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Explore China 2019: The cars of Lhasa, Tibet

Toyota Tundra in front of the Potala Palace, Lhasa.

After ShanghaiManzhouli in Inner Mongolia and KunmingDali and Lijiang in Yunnan, we finish our Chinese exploration following the Shanghai Auto Show on a high note. After many years of anticipation and missed opportunities because of how convoluted the permit process is, I finally was able to spend four days in Tibet Autonomous Region, namely in the province’s capital, Lhasa. Indeed on top of a Chinese visa you need a special permit to visit Tibet as a foreign tourist, which can only be obtained through a tour guide and has to be mailed to wherever you are in China at the time – sounds pretty straight-forward but in this country nothing really is! We got there in the end. I have to admit cars took second place just for that time as the amount of breathtaking temples, monuments and history as well as the incomparable friendliness of the locals took centre stage. But I can’t help myself and ended up taking hundreds of pictures of the cars streaming the streets of Lhasa, a selection of which I am sharing with you in this article.

Lhasa location in China, alongside our previous stops.

After becoming part of China in 1951, the Tibet Autonomous Region was established in 1965 and has been a politically charged part of the world ever since. It is home to just 3.2 million inhabitants, 90% Tibetan and 8% Han, spread on 1.2 million km2, equivalent to France, Spain and Great Britain put together, and as a result is the least densely populated province in China. Lhasa counts just 330.000 inhabitants, qualifying as the only Tier 3 city in Tibet. See an excellent Tier city classification map and explanation here.

Lhasa snaps

Tour guides aren’t normally my cup of tea, but in the case of Lhasa, having a personal guide answering all my interrogations and providing incredible detail and historical background to every statue, temple and building we visited was invaluable. I had the privilege of visiting the Potala Palace, the Drepung and Sera Monasteries including the kids’ blessing and the monks’ philosophical debate, the Jokhung Temple and the Barkhor and was lucky enough to stay in a traditional hotel in the Old Town. Foreign tourists are allowed to walk unaccompanied in town but very few venture alone and when I did, I was invariably approached for “the selfie with the foreigner”, and felt like a proper Hollywood star. Start every exchange with “Tashi Delek” (hello in Tibetan) and you are sure to be met with the warmest smiles and laughs of polite appreciation. I warmly recommend visiting Lhasa, all the paperwork and complicated permit process is well worth it. But what about the cars? First, a video…

Leopaard SUVs in Lhasa

A logical but much weakened follow-up to rare data by province that showed the Leopaard 6401 (=Pajero) was the best-seller in Tibet in 2015, the Leopaard brand is indeed strong in Lhasa and started straight from the airport with a shining-new Mattu SUV, and quite a few CS10 in the new part of town, but I expected more.

BMW X4 and Cadillac XT4

The most popular vehicles in Lhasa are large SUVs. Steppe tastes are followed faithfully with the Toyota Land Cruiser, Prado but also the Ford Edge, Explorer and Mercedes GLC very frequent in town. Luxury SUVs such as BMW and Cadillac are far from uncommon.

The VW Teramont is everywhere in Lhasa.

But for the title of unofficial best-seller I would actually choose the VW Teramont, as surprising as it sounds. I also saw a couple of VW Tayron here.

WEY VV7, Haval F5, H4, H6 and H7

In an SUV-dominated landscape, of course Haval is king with the F7, H6, H4, F5 and H2 and a few more H7 than expected. Great Wall’s WEY brand is also well established already – especially around government buildings – contrary to Lynk & Co with only one 02 and one 03 spotted.

Honda UR-V, Chery Tiggo 8, Kia Sportage, Bisu T3, Subaru Forester and Zotye Domy X7

The Honda UR-V, new generation Kia Sportage, Chery Tiggo 8 and Zotye Domy X7 are also strong, as are the Dongfeng Glory 580 and S560. Bisu (with the T3) and Hawtai (with the Shengdafei) are the strongest I have ever seen them anywhere, and there are a lot more Citroens in Lhasa than in any city I have visited this year, notably the C3-XR.

Ford F-150 in Lhasa

On top of the ubiquitous foreign large SUVs, Subaru is also very popular in Lhasa, seemingly indicating a relatively wealthy population benefitting from tourism. Another surefire sign of wealth is the presence of grey-imported full-size US pickups such as the Ford F-150 Raptor and Toyota Tundra, at a rate unmatched in my 2019 explorations.

Taxis in Lhasa

The taxis are almost all Hyundai Sonata from two generations ago, kept in production locally by the Korean carmaker exclusively for taxi fleets, the next most frequent being the Skoda Octavia, VW Lavida and Jetta. 

Landwind X5 (with Range Rover fake badge!), VW Jetta, Geely Vision SUV and Isuzu Pickup

This concludes our Explore China series for 2019, be sure to stay tuned for 10 China test drives coming up shorty.

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