WHAT TO BUY IN TIBET
IN THE ARTICLE:
Culture in Tibet is deeply intertwined with Buddhism. Religion influences almost all aspects of Tibetan life. If you want to take home objects related to Tibetan Buddhism, you are in luck! You will find a vast variety of items in Lhasa and throughout Tibet.
Thangkas or paintings of Buddha are one of the most sought-after items to buy in Tibet. Painters undergo special training to learn how to paint thangkas according to defined rules.
There are small schools of thangka paintings that also have stores where you can buy thangka or order a new one.
The best schools use traditional paints made from grounded stones. Some of them, such as lapis lazuli giving a deep blue color, are very expensive. That’s why professional good quality thangkas are not cheap.
Be careful with inexpensive thangkas. Very often thangkas that cost 50-100 yuan are just prints, framed, and presented as thangkas.
Depending on the size and the quality, the real thangka painting can be somewhere between 300 to several thousand yuan. Always bargain when buying thangka, but be respectful and polite.
While walking on the streets of Old Town in Lhasa you will see many small stores offering statues. Most of them are made of shiny bronze, sometimes decorated with precious stones and artists cover faces and hair with bright paint. The most popular statues are of Present Buddha (Shakyamuni), Tsongkhapa, Wisdom Buddha, Medicine Buddha, White Tara, Padma Sambhava (Guru Rinpoche), and a number of fierce protectors. Many of these statues were brought to Tibet from Nepal, some are made in Eastern Tibet. and China
The statues vary in quality and sizes, so are the prices of the statues. While small and simple ones can be inexpensive, large and elaborate statues can cost several thousand yuan.
Tibetans traditionally cover the statues in special attire that usually comes with the statue.
If you want to see the process of making the statues, walk to the Dropenling store located to the North of the Muslim quarter of Old Town (a short walk from the mosque). In the courtyard, you can see artisans working on large Buddha statues.
When Tibetans buy the statue, first they take it to the monastery, where monks put a “spirit” inside the statue. You can also ask the seller for it. In that case, you would usually have to return the next day to pick up your statue.
Prayer wheels, vajra (dorje) and other religious items
Tibetans use many religious objects in their everyday life, as well as while praying at home. When walking in Lhasa and visiting important monasteries, you will see many Tibetans rotating hand-held prayer wheels. You can easily purchase them in small shops in Lhasa, and in stores around the monasteries. Other popular religious objects are vajra or dorje and a drilbu (bell). Vajra symbolizes the thunderbolt. You can see many Tibetan deities holding vajra and it is used in important religious rituals. The bell is often used during chanting. The bell and dorje are used together, the bell in the left hand and dorje in the right hand.
Many of the bronze bells and dorje are finely carved.
For Tibetans, prayer flags are very important. There are images of Buddha, deities and prayers or mantras on each of the flags. Tibetans usually hang them high on the mountains, at important religious places and in windy areas. For example, you can often see prayer flags hanging near rivers, natural spring water sources, and over the mountain passes. Every gust of wind sends prayers for all sentient beings to be happy forever. Aside from the religious meaning, these colorful flags became very popular as a decoration. Many people use them in their backyards, mobile homes and rooftops.
You can buy prayer flags in many of the stores in Lhasa and also while traveling in Tibet. When you stop at high mountain passes to enjoy the view you will see Tibetan sellers offering the prayer flags. You can hang it right on these mountain passes where the wind is always strong.
Incense and incense burners
Tibetans offer incense to Buddha statues at home and inside the monasteries. Outside the monasteries you can often see large incense burners, where Tibetans offer incense, such as branches of juniper trees.
Most of the incense found in Tibet, both in the shape of sticks and powdered, is handmade by locals.
There are hundreds of incense varieties using different herbs, some are medicinal.
Virtually everyone can find the incense that will appeal to them. You can find small stores scattered around the Old Town in Lhasa with lots of incense varieties. Also, look for the incense in monastery stores when traveling in Tibet. Many monasteries make their own varieties that you can purchase directly from the monastery shops.
If you need an incense burner, you can also find it in the stores in Lhasa. Most incense burners are bronze, and some are wood. They come in different shapes and sizes.
TIBETAN GOODS AND SPECIALTIES
Tibetans living for centuries at high elevation, separated by high mountains ranges from their neighbors, developed their unique shapes and designs of everyday items and crafts, using natural materials and elements.
The singing bowls are used like bells. You should run a wooden stick(mallet) around the outside edge of the bowl making the bowl vibrate and produce a deep music sound. They are often used in meditation practices, but they also help to relax and people believe in their healing properties. They come in many different sizes. When choosing one, play the sound and select the bowl with the most pleasing melody for you.
Weaving rugs of sheep wool is an ancient craft in Tibet. Traditionally, the rugs were handmade. Although you can still buy fully handmade carpets, nowadays many of them are made with the use of simple machines, for example, for spinning the yarn.
