting with vibrant worshiping scenes.
Both pilgrims and tourists love to interact with the Buddhist prayer wheels.
Inside the small temple there is a much bigger prayer wheel where pilgrims move clockwise with the turning wheel inside.
Police has a strong presence at Barkhor Street, with security stations set up at certain spots.
Tea shops and shopping centre of gemstone shops dotted around the Barkhor Street.
Before sunset, Barkhor Street can get pretty crowded with pilgrims and tourists.
Among all the pilgrims and tourists that we had seen on the Barkhor Street, probably this old man and his seven dogs had captured the most attention.
From the Airport Shuttle Bus Station near the Potala, we flagged down a taxi for the last bit of journey for reaching Trichang Labrang Hotel. Trichang Labrang is located in a small alley called Lugu Lane No. 5 (鲁固5巷) in the Barkhor (八廓) Old Town near the famous Jokhang Temple. Our taxi dropped us at one of the entrances of Lugu Lane along Jiangsu Road. In the labyrinth of small alleys, it took us a moment to figure out the way to reach the hotel’s main door. The courtyard building has been part of the old city for 300 years, and was once a former residence of Trijang Rinpoche, a former junior tutor to the current 14th Dalai Lama.
We entered the hotel through a courtyard. At the reception, each of us was greeted by the staff with a white scarf. The hotel was full of charming Tibetan touches, and dotted with vintage decorations in the common areas. The rooms were basic, decent in size and colorfully painted, but might need a renovation soon. A pleasant veranda overlooking the entrance courtyard connected all rooms and common areas on the upper level.
The area around Trichang Labrang Hotel is a quiet residential neighborhood in the Barkhor Old Town. With a vibrant street life, it is only a stone throw away from the popular tourist area of Barkhor Street and Jokhang Temple (大昭寺). Over the course of our stay in Lhasa, we had the opportunity to wander around the centuries old neighborhood around our hotel at different times of the day, discovering interesting small shops and eateries, and historical courtyard complexes and community Buddhist temples along the way.
The main entrance of Trichang Labrang Hotel could be easily missed. It was located at a T-intersection of two alleyways in a peaceful residential neighborhood in the Barkhor Old Town.
This playful little dog of the hotel hung out around the neighborhood and was a friend to many neighbors. Sometimes it sat on the chair at the hotel door to welcome us, sometimes it stretched under the chair to enjoy a peaceful nap.
The colourful painting on the hotel main door reminded visitors of its heritage and history.
The entrance courtyard of the hotel seemed under used but we loved the vine that stretched like a large canopy sheltering the fierce highland sun.
The hotel rooms on the second and third floor open around a veranda overlooking the courtyard.
There is a beautiful old photo of Potala Palace hung on the veranda wall. The photo captured the moment of Lhasa long before it was modernized.
An old sewing machine outside of our room.
The interior of the room was not as charming as the public space. It was spacious and had touches of Tibetan decoration. The accommodation was basic and equipped with a kettle and a humidifier. The ceiling mounted heat lamp in the bathroom was quite handy as it heated up the space while the shower water slowly warmed up. We generally had a fine stay except for the annoying mosquitoes that sometimes woke us up in the middle of the night.
Outside of the hotel, the alleyway to the right would lead us to the main street Jiangsu Road in a few minutes.
These playful dogs around the corner from the hotel loved to chase each other. They ran from store to store to get people’s attention, and barked at strangers occasionally. Every store owner seemed to know these dogs very well.
Deep fried potato chips seemed to be a popular snack in Tibet. It was usually served with chili powder.
It was a beautiful to watch the colorful prayer’s flag dancing in the air against the blue sky above the alleyways of the Barkhor Old Town.
We love strolling along the streets in Barkhor Old Town, either north to the area around Jokhang Temple or east to an area with several Muslim mosques alongside with Buddhist temples. In the east neighborhood there was also Pandatsang (邦達倉) Compound, another historical courtyard complex where we ended up enjoying two good Tibetan meals at the courtyard restaurant “Our Tibetan Restaurant” (咱们的藏餐馆).
At the end of the alleyway in front of our hotel, Angela discovered a small Buddhist temple popular with local pilgrims.
From our hotel enroute to the Barkhor Street (八廓) and Jokhang Temple (大昭寺), we would need to pass through a number of old shopping alleyways and a security checkpoint. Quite a number of shops were owned by young people whose merchandised offered a more unique and personal touch to the local culture.
When night fell, the shopping alleyways with atmospheric shopfronts turned peaceful. Many stores, such as the Tibetan textile shop and western cafe in this photo remained open till late in the evening.
We often passed by the same neighborhood convenient store where we get bottled water.
Finding our way back to the hotel at night was often a pleasant walk after dinner.
Our wayfinding was primarily based on special “landmarks” where we would need to make a turn. Despite every alleyway looked the same, this method of finding our way worked pretty well.
The alleyways could get quite dark at certain spots, but we never felt unsafe walking around at night.
