China Travel Guide

Tibet

 
Thangka hanging on a door at the Jokhang Temple, Lhasa
Thangka hanging on
a door at the Jokhang
Temple, Lhasa

The Enormous Tibetan Plateau stretches across an awesome 463,323 sq miles (1,200,000 sq km). Its northern expanse is the Chang Tang, a vast, uninhabited high-altitude desert, dotted with enormous, brackish lakes. Nearly all the main sights and cities, as well as half of Tibet's population of 2.8 million people, are concentrated in the less harsh southern region.

Tibet Area
Tibet Area

The fertile valley created by the Yarlung Tsangpo river is bordered by the Himalayas along Tibet's southern boundary. A mere 14 million years old, the Himalayas are the youngest mountains on earth, and also the highest, with over 70 peaks reaching elevations of 23,000 ft (7,000 m), including Mount Everest, the world's highest at 29,029 ft (8,848 m). The spectacle of these snow-clad peaks is perhaps what led to Tibet being called the "Land of Snows." In reality, at an average altitude of over 13,000 ft (4,000 m), the thin air intensifies the sunshine making acclimatization and sun screen essential.

Tibet's eastern reaches are riddled with gorges carved out by the three of China's rivers – the mighty Yangzi, the Salween, and the Mekong. The wide, open spaces of northern Tibet are home to nomads who live a hardy pastoral existence. These wilderness areas are slowly shrinking as a result of the encroaching industrial world.

The Potala Palace seen from the rooftop of the Jokhang, Lhasa’s holiest temple
The Potala Palace seen from the rooftop
of the Jokhang, Lhasa’s holiest temple
Yamdrok Lake the largest lake in south Tibet, seen from the Kamba-la Pass
Yamdrok Lake the largest lake in
south Tibet, seen from the Kamba-la Pass

However, despite rapid development and more than 50 years of Chinese occupation, Tibet still clings strongly to its cultural heritage, most visible in the revitalized monasteries. Tourism too, is a growing industry as more areas are opening up, allowing visitors tantalizing glimpses of a once-forbidden world.

Tibet at a Glance
Bordered on three sides by some of the world's highest mountain ranges – the Himalayas, the Karakoram, and the Kulun – Tibet has remained in relative isolation. Sheltered first by its inaccessibility and then, in the age of air travel, by Chinese occupation, the “Roof of the World” has only recently opened to foreign visitors. Its one major city, Lhasa, retains its spiritual core: the Jokhang; the venerable palace of the Dalai Lamas, the Potala; and great monasteries such as Drepung and Sera. Wherever you go, Tibet offers panoramic vistas of high-altitude desert fringed by peaks, but the turquoise depths of Lake Namtso and the sky-scraping peaks of Mount Everest are particularly worth visiting.

Towns & Cities

Towns & Cities

Areas of Natural Beauty

Temples & Monasteries

Tourist Information

Buddha mural, Jokhang Temple
Buddha mural,
Jokhang Temple

A Portrait of Tibet
Tibet's reputation as a land of exotic mystery is due to centuries of geographic isolation and a unique theocratic culture, based on Buddhism but influenced by an older shamanistic faith called Bon. In 1950, China marched into Tibet and annexed the country. Despite this upheaval, the traditional culture and values of the Tibetans remain strong and continue to lure and enchant visitors.

Sprawling Ganden Monastery, built in the early 15th century
Sprawling Ganden Monastery,
built in the early 15th century

Since the introduction of Buddhism in the 7th century, the religion has permeated all aspects of Tibetan life, with monasteries acting as palaces, administrative centers, and schools. Ruled by priests, Tibet was feudal in outlook and resisted all modernization. The country thus entered the modern world without an army, lay education, or roads, and with few technologies more sophisticated than the prayer wheel.

Buddhism was introduced in Tibet by Songsten Gampo (AD 608–50). A remarkable ruler who also unified the country, Songsten Gampo, was converted to Buddhism by his Chinese and Nepalese wives. The next religious king, Trisong Detsen (742–803) consolidated the Buddhist faith, inviting the Indian teacher Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) to Tibet and founding Samye Monastery. A revival of the native Bon religion in the 8th century led to Buddhist persecution, and though the religion re-emerged later, the kingdom disintegrated into several principalities.

Buddha's all-seeing eyes on the Kumbum, Gyantse
Sprawling Ganden Monastery,
built in the early 15th century

In the 13th century, Tibet submitted to the all-conquering Mongols, and in 1247 the head lama of Sakya Monastery visited their court and was appointed Tibet's ruler. Subsequently, Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) established the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect. His disciples became the Dalai Lamas, rulers of Tibet for 500 years. Each new Dalai Lama is seen as a reincarnation of the previous one. In 1950, the Chinese took advantage of a tenuous claim to the territory and invaded, calling it “liberation.” In the uprising that followed in 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama (b.1935) fled to India, where he still heads the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. By 1970 more than a million Tibetans had died either directly at the hands of the Chinese or through famine caused by incompetent agricultural policies. Tibet's cultural heritage was razed, and over 6,000 monasteries destroyed.