The dyes for the wool are derived from natural sources. That’s why most carpets have a limited number of colors, such as red, blue, yellow, brown and a few other hues derived from local plants.
Many rugs feature various geometric forms and motifs inspired by nature, such as clouds, flowers, and animal designs. The most popular are the tiger rugs.
Tibetans use rugs for saddles, for decoration and floor cover, and to wrap benches for seating.
There are many rug sellers in the Old Town in Lhasa. For rugs made only with natural dyes and following the traditional process, visit the Dropenling Store.
Tibetan traditional clothes are so eye-catching and vibrant that some travelers chose to take one of the dresses home. Women’s traditional dress – Chuba can be easily worn as a long dress anywhere outside of Tibet. The better quality dresses are made of silk with elegant silhouettes and beautiful print patterns. Tibetan women wear a shirt underneath the dress. The shirts also come in a variety of fabrics and colors.
Striped aprons finish the outfit. The apron is the sign that the woman is married. Various designs come from different regions and Tibetans can “read” this information.
Men’s traditional outfit consists of a shirt, broad robe worn over the shirt, pants and a fur robe for winter months. Men also wear a fur hat in winter.
Although looking similar to cowboy hats, these hats are traditional for the Kham region in Eastern Tibet. The hat has a double duty to protect from the cold and the sun. Hats are made of leather or felt, often decorated with patterns, ribbons or other elements.
Walking around the Old Town in Lhasa you will see small stores filled with various wooden bowls. There are bowls made of different types of wood and roots, of different sizes, with silver decorations and lids. Natural wood items are always a welcome element in decor. You can find a bowl or a set of bowls that will serve you well.
Traditional Tibetan medicine is very popular among visitors. The ancient tradition of producing medicine is carefully preserved. Medicine is a combination of dried and powdered herbs and minerals.
It is important to know that traditional Tibetan medicine cures the person, not a specific disease. You need to consult a doctor, who will examine you and prescribe a medicine for you. While readily made medicine is available and you can buy it in some stores, it is always best to consult the doctor first.
JEWELRY AND ACCESSORIES
When you visit Tibet, you will see that Tibetans love decorating themselves with jewelry. Men and women alike wear decorations with large turquoise and corals. No wonder you will see lots of jewelry items for sale in Tibet.
To see the most impressive jewelry items go to the Tromsikhang Market. Right on the street Tibetans wearing impressive jewelry collections walk around showcasing their inventory and looking for buyers. Corals the size of an apple, huge Dzi beads, heavy gold, and gemstone items will certainly impress you!
These agate stones have a natural design in the shape of an eye on them. The larger stones with more eyes on them are more expensive, going into thousands of dollars per stone. As you would imagine it created a large market of imitations.
You will see many Dzi beads for sale in Tibet. You should assume that most of them are imitations. We don’t advise buying very expensive beads without consulting with an expert.
Nevertheless, Dzi beads make a great unique addition to your jewelry collection.
In addition, Tibetans believe that Dzi beads provide health and spiritual benefits. Tibetans passed Dzi beads from generation to generation and these ancient beads are the most valuable today.
You will notice that Tibetans wear strands of prayer beads. These strands consist of 108 beads. When reciting mantras, Tibetans use these beads to count repetitions.
Tibetan sellers offer a huge variety of prayer beads. They can be made of wood, seeds, various gemstones and even precious metals. Some people layer the beads around their wrists to wear as a bracelet. Choose the strands according to your liking and in size that will match your preferences.
Gemstones: Coral, Turquoise
There are thousands of different jewelry items with different gemstones. The most popular ones are turquoise and coral, but you will see other types as well. There are necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings, hairpieces and whatnot with colorful stones.
Have fun shopping for jewelry but air on a side of caution when buying expensive items. There are lots of imitations, especially when sellers offer items on the street.
Tibetan women usually wear heavy gold jewelry, and you will rarely see other metals. That’s why the majority of jewelry stores offer yellow gold items. If you are serious about buying gold jewelry, it is best to go to larger stores. Alternatively, you can buy gold-colored jewelry in almost any store offering jewelry in Lhasa (just be careful not to pay for it as much as for solid gold).
Tibetans use silver for a variety of items, but silver jewelry is not very popular among them. However, you can find silver jewelry made mainly for tourists. Some jewelry items incorporate traditional Tibetan design, imitating some religious items, such as dorje or prayer wheels.
These natural wood bracelets made of Millettia vine are quite popular in Tibet.
You can find a wide variety from simple ones to elaborately decorated with silver and gemstones.
To make these bracelets artisans steam the vine to bend it into a bracelet shape.
Millettia grows in high-altitude areas in Tibet. It is also used in some Tibetan medicine. Tibetans believe in its healing properties even when worn as a bracelet. They say it improves joint health.
