This remote and primarily Buddhist territory is known as the “roof of the world”. The providence is encapsulated by spectacular snowy mountain tops, including the highest in the world: Mt. Everest. Tibet’s landscape has some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery; high-altitude treks, crystal-clear lakes, a multitude of gorgeous monasteries and an array of diverse national parks. The vibrancy of its culture and people only compliments its extraordinary natural setting.
The region is not without its fair share of controversy, as the region was independent from 1913 to 1951 after the Battle of Chamdo. Tibet then became incorporated into the People’s Republic of China.
The region’s predominant religion of Tibetan Buddhism has played a major role in its identity and current state. Buddhism reached Tibet in the 17th century. The Dalai Lama, or ‘Ocean of Wisdom’, is the leading spiritual figure; the Panchen Lama is the second most important figure. Both are seen as the reincarnations of their predecessors. Tibetans stand with the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, seen by his followers as a living god – but by China as a separatist threat.
main image: courtesy of Göran Höglund (Kartläsarn), Flickr creative commons
Tibetan garb generally consists of short upper garments made of silk or cloth with long sleeves inside. This is typically worn with long loose robes and boots made of cattle hide. While performing laborious work, locals tend to expose one or both arms by tying their sleeves around their waists. Upon nightfall, their appropriately loose clothes can be used as sleeping bags.
In regards to hair style, both men and women where pigtails. However, men tend to coil the pigtails over their heads, while women often arrange their hair into two or many small braids and adorn the ends with decorative ornaments.
The climate of Tibet in the springtime is warm in the daytime but chilly enough to require a sweater and long johns of sorts. At night, Tibet is on the cooler side with a down jacket and thicker trousers recommended during this time. Throughout the season, cold rain, fog and stormy weather are common.
Tibet’s summer season, from May to October, arguably brings about the best weather for tourists. The temperature remains relatively mild, not exceeding 30 degrees Celsius. Although the sun is beaming, the air is dry leaving the body quite comfortable as opposed to a human environment. Along with the providence’s high altitude, comes strong UV rays, so sunscreen is a must.
September to November is Tibet’s autumn season and with it comes blue skies, little rain, and plenty of dry air. The overall temperature is reasonably cooler than autumn, however, in certain areas like Nagqu and Nagri temperatures are much cooler and down jackets are recommended for heat retention. In places like Namasto or Mt. Everest, of course, temperatures can drop below zero.
Winter in Tibet is – as many would predict the Himalayas to be – cold. However, not as cold as may would think. Temperatures in Lhasa can rise to about 10 degrees Celsius and averages fall around zero degrees Celsius. Because of the altitude, Tibet receives a significant amount of sunshine in the winter
Top-end hotels can usually recommend a good place to go for advice. Standards of medical attention are so low in most places in Tibet that for some ailments the best advice is to go straight to Lhasa, and in extreme cases get on a plane to Kathmandu or Chéngdū.
Anyone who does not own a Chinese passport requires a Tibet Entry Permit as well a Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit. The latter is only accessible by booking a group tour for the entire trip in addition to pre-arranged private transport for trips outside Lhasa. No individual travellers are allowed to enter into Tibet, so the tour must be booked in advance by a Chinese travel agency. Once the booking is made the agency will need around 10-14 days to mail the TTB (needed for boarding flights or trains to Tibet) to tourists.
Tourist require additional permits if they wish to travel anywhere outside of Lhasa. If entering Tibet from Nepal, a short-term travel visa is required; this makes it difficult to travel to the rest of China.
If a foreigner wants to visit Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), a province of China, they should get a Chinese visa first, and then apply to the government of TAR for Tibet entry permit. If entering from Nepal, traveller’s will need a Group Tourist Visa in addition to the Tibet Travel Permit which is around 100 USD.
Aliens’ Travel Permit will grant travellers access to additional areas, such as Everest Base Camp, Samye Monastery, Mt. Kailash, and Basum-tso. This is usually available in Lhasa, Shigatse and Ali, however, the locations which require the permit changes constantly so travellers are advised to check with their tour guides to confirm which permits are required.
Military Permit will grant travellers access to sensitive border areas or ‘restricted areas’. Applications for the permit are given selectively with sufficient reason and are only available in Lhasa.
The local currency of Tibet is the same as the rest of china, the Yaun Renminbi, or Yuan for short.
$1 US Dollar = 6.63 Chinese Yaun
£1 British Pound = 8.73 Chinese Yuan
€1 Euro = 7.8 Chinese Yaun
The average cost of visiting Tibet is relatively affordable, falling between $75-$150 USD a day. A double room with a bathroom can cost between $30-$60 USD a night. Entrance tickets to attractions like the Potala Palace can cost about $30 USD. A meal in a local restaurant averages at $5 USD while an upscale restaurant in Lhasa is still about $8-$10 USD.
Autumn is relatively a good season for travelling to Tibet. In addition to the beautiful scenery, peak tourist season has ended and prices for lodging, food, attractions, and airfare are much cheaper compared to the summer time. Visiting costs are even cheaper in the winter.