Some monasteries that were ravaged during the Cultural Revolution are now being repaired and returned to their former roles, but creating or owning an image of the Dalai Lama is still illegal.

A Tibetan mandala, a ritual tantric diagram
A Tibetan mandala,
a ritual tantric diagram

The ancient city of Lhasa is the heart of Tibet, though Han Chinese immigrants now outnumber ethnic Tibetans. A spectacular new railway line linking Golmud in Qinghai to Lhasa means that immigrant numbers will continue to grow. However, the old quarter, home of the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple, illustrates the determination with which Tibetans have held onto their cultural traditions. A common sight here are the pious and cheerful pilgrims, swinging prayer wheels and performing energetic prostrations as they make kora – holy circuits – around the temple.

Most of Tibet is desert and the average altitude is over 13,000 ft (4,000 m) with temperatures well below freezing in winter. Many customs arose as response to life in this harsh environment. Sky burials, for example, in which the dead are left in the open for vultures, are practical in a land where firewood is scarce and the earth too hard to dig. Polyandry (the practice of having more than one husband at a time) and celibacy of the clergy were necessary forms of population control.

Monks debating under a tree, a common sight at Sera Monastery
Monks debating under a tree,
a common sight at Sera Monastery

Almost a quarter of the people are nomads, keeping herds of dzo (a cross between a yak and a cow) and living in tents. Their livestock provide products vital for everyday Tibetan life – yak butter is used in the ubiquitous bitter butter tea and burnt in smoky chapel lamps.

Tibet's roads are few, and journeys are always time consuming. The busiest route is the Friendship Highway between Lhasa and the Nepalese border, which passes through Shigatse, Gyantse, and the dramatic Sakya Monastery. It is a long, bumpy but rewarding diversion from here to the Everest base camp, which offers great views of the forbidding peak. Lhasa, too, can be a good base for exploring some of the other isolated destinations. The monasteries of Drepung, Sera, Ganden, and Tsurphu are easily accessible, while Lake Namtso and Samye are farther away.

Getting there
Visitors arrive mostly by air from Chengdu, and also from Sichuan or Kathmandu, Nepal. An overland route also connects Kathmandu and Lhasa, but while individual travelers can leave, only tour groups may enter this way. The bus route from Golmud in Qinghai has been superseded by a high-speed railway line, and most people take the train to Lhasa from Xining or Chengdu. A permit from the Tibetan Tourism Bureau (TTB) – (86) 0891 691 2080 – is required. No independent travel is allowed for foreigners in Tibet. The best option is to arrange a tour with an agency in Lhasa, who will also handle permits.

Jampalyang (Manjusri) represents knowledge and learning. He raises a sword of discriminating wisdom in his right hand.
Jampalyang (Manjusri) represents
knowledge and learning. He raises a sword of
discriminating wisdom in his right hand.

Tibetan Buddhism
The Mahayana school of Buddhism, which emphasizes compassion and self-sacrifice, came to Tibet from India in the 7th century. As it spread it took on many aspects of the native, shamanistic Bon religion, incorporating Bon rituals and deities. Like most Buddhists, Tibetans believe in reincarnation – consecutive lives that are better or worse depending on the karma, or merit, accrued in the previous life. For many Tibetans, Buddhism suffuses daily life so completely that the concept of a religion separate from day to day occurences, is completely foreign – there is no word for religion in Tibetan.

Monks and monasteries
At the height of monastic power there were some 6,000 monasteries in Tibet, and numerous Buddhist sects. Most families sent a son to become a monk and live a life of celibacy and meditation.

Wheel of Life
Chortens hold the ashes of spiritual teachers. The square base symbolizes earth; the pinnacle crown represents the ethereal sphere.
Chortens hold the ashes of spiritual teachers.
The square base symbolizes earth; the
pinnacle crown represents the ethereal sphere.

Wheel of Life
The continuous cycle of existence and re-birth is represented by the Wheel of Life, clutched in the jaws of the Lord of Death, Yama. Achieving enlightenment is the only way to transcend the incessant turning of the wheel.

Prayer and ritual
Worship in Tibet is replete with ritual objects and customs, many of which help with the accrual of merit. Koras, which are always followed clockwise, can be short circuits of holy sites or fully-fledged pilgrimages. The most auspicious kora is around Mount Kailash, considered the center of the universe; nirvana is guaranteed on the 108th circuit.

