Travel to Tibet?
Known as the 'Roof of the World' (and at over 4,000m that's
not an exaggeration) and possibly the original, mythical Shangri-la, the Chinese colony of Tibet now sports a more dreary official title - TAR, Tibetan Autonomous Region.
In spite of the new name, new masters and large numbers of new Han colonists, Tibet is still fascinating and unique, with exuberantly coloured monasteries,
art and people (local Tibetans, as opposed to Han Chinese),
bizarre religious customs and incredible, bleak, mega-mountain scenery
scattered with yaks, rivers and kaleidoscopic ever-flapping prayer flags.
The vast Tibetan Plateau is the source of many of Asia's great rivers, including the Yangzi, Yellow, Mekong, Indus and major tributaries of the Ganges.
- AMS, otherwise known as altitude sickness, see health advice below.
- cold, especially at night and if coming from a warm, sea level location such as Beijing.
- local cuisine is limited unless stewed yak rings your bell, though some pricier tourist establishments serve good Chinese food.
- modern Chinese apartment blocks look offensively out of place alongside traditional Tibetan architecture.
Best June to October,
the warmest months. Worst: winter, extreme cold
Fundamentally Tibet is about three things, Tibetan people and their religion, monasteries and mountains.
Tibet's three main towns - Lhasa, Shigatse
and Gyantse - are all home to atmospheric monasteries, colourful local people, roaming yaks,
jangling prayer wheels and flapping prayer flags as well as reasonable tourist facilities, though little by little the spread of Han Chinese is erasing the past and overwhelming the people.
Lhasa (altitude 3,700m): The Potala Palace competes
with the 7thC Jokhang Temple in Lhasa as Tibet's premier sight, with the old-fashioned Barkor district and market in third place, while day trips out to some wonderful monasteries are simple to organise. Sera and Drepung are nearest while Nechung and Ganden are within reach and Samye manages to combine monastery with a walled town and all set in picturesque surroundings.
Gyantse: 255km (158 miles) southwest of Lhasa. This ancient trading town is the only significant Tibetan urban area unspoilt by Chinese colonisation and embraces sensational examples of attractive, traditional three-storey farmhouses as well as an impressive 13thC fortress, Gyantse Dzong and 15thC Pelkhor Choede temple complex fantastically decorated with thousands of vibrant images that some say are the best in Tibet.
Shigatse: 278km (172 miles) west of Lhasa, Shigatse is Tibet's second city but offers not much more than the huge 15thC Tashilhunpo Monastery and far too many Chinese citizens.
Outside the towns the treeless
countryside offers supremely majestic snowy mountains popping up out of bleak, treeless plains garnished only with man-made rock paintings, stupas and prayer flags.
Mount Kailash (6,700m): This sacred peak, perhaps the world's holiest mountain, thrusts spectacularly out of a barren plain and is considered the centre of the universe by Tibetan Buddhists and consequently some attempt reach Buddhahood by walking around it 108 times.
Hindus, on the other hand, believe that Kailash is the home of the god Shiva, so deserving of prayer but not an interminable circumambulation!
Most visiting hikers take 3 days to complete the 53km (33-mile) circuit of Kailash and there are monasteries en route but there is plenty of competition for accommodation so bring everything you may need, tent and food included.
The Saka Dawa Festival, late May to early June, is the best time to visit Kailash, but tourist access is limited so if you wish to attend the festival book through a tour operator.
Transport to Tibet: The magnificent but costly
rail link 1,110 km (690m) from Beijing to Lhasa now takes 48 hours in oxygen-conditioned comfort (nice, but it will not help you to acclimatise!) on the
highest track on earth, delivering supplies, tourists and
more Han Chinese to Tibet.
It's certainly a dramatic feat of engineering
considering that some of the track crosses permafrost and part
of it reaches over 5,000 metres, but while China claims this will
improve life in Tibet as canned lychees, spam and soft toilet
paper will improve conditions for locals, many Tibetans feel that
their sparse and spiritual lives will be swamped by the influx of people and goods from their pushy neighbours.
Alternatives to the train are: flights from Chengdu, the cheapest,
easiest way into Tibet (including permits), though other Chinese
cities do flights too.
Travellers with time often prefer to drive themselves on one of
the the stunning roads to Tibet. This has the advantage of steady
acclimatisation to the altitude. Battle-hardened backpackers that are short of money but long on time may prefer to journey by bus.
Nepal-Tibet: Taking into account the difficulty of acclimatising for Tibet while in China - and the train won't help much, nor will a flight, it may be worth considering acclimatising in Nepal, then heading forTibet via the rocky but spectacular 736 km Friendship Highway, with views of Everest and more en route. Many Tibet Tours run from Nepal's Kathmandu.
Trekking: Tibet is superb for hardy hikers if you can handle the altitude, with the awesome
Everest Base Camp trek at #1 and Mount Kailash running close behind (see above for more details).
You may be well-advised to find a
tour organiser to sort out the bureaucracy involved.
Biking: pretty hard work in this low-oxygen environment with rock-strewn roads, landslips, mad dogs and stone throwing kids, though around Lhasa it's easy enough and rentals are available.
Biking the Tibet-Nepal Friendship Highway is 700 kms (440 miles) of varied hazards, not least stony kids, dogs chewing on pumping legs, avalanches, ultra-rocky sections, serious wind - and it will take around three weeks.
Feb/March: Losar, Tibet's New Year Festival is a lively
and colourful week, shortly followed by the equally interesting Lantern and Monlam Festivals.
July: Gyantse Horse Racing Festival is an ebullient
traditional event involving dance, archery and horseplay.
August: Shoton, a celebration of Tibetan Buddhism with performances of traditional opera by local troupes, in the Norbulingka Palace (the Dalai Lama's ex-Summer Palace).
220v, flat 2 pins, occasionally 3 flat pins or even 3 rectangular
pins (UK style).
Permits: these are complex and change frequently. You may need a Tibet permit apart from your Chinese tourist visa
and a separate permit for extended trips in the region.
You may be required to join a Tibet tour to enter, particularly
coming from Nepal via the 'Friendship Highway'.
- Beware AMS (altitude
sickness) in Tibet - even Lhasa - for older or less fit tourists.
Try to acclimatise by approaching in altitude increments, but if not, Diamox (acetazolamide) is a blood-oxygenating drug popular with mountain climbers or try Hongjingpian, a Chinese medicine available at Lhasa pharmacies.
- Hepatitis A and B are not uncommon in China and Tibet.
- Rabies. Those who plan to walk a lot may wish to consider rabies immunization before they arrive as some dog packs are vicious and if you get bitten Kathmandu is the nearest place with rabies serum.
Some Tibet tourists go home with more than memories, they also suffer from giardiasis, an unpleasant intestinal problem. Tinadozol or Flagyl are the recommended treatment, so if you're a worrier, bring some with you. Whatever, drink only bottled water (ensure the bottle hasn't been refilled and recapped! And perhaps avoid salads.
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