After a simple noodle lunch, we hopped on a taxi for Sera Monastery ( སེ་ར་དགོན་པ 色拉寺). At the northern suburb of Lhasa, Sera is a popular destination among foreign tourists where its famous debate sessions usually take place in the afternoon. Unlike Drepung where reaching the monastery required ascending the Mount Gephel, accessing Sera Monastery from the main road was just a few minutes’ walk. There weren’t too many tourists around. As one of the three main Gelug university monasteries in Tibet, Sera is consisted of a series of colleges, residences, and assembly halls on its 28 acres of land. Once with a monastic population of about 5000, the current monastery is a shadow of its past. Founded in 1419 by Sakya Yeshe, Sera Monastery has gone through ups and downs in history. Fortunately, the monastery was left relatively undamaged during the Cultural Revolution in 1960s.
Beyond the main entrance, we passed by the large stupa Tsangba Kangtsang and a row of prayer wheels circled by several devoted pilgrims. We turned left into a small alleyway between several small buildings and continued to the courtyard of Sera Me College. We entered the main hall and visited the upper deck of the building. There were hardly any tourists around, except a few prostrating pilgrims at the front veranda. We then headed over to Sera Je College, the largest college in Sera, and Tsogchen, the Main Assemble Hall, before finding our way to the famous debate courtyard. Many visitors had already gathered at the perimeter of the courtyard. In the middle of the courtyard sat a large group of monks all dressed in red robes. Full of anticipation, we sat down on the pavement curb behind the monks, hoping to witness their unique exchange despite we knew we couldn’t understand the Tibetan language. We soon realized that the particular day of our visit was an exam day for the young learners instead of a regular debate session. Instead of forming small debate groups, each young monk were given a brief time to perform his speeches and gestures in front of a panel of two teachers. It was interesting to watch how the young monks perform their hand clapping and speeches in attempt to win over the crowds and the teachers. We stayed for about half an hour before heading back to the monastery entrance and quickly hopped on a taxi returning to the Barkhor Old City of Lhasa.
There were more lamas than tourists at the entrance when we arrived at Sera Monastery.
The first thing in Sera Monastery we encountered was a large stupa and a row of prayer wheels.
We walked into a lane left of the entrance attempting to find Sera Me College.
The colourful monastery buildings were quite eye catching. We wandered into different empty courtyards before reaching Sera Me College.
The Sera Me College dates back to the earliest years of the monastery.
Like many other monasteries, the stair at Sera Me College was really steep.
The front veranda of Sera Me College were occupied by prostrating pilgrims.
We had seen this checker pattern several times at different Tibetan monasteries.
Next we walked over to the largest college at Sera Monastery: the Sera Je College.
We had a peaceful moment at the upper level of Sera Je College.
The flat roof of Sera Je College was also accessible, but we couldn’t stay for long because of the strong afternoon sun.
It was fortunate that most buildings at Sera Monastery escaped damages from the Cultural Revolution.
We then returned to the maze of alleyways and headed towards the Main Assembly Hall.
Dated back to 1710, the Tsogchen (Main Assembly Hall) is the largest buildings in Sera Monastery.
We rested a bit under the shade on the upper level of the Main Assembly Hall.
After Main Assembly Hall, we returned to the main path and walked to the Debate Courtyard at the far end.
Through the doorway, we could see the courtyard was already filled up with spectators.
The young monks walked out one by one to perform their debate speech and body gestures.
We sat down behind a group of monks for a while and watched the performances by several monks.