Leaving all daily troubles behind, we left Hong Kong for Chengdu on a Friday evening in mid September. By the time we arrived at the provincial capital of Sichuan two hours later, it was almost 11pm. We had several hours to kill at Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport (成都雙流國際機場) before our connecting flight to Lhasa at 6am the next morning. At Terminal 1 of Chengdu , we sat down at a quiet corner in the departure hall until 3am. Then we exited the terminal, and walked over to Terminal 2 for our Lhasa flight. We were sleepy as expected, and could only managed to get a bit more rest on the 2-hour flight. After an hour into the flight, the sun was already up above the clouds. As we approached Tibet, we could occasionally see beautiful snow-capped peaks sticking out of the clouds. During the descend, after our plane passed through the thick layer of clouds, we were excited to find the glorious terrains of the Tibetan Plateau below. The Yarlung Zangbo River (雅魯藏布江) and Lhasa River (拉薩河) near Lhasa Gonggar Airport (拉薩貢嘎機場) glowed under the morning sun. Our plane made a few turns before touching down onto the runway strip surrounded by patches of yellow trees. We didn’t prearrange any pick up from the airport. There were plenty of airport buses outside the airport and only costed us 25 RMB each (compared to 300 RMB for taxi and 500 RMB for private pickup). The ride to Central Lhasa took roughly an hour.
It was almost midnight when we arrived at Chengdu.
At 3am, we walked over to Terminal 2 for our Lhasa flight.
Occasional snow-capped peaks appeared above the clouds.
Despite exhaustion from the sleepless night, the excitement of seeing the mountainous landscape below kept our eyes opened until landing.
Descending below the layer of clouds was like entering a different world.
Under the clouds, the rugged landscape and the river valley received the first morning light of the day.
The flow of Yarlung Zangbo River (雅魯藏布江) offers a touch of colour to the otherwise dark brown terrain near Lhasa.
Under the light of morning sun, Yarlung Zangbo River (雅魯藏布江) glowed in the dark and rugged terrains.
The flood plains of Yarlung Zangbo River (雅魯藏布江) near the airport were dotted with yellow trees.
Surrounded by rugged mountains, Lhasa Gonggar Airport (拉薩貢嘎機場) is a simple airport that connects Lhasa to several Chinese cities including Chengdu and Beijing.
The bus ride out to Central Lhasa took about an hour. The journey passed by river valleys and through mountain tunnels until reaching the suburb of Lhasa.
The bus passed by the majestic Potala as it approached the station nearby.
At the bus station at the shadow of the Potala, our exploration of Lhasa officially began.
It has been many years since I dreamed of visiting Tibet. Yet it only took us a little over a month to plan for this trip and invite our Canadian friend Maggie to join. The itinerary consisted of two parts: 4 days in Lhasa and surrounding monasteries, and 6 days on the road climaxed with a close encounter with Mount Everest’s north face at the Everest Base Camp. Apart from occasional hassles of security checkpoints, our Tibetan story was largely filled with breathtaking scenery, photogenic monasteries and joyful laughter among the three of us.
Under rapid modernization in recent years, Tibet has been changing drastically. Since the opening of Qinghai-Tibet Railway, more highways and rail roads are being constructed every year, connecting Tibet with the rest of China. Modern infrastructure has brought in a large influx of local tourists and commercial goods. Given the inevitable social changes and urbanization of Lhasa, we were delighted to discover that the local Tibetan lifestyle is still going strong at many places, especially at Buddhist monasteries where locals pilgrims and monks still practise their traditional rituals, and at rural areas where farmers still live off the land raising yaks and sheep, and farming the famous Highland barley.
For 11 days we had the blessing of promising weather, even the infamous gusty and freezing weather at Everest Base Camp and Namtso Lake didn’t come to trouble us while we enjoyed the spectacle of the Milky Way and shooting stars over snow-capped mountains. The rich culture of Tibetan Buddhism was equally spectacular and visible almost everywhere from vivid prayer flags at mountain passes to the myriad of prostrating pilgrims around Jokhang Monastery and the majestic Potala in Lhasa. For us, the centuries old spirituality was inseparable from the Tibetan landscape. At the land of mystic Shangri-La where heavenly landscapes coincide with the spirituality of the Buddhist Mandala, we had experienced a marvelous journey that defied fatigue from a red eye flight, occasional altitude sickness, and days of awful toilets.
Our first part of the trip concentrated on exploring Lhasa, the sacred capital of Tibet. Walking the clockwise kora (pilgrimage) on Barkhor Street around Jokhang Monastery was an interesting experience that we had everyday during our stay in Lhasa.
Our second part of the trip was an remarkable road journey of ancient monasteries and spectacular scenery of snow-capped mountains and pristine lakes. We were fortunate to enjoy beautiful weather and clear sky while admiring the starry sky from the Everest Base Camp and Namtso Lake.
