This is our complete beginner’s guide to Tibet for 2021.
In the first installments of this all-new guide you will learn:
- The top 10 questions about Tibet
- What is Tibet known for?
- Why visit Tibet — 10 extraordinary places to see
- The biggest mistakes people make about Tibet
Because the topic is so large, we’re writing it in sections. Coming up:
- Fascinating Tibet facts
- Tibet history in brief
- Tibetan food
- Famous Tibetans in history and now
- Popular books and movies about Tibet
Let’s jump right in with the first section, the top 10 questions about Tibet.
We will release the subsequent sections roughly one per week, with a break for the holidays. If you want to get notification for those releases, sign up for our newsletter (which includes our free Tibet Travel Planning Guide).
TOP TEN QUESTIONS ABOUT TIBET
Some quick answers to your most common questions about the Land of Snows
There’s no place on earth like Tibet and one of the reasons it has fascinated the world for so long is that very few people know anything much about it.
Let’s start with some basic questions…
Where is Tibet?
Tibet is located between India and mainland China.
The huge Tibetan Plateau sits in the heart of Asia, surrounded by Myanmar, Nepal, mainland China, Bhutan and Xinjiang (East Turkistan).
See our Where is Tibet? post for more on the geography of Tibet and various Tibet maps.
Is Tibet a Country?
If you ask the Tibetan people they will say that Tibet is a country and has been since the reign of the first Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo (604-650 CE).
However, since the Chinese invasion of 1949-50, and the Dalai Lama’s flight to exile in India in 1959, Tibetans consider it now as an occupied country.
Unfortunately, since no country recognizes Tibet as a sovereign state, it is by default considered officially as part of China by other governments, so that to travel to Tibet, one must have a Chinese visa.
What is the capital of Tibet?
The capital of Tibet is the fabulous, ancient city of Lhasa.
Lhasa, which means place of the gods, is also the largest city in the Tibetan region, and is home to many of Tibet’s most magnificent cultural treasures, including three UNESCO world heritage sites: the holy Jokhang Temple, the Potala Palace and the Norbulingka.
At an elevation of 11,990 ft/ 3,654 m, Lhasa is one of the highest cities in the world.
What language is spoken in Tibet?
Tibetan is the language spoken in Tibet, though it has 220 dialects!
According to Tibetan linguist Nicolas Tournadre, there are essentially 25 languages derived from Old Tibetan that are spoken in Tibet, China, India, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan. (Each of these is largely not understandable to speakers of the others.)
In Tibetan communities, three primary dialects are recognized, those of Central Tibetan, Kham and Amdo.
Fun fact: in Tibetan, the word for Tibet is Po. For such a short word, it’s quite hard for non-Tibetans to pronounce, since the “p” is pronounced somewhere between a “p” and a “b” and the “o” is somewhere between the sound of “pooh” and “puh.”
For more on Tibetic languages >>
Can I travel to Tibet?
The short answer is yes, in general, foreign tourists can travel to Tibet, with a Chinese visa, plus a special Tibet permit.
However, you cannot travel independently to the central Tibetan region, called the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), which includes many of Tibet’s most famous places, like Lhasa, and Everest Base Camp on the Tibetan side.
To travel to the TAR, you must be part of an organized tour with a certified Tibet travel agency.
You can travel to the Tibetan regions of Kham and Amdo, which are largely outside the TAR, with just a Chinese visa.
If you’d like us to provide you with a recommendation for a reliable Tibet travel agency for either a group or private organized tour, contact us here.
2021 Travel Advisory: Due to the current health crisis, Tibet is temporarily closed to all foreign travelers. There has been no announcement regarding a re-open date. However, travelers can pre-book travel for a later date. At the same time, you will support local Tibetan-owned businesses at a time when they are struggling to survive. To learn more, ask us for an introduction to a reliable Tibetan travel agency here.
Does it snow in Tibet?
Tibet is known as the Land of Snows mostly because of the presence of the snowy peaks of the various high-altitude mountain ranges of Tibet, such as the Tibetan Himalaya.
However, a little surprisingly, below 16,000 ft/ 4,800 m you are not likely to find much snow.
The Himalayas in particular block a good deal of the rain-bearing winds coming from India.
For this reason, the climate of the entire Tibetan Plateau is generally dry. The precipitation that does fall comes mainly as rain in the warmish summer months rather than in winter.
So generally speaking the most populated parts of Tibet don’t get much snow, even in winter.
How to go to Tibet?
First, keep in mind that you need to be on an organized tour to visit Tibet.
