It’s amazing how much you can pack into Tibet in a week with a Landcruiser at your disposal. Most of Tibet’s officially sanctioned tour operators (through whom you’ll have to book any Tibetan trip) operate fleets of aged but comfy Toyota 4x4s, taking the guesswork out of getting about and leaving you to focus on the scenery.
But first, start with a few days acclimatising in Lhasa. Leave the Potala Palace until the end of your trip, and head straight for the Barkhor. This kora around the Jokhang’s low-slung, white-washed walls is flat-out the best place in the city to people-watch as pilgrims from all over Tibet gather to walk clockwise in prayer around Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest shrine.
Pop inside to catch a glimpse of Jowo Sakyamuni, the venerated golden statue of Buddha that is the cause of all the commotion outside – though claustrophobic visitors may prefer to skip the chapels and head straight to the Jokhang’s roof with its fantastic view out to the Potala Palace.
Make sure to visit at least one of Lhasa’s monasteries. Sera, with its active debating courtyard, is a popular choice, but camera-wielding crowds are starting to feel intrusive here. A more off-beat option is Nechung. Once home of the Tibetan State Oracle, this compact little monastery has long been associated with pre-Buddhist spiritual rites and has a brilliant, slightly eerie atmosphere.
Finally, leave plenty of time for exploring Lhasa’s old town, with its geranium-filled courtyards, pool halls, rooftop cafés and tiny Muslim quarter. The handicraft walking tour organised by Dropenling Crafts is an excellent way to spend an afternoon, and will take you to see skilled artisans at work in unexpected corners of the city.
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Leaving Lhasa behind, make your first major stop at Yamdrok Yum-tso, a many-armed sacred lake whose turquoise waters curl through the hills southwest of Lhasa. After lunch in Nangartse – momos and stir-fries are the order of the day here – continue on to Gyantse. Once a vital stop on the trading route between India and Tibet, today Gyantse feels like a backwater, with cows tied up outside the townhouses and stray dogs walking the streets. The town’s most visible site is the hilltop dzong, but skip on past this empty fort and continue to Pelkhor Chöde Monastery, site of the fabulous Gyantse Kumbum – a big chörten lined with richly decorated chapels.
From Gyantse, it’s a short and pretty drive northwest to Shigatse. The main attraction here is the chance to wander around Tashilumpo Monastery, but make sure to stop in at the Gang Gyen Carpet Factory nearby, where you can watch local ladies sing as they deftly spin and weave beautiful woollen carpets.
Turn back towards Lhasa from Shigatse, before turning north onto an unsealed provincial road, the S308. The long drive from here to Yangbachen, where the S308 rejoins the main road, runs across wild and beautiful countryside – you’ll crest high passes and pass nomad encampments, and drive through a handful of tiny stone-built villages where farmers manage to eke a living from the thin soil.
Once back on the main road, it’s a couple of hours further north to Damxung, the workaday town lining the highway that sits astride the turn-off for Lake Nam-tso. After a night in Damxung, set out for the 80km (50 mile) drive to the lake and Tashi Do, a rocky peninsula that juts into the lake’s southeastern corner. It’s considerably higher than Damxung here (the lake’s surface lies at 4,718m or 15,500 feet), but if your lungs can stand it, it’s well worth making the kora around the island – just be glad that you’re not undertaking a full 18-day kora of the 70km-long
Head back to Lhasa (which by now will feel like an oxygen-rich big city) and finally climb the steep steps that lead to the Potala Palace – just don’t be late, as the timing of each visit is strictly controlled.
(Most tour companies will be able to put this itinerary together – including at least Lhasa, Gyantse and Shigatse.)