hen visiting China, most tourists have their eyes on the Great Wall or the Terracotta Warriors, but going off the beaten path to discover more remote and secretive parts of the country can broaden one’s horizons and spark a fresh sense of wanderlust. That’s why we had no trouble choosing the land of the yaks for our summer vacation this year. Located about 400 kilometers east of the regional capital Lhasa, Nyingchi was our first stop.
Tibet in Southwest China spans most of the world’s largest and highest plateau. With an average elevation of around 4,500 meters, it’s no wonder the Tibetan Plateau is dubbed the roof of the world. With the mighty Himalayas to the southwest and lesser-known Tanggula range to the north, Tibet is encircled by imposing mountains that boast the highest summits on the planet, allowing this glacier-capped land to offer far more than its trademark yaks and temples.
Descending in the plane, the breathtaking scenery outside gave us a taste of Tibet’s undeniable beauty. A sense of mystery and adventure could already be felt, as fluffy clouds shrouded the mountaintops. Landing on the runway daydreaming about this otherworldly and unusual destination, the excitement kicked in. We were picked up in a van and driven down a long and winding road toward our first stop: a teahouse in a traditional village. On the way, we were spoiled with more stunning views, but this time we had a new perspective – the mystical cloud-covered mountains we saw from above now appeared as towering snow-topped mountains, with crystal-clear sapphire lakes at their bases reflecting the majestic landscape.
Just when we thought Nyingchi couldn’t get any more picturesque, we arrived at the village to find quaint buildings sitting among miniature white-and-gold stupas, while iconic Tibetan prayer flags danced in the gentle breeze. With endless fields of yak-dotted lush-green grasslands in the background, we revelled in the sheer tranquility our secret getaway in the wilderness was granting us.
We were then led to a small house with tiny regal-looking doors and windows veiled with classic endless knot-decorated curtains. The colorful tea-drinking room upstairs was filled with bronze pots and pans, while the walls and beams were adorned with intricate floral patterns. On a wooden table lay a generous spread of butter tea and milk tea, complemented by full-to-the-brim bowls of Tibetan candy. Suddenly, the village chief began singing a beautiful traditional song, providing a soundtrack to our tea-sipping and admiring of the postcard-perfect view outside.
The next day we drove five hours along the scenic Lhasa-Nyingchi highway. Considered the holiest city in the world to Tibetans, Lhasa, literally meaning “the Place of the Gods,” is a treasure trove of shimmering monasteries and palaces. Dominating the cityscape atop Red Hill is the grand Potala Palace, the symbol and heart of Tibet. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the world’s highest palace.
Standing at the foot of the soaring red-and-white palace while admiring its architectural glory and fortress-like walls felt rare and exclusive. As we were led round the back of the palace and up Red Hill, this holy city’s glistening skyline raised goosebumps. Inside, we were hit with an overwhelming aroma of incense and taken back in time.
Brushing shoulders with pilgrims, we became engrossed by the fascinating history, purpose and architecture of the palace. The earliest use of the religious site was in 7 CE by Songtsen Gampo and his two wives during the rule of the Tubo Kingdom, while construction of its modern structure began in 1645 under the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama, taking around 50 years to be completed. Rising 13 stories, it contains more than 1,000 rooms and is divided into two palaces. The surrounding White Palace was the residence of the Dalai Lama and the headquarters for Buddhist and political affairs. The central Red Palace, separated by the Deyangshar courtyard, is for praying and religious studies, and hosts the tombs of eight Dalai Lamas as well as numerous shrines, chapels, prayer rooms and monk assembly halls.
The next morning, we headed to the nearby 1,300-year-old Jokhang Temple, the spiritual center of Tibet and focal point of Barkhor Square. Legend has it that it was originally built for King Gampo’s two brides and their Buddhist artifacts from Nepal and China that are believed to have been part of their dowries. The Jowo Shakyamuni image from Princess Wencheng, however, was what gave the temple its potency and name (Jokhang meaning “Chapel of the Jowo”). Today, it is the most sacred temple in Lhasa and continues to attract streams of awestruck Buddhist pilgrims.
Entering the spectacular religious site with Tang Dynasty (618-907), Tibetan, Indian and Nepalese construction styles, we were warmly greeted by monks and gifted authentic white kata – a traditional ceremonial scarf in Tibetan Buddhism. After our tour through a sea of color and sparkle, we made it to the dazzling rooftop. With the morning sun bouncing off glossy golden statues and structures, the temple’s rooftop afforded us another vantage point of the Lhasa panorama, with the Potala Palace enchanting us once again as it contrasted with piercing blue skies and gray mountains in the backdrop.
Outside is a maze of alleys that radiate from the central temple, together making up Barkhor Street, Lhasa’s shopping and circumambulation center. Circumambulation is the essence of the street, which is a sacred road for Buddhist pilgrims, who believe that circuiting around the temple clockwise in prayer indicates worship of Buddha Shakyamuni. Browsing authentic souvenirs along endless rows of gift shops, the scene added a touch of spirituality to our shopping spree.
As the day’s last sunbeam gilded Lhasa’s palatial silhouettes, we headed to the Princess Wencheng Theater to watch an outdoor live-action performance of the classic drama that takes audiences back to a peak time in Tibetan history, revivifying the story of the Tang Dynasty princess who ventured to Tibet to marry the king and unite the region. The opera show, set outside in front of an awe-inspiring mountainous backdrop illuminated by floodlights, combines a whopping 800-strong cast, live horses, cleverly choreographed formations and captivating music on a magnificent 24,600-square-meter stage. Not only did it exceed expectations and leave us speechless, it was also the perfect end to our unique, once-in-a-lifetime trip.
From spellbinding mountain vistas to the secrets of Buddhist monasteries and riveting outdoor opera spectacles, the hidden and untouchable Tibet may be one of China’s poorest and underdeveloped regions, but its culture is rich and tourist spots unforgettable. Undoubtedly, this alternative oasis in the hinterlands of western China is a must-see.