Spinning a prayer wheel clockwise sends a prayer written on coiled paper to heaven. The largest wheels contain thousands of prayers and are turned by crank or water power.
Spinning a prayer wheel clockwise sends
a prayer written on coiled paper to heaven.
The largest wheels containthousands of
prayers and are turned by crank
or water power.

The Tibetan pantheon
An overwhelming plethora of deities, buddhas, and demons, many of them re-incarnations or evil aspects of each other, make up the Tibetan pantheon. Buddhas, “awakened ones,” have achieved enlightenment and reached nirvana. Bodhisattvas have postponed the pursuit of nirvana to help others achieve enlightenment.

Nomadic Life
The Chang Tang, a high plateau covering almost 70 percent of Tibet, is home to about a quarter of Tibetans, many of whom are nomads, or drokba, as the harsh, arid climate precludes farming. Their existence has barely been touched by modern life, and they still herd sheep, goats, and dzo (a cross between a yak and a domesticated cow), as they have for centuries. The animals are adapted to high altitude, having larger lungs and more hemoglobin than lowland animals. The nomad's culture is also adapted to the harsh, arid climate.

The herd
Nomads rely totally on their herds for food, clothing, shelter, and sometimes income, so no part of any animal goes to waste. Goats, for example, provide milk for yoghurt, skins for clothing, wool for trading, and dung for fuel.

A worshiper spins a hand-held prayer wheel, rings a Tibetan bell called a drilbu and holds offerings of banknotes, all in aid of prayer.
A worshiper spins a hand-held prayer
wheel, rings a Tibetan bell called a drilbu
and holds offerings of banknotes, all in aid of prayer.
The wool of the yaks, sheep, and goats in the nomad’s herd is woven using a loom, creating robust textiles for tent walls, blankets, and clothing. The incomes of many nomads have been augmented recently by the popularity of cashmere wool, the soft down on a goat’s underbelly.
The wool of the yaks, sheep, and goats
in the nomad's herd is woven using a loom,
creating robust textiles
for tent walls, blankets, and clothing.
The incomes of many nomads
have been augmented recently
by the popularity of cashmere wool,
the soft down on a goat’s underbelly.
Moving the Heads
Moving the Heads

Moving the Herds
Nomads on the Chang Tang do not move continuously, nor do they move far – only around 10 to 40 miles (15 to 65 km), as the growing season is the same all over the plateau. Indeed, they try to minimize travel, declaring that it weakens livestock. Some families even build a house at their main encampment. In the fall, after the herds have eaten most of the vegetation at the main encampment and the growing season has ended, the nomads move their livestock to a secondary plain for grazing. Here livestock must forage for eight to nine months on dead vegetation. Later the nomads may move some of their herds farther up the hills. They then return to their original encampment.






Detail from wall painting at Sakya Monastery
Detail from wall painting at Sakya Monastery

Sakya Monastery

  • 311 miles (500 km) SW of Lhasa
  • Only through a travel agency in Lhasa
  • 9am–6:30pm Mon–Sat
  • fee
  • Travel Permit required
Houses at Sakya Village, painted gray with red and white stripes
Houses at Sakya Village, painted gray
with red and white stripes

The town of Sakya is dominated by the huge, fortress-like monastery, that looms up from the gray plains. Sakya or “Gray Soil” in Tibetan, was the capital of all Tibet in the 13th century, when monks of the Sakyapa order formed an extraordinary alliance with the Mongols. In 1247, the head of the Sakyapa order, Sakya Pandita, traveled to Mongolia and made a pact, whereby the Mongols were the overlords, while the Sakya monks ruled as their regents – the first time a lama was also head of state. His nephew, Phagpa, later became the spiritual guide to the conqueror of China, Kublai Khan. In 1354, Mongol power waned, and infighting among the religious sects led to a decline in Sakya’s influence.

Originally, there were two monasteries on either side of the Trum River, but the northern one was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The mid-13th century Southern Monastery, built by Phagpa, is a typical Mongol structure, with thick walls and watchtowers. The entrance leads to a courtyard with an enormous prayer pole in the center. To the left is the Puntsok Palace, the traditional home of one of the two head lamas, who now lives overseas. Apart from the statue-filled chapel, its rooms are mainly empty. Moving clockwise, the next chapel, the Purkhang, holds images of Jowo Sakyamuni and Jampalyang among others, while wall murals depict tantric deities. The Main Assembly Hall has 40 huge wooden pillars, one of which was said to have been gifted by Kublai Khan, while another is said to have come from India on the back of a tiger. The elaborately decorated hall has rich brocades, statues, and butter lamps and holds thousands of religious texts (sutras). The fine central Buddha image enshrines the remains of Phagpa. The chapel to the north has 11 silver chortens containing the remains of previous Sakya lamas. Sakya houses are traditionally painted gray with red and white vertical stripes; the colors are supposed to symbolize the Bodhisattvas Channa Dorje, Jampalyang, and Chenresig respectively.

