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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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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 3,962 metres and covered with mountain ranges with most mountains easily over 5,000 metres. 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 metres deep.

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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Animals

Domesticated

a decorated yak

a decorated yak

© All Rights Reserved grmoski

The Tibetan Mastiff is a large long hair dog weighing up to 90 kilos 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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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 2,500 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.

Potala Palace

Potala Palace West View

Potala Palace West View

© All Rights Reserved Lavafalls

The Potala Palace used to be the winter palace of the Dalai Lamas, that ruled Tibet, until 1959, when the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India. Construction at the sight started in 637, but the modern Palace was build by the Fifth Dalai Lama, who started its construction in 1645, after one of his spiritual advisers, Konchog Chophel, pointed out that the site was ideal as a seat of government. As it is situated between the Drepung and Sera monasteries and the old city of Lhasa. The palace rises more than 300 meters above the valley, and consists of many parts, including the White and the Red Palace, many Chapels, and the Tomb of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. At the moment the palace serves as a museum. If you want to visit be aware that the number of visitors that can visit is limited.

Other Sights and Activities

  • The Jokhang Temple in Lhasa was built in 647 AD by Songtsen Gampo and is one of the holiest sites in Tibet.
  • The Barkhor in Lhasa is the name for the ring of streets of traditional Tibetan buildings surrounding the Jokhang Temple.
  • The 'Norbulingka (Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama) is located in Lhasa, about 1km south of the Potala.
  • Samye Monastery - constructed in 779AD, Samye was the first Buddhist Monastery established in Tibet, and is located near Dranang, Shannan Prefecture, 150 kilometres southeast of Lhasa.
  • Tashilhunpo Monastery - the traditional seat of the Panchen Lamas. It was constructed in 1447 and is located in Xigatse.
  • The Rongbuk Monastery - one of the highest monasteries in the world, from which the view of the Mt. Everest is just amazing.

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Events and Festivals

China has three "Golden Week" holidays per year. People get a mandatory two or three days off work for each holiday, and workers' companies can grant them the rest of the week off, making each holiday a total of 7 days. As you can imagine, having almost 1.4 billion people with the same days off can make travelling at these times arduous to say the least.

Travelling during the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year is incredibly difficult. Chinese New Year is China's Christmas, so the millions of migrant workers and students flood back to their home towns. Everybody else takes the opportunity to spend their hong bao (gifts of money traditionally given at CNY) and go travelling. Most of the time, since you are only allowed to purchase train tickets 6 days in advance and must be present in the city of origin, sometimes only standing room tickets are available. Be aware! The Spring Festival is undoubtedly the busiest time for the Chinese transportation system. Flying will avoid the crowded trains, but book early and expect to pay higher prices. All the main tourist attractions will be crawling with tourists (worse than usual), so unless you like crowds, it's best to avoid it altogether.

Chinese New Year is based on the lunar calendar, so the date changes each year. The Chinese New Year/Spring Festival holiday is 7 days long and usually starts on New Year's Eve.

The two other national holidays are October 1st, National Day, celebrating the founding of the People's Republic of China and May 1st, which is International Labor Day. Almost all Chinese get the two holidays off and many take the opportunity to travel. If you want to avoid the crowds, fly, but it should get a lot less busy towards the end of the week.

Tibetan New Year

Held at the end of December according to the Tibetan calendar, the New Year is the most important time in Tibet. Different areas have different ways of celebrating, but Lhasa is the most unique. Each household makes a “qiema” (a wooden measure for grain), “kasai” (fried twisted dough sticks) and “luoguo” (butter in the shape of a sheep’s head), signifying thriving animals and a good harvest in the coming year. In addition, they offer fruits, butter and tea to Buddha.

Lantern Festival

January 15 marks the end of the Tibetan New Year celebration. On this day, people head to temple to burn incense to worship. Butter lanterns are hung and lit in the shape of gods, flowers, birds, and animals.

Sagar Dawa Festival

It’s believed that in the middle of April in Buddhism Sakyamuni was born, became Buddha and died the same month. In and around Lhasa, this festival worships the god through processionals and readings.

Shoton Festival of Lhasa

“Shoton” in Tibetan translates to “sour milk banquet” which takes place for five days in August. Operas and paintings are a highlight, along with yak racing and displays of horsemanship.

