Lhasa, the remote abode of the Dalai Lamas, object of devout pilgrimage and heart and soul of Tibet, is still a city of wonders, despite the large-scale encroachments of modern Chinese influence. Your first hint that Lhasa is close is the Potala, a vast white-and-ochre fortress soaring over one of the world's highest cities. It's a sight that has heralded the marvel of the Holy City to travelers for close to four centuries and it still raises goose bumps.
While the Potala dominates the skyline, the Jokhang, some 2km to the east, is the real spiritual heart of the city. An otherworldly mix of flickering butter lamps, wafting incense and prostrating pilgrims, the Jokhang is the most sacred and alive of Tibet's temples. It is here and the encircling Barkhor pilgrim circuit that most visitors first fall in love with Tibet.
The old Tibetan quarter makes up a small area of Lhasa these days. The modern city is a Chinese boom town, where a new train line has fuelled massive growth in tourism, alongside new hotels, shops and supermarkets. The face of Lhasa is changing daily, with building rising and falling like the Shanghai stock market.
For all its modernization Lhasa remains a fantastic cultural hybrid, its streets bustling with a diverse mix of people. As the gateway to the "real" Tibet, out in the countryside, Lhasa deserves at least a week to see all the sights, soak up the backstreets and organize the adventures that beckon at the city limits.
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