Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, is the first stop for the vast majority of foreign tourists and the home base for most of the organised tours which visitors from outside of China are now required to join in order to enter. Most Lhasa hotels, restaurants, shops, and modern businesses are situated on the city’s west side. However, Lhasa’s east side is where most of the 1,300-year-old history lies in this “Land of the Gods.”

Jokhang Temple has been Lhasa’s most significant Buddhist shrine since its 7th century construction. Although this temple’s size has increased dramatically over the centuries, the Buddha statue around which it was first built remains this four-floor temple’s most sacred exhibit. Buddhist pilgrims still hold and rotate prayer wheels while walking around Jokhang Temple on Barkhor Street, where visitors can barter with local vendors for rare handicrafts.

The 1,000-room Potala Palace, another centuries-old Lhasa landmark, was used as a winter residence by dozens of past Dalai Lamas. Golden handwritten Buddhist scriptures are among the most sacred of the valuable antiques these former spiritual leaders left behind. A zoo and botanical gardens now belong to the Norbulingka Summer Palace, which every Dalai Lama has expanded since its 1755 construction.

Lhasa may be Tibet’s most populated city, but most Tibetan roads also lead to Xigatse, the region’s second biggest city. This major transportation hub’s main attractions are ancient fortress ruins, the 1447 Tashilhunpo Monastery (containing the world’s biggest Buddhist statue of gilded bronze), and the free market in the Old Town.

Tibet’s two other major cities are Gyantse and Qambo, a southeast city three hours’ drive from the village of Ngom and its Neydo Tashi Choeling Monastery. Tibet’s very first monastery, however, lies 150kms southeast of Lhasa, in the small village of Samye. Another Tibetan monastery, Rongbuk, boasts an unforgettable Mount Everest backdrop in Qomolangma Nature Reserve.

Rare wildlife species not found anywhere else on Earth far outnumber the human residents in Yarlong River National Park, whose main natural landmarks are its 2,000km long namesake river and the world’s longest canyon. Excellent physical fitness is a must to undertake the 52km pilgrimage circuit around Mount Kailash, which three different religions consider a sacred landmark.

Many visitors fly into Lhasa and spend a few days taking in the city and nearby attractions such as Ganden Monastery, as well as the communities of Xigatse, Gyantse and Sakya. To do more than this requires a stay of more than one week, with popular itineraries including excursions into Shannan and Mount Kailash.