What Does the Tibetan Autonomous Region (T.A.R.) mean?

You may wonder why sometimes “Tibet” is referred to as the “Tibetan Autonomous Region (T.A.R.).” Actually, they are quite different things. In this post we will explain the difference, and at the end of the post let you know the main points you need to grasp for travel purposes.

Note if you are planning to travel to Tibet:
Since no independent travel is allowed to Tibet and you must work with a travel agency, you want to be sure to choose a Tibetan-owned agency, which hires Tibetan guides only. The simplest way to do this is ask us to connect you to a reliable Tibetan-owned travel agent to plan a great trip for you that also supports the local Tibetan economy and culture.

“Tibet”

For Tibetan people, the term “Tibet” refers to all of the lands on the vast Tibetan Plateau, a region as large as Western Europe. It stretches roughly from Xining and Dartsedo in the East, to the Indian border in the West, to Xinjiang in the north, to the Nepali, Bhutanese, Burmese and Indian borders in the south. 

On this map, from MeltdowninTibet.com, you see that the Tibetan Plateau covers about a third of the landmass of what the Chinese government today calls China. 

Mount Kailash and major Asian river sources on a map of the Tibetan plateau.

This Tibetan Plateau is historically Tibetan land, with Tibetan language and culture. You will note in the map below that the Eastern Tibetan regions of Amdo and Kham are included in this area that Tibetans call Tibet.

This map, of the large area that Tibetans call "Tibet," is from tibetantrekking.com.
This map, of the large area that Tibetans call “Tibet,” is from tibetantrekking.com.

The “Tibetan Autonomous Region (T.A.R.)”

Shortly after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950’s, China carved up Tibet into a number of pieces. The piece that they call the Tibetan Autonomous Region (T.A.R.) is about half of the Tibetan Plateau. (The Chinese also refer to the T.A.R. as “Tibet” and “Xizang.”) This is the region that the Chinese government most tightly restricts, and for which you need a permit to enter. On the map below, you see it listed as Tibet (Xizang). 

A modern map of China
A modern map of China. See www.mapsofworld.com/china.

The rest of the Tibetan Plateau was carved up and included in the neighboring Chinese regions of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan. Today, those Tibetan regions are mostly labeled by the Chinese as Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures (T.A.P.). For example, you can see the Yushu T.A.P. in the Qinghai region in the map below. For Tibetans, this area is part of the Eastern Tibetan region of Kham, and the city of “Yushu” is Jyekundo.

Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures map from The Land of Snows.
Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures map from The Land of Snows.

Main Points you Need to Know for Travel

The main takeaway for you as a traveler is this:

  1. The T.A.R. includes most of the most famous and popular tourist destinations in Tibet, such as Lhasa, Everest Base Camp, Mount. Kailash, Lake Namtso, Shigatse, and Gyantse.
  2. The non-T.A.R. areas of Tibet include the Kham and Amdo regions, which are generally less traveled and better culturally preserved than the T.A.R. areas. 
  3. The T.A.R. is much more tightly restricted than Kham and Amdo. For the T.A.R. region, you must have a Tibet travel permit, a guide, and be on a “tour,” though the tour can be just you with a guide and driver on a private tour. 
  4. For the non-T.A.R. Kham and Amdo regions, you can travel with just a Chinese visa, except for a few areas that are restricted due to political unrest. These closures can happen randomly so you need to be in contact with your local guide to be sure where you can travel. 
  5. Although the non-T.A.R. areas of Kham and Amdo allow individual, backpacker-syle travel, we do not recommend it. These areas have very sporadic tourist infrastructure and we generally recommend that you hire a guide to travel in them. 

Resources

A great post with a full breakdown of the prefectures from our friend Losang (a different Losang at the Land of Snows: http://www.thelandofsnows.com/tibet/