We arrived at the central gate of the Potala at around 9am. We excitedly looked up at the magnificent icon of Lhasa as we entered the palace ground beyond the first security checkpoint. We found our way towards the main ramp that ascend up to the Potala. Before climbing up, we made a brief stop at a small museum that housed a decent collection of treasures from the palace. Despite its interesting exhibit, we didn’t stay long as we wouldn’t want to miss our time slot for the palace visit. The walk up the main ramp looked easier than it actually was. Because of the 3700m altitude, the climb up the main ramp to the Potala may prove challenging to many tourists who haven’t completely acclimatized to the Tibetan highlands. We took our time walking up to the ticket office near the top palace level. After all the effort of pre-booking and climbing, we finally got a real admission ticket for the Potala. A flight of steps led us up a colourful passage to a open courtyard known as Deyang Shar. After a brief break at Deyang Shar, we walk to the far side of the courtyard and followed other tourists and tour guides up a small set of triple stairs into the White Palace. The Deyang Shar was the final spot of our visit that we were allowed to take photographs.
The first room we arrived at was the throne room of the Dalai Lamas. Walking into the former throne room felt like entering into a scene of Scorsese’s movie Kundun. The visit continued to a series of Dalai Lamas’ former reception rooms, meditation room, study room, etc. After the Dalai Lama’s living quarter in the White Palace, we continued our visit to the Red Palace from the top (3rd floor) down. On our way down the floors and through the chapels and assembly halls, we passed by impressive statues, golden chortens of former Dalai Lamas, mysterious chapels such as Chapel Arya, one of the oldest structures in the Potala built by King Songtsen Gampo. If not the noisy tourists and their rude tour guides were virtually everywhere in the visitor route, our Potala visit would be much more pleasant. One of the highlights was the 12.6m chorten of the 5th Dalai Lama. Gilded with 3.7 kg of gold, the chorten of the 5th Dalai Lama was significantly larger than the other chortens displayed in Chapel of the Holy Born.
In 7th century, King Songtsen Gampo erected his royal palace on the Marpo Ri (Red Hill). A thousand years later, construction of the Potala’s White Palace (Kharpo Podrang) began in 1645 under the order of the 5th Dalai Lama. In late 17th century, the larger Red Palace (Marpo Podrang) was also built to house the funeral chorten of the 5th Dalai Lama. Since then, the Potala has become the residence and final resting place of the Dalai Lamas. In modern days, the Potala was largely spared from the destructing forces of the Red Army during the Cultural Revolution. Extensive renovations took place in the 1990s to restore the palace. Since then, the Potala has been turned into an open air museum that attracts thousands of visitors everyday.
The palace visit took us about 2 hours. We exited the Potala from its back entrance. A prominent walkway zigzagged down the Marpo Ri, leading us to the kora path of pilgrims that surrounded the base of the Potala. We followed the kora path and entered the Zongjiao Lukang Park (宗角祿康公園) north of the palace. Large groups of park users were dancing at different open areas in the park under loud music. We strolled for a bit in the park and then moved on to find a small noodle eatery for lunch.
Unlike the mysterious night scene, the morning view of the Potala was splendid and elegant.
During our visit, we only had access to small parts of the White and Red Palace.
Despite the access and photography restrictions, a visit to the Potala is still a must-do for most tourists in Lhasa.
To reach the ticket office of the Potala, walking up the main ramp is the second major challenge for many tourists (the first challenge being getting up early to queue for the pre-booking.
From the main ramp, we could clearly see the Potala Square (布達拉宮廣場) beyond Beijing Road.
After an exhausting climb to the top, we finally reached the entrance gate and the ticket office.
From the entrance gate, we could see the beautiful landscape outside of the city of Lhasa.
The mural of the heavenly guards and other mythical figures caught the attention of every visitors passed through the entrance gate.
The entrance door was beautifully decorated with colourful details.
After the entrance gate, we passed through a flight of colourful stair up to the entrance courtyard of the White Palace called Deyang Shar.
The Deyang Shar is a pleasant courtyard that serves as the entrance for the White Palace, and the courtyard is also the last spot where visitors are allowed to take photographs during their Potala visit.
The visit of the Potala for all tourists begins with the White Palace.
At the Deyang Shar, groups of tourists began their palace visit via a steep stair.