You will book your Tibet travel with a Tibetan travel agency, and they will arrange your travel inside the country. (Ask us for a referral here.)
To get to Tibet, you can enter from the Chinese mainland, or from Nepal.
To get to Tibet via China, you will fly first to a city in mainland China, such as Chengdu or Beijing. From there you have a choice flying, taking a train, or even overland if you have more time.
If you prefer to enter Tibet from Nepal, you can fly from Kathmandu, or go overland via the Friendship Highway when the border is open.
Either way, you will require a special group visa for China, which may impact further travel in China.
We strongly recommend not traveling overland due to serious risks associated with altitude sickness.
How high is Tibet above sea level?
Tibet is extremely high above sea level, and the risk of getting altitude sickness is real unless you take necessary precautions.
The average elevation in Tibet is 14,750 ft/ 4,500 m. Which is just crazy if you think about it!
Compare that to a high altitude mountain city like Aspen, Colorado at 8000 ft/ ~2500 m.
The city of Lhasa, where many visitors begin a trip to Tibet, sits at 11,990 ft/ 3,654 m.
It may help to know this medical definition of “high altitude:”
- High Altitude: 8,000 to 12,000 ft (2,438 – 3,658 m)
- Very high altitude: 12,000 – 18,000 ft. (3,658 – 5,487 m)
- Extremely high altitude: 18,000+ feet (5,500+ meters)
Visitors to Tibet usually enter, for all practical purposes, at “very high altitude” and continue on to even higher altitudes. Travelers to Mount Kailash even reach extreme high altitude.
If you’re considering travel to Tibet, check out our beginner’s guide to avoiding altitude sickness.
What to do in Tibet?
Here’s a very brief list of some of the more popular things that people do in Tibet:
- Take the Sky Train from mainland China to Lhasa
- View otherworldly Tibetan Buddhist temples and the incomparably beautiful Potala Palace on the Lhasa Highlights tour
- View mighty Mount Everest on an overland tour out of Lhasa that includes turqoise high-altitude lakes and up-close glaciers.
- Join Tibetan pilgrims on a holy trek of holy Mount Kailash, on a longer tour that includes Everest Base Camp.
This barely scratches the surface, but you get the idea.
We’ll look a little more closely at some of the extraordinary historical and cultural sites in Tibet below…
To learn much more, check out our How to Visit Tibet Safely, Easily and Ethically: The Complete Guide.
Why is Tibet Important?
Poised between two of the world’s most populous countries — China and India — Tibet’s location gives it enormous geo-political importance.
Tibet’s formidable mountain terrain serves as a buffer between the two, whose relationship is tenuous at best.
Tibet is also at the crossroads of important overland trade routes.
A number of Asia’s most significant rivers originate in the Tibet mountains, including the Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yangtze, Yellow River, and Indus.
You can imagine the significance of being the primary source of Asia’s water.
There are apparently 102 types of mineral deposits in Tibet, with enormous value. (It has been valued at 100 billion US dollars.) Two of these are chromium and copper.
The form of Buddhism that developed in Tibet is particularly significant among the various forms of Buddhism that exist today because it derives from the great Buddhist masters of India’s Nalanda University, who relied on the discipline of logic.
Of the the different Buddhist traditions existing today, only Tibetan Buddhism relies on this lineage of logic and reason. For that reason, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that “The Nalanda tradition seems to be the most comprehensive presentation of the Buddha’s teachings available today. It incorporates knowledge of the mind and emotions which is of potential benefit to all humanity.“
WHAT IS TIBET IS KNOWN FOR?
The Dalai Lama
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is by far Tibet’s most famous person, even though he has lived in exile in Northern India since he escaped over the Himalayas in 1959.
The spiritual leader of Tibet, he is sometimes referred to as a living Buddha, and is the beloved heart and soul of the Tibetan people.
His Holiness (as Tibetans refer to him) is 14th in a reincarnated line of Dalai Lamas stretching back to the 15th century.
Tibetans consider him to be a manifestation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Chenrezig. Bodhisattvas are realized beings that are committed to helping all living becomes reach enlightenment.
His Holiness is committed to the promotion of:
- warm-heartedness, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment and self-discipline.
- a focus on the core similarities of all seven billion humans on the planet, rather than on our differences, and on how we all want happiness and do not want suffering.
- harmony among the world’s religious traditions.
- the preservation of Tibetan language, culture and the special Buddhist lineage rooted in the ancient teachings of Nalanda University, as well as Tibet’s environment.
- reviving awareness of the value of ancient Indian knowledge and integrating it into modern education.
He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for: “advocating peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people.” (From the Nobel Peace Prize citation.)
