Tibet Travel Guide, China

lhasa sheep, tibet, china

A Tibetan sheep looking querulous above Lhasa, capital of Tibet. The raised edifice is Potala Palace.

Tibet Travel (Tibet Autonomous Region)

Zhargye Nyenri monastery, Tibet, China

Zhargye Nyenri monastery. Photo by Antoine Taveneaux.

Known as the ‘Roof of the World’ and at over 4, 000m that’s not an exaggeration, Tibet is probably the original mythical Shangri-la, though the modern 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, 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.

Downsides

• AMS, otherwise known as altitude sickness or Acute Mountain Sickness is more likely to strike visitors here than just about any other vacation destination, especially since many visitors fly in from sea level. Taking the train up should reduce the severity but not make AMS disappear. 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.

Tibet Weather

Best June to October, the warmest months. Worst: winter, extreme cold and lack of tourist facilities.

Tibet travel attractions

Drepung Monastery monks meeting, Tibet, China

Drepung Monastery monks meeting. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

Tibet holidays focus on three elements: Tibetan people, monasteries and mountainous landscapes. Outside 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.
Actually there is a fourth element we need to take into account, visitor discomfort survival. Expect to be well out of your comfort zone here, with altitude-induced migraines a starter, yak butter and yak burgers as main course and bitter wind for dessert.

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.

Tibet’s capital city Lhasa (altitude 3,700m)

Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, china

The spectacular Potala Palace in Lhasa, the former residence of the Dalai Lama but now a museum and lacking much of its heritage. Photo by Zvacek.

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.

Barkor Square in Lhasa, a prime pilgrimage target, Lhasa, Tibet, China

Barkor Square in Lhasa and Jokhang Temple, a prime pilgrimage target. Photo by Bgabel.

praying before Lhasa

And praying before Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple is what they’re there for. Photo by Luca Galuzzi.

Tashilhunpo ladies taking the easy prayer option with prayer wheels, Tibet, China

Tashilhunpo ladies taking the easy prayer option with prayer wheels. Photo by Antoine Taveneaux.

Gyantse (3,900m)

Tibetans attending Gyantse horse racing festival in July, Tibet, China

Tibetans attending Gyantse horse racing festival in July.

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.

Palcho Monastery in Gyantse, Tibet, China

Palcho Monastery in Gyantse, photo by Mark Evans.

Shigatse (3,800m)

278km (172 miles) west of Lhasa, but just 90 kms from Gyantse, Shigatse is Tibet’s second city but offers not much more than the huge 15thC Tashilhunpo Monastery and far too many Chinese citizens.

An elaborate ceremony at Tashilhunpo Monastery, Shigatse, Tibet, China

An elaborate ceremony at Tashilhunpo Monastery, Shigatse. Photo by Peter Morgan.

Mount Kailash

At 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 energetic people attempt to 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!

Mount Kailash north side with hiker/pilgrim camps, Tibet, China

Mount Kailash north side. Note the hiker/pilgrim camps en route. Photo by Zvacek.

Most Kailash hikers take 3 days to complete the 53km (33-mile) circuit 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.

Getting 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.

China claims this will improve life in Tibet as canned lychees, spam and soft toilet paper will improve conditions for locals but  Tibetans feel that their sparse and spiritual lives are being 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: Take into account the difficulty of acclimatising for Tibet while in China – the train won’t help much, nor will a flight.

It may be worth considering acclimatising in Nepal, then heading for Tibet 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.

Read a Telegraph newspaper story of a 4, 000 mile train ride from Hong Kong to Lhasa

Travel 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’.

Activities

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

It’s 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 mountain-bike rentals are available.

Biking the Tibet-Nepal Friendship Highway is 700 kms (440 miles) of varied hazards, not least over 5000m of altitude, kids throwing rocks, dogs chewing on pumping legs, avalanches, ultra-rocky sections and strong winds. With luck and determination the ride should take around three weeks.

Festivals

Tagong monastery interior, Tibet

Tagong monastery interior, photo by Antoine Taveneaux.

February-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).

Health

• 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.

• Giardiasis. 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.

Electricity: 220v, flat 2 pins, occasionally 3 flat pins or even 3 rectangular pins (UK style).

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