When worn for a long time they absorb skin oils and become very smooth and shiny.
In Lhasa Old Town you can find stores selling warm wool scarves with traditional Tibetan design elements. They come in different colors, so you will certainly find a scarf that will appeal to you. It can also be a great gift to take back home with you.
FOOD, SNACKS AND TASTY TREATS
Trying local food is one of the ways of experiencing local culture. There are many Tibetan specialties that you can try only in this highland region. If you are traveling in Tibet, you will most likely try at least some of the local dishes in the restaurants or tea houses. Still, there are some things that you can buy in stores and even take home to your friends and family.
Dried yak meat
Yaks are the most important animals in Tibet. The lives of all Tibetans heavily depend on everything that yaks can provide. Tibetans eat yak meat, use milk to produce yogurt, cheese and butter, make tents from yak hair and use skin for leather goods.
The taste of yak meat is similar to beef, but some people feel that it is a little milder.
Of course, you can try yak meat dishes in restaurants and tea houses. In addition to that, you can take dried yak meat with you. It is a delicious snack and a source of much-needed protein if you are traveling to higher altitude areas in Tibet and especially trekking.
Tsampa is a roasted barley flour that Tibetans eat for breakfast, mixing with butter tea, sugar and cheese. Indeed, Tsampa is the staple food in Tibet and Tibetans cannot imagine their lives without it. Tsampa can serve as a snack and as a side dish to yak meat soup, for example. You will also see Tibetans carrying bags with tsampa while they are traveling. These tsampa bags are often made of leather and decorated with traditional ornaments.
Barley is full of important nutrients and a great source of fiber. It has a naturally mild sweet taste and can replace traditional oatmeal. Still not very popular in Western countries, barley is already making its way into some stores due to its benefits. You can try it in Tibet and maybe even take some of it back home.
Highland barley is the most important crop in Tibet. If you are traveling in Tibet, you probably already know about tsampa – roasted barley flour that Tibetans often eat for breakfast, as a snack or when traveling. As you learn, you can not only eat tsampa but also make a drink out of it. Barley beer is not very strong with about 5% of alcohol content. It tastes sweeter compared to a regular beer.
Very often you can see small stores selling barley beer right outside the monasteries. Tibetans buy it to offer in protector’s chapels, along with black tea and milk.
BOOKS AND MAPS
There are several bookstores in the Old Town in Lhasa. While most of them mostly carry books in Chinese, you can sometimes find books in English.
In addition, many of them carry maps of Lhasa. With slow internet and not accurate markings on the online maps, the physical maps can be very helpful.
If you would like to learn Tibetan, you can also find special boards with chalks and ink pens to practice your calligraphy skills.
Look for books about Lhasa’s important religious places, such as Jokhang Temple and Potala Palace. Since photography inside these places is not allowed, getting a book with photos can be a good way to take home memories of these places.
You can find bookstores walking around Barkhor Street, by the Sakya temple (near the Family Kitchen restaurant), and some books are available inside Potala Palace.
WHERE TO GO SHOPPING
The Barkhor Street in the heart of Lhasa lined with hundreds of stores certainly comes to mind the first when thinking about buying things in Tibet. It offers everything, from incense to furniture, rugs, and large statues, as well as thangkas, jewelry, and a variety of religious items. Although Barkhor street is a great place to walk and watch locals and the busy trade scene, it might be not the best place to buy things unless you know prices very well. Sellers on Barkhor street tend to ask for higher prices compared to less touristy areas and you will need to bargain to buy things. Instead, enjoy the stroll along Barkhor street and go for souvenir shopping a little further away from it.
You might have a bit of better luck buying items on the side streets radiating from Barkhor street in all directions. You will find all the same items that Barkhor street offers, but prices will be more reasonable.
Barkhor supermarket is located on the northern side of Beijing Road near the Linkuo East road. This large shopping center has a wide variety of traditional Tibetan clothes, ritual items, incense, jewelry and so much more! Prices here are usually better than on Barkhor Street, but you still need to bargain when shopping.
Visit Barkhor supermarket when looking for prayer beads, jewelry and gemstones, bronze items such as religious items, bronze decorations and incense burners, traditional Tibetan clothes, scarves, baskets, wooden items.
Dropenling is really a unique store in Lhasa and we highly recommend visiting it even if you are not planning to buy anything. The store aims to support local artisans and preserve traditional crafts in Tibet. Everything that is offered there is made in Tibet using traditional techniques and natural materials. You can find rugs, leather items, clothes, bags, jewelry, toys, wood items, soaps and a lot more. In addition, you can see information on how these items were produced and photos from the workshops. Workers in the store speak English and can answer your questions about the items.
You can find Dropenling store in the Old Town in Lhasa. Walk to the North from the Lhasa Mosque or contact the store for directions: +86 0891-6360558.
