Situated in a wide, mountain-fringed valley at 3700m on the north bank of the Kyichu River, LHASA (拉萨, lāsà; Ground of the Gods) is a sprawling modern city with a population of around 200,000. An important settlement for well over a thousand years, it was not until the seventeenth century, with the installation of the Fifth Dalai Lama as ruler by Mongolian emperor Gushri Khan, that Lhasa became the seat of government. It continues now as the capital of the TAR, but with its wide boulevards, shopping centres, and the concrete-and-glass high rises spreading south and west along the valley, China has well and truly left its architectural stamp upon the city. Despite the passing of sixty years, Lhasa is still palpably under imposed rule; the armed soldiers may have taken a lower profile, with much of the security work now falling to large numbers of police and plain-clothes officers on street corners and rooftops, but the air of occupation remains.
There are enough sights in and around Lhasa to keep visitors occupied for at least a week (even if most tours cram them into a couple of days): the Potala Palace, 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.