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Tibet

Travel Guide Asia Tibet

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Introduction

Namsto Lake and Prayer Flags

Namsto Lake and Prayer Flags

© All Rights Reserved Lavafalls

Tibet is a place in the world that almost everyone has dreamed about. Located in one of the most remote and harshest places on the globe in the Himalayas, Tibet seems to be surreal. From the lush valleys of Kham to the harsh Changtang plateau of Amdo (Qinghai) Tibet has lots to offer. If your idea of a vacation is seeing ancient temples or monasteries, horseback riding in remote valleys or drinking yak butter tea with nomads this will be a truly amazing place to you.

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Tibetan Areas

Historical Tibet is spread across regions of China, Nepal, Bhutan and India. These days, the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) in China is the political centre of Tibet, although it is still possible to visit other Tibetan communities outside the TAR, particularly in Ethnic Tibet.

Explanation

Historically, Tibetans have occupied a vast region. Being mainly nomadic, their population would roam over different areas of Central Asia coming under the control of different governments depending on the distance from Lhasa. There have always been large populations of Tibetans outside of what is considered the political authority of Lhasa. These Tibetan communities, under the control of different political powers, are usually referred to as Ethnic Tibet, similar to Cambodians who live in present day Vietnam and always have lived there.

Until the 20th century the issue of political and Ethnic Tibet did not matter because borders had not been drawn on a map. When the borders were made it strung traditional Tibetan communities across four countries: China, Nepal, Bhutan and India outside of the political boundaries of what later became the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). The four Chinese provinces with large Tibetan populations are Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai.

The two main areas of historic Tibet, in terms of greatest population of Tibetans and geography, are the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Ethnic Tibet, which are both in present day China. The key difference between traveling in the TAR and Ethnic Tibet is that the TAR requires a fair amount of planning, paperwork, money, and permits, which are not easy to get. On the other hand most of Ethnic Tibet is similar to traveling in remote areas of China.

In addition, going among the different Tibetan areas can be difficult, due to government restrictions on the TAR which make them separate travel destinations. Everything written in this section concerns what the areas have in common. For more information on sights and travel please see the specific articles relating to the individual regions.

Tibetan Areas in China

  • Tibetan Autonomous Region is the political center of Tibet and home to some of the most important religious sights for Tibetan Buddhism.
  • Ethnic Tibet is heavily Tibetan areas in Chinese Provinces.

Tibetan Areas in India

  • Dharamsala is the seat of the Tibetan government in exile and current home to Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dali Lama
  • Ladakh is an area in India that has been heavily influenced by Tibetan culture and is sometimes called little Tibet.
  • Sikkim is an area in India that was settled by Tibetan kings and nomads in the 17th century. Today it is a mix of Tibetan and Nepalis.

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Sights and Activities

Mount Everest

Mount Everest from Basecamp

Mount Everest from Basecamp

© All Rights Reserved ChrisEvans

The highest mountain of all, the Mount Everest or Chomolungma in the local language, is on every climber's list to do. But this mountain is not without risks and many people die when climbing or descending (!) the mountain. About 2500 people have reached the top and over 200 deaths have been recorded. The mountain is part of the highest mountain range in the world, the Himalayas.

It is internationally recognized that the mountain was first climbed and successfully descended by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, although controversy still exists about the question whether George Mallory and/or Andrew Irvine had climbed the mountain 29 years earlier! Unfortunately, neither of them survived their early expedition. More recently, questions about the commercialization have come up as more and more climbers make the climb. Even a double-amputee (Mark Inglis) and a helicopter have made it to the top during the last year, although both did so with risk.

Mount Kailash

Mount Kailash is one of the holiest mountains in the world! Since it is a holy mountain for Buddhist, Hindu, Jainist and Bon traditions, thousands of pilgrims make the journey every year to this remote mountain on the edge of the world. The Hindus consider Mount Kailash to be the home of Lord Shiva, a principle Hindu deity. These pilgrims come to do a kora, spiritual walk, around the mountain. It is believe that one kora around the mountain will wash away a lifetime of sins. It can take several days to complete the kora around Mount Kailash, and some pilgrims complete it multiple times.

The other amazing fact about this mountain is the number of rivers that start from it. The Indus, Sutlej and Brahmaputra rivers find their sources from the different sides of this mountain. Many of the other rivers coming from this mountain feed into the Mekong, Ganges and Yellow rivers. Getting to Mount Kailash is very difficult and expensive, as it requires arranging a tour from Lhasa with a Land Rover. The standard tour, including transportation time and a kora around the mountain, takes 10 days. Some tours include visiting ancient cities beyond Mount Kailash, but this adds about 5 more days.

