Things to Do in Tibet
Samye Monastery was Tibet’s first monastery where some of the earliest monks were ordained. Built in the 8th century, the site is famous for both its age and for its shape as a giant mandala—a symbol of the Buddhist universe—with the central temple representing Mt. Meru in Buddhist cosmology.
From the late 1700s to the 1950s, Norbulingka was used as an official summer home for the Dalai Lama. Today, it is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Tibet’s top historical attractions. In addition to a 374-room palace, the park is home to hundreds of rare plants, rose bushes, fruit trees, and even a bit of wildlife.
Lake Manasarovar was once surrounded by eight Buddhist monasteries that represented the Wheel of Life. While many of these holy structures have now crumbled to the ground, the lake’s religious significance has not been lost, and Buddhists from across the globe still travel to this sky-high freshwater lake each year.
One of Tibetan Buddhism’s most sacred sites, the 6-acre (2.5-hectare Jokhang Temple sits at the heart of Lhasa and holds UNESCO World Heritage status. With a history dating back over 1,300 years, throngs of pilgrims and red-robed monks come to worship at the Jowo Shakyamuni golden Buddha statue, lighting lamps, and spinning prayer wheels.
Ancient Barkhor Street circles the square surrounding Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple. The street doubles as a thoroughfare for pilgrims on their way to the temple, as well as home to the bustling Tromzikhang Market, host to a wide variety of vendors selling everything from prayer wheels to yak butter to tea kettles.
Ganden Monastery on the slopes of Wangbur Mountain is one of the oldest and largest Buddhist monasteries in Tibet. Together with Sera and Drepung Monasteries, Ganden is part of the three great university temples of Tibet, with a history dating back to the 15th century, when it became the main temple for the Yellow Hat Buddhists.
Mt. Everest is probably the most famous mountain on Earth, and, at 29,029 feet (8,848 meters), it is certainly the highest in the world. The peak sits on the border between Nepal and the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China, and is called Sagarmatha in Nepali and Chomolangma or Qomolangma in the Sherpa and Tibetan languages.
The black rock-topped Mt. Kailash (Kang Rinpoche), in the Himalaya of western Tibet, is sacred to Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and followers of the old Bon religion. Every year, thousands of pilgrims visit to walk around the mountain. Mt. Kailash can also be visited by trekkers as part of a broader tour of Tibet or on a dedicated trip.
Known as the home of the "debating monks,"Sera Monastery was built on a hillside in the northern part of Lhasa in 1419. One of the three most important monasteries in the city, it is dedicated to the Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat, sect of Tibetan Buddhism and is a university monastery.
Visitors flock here to see the debates. a tradition young monks take part in as part of their training. In a series of debates, the senior monks drill the younger ones on various doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism and the teachings of Buddha. It’s a very physical display: the senior monks are standing, seeming to shout at the younger ones and then slapping their hands together dramatically—the hand slapping is the signal for the seated monk to respond. The debates may also be punctuated by screams (to throw the other person off). While it’s a very entertaining display for visitors, it’s a serious matter for the monks and a crucial part of training. Also of interest at Sera Monastery are the sand mandalas, beautiful works of art created from sand. These pieces take days to complete and, when finished, are swept away and started again.
The Potala Palace, winter palace of the Dalai Lama for over 1,300 years, towers above downtown Lhasa. Recognized with UNESCO World Heritage status, the vast structure stands 13 stories high on a hilltop and contains over 1,000 rooms. Echoing chapels and jewel-encrusted tombs create a spectacular effect.
More Things to Do in Tibet
In the 1930s, Drepung Monastery ranked among the largest in the world with around 7,000 monks living on its grounds at its peak. While the number of monks has dropped to approximately 600 monks, Drepung Monastery’s four colleges continue to teach lineage, religion, and geography.
Climbing Mount Everest may not be financially or physically possible for many travelers, but laying eyes on the world’s tallest peak from Mount Everest Base Camp is. A visit to China’s easternmost region wouldn’t be complete without an excursion to take in the spectacular view of Everest’s north face from the Tibet base camp.
The bright turquoise Yamdrok Lake (Yamdrok-tso or Yamdrok Yumtso) is sacred in Tibetan tradition and one of the three biggest lakes in the country. Its color and location amid dry snow-capped peaks add to its allure. Most visitors’ first glimpse of the high altitude lake is after crossing the Khamba La Pass at 15,731 feet (4,795 meters).
Namtso Lake is the second-largest salt lake in China and a major tourist attraction in Tibet. Its reflective blue waters are surrounded by snow-capped peaks and the occasional nomad camp. The lake sits at a high elevation—15,479 feet (4,718 meters)—and has spiritual significance for Tibetans.
On the hillside of the Mount Everest Base Camp in Tibet, the Rongbuk Monastery offers travelers incredible views not only of the world’s most famous mountain, but also the breathtaking scenery that surrounds it. Its unique location makes it the world’s highest monastery—a perfect backdrop for colorful prayer flags flapping in the wind.
Once a hub for trade with India, Gyantse is a city steeped in history with a culture and people still deeply rooted in tradition. Travelers who venture to this destination along the Nyang-chu River will find Buddhist temples, lively local markets, charming back streets, and Tibet’s largest stupa monument, Gyantse Kumbum.