Tibet: A Beginner’s Guide [2021]

This is our complete beginner’s guide to Tibet for 2021.

Tibet: A Beginner's Guide

In 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
  • Fascinating Tibet facts
  • Famous Tibetan people in history
  • The 5 most famous Tibetans living now
Monks at Shalu Monastery in Tibet

Let’s jump right in…

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?

Mount Kailash and major Asian river sources on a map of the Tibetan plateau.
From www.meltdownintibet.com.

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?

Tibetan Money
Tibetan currency from about the 1930’s.

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?

Tibet: A Beginner's Guide

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?

Om mani padme hum
Om mani padme hum: An ancient Tibetan mantra written in Tibetan script.

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.”

Can I travel to Tibet?

Tibet: Travelers in Kham with guide
Travelers with a Tibetan guide in the Kham region of Eastern 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: Permits for expats currently living in China are now open! Know one knows yet when permits will open for travelers not already living in China. However, if you want to travel to Tibet you can pre-book travel for a later date. By doing this, 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's Gyatso la pass in summer.
Tibet’s high-altitude Gyatso La Pass in summer.

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.

Lhasa Tibet Jokhang Square
A Tibetan girl and her grandfather in front of the Jokhang Temple.

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?

Everest Base Camp Trip: Karo La pass along the way
On an Everest Base Camp from Lhasa, you can pass by the Karo la pass, and this little hidden glacier.

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.

Learn more on how to get to Tibet from China here >>

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.

Learn more on how to travel to Tibet from Nepal here >>

How high is Tibet above sea level?

Topographic map of Tibet and surrounding areas
Topographic map of Tibet and the surrounding area, with the red areas above about 4500 m/ 14,750 ft, and gold areas above 2000 m/6500 ft. (Image from Darekk2 via Wikimedia Commons.)

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?

Tibet "sky" train: Scenery on the way from Xining to Lhasa
A view from the Tibet “sky” train on the way from Xining to Lhasa.

Here’s a very brief list of some of the more popular things that people do in Tibet:

Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.
Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, former home of the Dalai Lamas.

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?

Geo-Politics

Mount Everest Map: Location of Mount Everest on the Tibet-Nepal border.
Location of Mount Everest on the Tibet-Nepal border.

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.

Water

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.

Minerals

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.

Tibetan Buddhism

Nuns Practicing Buddhism
Nuns practicing in an afternoon session at the main nuns prayer hall at Yarchen Gar in Eastern Tibet.

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 Dalai Lama of Tibet

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.

Tibetan deity of compassion, Chenrezig/Avalokitesvara: Bodhisattva of Compassion
Chenrezig (Also known as Avalokitesvara) Bodhisattva of Compassion (From hand-made applique thangkha created by Tibetan artisans at the Norbulingkha Institute near Dharamsala.)

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

Yaks in Kham, Eastern Tibet.
Yaks carrying lumber in Kham, Eastern Tibet.

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.

View of Mount Everest on the Tibet side, from Rongbuk Monastery
View of Mount Everest from Rongbuk Monastery on the Tibet side.

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.

Tibetan Lake Yamdrok Tso
Winter view of Lake Yamdrok Yumtso.

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.

Potala Palace in Lhasa Tibet.

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.

Momos

The Tibetan dumplings called momos are wildly popular throughout the Tibetan world, but increasingly, have become a global phenomenon for non-Tibetan foodies.

Momos (Tibetan Dumplings) in Tibet

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.

Get Lobsang Wangdu’s beloved momos recipe here >>

Lobsang Wangdu's Tibetan momos recipee.
Lobsang Wangdu making momos — Tibetan dumplings.

Tibetan Art

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

Green Tara
Green Tara, from an applique thangkha created by Tibetan artisans at the Norbulingkha Institute.

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.

Giant thangkha of the Buddha Shakyamuni at the Shoton Festival, Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, Tibet.
Giant thangkha of the Buddha Shakyamuni at the Shoton Festival, Drepung Monastery in Lhasa.

A favorite subject for thangkhas are mandalas.

Read on…

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.

Sand Mandalas

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.

Monks are making Sand Mandalas

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

Visiting in Tibet: Jokhang Temple from Jokhang Square
The front of the Jokhang Temple with Tibetans walking the Barkhor kora, in Lhasa Tibet.