Everest Base Camp, with magnificent views of the world’s highest mountain
Everest Base Camp, with magnificent views
of the world’s highest mountain

Everest Base Camp

Rongphu

  • Rongphu
  • 336 miles (610 km) SW of Lhasa
  • From Lhasa, 2 days; must be arranged through a travel agency in Lhasa
  • Travel Permit required

    Despite the spine-jarring, four-hour trip off the Friendship Highway – that connects Lhasa to the Nepal border at Zhangmu – the craggy lunar landscape en route to Everest is enchanting. Rongphu is a good place for a stop and at 16,500 ft (4,980 m) is the highest monastery in the world. Although it has some good murals, the interior is not as riveting as its stunning location in front of Everest’s forbidding north face in the Rongphu Valley. The monastery was founded in 1902 on a site that had been used by nuns as a meditation retreat for centuries, and is now home to some 30 monks.

    Everest Base Camp lies 5 miles (8 km) to the south. The trip across the glacial plain takes about 15 minutes by vehicle or two hours on foot. It is just a jumble of tents, with a makeshift tea-house and the world’s highest post box, but the views of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain at a staggering 29,029 ft (8,848 m), are absolutely unforgettable.

    The entire Rongphu and Everest area has been designated a nature reserve that covers 13,100 sq miles (34,000 sq km), and borders three national parks in Nepal. There is a spectacular viewpoint at the Pangla Pass, from which you can see Everest (known as Chomolungma in Tibetan), Cho Oyo, Lhotse, Makalu, and Gyachung. Most people try to arrive at this pass either to see the sun rise or the sun set over the Himalayas.

    The rarefied air at this altitude (17,000 ft/5,150 m) makes any strenuous activity impossible, however, so unless visitors are properly acclimatized, it is best to go all the way back to the Friendship Highway and carry on to the town of Shegar to spend the night.

    The Nepal Border

    Zhangmu Nepal border

    • Zhangmu Nepal border
    • 466 miles (750 km) SW of Lhasa
    • 4WD from Lhasa, 2 days (direct), or 5–6 days (via Gyantse, Shigatse & Everest Base Camp). Travel must be arranged through a travel agency in Lhasa
    • Travel Permit for all places (between Shigatze and border) required
    Friendship Highway, winding across the plateau to Nepal
    Friendship Highway, winding across
    the plateau to Nepal

    The friendship highway connecting Lhasa to the Nepal border is one of Tibet’s most popular link routes. From the Rongphu turn-off along the highway, it is another 31 miles (50 km) west to Tingri, on what is a surprisingly good road. This is a small, traditional Tibetan town with good views of the Everest range. After climbing for 56 miles (90 km) the road begins a steep, winding descent through mountains that are densely wooded; the change of scenery is startling after the desert landscape of the high, arid plateau. It is only another 20 miles (33 km) to the border town of Zhangmu, which is relatively low and oxygen-rich at 7,200 ft (2,200 m). Although much of Zhangmu consists of slightly dilapidated shacks, perched above one another on the mountainside, this frontier town has a gaudy vibrance. Border formalities to get into Nepal are fairly cursory. The Nepalese immigration post, 6 miles (10 km) farther down at Kodari, will issue a single-entry visa, though visitors have to pay in US dollars and provide a passport photo. From here, it is a four-hour trip to Kathmandu.

    The Friendship Highway
    The 466-mile (750-km) route between Lhasa and the Nepal border, known as the Friendship Highway, is probably the most popular journey for visitors to Tibet and includes some important sightseeing detours along the way. Many agencies in Lhasa and in Kathmandu in Nepal can arrange the trip, sort out the necessary permits, and provide an appropriate four-wheel drive vehicle, a driver, and guide. Depending on the itinerary, which usually includes the towns of Shigatse and Gyantse, the trip can take up to a week. Visitors must ensure that the contract specifies exactly what they want and what they are paying for.

    The Eight Auspicious Symbols
    The Eight Auspicious Symbols represent the offerings that were presented to Sakyamuni Buddha, after he attained Enlightenment. Born as Siddhartha Gautama, prince of the kingdom of Kapilavastu, he renounced his princely life at the age of 30, and went in search of answers to the meaning of human suffering and existence. After years of penance, Siddhartha attained Enlightenment after meditating under a Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India. Tibetans regard the symbols as protective motifs and use them to decorate flags and medallions as well as tiles in Buddhist temples, monasteries, and homes. The Conch Shell is blown to celebrate Sakyamuni’s Enlightenment; the Endless Knot represents harmony, and the never-ending passage of time; and the Wheel of Law symbolizes the Buddha’s eightfold path to Enlightenment. Other symbols include the Golden Fish, representing liberation from the Wheel of Life, and the Lotus Flower that represents purity.

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