After the visit we exited the Potala at the back side of the palace.
We walked down a pleasant walkway down the Marpo Ri.
The walkway led us down to the kora path of pilgrims that surrounded the base of the Potala.
Along the kora path there were small shrines for pilgrims.
Near the Zongjiao Lukang Park, we passed by a popular shrine frequented by pilgrims.
We followed the kora path and entered the Zongjiao Lukang Park (宗角祿康公園) north of the palace.
We strolled for a bit in Zongjiao Lukang Park and then moved on to find a small noodle eatery nearby for lunch.
Across the street from the Potala lies the 600m x 400m Potala Square (布達拉宮廣場). Every night, at the centre of the square the large musical fountain attracts a small group of spectators to watch the dancing water jets in front of the architectural icon of Lhasa. The once mystical scene of the Potala with flickering candle lights at each window is now replaced with consistent flood lights illuminated from below. Today, after the palace museum closes for the evening, there are hardly any light appear from inside the palace windows. In the evening, stream of pilgrims pass in front of the palace, and so as the busy traffic on Beijing Road, and groups of tourists by the musical fountain at the Potala Square.
We didn’t come for the fountain show, but for the water puddles on the floor. According to Pazu of Spinn Cafe, the water puddles of the musical fountain provide a great opportunity to photograph the splendid reflection of the Potala Palace. All we needed to do was to wait for the moments of gaps between the water jets changed their programmed movements. The uplights changed colours simultaneously as the water rose and fell. Beyond Beijing Road, the well-lit backdrop of the Potala seemed a little distant and lonely.
After a nice chat with Pazu of Spinn Cafe, we took a taxi to the Potala for its evening view.
Near Potala west entrance, we crossed Beijing Road via a pedestrian tunnel and arrived at the enormous Potala Square.
We walked to the musical fountain near the centre of Potala Square.
Then we waited for the photogenic moments when the water jets stopped and the tranquil reflection of the palace appeared on the ground.
Watching the tourist silhouettes posing in the reflection was quite a pleasant scene.
Pazu Kong (薯伯伯), a young gentleman from Hong Kong, traveled to Tibet in 2006 with Oat, his travel buddy from Thailand. They spent three months on the road from Thailand to Lhasa. Once arrived, they decided to stay at the sacred city and opened a cafe in the Barkhor Old City. Since then, Pazu’s Spinn Cafe (風轉咖啡館) has become a Lonely Planet recommended hub for travelers (from Hong Kong and elsewhere) to gather and seek for travel advises. Pazu also arranges jeep hire for travelers. We learnt about Pazu from his book “Spinning in Tibet, Selling Coffee in Lhasa (風轉西藏)”. Written in 2009, his book offers a glimpse of his interesting Tibetan experience. About a month before departure, we contacted Pazu for our jeep hire. We asked for an experienced Tibetan driver to take us to the Mount Everest Base Camp, Namtso Lake and a few other destinations along the way. Upon arrival in Tibet, Pazu told us to drop by Spinn Cafe to leave our ID for him to apply for our Everest permits.
After our visit to Jokhang Monastery, it was still too early for dinner. We decided to drop by Cafe Spinn. From Jokhang, it was just a few minutes’ walk to reach the cozy cafe at an alleyway behind the touristy Dan Jie Lin Road. At Spinn Cafe, Pazu was busy serving another group of Hong Kong tourists for their jeep arrangement. He looked talkative, energetic and friendly. We settled down at one of the low tables in the cafe. While waiting for Pazu, we ordered a specialty drink made with local goji berries, and toyed with a pulse oximeter on the table to examine the oxygen level in our blood. Soon Pazu came to sit down with us after he bid farewell to the other group of tourists. We first talked about our jeep arrangement, then soon drifted to Pazu’s hiking experience in Southeast Tibet, his recent travel diary in the Middle East, recommended alternative sights in Lhasa, social issues of Hong Kong, and so on, until Pazu had to leave and meet up with his friends for dinner.
