Less than half of the world’s Tibetans reside in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), established in 1965. Tibetans form the majority in large regions of neighboring Nepal, India, Sikkim, and Bhutan, as well as in the adjacent provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan. Disagreement over where Tibet begins and ends is an ongoing stumbling block in negotiations between the Tibetan government-in-exile, based in Dharamsala (India), and the Chinese government.
For this guide, Qinghai has been included, as it is part of the Tibetan plateau, and most of its area — which covers much of Amdo (northern Tibet) and Kham (eastern Tibet) — is culturally and ethnically Tibetan. In many ways a better destination than the TAR, it has yet to be overwhelmed by Han migration, and restrictions on both locals and travelers are less onerous.
Tibet may be the “roof of the world,” but it became that only recently, when the Indian subcontinent collided with the Eurasian landmass 35 million years ago. Prior to that, the Himalayas formed the seabed of the Tethys Sea. Mollusks are still found throughout the region.
Tibet is dominated by the vast, dry Tibetan plateau, a region roughly the size of western Europe, with an average elevation of 4,700m (15,400 ft.). Ringed by vast mountain ranges, such as the Kunlun range to the north and the Himalayas to the south, the plateau’s west side features high plains, and the north is dominated by the deserts of the Changtang and the Tsaidam Basin. China’s great rivers — the Yellow River and the Yangzi — rise in the east, carving out steep gorges. The greatest diversity in landscape, vegetation, and wildlife is found in the broad and fertile valleys of the Himalayas, but most of the border regions are closed to individual travel.
Most Tibetans still look back to the “heroic age” (7th-9th c.) of their history, when their armies dominated the Silk Routes and much of western China, assimilating the culture and technology of these regions. At the same time, Buddhism was introduced to Tibet from northern India. With the disappearance of Buddhism from India around the 13th century, Tibet became the new bearer of a complex faith, which combined a strict monastic code with tantric Buddhism (with a strong emphasis on ritual). It is often characterized as “complete Buddhism.”
The Tibetans went on to convert an entire people — the Mongols — despite being weakened by civil war and fighting between different schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
Just as China was often characterized as “closed” until it was “opened” by the West, the idea of Tibet as an inherently inward-looking Shangri-la is a long-standing myth. Isolationism was encouraged by the Manchu rulers from the 18th century onward, with some success. Regents backed by the Manchus held sway over young Dalai Lamas who often died mysteriously before they were old enough to rule.
Dalai Lama XIII (1876-1934) tried to reverse the policy of isolation, but encountered resistance from the conservative monastic hierarchy. Troubled by the destruction of Mongolia by Russian Communists during the 1920s, he prophesied, “The officers of the state, ecclesiastical and secular, will find their lands seized and their other property confiscated, and they themselves forced to serve their enemies, or wander about the country as beggars do. All beings will be sunk in great hardship and in overpowering fear.”
In 1951, Chinese Communist armies entered Lhasa, and the prophecy began to unfold. A revolt against Chinese rule rose in Kham (eastern Tibet) 5 years later, and Dalai Lama XIV (b. 1935) fled for India in March 1959, soon after the Great Prayer (Monlam) was celebrated in Lhasa. Tibet’s darkest hour was the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), known to the Tibetans as the time when “the sky fell to earth.” Monks and nuns were tortured, executed, and imprisoned. Monasteries were looted and razed, and a vast body of Tibetan art was lost. Adding to the pain is the fact that many Tibetans, either willingly or coerced, participated in the destruction.
A revival of Tibetan culture and religion throughout the 1980s was checked after pro-independence protests, led by monks from Drepung Monastery, resulted in the declaration of martial law in March 1989, signed by chief of the local Communist Party Hu Jintao, now president of China. Tensions remained throughout the 1990s. More recently the situation appeared to be relaxing and dialogue between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government seemed more promising for a time, but tensions were heightened immeasurably by the protests, and then riots, which broke out all over the Tibetan world in the run up to the 2008 Olympics. While the PRC insists that the riots were orchestrated by the Dalai Lama, he counters that these peaceful protests were the actions of a discontented people. Armed Chinese soldiers patrolling the streets are now an unfortunate part of everyday life in Lhasa.
The completion of the rail line to Tibet in 2006 has made Lhasa more accessible than ever, but increased restrictions make visiting the TAR troublesome for individual foreign travelers. Following the 2008 Tibet protests, restrictions have tightened dramatically. While Han Chinese arrive by the trainload, foreign visitors are required to pre-book a tour with guide and driver to secure a Tibet Travel Permit (TTP). In order to travel outside Lhasa, an Aliens Travel permit is also required, and for Mount Kailash you’ll need yet another (military) permit. While the TAR is undeniably worth visiting, these restrictions and greater numbers of tourists make a visit to the “other Tibet” in Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan all the more appealing.
Aside from the difficulties of actually getting here, travel in Tibet should not be taken lightly. There are wide variations in temperature throughout the day, and many visitors experience altitude sickness, particularly those who fly directly to Lhasa. The northern and western regions of Tibet are cold and arid, with an annual average temperature of about 0°C (32°F), while southern and eastern regions are warmer and wetter. Peak season runs from May to mid-October. Winter in Lhasa is cozy, but transport to elsewhere in Tibet can be difficult to arrange. The last half of this chapter, from the section on Shigatse onward, covers towns on the Friendship Highway, a loose way of describing the road built from Lhasa, passing near the Himalayas and Mt. Everest, to the Nepali border. In spite of increasing restrictions on travel, the trip has become a popular one among foreign travelers in recent years. Note: Unless otherwise noted, hours listed for attractions and restaurants are daily.
Dealing with Altitude Sickness
It’s likely that you’ll suffer from a headache and shortness of breath upon your arrival in Tibet — they are both common signs of altitude sickness. Other visitors have complained of sleeplessness, fatigue, and even vomiting. So take it easy and let yourself get acclimatized to the altitude during your first days in Tibet, certainly before you venture to any higher altitudes. Altitude sickness pills called Diamox (acetazolamide) can also help; they can be taken a few hours before your arrival in Tibet. In Lhasa, you can pick up a Chinese medicine alternative called Hongjingtian at the local pharmacies. Oxygen canisters are available for around ¥20 in Lhasa outdoors shops, or (more expensively) in many hotels. Many hotels also have a doctor on call.
Most visitors to Tibet get through the trip with just a few minor symptoms, and cases of altitude sickness typically go away after a couple of days. There are a few danger signs, however, such as a deep liquidlike cough accompanied by a fever, that you should watch out for that may indicate your case is more serious. For more information, go to www.high-altitude-medicine.com.
Signage in Tibet
In Tibet you’ll see a mix of signs in Chinese, Tibetan, and English. Where there are no Chinese characters for a name, then the name and sign is generally written in English and Tibetan.