At 12,139 feet above sea level, Potala is the highest palace in the world. The 1,300-year-old structure was originally built as a gesture of love, commissioned by Tibetan king Songtsen Gambo for his marriage to Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang Dynasty. Eventually monks came to rule Tibet and the palace was expanded and converted into the winter residence for the Dalai Lama. But when the Dalai Lama was exiled to India in 1959, the Chinese government took over and made the grounds into a museum.
Still, the Potala Palace remains an iconic part of the region and a mecca for Buddhists around the world. The name Potala is a nod to a sacred mountain in India, where the Buddha of compassion is said to dwell. Year-round, thousands of religious pilgrims circle the perimeter of the palace with prayer wheels and beads to ask for blessing. Many have traveled thousands of miles by foot just to pay their respects.
With more than a thousand rooms, 10,000 painted scrolls, 698 murals, and thousands of exquisite statues made from precious alloys and jewels, the structure has become one of the most famous spiritual sanctums in the world. Inside are the tombs of eight Dalai Lamas, hundreds of sacred Buddhist scrolls, and numerous shrines. Butter lamps light the hallways and watchful monks are stationed in nearly every public room to ensure that decorum is maintained.
The building is divided into two sections—the Red Palace and the White Palace. The former serves as the religious section and the latter as the administrative area. They are literally colored red and white; a fresh coat of paint made up of milk, honey, and sugar is applied every autumn.
The Potala Palace was named a World Heritage site in 1994 by UNESCO, and the neighboring Jokhang Temple and Norbulingka and were added on as extensions in 2000 and 2001, respectively. The Jokhang Temple is considered the most sacred temple in Tibet and the Norbulingka was the former summer residence of the Dalai Lama. All three structures are outstanding embodiments of Tibetan culture and despite waves of natural and human-induced damage, they are international icons that have remained spiritually relevant and intact over the centuries.
HOW TO GET THERE
Fly into the Lhasa Gonggar Airport or take a train into the city. Visitors must obtain a Tibet Tourism Bureau permit through a local tour agency in advance (allow up to 14 days) to enter Tibet by plane or train.
HOW TO VISIT
All visitors must visit the Potala Palace with a tour group. Groups are allocated an hour inside the premises and photos are not allowed. While the palace and its adjacent temples are very much tourist attractions, many of the guests are Tibetan pilgrims who have come to the sacred sites to pray.
WHEN TO VISIT
As one of the highest cities in the world, Lhasa can get quite frosty during the winter. Summer is the best time to visit. June to August is peak tourist season.