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 from Rongbuk Monastery in Tibet
View of Mount Everest from Rongbuk Monastery in Tibet

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

Mount Kailash Trekking: A view of Kailash from the Barkha Plain
Mount Kailash Trekking: A view of Kailash from the Barkha Plain

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

The view from Dzogchen Monastery’s Pematang Retreat Center, with Mount Dorje Ziltrom rising behind.
The view from Dzogchen Monastery’s Pematang Retreat Center, with Mount Dorje Ziltrom rising behind.

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 Tso in Tibet
Yolanda at the Kamba La Pass with a view of Yamdrok Tso.

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

Pelchor Chode Monastery in Gyantse, Tibet.

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

Tibet Glacier: Altitude Sickness in Tibet: How Bad are the Symptoms?

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 Monastery in Tibet
View from the Wangpo Ri above Ganden Monastery in Tibet.

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

Two young monks at larung gar
Two young monks at larung gar

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

Tashilumpo Monastery in Shigatse, Tibet.
Tashilumpo Monastery in Shigatse, Tibet.

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

Confusing Tibet and Nepal: The scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones meets Marion in a Nepali village.
Screengrab from the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark of the Nepali village where Indiana Jones meets Marion.

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

Yak noodle soup in Pelyul, Kham in Eastern Tibet.
A very common type of yak noodle soup in Pelyul, Kham in Eastern Tibet.

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

Meg Moser on Ganden Samye Trek in Tibet.
Our friend and Yolanda’s travel companion Meg Moser on Ganden Samye Trek in Tibet.

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

Tibetans walking the Barkhor in Lhasa.

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

Nechung Oracle Leading a Prayer at Tibetan Association of Northern California Community Center.
Nechung Oracle Leading a Prayer at Tibetan Association of Northern California Community Center.

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
      • Australia
      • Brazil
      • Canada
      • Costa Rica
      • France
      • Mexico
      • Norway
      • Mongolia
      • Germany
      • Switzerland
      • United Kingdom
      • United States

FASCINATING TIBET FACTS

Tibetan boys at Khempo Phalo teaching in Darlag, in Kham, Eastern Tibet.
Tibetan boys at Khempo Phalo teaching in Darlag, in Kham, Eastern Tibet.

It’s pretty well known that Tibet is full of mountains, that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is from Tibet, that Mt. Everest is located in Tibet, and that if you visit Tibet you will likely see yaks.

But there is plenty, as we’ve been saying, that folks don’t know.

In this section we’ll look at just a few fascinating Tibet facts that are not at all well known.

Let’s jump in:

#1: Tibetan Names are Both Common and Unusual

Tibetan name Tashi written in Uchen Tibetan script
Tibetan name Tashi written in Uchen Tibetan script

Tibetan names are fascinating in all kinds of ways…

Tibetan first names typically have two parts

So, a name like “Lobsang Wangdu,” is not a first and last name. Instead, it is the equivalent of Jim-Bob or Mary-Ann.

Among Tibetans, he is typically called “Lobsang Wangdu.” There is generally no middle name.

This leads to our second point…

It’s fairly rare for Tibetans to use a specific last name

Young Khampa woman in Darlag.
Young Khampa woman in Darlag.

Unless the family has an aristocratic background, the last name may be a clan name (particularly in Kham, in Eastern Tibet), or no last name at all. Even if there is an ancestral family name, it’s not necessarily common to use it. This was the case with Lobsang Wangdu, who has a family name but had never really used it in any official way.

This causes all kinds of problems when Tibetans move to other countries, and many Tibetans end up using the second part of their first name as a family name.

Most Tibetan names have auspicious or spiritual meanings

Some common Tibetan names and their meanings.

Here are some common examples:

  • Dolma — The Bodhisattva Tara
  • Lobsang — Noble-minded, kind-minded
  • Tashi — auspicious, fortunate
  • Tenzin — holder of the dharma
  • Tsering — long life


Here’s a nice page with common Tibetan names and their meanings.

Some of the most common Tibetan names refer to the day of the week

Tibetan visitors at Drak Yerpa Hermitage
Tibetan visitors at Drak Yerpa Hermitage

It used to be common to name a child after the day of the week he or she was born on, like:

  • Dawa — Monday
  • Mingmar — Tuesday
  • Lhakpa — Wednesday
  • Phurbu — Thursday
  • Passang — Friday
  • Pemba — Saturday
  • Nyima — Sunday


All of these names are still very popular but we have the sense that it is not so common to name the child from the day of the week they were born.