Bathing Festival

The Bathing Festival is held the first ten days of July and is called “Gamariji” in Tibetan. The name of the planet Venus, bathing is said to provide health benefits during this period.

Ongkor Festival

Ongkor is the harvest festival in August. An old farming tradition, major activities include horse racing, shooting, dancing, Tibetan Opera, stone holding and wrestling.

Horse Racing Fair and Archery Festival

Held in June/July when the horses are at their strongest, a great performance of agility and showmanship is held along with a craft fair.

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Getting There

Tourism to Tibet is strictly controlled by the Chinese government, and restrictions were further ratcheted up after the riots and before the 2008 Olympics. As of 2009, the previous "backpacker" tours, which included the permit and a couple of nights stay in Lhasa, are no longer an option and all travellers must stay with an organized trip the entire time they are in Tibet. That means you will not be allowed to travel on an independent basis. Many tour guides are ethnic Chinese and even the ethnic Tibetan guides have to sit exams in Chinese and learn the official Han Chinese government-sponsored perspective on Tibet in order to gain and keep their tour guide licence. A lot of time and money is needed to travel to this region of China in comparison to others, so if you are concerned about how much money will enter into the hands of the local population you need to do your research beforehand. For these financial, ethical and logistical reasons, some travellers opt to travel to other Tibetan regions of China (outside the TAR) instead. If you really want to go to the TAR, be prepared for lots of paperwork and other manufactured hassles. Tibet is also the only region of China where travellers have reported being stopped or questioned by the Chinese police; in the rest of the country they are normally either very kind and courteous or simply uninterested in your whereabouts or travel plans.

All foreign visitors to Tibet need one or more permits. The basic one is the Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit, which can be issued to you by Chinese travel agencies that handle trips to Tibet, or (if overseas and arriving via Nepal) by the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu on proof of purchasing a package tour (there is no way around this). If you buy an expensive package tour, the TTB permit will only cost you USD6. For land crossings (including the train), you'll get a physical permit that will be checked; for plane tickets, the permit may be this physical permit or it might just be an annotation on your ticket record. Expect to show it several times - before departure and after arrival in Tibet.

Some parts of Tibet also require an Aliens' Travel Permit (ATP), which is issued by the Public Security Bureau (PSB) in major Tibetan cities like Lhasa, Xigatse and Ali. The list of regions that require ATPs changes constantly, so enquire locally. Lhasa's PSB has a poor reputation, while Xigatse and Ali are said to issue permits without any unnecessary difficulties. If your papers are in order, the permit can be issued in several hours for ¥100.

Finally, some remote areas also require a military permit. These are only available in Lhasa, where processing takes several days, and are only granted for an appropriate reason.

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By Plane

You can fly to Lhasa and also Nyingchi but flying in from a much lower altitude city puts you at high risk of altitude sickness because of the quick transition.

Safest is to follow the Yunnan tourist trail to Zhongdian and fly from there to Lhasa. If you spend a night or two each in Kunming (2,000 metres), Dali (2,400 metres) or Lijiang (2,400 metres), and Zhongdian (3,200 metres) to acclimatise (particularly in Zhongdian), you should be able to fly to Lhasa (3,650 metres) with little risk. Xining (2,300 metres) is another option.

If you are in Sichuan or nearby (and aren't satisfied visiting the many ethnically Tibetan areas to the east of the Tibetan Autonomous Region) flying from Chengdu (500 metres) is the easiest option, but the rapid increase in altitude risks altitude sickness. A flight from Chengdu to Lhasa plus all the necessary paperwork will cost around ¥2,000, and can be arranged through most large hostels or travel agents.

New airports are being completed in Tibet for domestic tourism so check your options if this interests you - China keeps breaking its own world record for the highest altitude airport with this development programme.

By Train

The Qinghai-Tibet (Qingzang) Railway from Golmud to Lhasa started operating in July 2006. The journey all the way from Beijing takes just under 48 hours, costing ¥389 in the cheapest hard seat class and ¥1262 for a soft sleeper. Direct trains to Lhasa originate in Beijing, Xining, Lanzhou, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Chengdu. For a mid-range sleeper from Chengdu with 6 bunks in each room, they are ¥692.