Mountains, Lakes and Yaks
Tibet is a landscape photographer’s playground, with the natural grandeur of the snow-capped Himalayas, sky-blue lakes, and herds of massive, long-haired yaks dotted among magnificent green valleys.
The stuff of dreams, Mount Everest towers above the rest of the Himalayan Range, and is the highest mountain on earth at 29,035 ft/ 8,850 m.
But while Everest and the Himalayas are the highest and most famous mountains in Tibet, the vast Tibetan Plateau is actually surrounded by a number of other impressively high-altitude mountain ranges, including the Karakoram, Kunlun, Daxue, and Hengduan.
Scattered across the Tibetan Plateau you find also some of the most glorious “sky” lakes on the planet, like turqoise-colored Yamdrok Yumtso and Koko Nor, which is the largest lake in Tibet.
Many Tibetan lakes are considered holy and among these is lovely deep-blue Namtso (“Tso” means lake in Tibetan). Lake Manasarovar, which is fed by the glaciers of the holiest mountain in Tibet, Mount Kailash, is also considered sacred by four of the world’s religious followers, Buddhists, Jains, Hindus and Bon practitioners.
The World Heritage Potala Palace
The holy Tse Potala is one of the world’s most extraordinary and dramatic buildings, and is a World Heritage Site.
Perched on a hill in the middle of the old city of Lhasa, the Potala is the magnificent structural center of the Tibetan world.
Built in the 17th century as a palace for the great 5th Dalai Lama, the Potala served as the palace for Tibet’s subsequent Dalai Lamas, including the current 14th Dalai Lama, until he fled into exile in 1959.
The iconic golden roofs of the Potala Palace still represent, for many, Lhasa itself, even though it is now a rather empty-feeling museum rather than a living monastery and seat of government as it used to be.
The Tibetan dumplings called momos are wildly popular throughout the Tibetan world, but increasingly, have become a global phenomenon for non-Tibetan foodies.
Lovely, plump, juicy and savory, momos inspire fervent devotion in food lovers around the world.
You can eat them stuffed with meat, or veggies, and they come steamed, fried and in soup.
Traditionally, Tibetan art is equivalent to Buddhist art.
In the same way that Buddhism permeates every aspect of Tibetan culture, Buddhism is also inextricable from Tibetan art.
Of the deep, rich pool of Tibetan art, two are arguable the most well-known in the world: thangkhas and mandalas.
Thangkhas are Tibetan Buddhist scroll paintings (or sometimes silk applique or embroidery) that are usually framed by riotously-colored silk brocade.
The thangkhas usually portray Buddhist deities or concepts, and are used to promote meditation or the teaching of Buddhist concepts or stories.
The Buddha Sakyamuni is one of the most common subjects though there are literally multiple thousands of deities that can be represented, like White Tara or Avalokitesvara.
The most famous of thangkhas are massive ones that are hung on major religious holidays on special walls monasteries in Tibet, like this one hung on a hillside at Drepung Monastery in Lhasa.
A favorite subject for thangkhas are mandalas.
The word mandala comes from the Sanskrit word for “circle” and describes the diagrams used by Tibetans (and Hindus) that offer a spiritual representation of the cosmos.
Like thangkhas, mandalas represent aspects of one’s spiritual journey and are used for spiritual development.
Mandalas in particular tend to symbolize the universe, and cosmological cycles.
The kinds of mandalas most well-known outside of Tibet these days are sand mandalas, which are sometimes described as two-dimensional representations of a Buddha’s celestial palace, populated with enlightened beings.
You may have seen or heard of monks spending days or weeks painstakingly creating intricate sand mandalas in museums or other cultural centers around the world, only to destroy them once they are done. Sweeping up the mandala symbolizes the important Buddhist concept of the impermanence of all phenomena.
WHY VISIT TIBET — 10 EXTRAORDINARY PLACES TO SEE
No place on the planet can touch Tibet in terms of superlatives — the bluest skies and lakes, the whitest, highest peaks, the deepest spirituality, the weirdest and most wonderful food. It’s an adventure, start to finish, and like nothing you will experience in any other corner of the world. Here are our recommendations for 10 extraordinary reasons why you should visit Tibet.
If you’d like us to provide you with a recommendation for a reliable Tibet travel agency for a trip to Tibet, contact us here.
Lhasa — exceptional City of the Gods
Even if you visit no other spot in Tibet, you can come away with memories for a lifetime in Lhasa alone. The largest and most significant city in Tibet, Lhasa holds many of her greatest spiritual and cultural treasures. Don’t miss the ancient Jokhang Temple, the World Heritage Site Potala Palace, or the three greatest monasteries: Drepung, Sera and nearby Ganden. Lhasa is truly one of the great cities of the world.