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Geography, Weather and People

The Tibetan plateau is one of the severe areas of the world when it comes to geography and weather. The average altitude is over 3962 meters (13,000 feet) and covered with mountain ranges with most mountains easily over 5,000 meters (16 thousand feet). During winter there are deadly snow and ice storms, with temperatures rarely rising above freezing point. The summers are not much better. Intense sunshine and afternoon thunderstorms combine with melting snow to make most rivers flood. Also, during the summer huge areas of the country's permafrost melt, making for deadly areas of quick sand up to 10 meters deep (32 feet).

All of these factors added together make for stunning beauty, blue skies and clear lakes, which is what makes Tibet and Tibetans so unique in the world. The plateau is littered with countless crystal clear fresh water and salt water lakes, on whose shores yaks graze on rough grass and nomads cook dinner outside their black felt tent homes with a small solar panel on the roof. Springing from the plateau are mountains at every turn in the path with stunning glaciers and cliff faces that no person has ever named or touched. Little maroon monasteries hang to the sides of cliffs or sit in valleys were monks and nuns do their daily rituals. Meanwhile, countless nomads walk in a kora around the temples and monasteries with swinging prayer wheels and chanting hums. Incense and yak butter lamps fill the air of any temple and small home with large statues or thangkas (Tibetan scroll paintings) covering the walls.

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Religion

Tibetan Buddhism is a Mahayana Buddhist sect with an emphasis on Lamas, which are Bodhisattvas. One thing that makes Tibetan Buddhism so unique among the different sects of Buddhism is the heavy influence of Bon, which is the traditional Tibetan shamanistic belief. The Tibetan Buddhist schools can be further separated into Red Hat and Yellow Hat. There are also several smaller schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Mongolians, Tuv and several other groups practice different forms of Tibetan Buddhism across north central Asia.

Lamas are bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are people that have reached enlightenment but have refused to go to the next spiritual plane, therefore being reborn until all life on Earth has been enlightened. Traditionally Lamas were responsible for religious and political control of the lives of all Tibetans. The monasteries that the Lama belonged to owned all the yaks and controlled every aspect of the lives of the nomads or farmers in that region creating a theocratic serfdom. Although most nomads were in such remote areas the amount of control Lamas really had on them was quite insignificant, especially if the nomads just paid their tribute.

Bon Before there was Buddhism in Tibet the main belief was Bon. Bon is a shamanistic and animistic religious system. In the times when Bon was the dominant religion in Tibet gods and demons lived in all the lakes, rivers, mountains, valleys and animals. The heavy influence of Bon has kept these traditions alive in current Tibetan culture. And there is still a small group of Tibetans who only practice Bon and do not consider themselves Buddhist.

Kora is the pilgrim circuit around monasteries, temples, lakes, mountains or anything holy in Tibet. Many pilgrims take their kora very seriously so just stay out of their way and be respectful if you plan to take a photo.

Mani Stones are flat stones that have Tibetan writing on them. Written on the stone is the standard Tibetan mantra or prayer. These stones are piled up and are considered very holy. Never pick up or collect Mani Stones while traveling in Tibet. The largest pile of Mana Stones is in Yushu County, Qinghai with over 2 billion stones!

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Language

Tibetan is classified as a Tibeto-Burman language by most scholars. Due to the large areas and difficulty of moving around in Tibet, there are several distinct dialects across the different areas. Although Tibetan was not traditionally a tonal language certain dialects have started to develop tones. The written language originally came from Indian and is phonetic.

Although most Tibetans in China learn Chinese in school as children, most quickly forget it when they return back to their Tibetan communities. And for many Tibetans the Chinese classes are so poor, or done in a strange local dialect of Chinese, they might as well not even have had the classes in the first place. Lastly some Tibetans just refuse to speak to Chinese even if they know it or would rather speak English.

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Events and Festivals

Tibetan New Year (Losar): is the main festival for most Tibetans and lasts 15 days. It follows the lunar calendar and usually falls sometime between late January and late February on the solar calendar. The most important days are the first 3 days.

During the summer most Tibetan areas have local horse racing festivals that are usually a week long and traditional Bon holidays.

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Food

Tibetan is an amazing place in the world except for its cuisine. When you live at the top of the world there are not many options for what you can eat.

Yak Butter Tea is one of the most intense experiences of Tibet. And you cannot say you had a true Tibetan experience until you drink 10 glasses of yak butter tea in a row. Extremely rich and high in calories this is a nomads dream and weight watchers nightmare. Made from yak butter, a little tea, some water and sugar or salt, once you have a sip you will never forget it.

