A palace was originally built at this site in 637 by the founder of the Tibetan Empire Songtsän Gampo, and even though none of that original structure remains, it's clear that the place had some spiritual draw because the Fifth Dalai Lama built the present-day Potala Palace (Bùdálā Gōng, 布达拉宫) in the same spot in the late 17th century. The massive palace was at one time the largest building in the world and remains a spectacular imposition to Lhasa's landscape today. It's hard to keep your eyes off the palace's many levels and hard not to wonder what went on in all those rooms (there are over a thousand) over the centuries. It was for hundreds of years a self-contained fortress of religious and political significance.
The only real activity going on in the palace today is tourist activity and the place is buzzing with Chinese and foreign visitors. With the Dalai Lama in exile and Tibet under Chinese governance, there's no political or spiritual work being done at Potala Palace. There's only so much for visitors to see, with most of the rooms off-limits, but no trip to Lhasa would be complete without forking out the entrance fee and heading inside for a look. Pilgrims visit for free, and even though they add to the crowds on certain days, they become part of the experience and add a little spirituality to an otherwise spectatorial visit. The interior of Potala is nearly as impressive as its magnificent exterior with highly-decorated chapels, assembly halls and winding passageways that eventually lead to the roof and its fresh-air courtyards.
The palace also houses great collections of Tibetan art, costumes, jewels, religious texts and other museum-quality artifacts. It's best to visit the palace a day or two after landing in Lhasa as altitude adjustment is a must before climbing the stairs and ramps that lead from one level to the next. Also, be sure to check with your hotel for the latest rules, hours and entrance fees, which seem to be constantly in flux.
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