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Living in Lhasa at an altitude of 3600m

What is it like living in Lhasa at an altitude of 3600m?

View from Sera Monastery, Lhasa

You might wonder if living in Lhasa, at 3600m altitude, feels different. The answer is yes, there’s a bit of a difference compared to living at or near sea level.

We writers at Salt Butter Tea are both Tibetan, however we grew up in the west of Europe where the climate is temperate as such our bodies have been acclimatized to different conditions than the high plateau which Lhasa is situated upon. Therefore we both needed a little adjustment when we first arrived to Lhasa.

Did we suffer from altitude sickness?

When you arrive in a high altitude place, you may face “altitude sickness” during the first days. This sickness is caused by the reduction of oxygen in the air. The symptoms of altitude sickness are mainly headaches, shortness of breath after physical effort, tiredness and trouble sleeping.

From personal experience we both face some of these symptoms during the first day in Lhasa. However if we spend the entire first day at home to acclimatize, then we don’t have any problems afterwards. The shortness of breath persists for a couple more days.

Thankfully, after a couple of weeks you don’t really feel like you are living at high elevation anymore.

Altitude sickness symptoms don’t affect everybody. First it is said that altitude sickness depends on personal susceptibility. Then, people who slowly ascend high altitudes are much less exposed.

To fight headaches, Tibetans advise one to drink a lot of hot water. Some studies have shown that water from the lungs tends to evaporate more at high elevation, which can lead to dehydration. In our case, even if we have been at high elevation for a while, we try to drink a lot of water.

Pilgrims climbing the stairs to reach Potala Palace, Lhasa

How is the climate in Lhasa?

The climate here is very dry. There are four seasons, however it only rains during two periods of the year. The first period is the month of August where the weather is quite bad. The second is during March and April. Then, it often snows higher up in the mountains and it sometimes rains down in Lhasa. Otherwise the weather is incredibly sunny. This dryness makes it necessary for us two to use hand-cream on a daily-basis.

As we are closer to the sun, the sun is much stronger. This parameter definitely affects Tibetan fashion. Because the sun is so strong, Tibetans need to wear a hat and sunglasses. Tibetans have developed a certain sense of fashion for hats. Lhasa men love cowboys hats. Both men and women from the Kham and Amdo regions seem to love them too. Middle-aged and older Lhasa women prefer a more classical sort of lady-like hat. Younger people will more than likely wear a cap. You should see the Khamba ladies wearing their majestic traditional Tibetan dress with a trendy cowboy hat, walking in town with such a great sense of elegance, it’s really a sight to behold! Some people will use an umbrella instead, but it’s far less common. Tibetans usually prefer the hat/sunglasses combo.

People walking under the sun with hats and umbrellas, Lhasa

To protect themselves from the sun, Tibetans also wear a face mask. Little shops in Lhasa offer a vast selection of masks. You can choose the mundane hospital disposable face mask. You can go for a black washable cotton face mask. Many girls wear a cotton face mask with coloured dots. Some go a bit wilder.  Those whom follow us on Instagram are already well aware because we posted a picture of an old lady wearing a cat-face mask.

Old lady wearing a face mask, Drigung Monastery

The dryness makes Lhasa very dusty. Houses get full of dust very quickly and require you to clean the floor and furniture quite often. All this dust explains the face masks as well. It’s not just fashionable but functional as well!

What’s the weather like?

As we mentioned earlier, there are four seasons. However it differs a little bit from our respective hometowns in France and Liechtenstein.

In Lhasa, fall is between September and December. The weather at this time is stunning. The sun is very bright. It never rains. It may get a bit windy and cooler starting from November. It’s definitely one of the best periods of the year.

First picture: Lukhang park behind the Potala during fall time. Second picture: Potala palace during fall time.

Then it starts getting cold in the beginning of December. That’s when the two of us start wearing long underpants (leggings/long johns) under our pants. The first snows arrive in December. Then it becomes very cold and the cold weather stays until the end of February. However, the cold is not unbearable. Whenever the sun shows up, the weather is quite warm.

Potala palace during winter time, Lhasa

The weather is quite unpredictable during March and April. It usually snows in the mountains higher up on the plateau than Lhasa while it rains from time to time in Lhasa. This is also the time when flowers begin to blossom. The Kongpo area, in the south-east part of the Tibet Autonomous Region, is famous for its magnificent apricot flower blossoms.

Potala palace during spring time, Lhasa

Then in June arrives the summer. Summer is a season with two stages.

In June and beginning of July, the weather is incredibly nice. The temperature rises quite high (compared to the rest of the year). We don’t need to wear thick jackets anymore. We can definitely go around with our t-shirts and thin jackets. However if you go in the shade, it gets much cooler. Same goes for the time before the sunrise and after the sunset. Lhasa can be warm during winter, cold during summer. During that period of the summer, many Tibetans go on picnics. Picnics are a big tradition in Lhasa.

Then in August arrives the second period of the summer, it rains very often. That’s probably the only time of the year where you will use your umbrella for the rain.

Friends playing a game during a picnic, Lhasa

In any case, it’s important to wear many layers. Lhasa might be considered as a “cold place” but it gets hot pretty quickly in the sun, which requires you to take off layers. Then if you are walking in the shade or after sunset, it gets quite cold, which requires you to put on more layers. As we said earlier, it might be a paradox but Lhasa is warm during winter, cold during summer. The famous onion layering technique has proven itself perfect once more!

We wanted to share with you all those details about our daily life here in Lhasa at 3600m altitude. We thought you might like knowing what changes for us compared to when we lived with some of you in Western Europe.

Let us know if you liked that initiative. Ask us if you have questions about some details about our life here. As usual, the comment section is open to you, as well as our private mailbox!

We would like to remind you that you are most welcomed to follow us on Instagram and Facebook! There, as you may already know, we post pictures and short videos. We also recently started publishing Stories containing pictures and videos of our excursions inside or outside Lhasa. Subscribe here to have access to those Stories: Facebook (saltbuttertea) Instagram (@saltbuttertea)

Jokhang temple on a very typical sunny day, Lhasa

Special thanks to Thomas Pan who proofread this article!


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