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Whenever the Chinese government refers to Tibet, it refers to the Tibetan Autonomous Region, a province in the west of China. The extent to which it is autonomous is a matter of great debate, as many human rights organisations argue that the Chinese government has actively oppressed the local Tibetan population.
The Tibetan Autonomous Region’s borders roughly match the borders of the semi sovereign Tibet of pre 1951. Tibet was first conquered by an outside power, the Mongolians, during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 CE). But with the rise of the Ming Dynasty there was a brief period of sovereignty until the Mongols took over again in the mid 15th century by supporting the Dali Lama who had fled to Mongolia. Mongolian clans had on and off political control of Tibet until the Tibetans appealed to the new Qing Dynasty to remove the Mongolians in the late 17th century. At that point Tibet in the official view of international politics became a tribute state to the Qing Dynasty. Although the presence of the Qing Dynasty was not felt by the average Tibetan, the Qing government did have bureaucrats and troops stationed in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. With the decline of the Qing Dynasty, in the mid 19th century, the mountain kingdom of Tibet gained more and more autonomy and by the 1890s Tibet was independent in every aspect accept in name. Any dream of an independent Tibet at that time was ended in 1912 when the new Republic of China paid all the debts of the Qing Dynasty in order to maintain the internationally recognized borders of the Qing Dynasty. Dealing with internal and external threats the Republic Government did not have the resources to influence any control over the internal running of the Tibetan Autonomous Region but the Republic government used international pressure to make sure other countries did not recognize the Tibetan Autonomous Region as an independent country.
When the Communists defeated the Republic in 1949 they quickly turned their peasant army towards the “liberation” of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. By 1951 the TAR was incorporated into China, with limited resistance, by the signing of the 17 point agreement. If the 17 point agreement had been honored the Tibetan Autonomous Region would roughly have a similar government relationship with Beijing that Hong Kong has today. But due to conservative Tibetans and Communists the tensions escalated until the 1959 uprising during which the Dali Lama fled the Tibetan Autonomous Region to India. In 1965 the 17 point agreement was nullified and the Tibetan Autonomous Region was established. Since that time the degree that the Tibetan Autonomous Region is actually autonomous has changed with who ever is currently in charge in Beijing. Many senior government officials have had their careers start by having a leadership position in the Tibetan Autonomous Region including the current president of China Hu Jintao.
The Tibetan Autonomous Region is considered a high altitude plateau with high altitude lakes with stunning peaks. Most of the province is used for yak grazing because it is one of the few domesticated animals that can live up there. Tibet shares international borders with India, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. Tibet has some of the world's tallest mountains, with several of them making the top ten list. Mount Everest, at 8,848 metres, is the highest mountain on earth, located on the border with Nepal. Several major rivers have their source in the Tibetan Plateau (mostly in present-day Qinghai Province). These include Yangtze, Yellow River, Indus River, Mekong, Ganges, Salween and the Yarlung Tsangpo River (Brahmaputra River). The Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, along the Yarlung Tsangpo River, is among the deepest and longest canyons in the world. The Indus and Brahmaputra rivers originate from a lake (Tso Mapham) in Western Tibet, near Mount Kailash. The mountain is a holy pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Tibetans. The Hindus consider the mountain to be the abode of Lord Shiva. The Tibetan name for Mt. Kailash is Khang Rinpoche. Tibet has numerous high-altitude lakes referred to in Tibetan as tso or co. These include Qinghai Lake, Lake Manasarovar, Namtso, Pangong Tso, Yamdrok Lake, Siling Co, Lhamo La-tso, Lumajangdong Co, Lake Puma Yumco, Lake Paiku, Lake Rakshastal, Dagze Co and Dong Co. The Qinghai Lake (Koko Nor) is the largest lake in the People's Republic of China.
The Tibetan Autonomous Region has seven administrative divisions known as Perfectures.
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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 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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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” 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.
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 is the harvest festival in August. An old farming tradition, major activities include horse racing, shooting, dancing, Tibetan Opera, stone holding and wrestling.
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.
The weather here can best be described as harsh! During winter, temperatures can drop to below -35 °C, which is not a surprise given the fact that most of the Tibetan Autonomous Region lies at a high altitude plateau above 3,000 metres. Summers are pleasantly warm, but give most precipitation. The spring and fall seasons (April/May and late September-early November) are probably the best times, given the pleasant temperatures (cold nights though!) and generally sunny and dry conditions.
See also: Overland Border Crossings In China
Lhasa Gonggar Airport (LXA) has some connections. These include Shanghai Pudong International Airport and Xi'an with China Eastern Airlines, Beijing, Kathmandu, Qamdo and Chengdu with Air China, Chongqing with China Southern Airlines and Chongqing and Chengdu with Sichuan Airlines.
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The Qinghai-Tibet Railway is one of the newest train services in the world, officially inaugurated on the 1st of July, 2006 with the opening of the last leg from Golmud. Officially called the Qingzang Railway, it travels from Xining in Qinghai province, China, to Lhasa. There are, however, other cities in China, where you can get on the train and travel directly to the Tibetan capital, including all the way from Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and even Guangzhou. From Golmud, it's 1,142 kilometres, from Xining about 1,950 kilometres. The line includes the Tanggula Pass, which, at 5,072 metres above sea level, is the world's highest rail track. The 1,338-metre-long Fenghuoshan tunnel is the highest rail tunnel in the world at 4,905 metres above sea level. Over 80% of the Golmud-Lhasa train is at an altitude of more than 4,000 metres and there are oxygen supplies are available for each passsenger in the train, hopefully preventing altitude sickness. It is expected that new lines and branches will open, connecting Lhasa with other places like Nyinchi, Shigatse and Xigaze and even on to the border with Nepal. Some of the constructions have begun already and most of them will be completed before 2020. Rumors about extensions towards India and other Asian countries are not more than rumors!
The train from Golmud makes buses not a reasonable option anymore to reach China.
Traveling in the Tibetan Autonomous Region can be quite difficult. The roads in most areas are very basic, although improving, and weather can be extreme any time of the year. The most difficult part of moving around the Tibetan Autonomous Region is the fact that most local transport is off limits or randomly goes off limits to non Tibetan Autonomous Region residents. Making it that traveler’s must hire cars with drivers or in most cases land rovers with drivers when the roads become more basic. Also many areas of the Tibetan Autonomous Region require extra permits other then just the Tibet Permit, which can sometimes take a few days to be processed. Although expensive luckily the hiring of vehicles is very easy to do in Lhasa and other travelers can usually be found on the different message boards located in hostels and cafes. Almost all of the travel agencies in Lhasa offer vehicle hire and arrangement of permits for other areas in the Tibetan Autonomous Region .
In the last few years the permits and red tape for entering the Tibetan Autonomous Region have been constantly changing. Many hoped with the opening of the railroad that for foreigners the annoying Tibet Permit would no longer be needed. Due to events of March 2008 everything dealing with permits has gone haywire. It is recommended to either contact hostels in Chengdu or Chinese travel agencies to find out the most current information.
No trip to Tibet is complete without having tried some yak meat, a standard part of any Tibettan diet. It can be eaten raw, boiled with spices or dried.
See also Travel Health
Altitude Sickness is the major health concern here, so try to limit your movements during the first couple of days and gradually ascent if you can. Also drink enough fluids (but not too much) and eat healthy and small portions at a time.
See also Travel Safety
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.
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 dialing 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.
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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