Momos are the traditional Tibetan dumpling. In the countryside momos can be kind of bland but in nicer restaurants can actually sometimes be pretty good. Although sometimes the yak momos can be very chewy and make your jaw tired.

Tsampa is the convenience and snack food for most working class Tibetans. A trip to Tibet cannot be complete unless you have some tsampa. Tsampa is made by mixing roasted barley flour, tea, yak butter and sugar into a bowl. Then roll the mixture together with your fingers until it forms a doughy past. Be careful not to eat too much tsampa because that much fiber in your diet can make you feel very solid. In the same breath tsampa can be an excellent fighter against minor cases of indigestion.

Chhaang or Chang is the traditional alcoholic drink of Tibet. Made from barley it loosely resembles beer but not really. It is also believed that the famous Yeti raids villages to drink Chang. You will most likely only encounter this drink if your attending a festival or in very remote Tibet.

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Animals

Domesticated

a decorated yak

a decorated yak

© All Rights Reserved grmoski

The Tibetan Mastiff is a large long hair dog weighing up to 91 kilos (200 pounds) and are raised to guard flocks of animals from dangerous predators such as wolves and leopards. These dogs are massive and tough, in many smaller Tibetan towns you will hear them barking all night. It is recommended that when walking on the edge of small towns, at night or in the country side to carry rocks with you and throw them at the dog in case it gets too close. In Tibet Mastiffs are guard and work dog first and trained that way.

Yaks are the main domesticated animal in Tibet and stand about a meter high. Although about half the size of the wild version these longhaired, long horned and smelly animals can live in some of the coldest and driest places in the world. Yak wool is used by Tibetans to make everything from clothing to tents. And yak milk, being much richer then cows milk, is used to make some of the main stables of the Tibetan diet, which include butter, cheese and yogurt. Another function of yaks is to transport belongings and people.

Wild

There are several wild animals in Tibet but other then birds most of them are in such remote areas they can be difficult to see. Some of the more interesting animals are snow leopards, Tibetan antelopes, Himalayan marmots and wild yaks that are twice the size of domesticated yaks.

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Warnings

The high altitude and intense sunshine can cause serious problems for many travelers. It is recommended to wear high spf sun screen at all times with a full brim hat and sun glasses. Also remember because of the high altitude it is very easy to get dehydrated, so drink plenty of water.

Bubonic Plague: Although rare, there are cases of bubonic plague every few years in remote areas of Tibet. Try to avoid eating rodent meat, especially from marmots, as much as possible.

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Books

  • My Life as an Explorer By Sven Hedin, is an excellent journal from an explorer in central Asia and Tibet in the late 19th and early 20th century.
  • The Snow Lion and the Dragon By Melvyn C. Goldstein, is an unbiased book exploring the issues behind the current political situation in Tibet.

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Movies

  • Kundun (1997) is a stellar Martin Scorsese film that focuses on the young life of the 14th Dali Lama and the “liberation” of Tibet.
  • The Salt Men of Tibet (1998) is a striking documentary on the disappearing nomadic salt collecting culture in central Tibet.
  • Seven Years in Tibet (1997) is a Hollywood film based on a true story, starring Brad Pitt as an Austrian Mountaineer hiding in Tibet during World War II and becoming friends with the young Dali Lama.
  • Windhorse (1998) is a movie that takes place in current day Tibet and focuses on the issues of the Tibetan youth. Although very critical of the Chinese occupation of Tibet it is still a good movie and has some interesting twists.

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Tibet Travel Helpers

  • vin.pri

    Have just returned from a week in Tibet.

    Ask vin.pri a question about Tibet
  • KAILASH YATRA

    About Kailash: Mt. kailash is situated 22028 feet up from the sea level. Tibetan people calls "Kang Rinpoche".

    About Mansarovar: Mansarovar has created from mind of Bramhaji, Mansarovar is situated 14700 feet up from the sea level. Total Defth of Mansarovar: 300 feet (Approx), Length of Mansarovar: 26 km. (Approx.), Total distance of Mansarovar is 112 km. (Approx)

    Oldest names are (1) Bramhsar (2) Anaatat or Anavatpta. Tibetan people calls "Tsomapham or Somavang Lake". Or also Tibetan calls "Gevangchho Lake".

    About Ravan Sarovar: Ravan sarovar is situated 14000 feet up from the sea level. Tibetan people calls "Langak Lake".

    Ask KAILASH YATRA a question about Tibet

This is version 48. Last edited at 19:16 on Feb 18, 10 by Lavafalls. 25 articles link to this page.

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