Perched 130m above Lhasa atop Marpo Ri (Red Mountain), and named after India’s Riwo Potala – holy mountain of the god Chenresi – the Potala Palace (布达拉宫, bùdálāgōng) is dazzling inside and out, an enduring landmark of the city of Lhasa. As you revel in the views from the roof, gaze at the glittering array of gold and jewels and wend your way from chapel to chapel, you’ll rub shoulders with excited and awestruck pilgrims from all over ethnic Tibet, making offerings at each of the altars. But be aware that, beyond the areas approved for tourists and pilgrims, the Potala is a shadow of its former self: most of the rooms are off limits, part of a UNESCO World Heritage grant was spent on a CCTV system and the caretaker monks are not allowed to wear their robes. And don’t tackle the Potala on your first day at altitude – the palace is a long climb, and even the Tibetans huff and puff on the way up; you’ll enjoy it more once you’ve acclimatized.
Rising thirteen dramatic storeys and consisting of over a thousand rooms, the palace complex took a workforce of at least seven thousand builders and fifteen hundred artists and craftsmen over fifty years to complete. The main mass of the Potala is the White Palace (Potrange Karpo), while the building rising from its centre is the Red Palace (Potrang Marpo). Built for several purposes, the Potala served as administrative centre, seat of government, monastery, fortress and the home of all the Dalai Lamas from the Fifth to the Fourteenth, although from the end of the eighteenth century, when the Norbulingka was built as the Summer Palace, they stayed here only in winter. It was King Songtsen Gampo who built the first palace on this site in the seventh century, though invaders later destroyed it. Today’s White Palace (1645–48) was built during the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama, who took up residence in 1649, while the Red Palace, begun at the same time, was completed in 1693. Both survived the Cultural Revolution relatively unscathed; apparently Zhou Enlai ordered their protection.