Mount Everest — roof of the world
Mount Everest, the holy mountain that Tibetans call Chomolangma, or Goddess Mother of the World, is famously the highest spot on planet earth. When you stand at Everest Base Camp to gaze up at the stunning 29,032ft/ 8848 m summit of Mt. Everest, you are already at extremely high altitude, 17,060 ft/ 5200 m. (Check out our Beginner’s Guide to Avoiding Altitude Sickness if you plan to visit.) Though you can see the peak of Everest from Nepal as well, the Tibet side has the best, most unobstructed view.
Mount Kailash — walking on sacred ground
When we asked members of our All Things Tibet Facebook group what their most fantastic memory of Tibet was, quite a few mentioned the high-altitude pilgrimage circuit around holy Mount Kailash. It is truly an extraordinary experience, walking with Tibetan pilgrims from every walk of life, at dizzyingly high altitudes (the Dolma La pass is over 18,000 ft/ 5600 m. high!) The journey to Mount Kailash typically includes, as an incredible bonus, a visit to Everest Base Camp and a number of other highlights of Tibet travel.
Dzogchen Monastery — perfection in a hidden valley
Dzogchen Monastery in Kham, in Eastern Tibet, is a wonderful chance to get off the beaten path. Hermitage caves with deeply significant histories populate the beautiful hills behind the monastery and the local population keep the site alive as a living source of Buddhist learning and practice.
Yamdrok Lake — bluest of blues
Yamdrok Yumtso can be viewed from the 15,915 ft /4852 m Kamba La Pass when you are traveling to Gyantse from Lhasa. The lake home to Samding Monastery, which is special because it is one of the few Tibetan monasteries headed by a woman.
Pelchor Chode and the Gyantse Kumbum — home of the Panchen Lamas
Along with Lhasa and Shigatse, Gyantse is among the most historically and culturally significant towns in Tibet. It houses the venerable Pelchor Chode Monastery, and the extraordinary nine-story Kumbum of the “one-hundred thousand holy images.” At the Kumbum, you have the rare opportunity to literally walk through a representation of the Buddhist mandala.
Karo La Glacier and Mt. Noijin Kangsang — beauty up close
Not the least of the highlights of the roadtrip to Everest or Mount Kailash is the excellent view of what is commonly called the Karo La Glacier flowing down from Mt. Noijin Kangsang. The glacier takes it’s popular name from the nearby Karo La Pass (16,522 ft/ 5035 m). You can get quite close to the glacier on a wooden walkway that snakes around the hills below the glacier, allowing for some really great, unobstructed views.
Ganden Monastery — birds eye views of the Kyichu Valley
Ganden is special not only because of it’s long history as one of the great three Gelugpa monasteries of Tibet, but also because it enjoys an exceptionally picturesque location high above the Kyichu River Valley. Don’t miss the lovely kora (pilgrimage circuit) around the monastery and up along the Wangpo Ri Mountain ridge.
Larung Gar — magnificent center of Buddhist learning in Garze
Although the expression “one of a kind” gets overused, there is no other way to describe the Buddhist “camp” that is Larung Gar. Before 2016, it was the largest Tibetan Buddhist institute in the world, full of 10,000 monks, nuns and pilgrims studying from Buddhist masters. The area has been restricted from visitors since 2016 due to demolitions for “overcrowding” but it will hopefully open again to allow more pilgrims and travelers to experience a deeply impressive example of Tibetan Buddhist practice.
Tashilumpo Monastery — home of the Panchen Lamas
Highly significant in the history of Tibetan Buddhism, Tashilumpo Monastery offers a multitude of treasures in a multitude of chapels. It is the traditional seat of Tibet’s second highest lama, the Panchen Lama, behind only the Dalai Lama in importance. Don’t miss the pilgrimage kora that circles the monastery, and gives you great views of Shigatse’s old town.
THE BIGGEST MISTAKES PEOPLE MAKE ABOUT TIBET
Because so few people in the world have visited Tibet, it generates quite a sense of mystery and confusion.
In this section we’ll try to separate facts from some of the fiction.
Let’s jump in:
Mistake #1: Confusing Tibet and Nepal
If you mention Tibet, it’s remarkable how many people mistakenly think of the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark — you know, where Indy first meets Marion in the bar she runs in a Himalayan mountain village?
That scene, though, is in Nepal, not Tibet.
There’s a good reason that people get the two confused.