Looking from outside, we could already sense the cozy atmosphere in the Spinn Cafe (風轉咖啡館).
The Spinn Cafe (風轉咖啡館) is a great place to take a break after a day of sightseeing.
Pazu Kong (薯伯伯) was really friendly and informative as we chatted about Tibet and other topics.
Maggie and I arrived at the Trichang Labrang Hotel at around 2pm, and were delighted to find Angela feeling much better after a good rest. We decided to head out together for a decent Tibetan meal. Recommended by Pazu, the owner of Spinn Cafe in Lhasa who also helped us to arrange a 4 wheel drive for our 6-day excursion, we decided to go to a nearby restaurant called “Our Tibetan Restaurant” (咱們的藏餐館). We walked east from our hotel towards the Muslim neighborhood, searched for a while until finally arrived at the old courtyard compound called Bangdacang Compound (邦達倉大院) where the restaurant was located in the courtyard. “Our Tibetan Restaurant” (咱們的藏餐館) offered many options of Tibetan and Chinese dishes and we had a delightful late lunch under a parasol and atmospheric Tibetan flags.
At 3:30pm, we finished our meal and walked out to the Barkhor Street towards Jokhang Monastery (ཇོ་ཁང། / 大昭寺). At the heart of Barkhor old city, the Jokhang is often considered to be the most sacred destination in the entire Tibet. Despite not all chapels were opened in the afternoon, we still wanted to visit the Jokhang before it closed for the day. We entered the monastery through its side door next to the ticket office. Immediately we arrived at a series of courtyards. We followed a designated route around the perimeter of the central courtyard to reach the entrance of the main hall. Similar to prayer halls at other Tibetan monasteries, rows of monk seats occupied the centre of the hall. Small chapels with religious statues flanked three sides of the hall. The main chapel at the centre housed a small statue of the Buddha called Jowo Shakyamuni.
Considered as the most sacred Buddhist image in Tibet, the statue was brought to Tibet from China by Wencheng Princess (文成公主) during the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century. She came to Tibet to marry Songtsen Gampo, the King of Tibet. To consolidate the foundation of Buddhism in Tibet, Songtsen erected a monastery to house the Jowo Shakyamuni. Known as the Jokhang, the monastery soon became the primary pilgrimage spot for all Tibetan Buddhists. The oldest part of the Jokhang dates back to 652. Since then, the monastery had gone through up and down times, depending on the popularity of Buddhism and political situations. The monastery was damaged in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolutuon, and took eight years to restore during the 1970s. In 2000, Jokhang was inscribed in the World Heritage list as an extension to the Potala.
After the main hall, we walked one level up to the roof terrace, where we could admire the golden ornaments of the architecture. Unfortunately the roof terrace where visitors could enjoy the view of the Potala was closed for renovation. We could only wander around the roof for a little bit before heading back down. Our tour of the monastery was brief but it offered us a decent introduction to Lhasa’s history and Tibetan Buddhism.
Bangdacang Compound (邦達倉大院) was only a few minute walk from our hotel.
“Our Tibetan Restaurant” (咱們的藏餐館) is located in the courtyard of the Bangdacang Compound (邦達倉大院).
We ordered yak meat and pancake.
The mushroom momos (Tibetan dumplings) were good and deserved a longer waiting time.
The forecourt of Jokhang is always busy with pilrims.
Inside Jokhang, the first courtyard beyond the ticket entrance was rather peaceful.
We walked around the inner perimeter of the central courtyard to admire the wall paintings.
It was late in the afternoon with few tourists.
Looking up, we could see parts of the golden ornament on the roof of Jokhang.
At one side of the courtyard, there was a seat reserved for the Dalai Lama.
Beautiful decorations could be seen everywhere in the building.
We walked around the central courtyard to check out the wall paintings.