The sky was grey on our last day in Tokyo. We decided to spend the morning at nearby Harajuku (原宿). We moved our suitcase and backpack to the lockers in Shibuya Station (渋谷), and then took the JR Yamanote Line (山手線) one stop over to Harajuku. Despite we had been to Harajuku a few times, we had never ventured beyond the shopping and entertainment areas. This time, we decided to spend a peaceful morning at Meiji Jingu (明治神宮), the Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, the insightful leader who modernized Japan at the end of the 19th century. Built in 1920, the original shrine complex was destroyed during World War Two. The shrine was rebuilt soon after the war. We had seen photographs of the large and lovely torii gates at the forested path of Meiji Shrine. It was interesting to see such massive and traditional wooden structures surrounded by mature trees at the heart of Tokyo, just a stone throw away from all the neon lights of youthful Takeshita Street (竹下通り) and fashionable Omotesandō (表参道). While we were there, some buildings were under renovations for its 100th anniversary in 2020. We took our time to walk around the compound, wrote down our wishes on an ema (wooden plate to hang at the shrine), and enjoyed a peaceful walk in the urban forest.
Before heading back to Shibuya for the Narita Express, we dropped by the roof garden of Tokyu Plaza for breakfast. Most shops had yet opened their doors in Harajuku, and we had another quiet moment in an urban oasis. By the time we returned to Shibuya to pick up our luggage, it finally started to rain. The rain lasted for the entire afternoon. It was still raining heavily when our plane took off at the runway of Narita later that day.
There are a few locker areas at Shibuya Station. We almost went to a wrong locker area to pick up our luggage. Luckily, when we left our luggage we took a photo of the locker area to remind ourselves, and that proved handy at the end.
The timber structure of Harajuku Station is unique in Tokyo. Hopefully this historical building can survive the massive redevelopment of the area prior to the Olympic Games.
We loved the massive torii gate of Meiji Jingu. The natural finish matches perfectly with the surrounding forest.
Sake offering at the Meiji Jingu.
The second large torii gate midway into the path of Meiji Jingu.
Quite a number of buildings at Meiji Jingu were under renovation for 2020.
There were a lot of visitors at the early hours of the day.
The natural appearance of a Japanese timber structure offers the best harmony with the surrounding nature.
Writing the Ema (wooden prayer plates) is always fun.
After hanging our ema, we bid farewell to the peaceful Meiji Jingu.
Time was still early when we walked to Tokyu Plaza. Since the shopping centre had yet opened its doors, we found our way up to the roof garden via an elevator at the side.
The roof garden of Tokyu Plaza is always a great place to hang out. While some were having breakfast like us, there were a few dozing off at the far corners.
Not many visitors were around. We could admire the interesting design of the decking.
Looking down to the intersection of Omotesando and Meiji Jingumae, the popular crossing were almost empty of pedestrians.
The rain hadn’t arrived yet, and we had a relaxing breakfast at the roof garden.
Across Sumida River from Ryogoku and south of touristy Asakusa lies the low key Kuramae (蔵前), a hub for young artists and craftsmen in Tokyo. After visiting two interesting museums in Sumida, we opted for a moment of relaxation just a stone throw away at Kuramae. Like many up and coming neighborhoods, Kuramae contains a rather leisure atmosphere. Without the tourist crowds that we would normally see in other more popular areas of Tokyo, there were still a considerable amount of local visitors in the area. Queues were lined up in front of some of the most popular shops such as Kakimori, the wonderful shop of handmade stationery, fountain pens and anything related to writing. We started off at Camera, a cosy little cafe selling good coffee, snacks, and handmade leather accessories.
We started our brief Kuramae visit at Camera cafe.
We sat by the long counter with coffee and snacks. There were a few racks and shelves of leather accessories on display behind us.
Maito offers a wide range of clothes and accessories made with dyes extracted from nature, such as flowers and tree bark.
The most popular shop in Kuramae we encountered was undoubtedly Kakimori stationery shop. Visitors lined up outside the shop waiting for their turn to put together a custom made notebook with self-selected paper, cover, ribbon, etc.
Inside Kakimori, other visitors were busy checking out the fountain pens, ink, and other writing accessories.
Dandelion Chocolate was another highly popular bean-to-bar chocolate factory originated from San Francisco.
We also spent some time at Koncept, a trendy shop with cool merchandises from all over Japan.
After Kuramae, we took the metro to visit another interesting trendy fashion and design store, the La Kagu. A grand wooden staircase provided a welcoming gesture for all pedestrians and visitors.
Converted from a 1965 warehouse of a publishing company by renowned architect Kengo Kuma (隈研吾), La Kagu immediately became a retail landmark in at Kagurazaka (神楽坂).
La Kagu is consisted of different lifestyle zones: food, clothing, shelter and knowledge.
After La Kagu, we walked along the high street of Kagurazaka (神楽坂). Kagurazaka (神楽坂) is a traditional Japanese neighborhood with a French twist, thanks to the considerable number of French expats living in the area.
Cafes, restaurants, bakeries and boutiques line up the high street of Kagurazaka (神楽坂).
In a side street, we stopped by a ramen store for dinner.
We ordered our ramen from the machine outside.
The friendly staff then prepared our bowls right in front of us.
No complain could be made by ending the day with a bowl of delicious ramen in a local neighborhood of Tokyo.