Both of them are Himalayan countries that share the famous summit of Mt. Everest.
Everest is located exactly on the Tibet-Nepal border, so you can climb up one side in Tibet and climb down into Nepal on the other. (Amazingly, people have actually done this, climbing up from opposite sides and passing each other on the same day!)
Tibetans and Nepalis traded salt and rice over Himalayan passes for hundreds of years. And perhaps due to that trade, they share some elements of culture. While Nepal is primarily Hindu, there are a fair number of Tibetans and therefore Tibetan Buddhists living in Nepal. You will find elements of Tibetan art and architecture in Nepal and vice versa.
But they are in fact separate countries. And the Tibet Autonomous Region is 8 times as large as Nepal. If you include the area of the entire Tibetan regions of U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo, it’s more like 16 times as big!
Mistake #2: Tibetans are vegetarians
Again, it’s not surprising that folks make this mistake.
If you know that vast majority of Tibetan people are Tibetan Buddhist, it’s not crazy to assume that they would avoid killing animals for meat.
However, contrary to popular belief, Tibetans are not traditionally vegetarian, and are in fact heavy meat eaters, with an emphasis on yak.
The environment of the Tibetan Plateau is not conducive to raising vegetables, so Tibetan diets have traditionally focused on barley, dairy products and meat, when the household could afford it.
Tibetans do traditionally eat some veggies, but only hardy vegetables can survive in Tibet, like turnips, cabbage, carrots, radishes, potato, mustard and green onion.
With the increase of hot-houses in modern-day Tibet, there are many more vegetables available inside Tibet. And with the Tibetan diaspora spread throughout India and the whole world, a significant number of Tibetans have turned to vegetarianism for ethical and health reasons.
Mistake #3: The Land of Snows is full of snow
The video above shows you a relatively rare sight of Lhasa fully covered in snow. Tibetans in Lhasa remarked on the unusual amount of snow this year.
Actually, the Land of Snows is not all that snowy except in the higher mountain elevations.
In the more populated areas, like Lhasa, for example, you can have cold, clear weather in winter, but not very much snow.
And summer can be surprisingly warm, even hot.
Having said that, it is entirely possible to encounter snow on the numerous high passes in Tibet, at any time of year.
Mistake #4: Tibet is closed to tourists
In normal, non-pandemic times, Tibet is in fact open to foreign visitors for most months of the year. (There do tend to be closures for much of February and all of March.)
See our post: When is Tibet Closed to Foreigners for more details.
All foreign travelers require both a Chinese visa and a special Tibet permit.
And you have to be on a tour (group or private) organized through an accredited travel agency.
If you’d like us to provide you with a recommendation for a reliable Tibet travel agency for a trip to Tibet, contact us here.
Mistake #5: Tibetans are frozen in time
For some reason there is a widespread misperception that Tibetans are sort of frozen in time and that they all wear traditional dress or monks robes.
The truth is that contemporary Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet are hugely diverse.
Inside Tibet, you do definitely see nomads and herders and pilgrims in traditional dress, and you do see monks and nuns in robes, but you’ll also see a bunch of folks in contemporary dress, from plain-Jane every day pants and shirts, to super-stylish ladies and gents, to office workers, to hipsters, to guides in real or knock-off gear from The North Face and Arcteryx.
There are Tibetan scientists, executives, doctors, computer programmers, artists, singers, actors, nurses, and businesspeople. Just like everywhere.
Mistake #6: You find Tibetans only in Tibet
A lot of people don’t realize that though a majority of Tibetans do still live in Tibet, many Tibetans live in communities spread around the world.
Exact numbers are extremely hard to know, due to the vagaries of the Chinese government and of the difficulty of counting the diaspora…
But according to the 2014 Census, cited in Wikipedia, here’s a rough breakdown:
- Inside Tibet, six million Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region plus the 10 Tibetan autonomous prefectures.
- Outside Tibet, approximately 150,000 Tibetans, living in:
- India 85,000 (down 44% according to the Indian government.)
- Nepal 16,000
- Bhutan 1,800
- Other Parts of the World 25,000
- Costa Rica
- United Kingdom
- United States
So that’s it for our fourth installment of the beginners guide for Tibet.
If you need help with a recommendation for a reliable Tibet travel agency to plan a trip to Tibet, contact us here.
Coming Soon — Fascinating Tibet Facts
Because this post covers A LOT of content, we are releasing it in sections.
We will release the subsequent sections roughly one per week.
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Meantime, drop us a comment and let us know if you learned anything new in the post today, or if you know of a common mistake that we didn’t list!
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