When visiting some monasteries in Tibet you can buy items in the monastery shops. Most of them are quite small, but you can find items made in these monasteries.
For example, many monasteries and nunneries make their own incense. Some monasteries sell protection amulets blessed by monastery monks. Also, you can find books with photos and historical information about the monasteries you are visiting and postcards with more photos.
Roadside sellers when traveling in Tibet
When traveling in Tibet, you will see many sellers in the scenic and historic areas where we stop along the way. While many of them sell typical items such as incense burners and prayer beads, many offer local specialties. For example, you can see small shells in the Everest region that are actually found in the area because it was under the ocean before the mountain range formation. Similarly, sellers sell dried fish near Manasarovar lake that many Tibetans buy for medicinal reasons.
Buying trinkets from along the road can be a great way to keep the memories from these places.
BARGAINING WHEN SHOPPING IN TIBET
You should bargain when buying items in small shops or directly from artists or artisans. While bargaining is usually not a part of the shopping experience in Western countries, it is an essential part of shopping in most Asian countries, including Tibet. Even if you are not very comfortable bargaining, try to think about it as a cultural experience.
It is very important to remain calm and be polite. You can expect to lower the price a little, possibly 10-20% of the original price, depending on the overall value of the item.
Remember that the economic situation is very different in Tibet. For many sellers and artisans, the little profit they make from the sale helps them support their families and continue their work. Be kind and support the local community.
Bargaining do’s and don’ts
- be polite and respectful
- do all the negotiations yourself
- negotiate the price up-front, before paying and packing away your purchase
- if you are not comfortable bargaining, ask seller for the last price
- dont be rude or too pushy
- when buying directly from artisans or artists dont try to downgrade their work by pointing to all flaws
- don’t pressure your guide into negotiating for you
When not to bargain
- In all places with set prices such as supermarkets and grocery stores
- When riding in metered taxi
- In restaurants, tea houses and bars
BUYING ANTIQUE ITEMS
You are not allowed to buy and take out of the country antique items.
First of all, it is unethical as many of the antique items sold at a black market were stolen from the monasteries.
Second, there are strict rules regulating the trade of antique items in Tibet. When sending items through a post office you might have to present a receipt that proves that they are newly produced. If you take your purchases with you, you might have to present proof of the purchase of the new item when going through customs.
Finally, there are many fakes offered in the outdoor markets, when new items are sold as antiques. It is very difficult to distinguish truly antique items without experience or sometimes special equipment.
We highly recommend only buying new items from artisans. Support the local artisans who work hard, preserve the tradition and produce high-quality authentic items.
PAYMENT OPTIONS: CASH, CREDIT CARDS, WECHAT AND ALIPAY
Cash: Chinese Yuan (RMB)
The easiest way to pay for anything in Tibet is by using Chinese yuan. If you are traveling with US dollars or Euros you can easily exchange them for Chinese Yuan in Lhasa. Your guide will help you with it. Cash payments in yuan are accepted everywhere.
Travelers who live in China and have Chinese issued credit cards can use them in many places in cities. Similarly, worldwide common Visa and Mastercard are accepted in large stores and supermarkets and in some hotels.
Restaurants and stores in remote areas typically don’t take any credit cards and it is best to take cash with you when traveling outside of large cities.
WeChat and AliPay
WeChat became one of the dominant payment platforms in China and Tibet as well. You can link your bank account with WeChat and use it for payments. Most sellers, even small vendors accept WeChat payments.
Similarly, AliPay became a widespread payment system.
TIPS AND ADVICE FOR SHOPPING IN TIBET
PREPARE FOR TIBET TOUR
POPULAR TOURS IN TIBET
8 DAYS LHASA TO EVEREST TOUR
A beautiful and exciting journey, starting in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and going to the Everest Base Camp. The tour visits Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Sera, Drepung and Tashilhunpo monasteries, Kumbum Stupa, Yamdrok Lake and Karola glaciers.
15 DAYS MOUNT KAILASH PILGRIMAGE TOUR
One of our most popular group tours, starting in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and going to Mount Kailash for three-day trekking around this sacred mountain. During this tour, we visit Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Yamdrok Lake, Gyantse monastery and Kumbum stupa, Mount Everest, Lake Manasarovar, Mount Kailash, and much more.
10 DAYS EASY ACCLIMATIZING EVEREST TOUR
This slow-paced private tour takes you from Lhasa to Gyantse and Shigatse, where we spend the first few days acclimatizing. We will visit many of the historical and religious places, such as Potala Palace, Jokhang temple, Gyantse monastery, and Kumbum Stupa.
We will make stops by the most beautiful natural spots: Yamdrok Lake, Karola glaciers and many of the high mountain passes and viewpoints. Finally, we will reach Everest Base Camp, where we stay for the night.