Be warned that the lower classes in these trains are not for the faint-hearted and the less adventurous type: they do not have Western-styled toilets and bunks are relatively cramped. Soft sleeper class is recommended - here you will mix with middle-class Chinese tourists or business people.

The main advantage for this mode of transportation is often claimed to be the fact that you could slowly adapt to high altitude conditions instead of the sudden shift if you were to take a plane. However, in reality the high-altitude parts of the journey are all covered within the last 12 or so hours and this does not offer enough time to acclimatise (standard medical advice is to spend at least one overnight stay at an intermediate altitude of more than 2500 metres before proceeding to even higher altitudes).

The trains to Tibet are available from any major city in mainland China though not all have daily service and some routes involve changing trains part way.

Overland

There are four roads into Tibet, roughly corresponding to the cardinal directions.

Make sure you have all the necessary permits and tour guide accompaniment for these trips. If you are caught by the authorities you will either be sent back (at your expense), have your visa cancelled, sent home, or in extreme cases banned from ever re-entering China. There are even reports of foreigners being jailed on a temporary basis for breaking travel bans. Keep this in mind!

North: The road from Golmud (Ch:Ge'ermu) is the easiest legal land route at present. The landscape is beautiful but difficult to appreciate after the long rough ride. It used to be possible to travel this way by hitch-hiking on trucks if you were well prepared (camping equipment, food and water for a day). However, regulations were apparently introduced threatening drivers with loss of insurance and even driving licences if caught with foreign hitchhikers. So this option may no longer be possible. If it is, expect to spend a few days. There are police checkpoints on the way but the only one that is a problem is the one 30 kilometres or so out of Golmud. If you walk around it and a few km beyond you should be able to get a ride without too much of a problem. There are plenty of places to eat on the way but be prepared to get stuck in the middle of nowhere. There are also are places to sleep ranging from truck stop brothels to comfortable hotels, however these should be avoided as you're likely to get picked up by the police.

East: There is no legal way to travel this road except as part of an expensive organised tour (see Overland to Tibet) and the security is tighter than from the north. Travellers did get through this way, but for people who are obviously not north-east Asians it's difficult.

West: From Kashgar (Ch:Kashi) much of the way is technically off limits. However there used to be a steady stream of hardy travellers coming this way, usually hitching rides on trucks. The road is totally unpaved for over a thousand kilometres with villages and water few and far between. The main advantages of this route is that it passes by Mount Kailash and through a beautiful, very remote region inhabited by nomads. You should be very well prepared to travel this way and take everything you would need for independent trekking: camping equipment suitable for freezing temperatures even in summer, a good tent and at least a few days of food (there are a few truck-stop places on the way but not always when you want them). Expect the trip to take two weeks or more. From Kashgar it's much farther to go to Lhasa via Urumqi and Golmud but the better transport (trains and good paved highways) make it no more time consuming to travel this way. There are many interesting things for the tourist to see on the way and it is worth considering travelling this way instead of via Mount Kailash.

South: From Nepal the international border makes any sort of breaking of the rules impossible, so the only option is to book a tour with a travel agent in Kathmandu. In addition, as of 2007, you need a group visa for China itself to cross the border into Tibet, so don't bother applying before you get to Kathmandu. (Info in 2013 suggests the border guards only accept Chinese visas issued in Kathmandu, not those issued in your home country, so this confirms the suggestion not to apply before you get there.) The drive from Kathmandu to Lhasa takes a couple of days and is very rough, but pretty.

Southeast: After 44 years of closure, the Nathu La pass to Sikkim, India - a part of the historic Silk Road - opened again in July 2006 for trade traffic. At time of writing, the border is not yet open to foreign tourists, but this is expected to change some time in the future and there are rumours of plans for a Gangtok-Lhasa bus service.

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Getting Around

Central Tibet has a reasonable public bus network. However, non-Chinese tourists cannot make use of it since even with travel permits they cannot generally buy a ticket.

Jeep tours are a popular way of getting around Tibet, while not cheap, the tour operator will sort out all the necessary paperwork, and they offer you a reasonable chance of sticking to a schedule.

Your driver will likely be an indigenous Tibetan who can speak Chinese. He'll get to eat and sleep for free wherever you go (he'll often be treated like a king), and he'll often need to stop for a smoke or a pee by certain vendors on the road. ¥4500 will get a jeep that can seat 4 people and luggage comfortably for 4 or 5 days.

