Tibet’s capital Lhasa (elevation 3,700 m) is a cultural city with a history going back 1,300 years. The magnificent Potala Palace, former seat of the Dalai Lamas, presides over the city. Built in 1645 on the top of a hill, the palace contains 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and 200,000 religious statues. The old city revolves around the Jokhang Temple and the quaint Barkhor market that surrounds it. The Jhokhang, built in the seventh century, is the holiest Buddhist shrine in Tibet. Its mural paintings, finely worked golden roofs and other works of art are something to see. At a little distance from the old city core, Lhasa is also a modern capital of concrete high-rises, fancy department stores and wide boulevards.
Norbu Lingka consists of wooded greenery and three palaces once used by the Dalai Lamas as a summer retreat.The Drepung Monastery lies about 10 km from the city. Built in 1416, it is the largest in Tibet. The Sera Monastery, about 5 km to the north of Lhasa, is another important center of Buddhist learning. It lies amidst serene surroundings.
Shigatse (3,900 m) lies 274 km to the west of Lhasa. It is Tibet's second-largest city and has a 500-year-old history. The highway runs alongside the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) river passing through narrow gorges and broad river valleys. Farmers plowing their fields with yaks, sheep grazing on the vast plains, awesome sand dunes and rocky hills in the distance are the scenic rewards on the trip.
The Tashilhunpo Monastery, built in 1447, houses a 26-meter high statue of Maitreya (the Buddha to come). Other buildings contain images of Sakyamuni (the Buddha of our times) and embalmed bodies of lamas.
Gyantse (3,800 m) is located 260 km to the southwest of Lhasa. This trading town was a major stop on the legendary India-Tibet caravan route. Gyantse's centerpiece is the Kumbum Stupa which is 32 m high and contains 77 rooms and 100,000 images of the Buddha. Pelkor Chode Monastery and Gyantse Fort (built atop a massive rock) are the other major sights here.
The road from Gyantse to Lhasa takes you over three mountain passes: Simala (4,380 m high), Karola (5,045 m) and Ghampala (4,794 m). The highway skirts the Yamdrok Tso Lake before twisting up the Ghampala Pass from the top of which a fantastic view of the lake on one side and the Yarlung Tsangpo river on the other can be had.
Tsetang (195 km from Lhasa to the south-east) is known as the cradle of Tibetan civilization. The ancient town offers a number of side trips that illustrate Tibet's early history. The Valley of the Kings (ancient capital of the Yarlung kings who established the Tibetan nation), the Yumbu Lagang Palace (built for the first Yarlung king), and the Tandruk Monastery (one of the three royal Buddhist temples) aresome of the major sights.
Mt. Kailash and Lake Manasarovar in western Tibet are intensely sacred pilgrimage sites for the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Bon faithful, besides presenting an entrancing natural sight. Kailash is 1,257 km over a mountain highway from Lhasa.