Typical Tibetan cuisine consists of some form of mutton, beef, and dairy products, with rice, highland barley, and flour as stable ingredients. A popular local dish is zanba which is roasted quingke barely flour and butter. Cuisines from the rest of the country permeate through Tibet as well, such as Sichuan, Cantonese, and Shangdong cuisines. Local people also eat their meets raw or dried. Popular drinks for the area include buttered tea, sweat tea, and barley wine.
While Tibetic (or Bodic) is the most common spoken language in Tibet, English is used within the tourism business and languages like Hindi and Nepalese are spoken by Nepalese merchants. Tibetic is roughly divided by four dialect groups: Central (Lhasa), Southern (Sikkim), Northern, and Western.
Tibetan people utilise farming and stock raising for their main source of income. Most inhabitants practice Tibetan Buddhism, a religion exiled from its homeland when Tibet was conquered by the Chinese. The Dalai Lama is the most recognised figure associated with Tibetan Buddhism; he has lived in exile in India since he fled China in 1959. Some Tibetan people follow other religions such as the old Bon, Islam, and Catholicism, respectively, with the latter two mainly in Lhasa and Yangjing.
Due to its heavy religious background, Tibet is flourishing in temples, monasteries, and religious sights. Around two of it’s most popular structures, The Jokhang Temple and the Sera Monetary, one could find Mani Stones, vibrantly coloured prayer flags and locals wheeling prayer wheels, which are all representations of Buddhism.
Local city transportation throughout Tibet consists of Pedi cabs, taxi cabs, and some bus routes in Lhasa and Shigatse. The bus far is a fixed rate at ¥1 while Pedi cabs require extensive haggling and usually lands around the same price as a taxi at ¥10-¥15. Foreigners are not allowed to take public transport outside Lhasa.
Tibet experiences a multitude of avoidable illnesses such as: parasitic infection, altitude sickness, hypothermia and rabies. These illnesses and other’s alike are avoidable by taking the following precautions:
Make sure to be up to date on all vaccinations prioritising hepatitis B and rabies (especially if you are cycling, handling animals, caving or travelling in remote areas). Rabies is the most common infectious-disease cause of death in China and vaccination is recommended for visitors spending over a month in Tibet.
Do not drink any unsanitised water in any form, which includes ice and locally brewed beer.
Always be prepared for cold, wet or windy conditions, especially if you’re out walking at high altitudes or even taking a long bus trip over mountains (particularly at night).
When trekking, take a day off to rest and acclimatise if feeling overtired. If you or anyone else in your party is having a tough time, make allowances for unscheduled stops.
Don’t push yourself when climbing up passes; rather, take plenty of breaks. You can usually get over the pass as easily tomorrow as you can today. Try to plan your itinerary so that long ascents can be divided into two or more days. Given the complexity and unknown variables involved with AMS and acclimatisation, trekkers should always err on the side of caution and ascend mountains slowly.
Top 5 Sites
- Mount Kailash: A major Himalaya peak and considered sacred by Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Bon.
- Gyantse Kumbum: Commissioned by a Gyantse prince in 1427 and sitting inside the Pelkor Chöde complex, 32metre-high chörten is trimmed in white and features a golden dome.
- Sunrise at Chakpori Hill: Sitting adjacent to the Potala Palace you can view break of dawn cascading over the mountain tops. The elevation of the site provides an unobstructed view of the Palace and the mountains.
- Everest Base Camp: The camp is surrounded by four peaks above 8000 metres high and 14 other peaks above 8,000 metres that form the soul-stirring visual of Mt. Qomlangma. Travellers can even take in the scenery overnight in tents available for rent.
- Tashilhunpo Monastery: Located on the southern slope of the Nyiseri Mountain, this beautiful monastery houses and protects national cultural relics. The structure enshrines the world’s largest glided Qamba Buddha bronze statue, consists of various memorial halls, and a multitude of art including the murals recording people’s lives.
Top 5 Things To Do
- Visit the Potala Palace: This is a huge treasure house of materials and articles from Tibetan history, religion, culture, and art. The number of travellers to the palace is limited each day to protect the building complex. Visiting time for the Potala is limited to one hour per tour group.
- Visit the Jokhang Temple: The most sacred temple to the Tibetan people receives many pilgrims visiting throughout the year, who position themselves in front of the temple and circle around the temple clockwise – a sight to see!
- Shop on Barkhor Street: This is Lhasa’s pilgrimage circuit around Jokhang Temple but is also a busy shopping street circulating with a multitude of souvenirs from both Nepal and Tibet.
- People watch at the Sera Monastery: Watch monks debate deep philosophical questions in traditional red robes every afternoon. The debates are carried out using an ancient, highly ritualised form of debate where one monk, the questioner, stands while the ‘answerer’ or ‘group of answers’, sit. When questioning, the standing monk will slap his palms together and stomp, actions that have spiritual meaning, such as activating wisdom. Many also enjoy walking the Sera Kora, a prayer circuit surrounding the monastery grounds, going west from the entrance.
- Eat lunch at the side of Yamdrok Lake, which sitting at 4,500 metres is one of the highest altitude lakes in the world. Located in the Nagarze County, the most popular route to visit the lake is on the way to Shigatse from Lhasa. The view of the lake is stunning as it exudes a rare hue of turquoise and teal.