Tibetan children are often named by lamas

High Tibetan lama at Yarchen Gar in Kham
High Tibetan lama at Yarchen Gar in Kham

New parents will often ask their favorite lama (spiritual teacher) to name their child, and the lamas typically offer a name that includes a part of his (or sometimes her) own name.

In the lifetime of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, many, many Tibetans have asked His Holiness for a name, and this is why there are so very many Tibetans with “Tenzin” as part of their name.

There are relatively few Tibetan names in general

If you know many Tibetan people, you almost certainly know a Tashi, a Dawa, a Tenzin, a Lobsang, a Dolma, a Thinley, or a Nyima. What makes the names more unique is the second part of the name, which is why Tibetans usually say the whole name (or a nickname, though we don’t have space to go into that topic!)

Men and women can have same name

Many Tibetan names can be used for males or females, though there are some names that are particular to one or the other, like Dolma or Lhamo, for women.

Different combinations of names can indicate male or female, too. Lobsang Wangdu is male, while Lobsang Wangmo is a girl.

Tibetans are not very attached to their names

Tibetans traditionally don’t have the same attachment to their names as westerners do. In fact, a lot of Tibetan babies aren’t given a name right away. And, if something unfortunate happens to the child, the parents may just give him or her a new name, as a way to start fresh.

#2: “Yak” Butter Tea, Barley Dough, and Sweet Rice are a Thing

Po Cha: Tibetan Butter Tea
Po Cha: Tibetan Butter Tea

Tibetans have some food preferences that are little heard of in the western world, and quite weird for non-Tibetan palates.

One is their beloved butter tea, drunk in copious amounts, which is typically made of “yak” butter, black tea and salt. We put yak in quotation marks because the butter is from the female of the species, usually called a dri, while only the male is called a yak.

"Pa": Tibetan tsampa dish made with tsampa, butter tea, dried cheese and sometimes sugar.
“Pa”: Tibetan tsampa dish made with tsampa, butter tea, dried cheese and sometimes sugar.

Another traditional favorite now quite popular even among health-conscious younger Tibetans, is “pa.” This is dough made of the flour from roasted barley, plus butter tea and sometimes dried “yak” cheese, and sugar.

Another food that is not typical for westerners is a simple sweet rice often eaten on holidays or auspicious occasions, called dresil. It’s just white rice, with butter, a bit of sugar, some dried fruits (often raisins) and maybe nuts. In Tibet, droma is usually added. That is a tiny sweetish tuber, similar to sweet potato in taste, but really small.

For a quick summary of Tibetan food on our How to Visit Tibet post.

And if you’d like to try some recipes yourself, you can buy our cookbook — Tibetan Home Cooking — here.

Sweet Rice Dish — Dresil
Dresil Recipe: Tibetan Sweet Rice.

#3: Tibetans stick out their tongues to show a mix of respect and mild shyness

This habit dates, it is said, back to the time of the controversial ninth-century king, Lang Darma. Known as a cruel anti-Buddhist, Lang Darma is said to have had a black tongue.

After his death, Tibetans would stick out their tongues in greeting to prove to strangers that they were not the reincarnated king.

Statue of Tibetan King Lang Darma at Drak Yerpa
Statue of Tibetan King Lang Darma at Drak Yerpa in Tibet.

Over the time the habit has evolved to be used not so much in greeting, but more as a sign of respect or mild shyness.

Tibetans only do this very occasionally, by the way, and they don’t stick their tongues way out.

We can think of a couple of examples.

One, Tibetans might stick out their tongues a bit when meeting a high lama.

Two, if you had done something mildly embarrassing, like showing up much later than everyone else for something, the others might tease you, and you might stick out your tongue.

In the case of embarrassment, it’s also quite common to lightly rub the back of your neck. We don’t know where this comes from!

FAMOUS TIBETAN PEOPLE IN HISTORY

For a taste of Tibet history, we’ll look here at some of Tibet’s most legendary figures.

Guru Rinpoche – Padmasambhava of Tibet statue at Chimpu Hermitage chapel
Statue of Guru Rinpoche – Padmasambhava – at one of the uppermost Chimpu hermitage chapels. Photo by YoWangdu, December 2019.

You’ll notice that all of them are strongly related to Tibetan Buddhism, and this tells you a key fact of the history of Tibet.

