Situated in a wide, mountain-fringed valley on the north bank of the Kyichu River, LHASA (拉萨, lāsà; Ground of the Gods), at 3700m, is a sprawling modern Chinese city with a population of around 200,000. An important settlement for well over a thousand years, it was originally called Rasa, but was renamed by King Songtsen Gampo in the seventh century when he moved his capital here from the Yarlung Valley. Following the collapse of the Yarlung dynasty two centuries later, power dispersed among local chieftains, and the city lost its pre-eminence. It was not until the seventeenth century, with the installation of the Fifth Dalai Lama as ruler by the Mongolian emperor, Gushri Khan, that Lhasa once again became the seat of government. It continues now as the capital of the TAR, and while glorious sights from earlier times are spread throughout the area, it is this third period of growth, following the Chinese invasion, which has given the city its most obvious features – wide boulevards and concrete-and-glass blocks. Despite the passing of sixty years, Lhasa is still clearly a city under occupation, with armed soldiers standing sentry on street corners and rooftops, and constant patrols throughout the city.
There are plenty of sights in and around Lhasa to keep most visitors occupied for at least a week (even if most tours cram them into a few days): the Potala, Jokhang and the Barkhor district are not to be missed, and at least one trip to an outlying monastery is a must. It’s also worth taking time to see some of the smaller, less showy temples and simply to absorb the atmosphere of the “Forbidden City”, which large numbers of explorers died in vain efforts to reach just over a hundred years ago.
Offering tourists better facilities, with more choice of accommodation, restaurants and shopping than anywhere else in Tibet, Lhasa makes for a relatively pain-free introduction to the region. But, whatever its comforts, the city is just one face of Tibet – 88 percent of the population lives in the countryside.