Shangri La. The Land of Snows. The Roof of the World. Tibet has been steeped in mystery and magic for centuries. Until the 1980s, this Buddhist land seemed forbidden, if only because of its remote location on a Himalayan plateau. Like its neighbor Nepal, it was locked away by its geography. Its average elevation was 16,000 feet and it was surrounded by insurmountable peaks. Still, it tugged at the imagination of every traveler eager to experience one of the most unique and exotic cultures on earth.
Today, Tibet is within easy reach. So you’re free to mingle among Buddhist pilgrims as they turn prayer wheels and murmur mantras amidst juniper incense. If you’re not sure where to find them, look no further than the Barkhor, a pilgrim circuit—or kora—that circumambulates around Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple, Tibet’s most important Buddhist shrine. The devout come here from all over the world to walk clockwise around these contemplative city blocks—stopping along the route for spiritual souvenirs such as prayer flags and amulets (and not-so-spiritual accessories like turquoise jewelry and cowboy hats). Commercialism aside, this is where all of Tibet—from nomads to merchants—gathers to honor Buddha.
While joining locals on the Barkhor captures any traveler’s heart, stopping to visit the grand Jokhang Temple evokes the Tibet of old. When it was built in the seventh century, it was less a center of religion and more one of science. Back then, this institution was known as the Zuglagkang—meaning the “house of religious science”—and it brought together a scholarly lot that pre-dated Buddhism. They followed the shamanistic precepts of Bon, and so studied geomancy, astrology, and other forms of divination. That original air of mystery remains as yak butter lamps flicker in the dim light, incense wafts from dark corners, and pilgrims prostrate before altars. All is hushed and tranquil here; the noise of the outside world retreats.
Some three miles away, the Sera Monastery stretches across one corner of the ancient city. It too was founded as a learning center. It remains so today, one of three university temples in Tibet. Its name suggests that learning and intellect blossom here—se ra in Tibetan translates as “wild roses.” Nowhere is that more clearly on display than during the so-called “monk debates,” in which students participate in passionate discussions about Buddhist doctrine. As much pageantry as it is deliberation, the debates follow strict procedure and are enlivened with vigorous gestures, each of which carries its own meaning.
The shimmering jewel in Lhasa’s crown is the Potala Palace, the massive white and ochre fortress that dominates the skyline. Today, Potala is a museum, but it once housed the Tibetan government. Its White Palace, comprising the eastern wings, was the living quarters of the Dalai Lama while the Red Palace in the center of the building served a religious function. Until the 20th century, Potala was the world’s tallest building, even soaring almost twice the height of the Gothic spires of Europe’s cathedrals. From the bottom-most buildings at its base to the rooftop measures 1,000 feet. But its height isn’t the only impressive number. This 17th-century palace boasts more than 1,000 rooms, 10,000 chapels, 200,000 statues, and a network of dungeons.