Be very precise with your itinerary and very careful with payment. Every stop, monastery and lake you wish to visit, etc should be written on the itinerary. Payment should never be made in advance. Many foreigners, especially pro-Tibetan ones, are so trusting of Tibetan drivers that they hand over their money in advance but never get to see their drivers again. These drivers operate in rings and will approach their targets in hostels and speak against the Chinese government to gain support and sympathy from tourists who then lower their guard, and have their trip ruined. Some such stranded tourists, already identified as easy targets, will then be approached by a second Tibetan driver in the ring, and the same scam happens one more time.

There are a surprising number of tourists travelling Tibet by bicycle, both foreigners and Chinese. The roads vary from rough dirt tracks to good quality paved roads. There are restaurants, truck stops and shops scattered around often enough so that you don't need to carry more than a day's worth of food (with the important exception of the west of the country). The roads are often well graded, being built for overloaded trucks. 26 inch wheels would be preferable as 700cm (ISO 622) are almost unknown in China. Good mountain bikes are available in large cities of China or in Lhasa. Golmud is not a good place to get a bicycle (assuming you want it to get you past the check point 30km outside of town). Cyclists have reported that distances cited in the Lonely Planet guidebooks can be quite inaccurate so be very well-prepared.

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Language

The main language of Tibet is Tibetan; which comes in many varying dialects, but many Tibetans speak or understand some Mandarin except the nomadic tribes in the Far East Tibet. Tibetan is closely related to Burmese and much more distantly to Chinese. Depending on the dialect of Tibetan spoken, it may be tonal or non-tonal. In the cities people speak Chinese fluently; in the villages it may not be understood at all. Han Chinese people, on the other hand, normally don't know any Tibetan at all. Signs in Tibet, including street signs, are at least bilingual - in Chinese and in Tibetan - plus a major local language when there is one.

Although this makes Chinese a more useful language for travellers in many ways, you should remember that language can be political in this charged environment. If you speak in Chinese to Tibetans you are associating yourself with the Chinese, the presence of whom is often resented among the ethnic Tibetan population, as evidenced by the widespread rioting throughout the region in the run-up to the Olympic Games. That said, many Tibetans seem to view Chinese as a useful lingua franca and a few Tibetan pleasantries are enough to befriend Tibetans. Tibetans from different regions converse in Chinese since Tibetan dialects vary so much that they are not immediately mutually understandable. If you speak Tibetan to Chinese police you'll raise suspicions that you may be in Tibet to support Tibetan Independence.

Having said that, Tibetan is an extremely difficult language to learn and most foreigners who claim to know Tibetan can hardly get by. Tibetan is only taught in school until the 8th grade. Therefore, when it comes to writing, even the Tibetans themselves have difficulties and many are in fact illiterate.

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Eat

The traditional Tibetan diet is largely limited to barley, meat (mutton or yak) and dairy products, with very few spices or vegetables, although brutally hot chili sauce is often served on the side. Even good Tibetan food is very monotonous with most Tibetan restaurants serving nothing other than thukpa (noodle soup) and tea. By comparison, Chinese restaurants in villages often put out some excellent food. Some travellers feel that Hui (ethnic Chinese Moslem) places are cleaner because of halal food laws; they can be recognised by the green flags and crescent moons (and because they do look cleaner).

Unfortunately there is not a single genuine Tibetan restaurant of high quality in Tibet; those can only be found in neighbouring provinces such as Sichuan. All Tibetan restaurants in Lhasa featured in guidebooks and frequented by non-Chinese tourists are westernized ones serving a few Tibetan dishes along with pizzas, spaghetti, pancakes, etc.

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.

While travelling be prepared for the bus to depart late or break down. Carry a snack on short trips and enough food for a few days or a week or more for longer journeys, such as to Mount Kailash. Instant noodles are convenient even if you don't have a camp stove. They can be eaten cold or softened with boiled water. Tsampa (roasted barley flour) is an ideal travel food because it's already cooked. Eat it mixed with tea, butter and salt, or as a high energy snack by mixing it with water, milk powder and sugar.

Despite being a predominantly Buddhist country, Tibet is not particularly vegetarian-friendly - the altitude being the main justification for this. In rural areas, vegetarians need to be prepared to compromise or live on very simple diets. Even if a thukpa is without meat, you can bet the broth they use is a meat broth.