The wall paintings had undergone extensive restorations in recent years.
Beyond the main hall were living quarters for monks.
After walking around the courtyard, we entered the main prayer hall through its old entrance door. Unfortunate photography was not allowed in the interior.
On the roof terrace, we were overwhelmed by the extensive golden decorations.
A long courtyard near the main hall indicated the start of monk living quarter.
On the roof terrace, the golden roof and decorations were clearly shown.
Details of the golden ornaments on the roof.
After visiting Jokhang, we walked over to the monastery’s forecourt where devoted pilgrims performed all kinds of worshiping rituals.
Tsongkhapa was a famous teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, whose activities led to the founding of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism. Drepung Monastery was found in 1416 by Jamyang Choje Tashi Palden, one of Tsongkhapa’s disciple. He was also known as the second Dalai Lama. Soon after, Drepung had become a large institution consisted of lamaseries and colleges, forming a religious community of several thousand monks at the foot of Mount Gephel. Drepung remained as the residence of Dalai Lama until the 5th Dalai Lama moved to Lhasa’s Potala Palace. Today, a few hundred monks resided at Drepung. Compared to many Tibetan monasteries, damages caused by the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s was relatively small for Drepung.
Along with Ganden Palace, the residence established by the second Dalai Lama, the four Dratsang (college and administrative organization) still exist today at Drepung Monastery. After our kora hike, we started our brief visit of Drepung from Gomang College (果芒扎倉). As one of the four Dratsang, Gomang has its own main Sutra Hall and a number chapels. We were able to visit most of these spaces, including the flat roof above the Sutra Hall, despite we could not take photos inside the building. We spent roughly two hours to wander around Drepung Monastery and its main buildings, including Loseling College (洛色林扎倉), Tsogchen Main Assembly Hall (措欽大殿), Ngagpa College (阿巴扎倉), Ganden Phodrang (甘丹頗章), etc. The entire monastery was like a village with stairs, courtyards and winding alleyways connecting different buildings. There weren’t many tourists around, except two groups of Western tourists in front of the Main Assembly Hall.
After a thorough wander in the monastery compound, we waited a bit at the parking lot and asked around for the minibus. No one seemed to know when the minibus would leave. We decided to follow several pilgrims to walk down to the main gateway. The walk took about 20 minutes. We walked past the main monastery gate and continued along the main retail street out to the main road. Before we reached the main road, we flagged down a taxi who was willing to take us back to Central Lhasa.
A monk carrying a water container in front of the Gomang College (果芒扎倉).
A pilgrim with a bead necklace walking up the entrance stair of the Gomang College (果芒扎倉).
Gomang College (果芒扎倉), the second largest Dratsang (college) in Drepung, was the first building that we visited at the monastery.
The beautiful wall painting at the entrance of Gomang College (果芒扎倉) seemed recently repaired.
It was awfully hot with the sun above our head, but we couldn’t resist not to visit the flat roof above Gomang College (果芒扎倉).
Resembled a village, the Drepung Monastery is a huge compound with lots of buildings and alleyways.
Wandering around the alleyways in Drepung Monastery was quite pleasant especially when there weren’t too many tourists around.
After a while, we soon lost track on how many buildings we had visited as most halls looked quite similar with their white walls, golden roof decorations and entrance setting. Despite of their similarities, every single building we visited looked gorgeous both outside and inside.
With the powerful highland sunlight, most monastery windows are protected by textile awning canopies.
With 183 columns and an area of about 1800 square metres, Tsogchen Main Assembly Hall (措欽大殿) is the grandest structure in Drepung Monastery. The plaza in front of the hall is also the largest square in the compound.
The roof above the Tsogchen Main Assembly Hall (措欽大殿) is well worth a visit.
The row of windows on the left is actually celestial windows for the main assembly hall below.
A group of local tourists posted for photograph on the roof terrace of Tsogchen Main Assembly Hall.
