Traditionally, pilgrims to Lhasa circled the city on two clockwise routes: an outer circuit called the Lingkhor, now vanished under two-lane highways and rebuilding, and the shorter Barkhor (八角街, bājiaŏjiē) circuit through the alleyways a short distance from the Jokhang walls. This maze of picturesque streets, a world away from the rest of Lhasa, has survived. It’s now lined with the stalls of an outdoor market selling all manner of goods – saddles and stirrups, Chinese army gear, thangkas, jewellery, blankets, DVDs, carpets, tin trunks and pictures of lamas, to mention a fraction only. The many trinkets and “antiques” are, of course, fakes, made in Nepal, but the pilgrims are an amazing sight: statuesque Khampa men with their traditional knives and red-braided hair, decorated with huge chunks of turquoise; Amdo women dripping jewels with their hair in 108 plaits; and old ladies spinning their tiny prayer wheels and intoning mantras. The Barkhor circuit is most atmospheric in the early hours of the morning, before the sun has risen and stallholders have set up. That’s when a feeling of devotion is prevalent, as the constant mumble of prayer and shuffle of prostrations emanate from the shadows cast by the lambent pre-dawn light.
The whole Barkhor area is worth exploring – with its huge wooden doors set in long, white walls and leading into hidden courtyards – but try not to miss Tromzikhang market to the north of the Jokhang; take the main alleyway into the Barkhor that leads off Beijing Dong Lu just east of Ramoche Lu and it’s just down on your left. The two-storey modern building is a bit soulless, but nowhere else in the world can you see (or smell) so much yak butter in one place.