However, monastery restaurants and some large towns do offer restaurants serving vegetarian food and even some Tibetans observe a vegetarian diet on particular days of the religious month. So it is worth asking. One key term to look out for is དཀར་ཟས་ (literally, "white food" - kar zey) which you will see, for example, on some monastery restaurants or in Lhasa, where there are Tibetan vegetarian restaurants. In spoken Tibetan, vegetarian food is also simply referred to as "without-meat-food" ཤ་མེད་ཁ་ལག sha mey kha la'.

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Drink

Tea houses are an important social venue in Tibet, and offer a chance to sit down and relax. The tea houses in the larger towns and cities offer sweet milk tea, salted black tea or salted butter tea; in the villages you may only have the option of salt tea. The line between a tea house (ཇ་ཁང་ cha khang) and a restaurant (ཟ་ཁང་ za khang) is blurred and many tea houses also offer thukpa.

Tibetan butter tea (pö cha) is a must try, though it may not be a pleasant experience for all — even the Dalai Lama famously said that he's not a fan of the stuff! It is a salty mixture of black tea and Tibetan butter. Traditionally it is churned by hand with a thick rod in a long upright wooden container. However, when electricity came to the city in recent years, modernized Tibetans turn to use electric mixers to make their butter tea. The Tibetan butter is not rancid as commonly described, but has a cheesy taste and smell to it, close to blue cheese or Roquefort. Think of it as a cheese broth rather, that you will appreciate particularly after a long hike in cold weather.

An alternative to Tibetan butter tea is sweet milk tea (cha ngar mo) which is more familiar to western palates. Sweet tea drinking was introduced only recently by merchants returning from India, first among well-off Tibetans, since sugar was a luxury on the Plateau, then when sugar became more available among the general public. Unlike Indians, Tibetan do not use spices (clove, cinnamon, cardamon) to flavor their tea.

Salted black tea (cha thang) is another alternative, refreshingly free from milk or butter!

Chang, or Tibetan beer made of barley, has a lighter flavour than a western-type, bottled beer, since they do not use bitter hops. Often home-brewed and with as many taste and strength variants as industrial beers. Beware of chang: the yeast is still alive in it, and will carry on fermenting and producing alcohol in the warm temperatures of your stomach! Usually no germ risk since yeast prevents bacteria proliferation.

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Safety

See also Travel Safety

Plan your route to manage altitude sickness; the main thing is to give your body enough time to acclimatize before going higher. This is important both when getting in, and when ascending within Tibet. Be prepared to adjust your plans, descend or spend a few extra days acclimatizing if it proves necessary.

You are very high up, the sun is going to be very strong; see sunburn and sun protection. Wear protective clothing, UV-protective sunglasses, and sunscreen.

When travelling in the countryside be prepared for the vehicle to break down and for bad weather. Carry a snack and some warm clothes. Water and fluids are essential.

Be warned that driving at night can be particularly dangerous in Tibet.

Beware of the dogs! In the cities there are numerous stray dogs about and in the country side the villagers and nomads keep large guard dogs for security (usually chained up). A modest level of caution is enough to prevent you from being bitten, as the strays usually run in packs and if you don't get too close you should be okay. If guard dogs are unchained, keep them at bay by staying away from the house or tent they are protecting at all costs as their barking will indicate they have picked you up on their radar and pray they don't come running after you. If they do, pick up (or pretend to pick up) some stones and be prepared to be attacked at the ankle. Sometimes kicking or lunging at the dogs before they attack may scare them off. Some other ways to protect yourself is by wearing boots and thick pants. Much is made of the viciousness of the Tibetan dogs, but few travelers have problems with them. See also aggressive dogs.

Steer clear of political protests. They're rare, but suppressed brutally by the authorities, who do not look kindly on Western witnesses (especially those with cameras).

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Health

See also: Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to China. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering China) where that disease is widely prevalent.

It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to China. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid.

If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. Vaccination against Japanese Encephalitis is only recommended in rare cases.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.