We meandered through narrow alleyways and stairs between buildings.
Occasionally we would pass by small stupas where pilgrims would circle around in clockwise direction.
Loseling College (洛色林扎倉), the largest Dratsang (college) in Drepung Monastery, was another highlight in the monastery.
Before the establishment of the Potala, Ganden Phodrang was the residence of the Dalai Lama from the 2nd to the 5th Dalai Lama.
Our visit of the Drepung Monastery ended at Ganden Phodrang (甘丹頗章).
Ganden (དགའ་ལྡན་/甘丹寺), Sera (སེ་ར་དགོན་པ/色拉寺) and Drepung (འབྲས་སྤུངས་/哲蚌寺) Monastery are considered to be the three great Gelug (格魯派) or “Yellow Hat Sect” university monasteries of Tibet. Established in 1416 and held 7700 monks in its heyday, Drepung Monastery was one of the largest monasteries in the world. The taxi ride from the Potala to Drepung Monastery in the outskirt of Lhasa took about 15 minutes. Upon exiting the main road, our taxi passed through a busy street with religious shops and stopped at the outer entrance of Drepung Monastery. We were told that a minibus could take us up to the monastery at the lower slope of Mount Gephel (更丕烏孜山). After a ten minute wait, a minibus arrived. We were lucky to squeeze in the bus along with a full load of pilgrims. After only a few minutes, our minibus arrived at the monastery’s main parking lot.
Before the sun get too hot, we decided to walk up the mount behind Drepung Monastery on the kora trail. We followed the pilgrim path west of the compound towards a large platform several storey high. The large platform was the Thangka Exhibition Platform used during the Shoton or Sho Dun Festival (雪頓節) to display the 40m wide x 80m long Buddha tapestry. To witness the fantastic ceremonies of Shoton Festival, we came a month too late. To do the hour-long kora trail around the monastery, we came just at the right time of the day with the perfect weather. We were a little worry on whether we would be affected by altitude sickness during the hike. The actual kora trail began in a woods beyond the Thangka Exhibition Platform. We followed several Tibetan pilgrims to enter the ascending trail. The trail winded up the slope of Mount Gephel behind the monastery, and led us to a number of colourful prayer rocks. At the trail’s highest point, we were captivated by the singing of a group of women who were busy fixing the flat roof of a monastery building, and by the view of the distant mountains. We walked on the trail for roughly an hour before descending to the other end of the monastery.
After a brief taxi ride, we were dropped off at the main gateway of Drepung Monastery at the foot of Mount Gephel.
A minibus took us from the main gateway up to the parking lot in front of the monastery complex. Instead of visiting the monastery buildings right away, we ventured to the path left of Ganden Podrang towards a cluster of rock paintings and the huge Thangka Exhibition Platform.
Along the path there were many prayer wheels for pilgrims to circumambulate around the complex.
Lots of small offerings were left below the prayer wheels.
For pilgrims of all ages, interacting with the prayer wheels is a popular must-do to begin a monastery visit.
We could clearly see rock paintings above us, as well as the uncounted paintings of “ladder to the paradise”.
The Thangka Exhibition Platform looked gigantic as we walked past it. Too bad we were not here for the Sho Dun Festival.
The kora trail began at a prayer wheel adjacent to a small creek.
There are many small shrines and rock paintings along the kora trail.
The vivid colours of the prayer rocks allow visitors to see from afar.
Half way up the trail we had a close encounter with a yak/cow.
A bird landed on a prayer rock at the high point of the trail.
With the occasional pilgrims on the kora, it was not easy for us to get lost.
Small shrines were constructed at certain locations along the kora path.
A group of women staff were fixing the roof at Ganden Podrang.
Beyond the last prayer rock on the trail, we began to descend back to the monastery level.
We entered the monastery complex from the side. It was good to enjoy Drepung Monastery when not many tourists were around.