Water

DO NOT drink the tap water. The locals do not drink it, and nor should you. When first treated, the water is nearly at a drinkable standard, but after it has traversed along an ancient network of pipes, it has picked up any number of nasty metals and bugs. Many cities' drinking water comes from rivers, so it can also be affected by pollution, chemical spills and algal blooms. Purified and spring water is cheap and available everywhere. If you are really stuck, ensure you thoroughly boil any tap water before drinking it. When buying bottled water (especially outside the big cities), ensure the lid is properly sealed before drinking it.

Medication/Health Care

Common medicines, such as aspirin, paracetamol, pseudoephedrine and anti-diarrhea tablets, are readily available from pharmacies and supermarkets in China. Many medications that require a prescription in other countries (such as the oral contraceptive pill and some antibiotics) are available over the counter in China. Most pharmacies (called yàofáng 药房 in Chinese) will have a book with English medicine names and their Chinese translation. One good chain pharmacy found in most big cities is "Watson's", which also sells toiletries and beauty products. Carrefour, a French food and department store, also has a section for over-the-counter medicines.

While medications are readily available, it is important to note that the quality of drugs released to the Chinese market can be highly varied. The incidence of adverse drug reactions (ADRs) is higher in China compared to other countries, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between good and bad medications - or worse, fake medications. It is always wise to carry anti-diarrhea tablets and some other simple medicines when travelling, so you may wish to bring them from home.

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Keep connected

Internet

Wangba (联网) means internet bar in Chinese. Almost every town will have an internet bar or gaming center. The best way to spot an internet bar is to look for the 网(ba) character, which means net, and large digitized images of computer game characters. Often, there will be a sign saying Green Power in English at the entrance. Most gaming centers cost about RMB3 an hour. You prepay at the main desk and are then given a plastic card or a piece of paper. Once you are done you return the card or piece of paper and get reimbursed for the money you didn't spend. Be prepared for a place that might be dingy, basic and messy. Internet bars in China tend to get crowded starting in the late afternoon to the late evenings.

Some hotels provide access from the rooms that may or may not be free; others may provide a wireless service or a few desktops in the lounge area.
Also, quite a few cafes provide free wireless Internet service. Some cafes, even provide a machine for customer use.

Phone

See also: International Telephone Calls

The country calling code to China is 86. To make an international call from China, the code is 00.

When making international phone calls it is best to buy an IP card. They typically have a value of ¥100 but sometimes can be had for as little as ¥25. The cards have printed Chinese instructions, but after dialling the number listed on the card English-spoken instructions are available. As a general indication of price, a call from China to Europe lasts around 22 minutes with a ¥100 card. Calls to the U.S. and Canada are advertised to be another 20% cheaper. There is no warning before the card runs out of minutes.

If you already have a GSM 900/1800 cellphone, you can roam onto Chinese networks, but calls will be very expensive (¥12-35/minute is typical). If you're staying for more than a few days, it will usually be cheaper to buy a prepaid Chinese SIM card; this gives you a Chinese phone number with a certain amount of money preloaded. Chinese tend to avoid phone numbers with the bad-luck digit '4', and vendors will often be happy to offload these "unsellable" SIM-cards to foreigners at a discount. If you need a phone as well, prices start around ¥100/200 used/new. Chinese phones, unlike those sold in many Western countries, are never "locked" and will work with any SIM card you put in them. China's two big operators are China Mobile and China Unicom. Most SIMs sold by the two work nationwide, with Unicom allowing Hong Kong/Macau/Taiwan usage as well. There is usually a surcharge of about ¥1/min when roaming outside the province you bought the SIM, and there are some cards that work only in a single province, so check when buying.

Post

China Post (中国邮政) is the official postal service of the People's Republic of China, operated by the State Postal Bureau of the People's Republic of China (website in Chinese only), and has more details about price to send letters, postcards and parcels, both domestically as well as internationally. The Chinese postal service is very good. Remember that in more remote places usually only one post office in a city can handle sending international boxes or letters. Also many times it might be worth having the name of the country you are trying to send to in Chinese characters, because small town people might not know what Estonia is in English. Post offices have a striking green logo and can easily be found everywhere in the cities. They are mostly open every day (including weekends!) from 8:00am to 6:00pm, though small offices might have shorter opening times, while the bigger ones in central and touristic areas are sometimes open during evenings as well.

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Media

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.

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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Contributors

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Tibet Travel Helpers

This is version 53. Last edited at 9:01 on Aug 16, 17 by Utrecht. 25 articles link to this page.

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