Let’s jump in:

King Songtsen Gampo (~569- 649 CE)

King Songtsen Gampo statue in Drak Yerpa hermitage in Tibet
A small statue of King Songtsen Gampo statue at Drak Yerpa hermitage in Tibet. Photo by YoWangdu, December 2019.

After his father, King Namri Songsten, was poisoned, Songsten Gampo ascended the throne, at age 13, and is credited with expanding his father’s rule and founding the Tibetan Empire.

Nepal and China both offered him brides from their royal families, and these women were likely influential in Songsten’s Gampo’s conversion to Buddhism. The Chinese princess, Wencheng Gongzhu, is said to have brought the famous Jowo Rinpoche statue of the Buddha (in Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple) as part of her dowry.

Under Songsten Gampo’s rule:

  • Tibet’s first Buddhist temples are built
  • Tibetan alphabet, based on Sanskrit, is created by Thomi Sambhota
  • Code of laws was created
  • Tibet became a major power in Central Asia

You will find images of King Songtsen Gampo throughout Tibet. It is easy to identify statues of him by a turban with a small Amitabha Buddha emerging from the top of it.

If you need help with a recommendation for a reliable Tibet travel agency to plan a trip to Tibet, contact us here.

King Trisong Detsen (Enthroned 755 CE)

Trisong Detsen at Mindroling Monastery in Lhoka Tibet
Trisong Detsen at Mindroling Monastery in Lhoka Tibet. Photo by YoWangdu, December 2019.

The second of the three famous Dharma Kings who established Buddhism in Tibet, Trisong Detsen is famously responsible for inviting Indian Buddhist masters through whom Tibetan Buddhism took root throughout Tibet.

The first of these was Shantarakshita, who began construction of the first Tibetan monastery, Samye. Another was the charismatic Padmasambhava (see below).

Trisong Detsen’s wife was famous too…

Yeshe Tsogyal (~757-817 CE)

Yeshe Tsogyal of Tibet – Detail of Thangkha of Medicine Buddha and Padmasambhava from the Wellcome Library Collection
In this detail of a thangkha of the Medicine Buddha, you see Yeshe Tsogyal seated to the right of Padmasambhava (center), and another consort, Mandarava on the left. From the Wellcome Library Collection (https://catalogue.wellcomelibrary.org/record=b1465531)

Although she is commonly thought to have been a wife or consort of Trisong Detsen, and later as a consort of the famous Padmasambhava, Yeshe Tsogyal was an accomplished Buddhist master in her own right.

As princess, she reputedly studied Buddhism under Padmasambhava, and became his primary consort.

She is attributed with having attained enlightenment in her lifetime and is considered in some texts to have have obtained the power of non-forgetting. This power enabled her to remember all the teachings that she had heard and record them as terma, hidden teachings which are revealed later for future students of the Dharma.

She is known by some as the Mother of Tibetan Buddhism.

See this excellent Treasury of Lives article for more on Yeshe Tsogyal >>

Padmasambhava — Guru Rinpoche (8th c. CE)

Guru Rinpoche – Padmasambhava at Mindroling in Lhoka Tibet
Guru Rinpoche – Padmasambhava at Mindroling in Lhoka Tibet. Photo by YoWangdu, December 2019.

Considered by Tibetans to be the second Buddha, Padmasambhava was a renowned Indian Buddhist tantric master who was invited to Tibet by King Trisong Detsen around 755 CE.

He is thought to have battled and won the local spirits of the Bon religion that preceded and resisted the spread of Buddhism throughout Tibet.

Commonly known as Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava, played a major role in the completion of Samye Monastery.

He established the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and is revered and beloved across Tibet.

In Tibet, you will recognize images of Padmasambhava with wide-open, piercing eyes, a mustache, and a hat representing a five-petalled lotus flower. In his right hand, he holds a vajra, and in his left a skull-cap full of the nectar of deathless wisdom. (For an introduction to a reliable Tibet travel agency to plan a trip to Tibet, contact us here.)

Guru Rinpoche – Padmasambhava at Mindroling in Lhoka Tibet (1)
Guru Rinpoche – Padmasambhava at Mindroling in Lhoka Tibet. Photo by YoWangdu, December 2019.

King Gesar of Ling (possibly born 1027 CE)

King Gesar of Ling statue in Jyekundo Tibet
Statue of King Gesar of Ling statue in Jyekundo Tibet. Photo by YoWangdu, October 2015.

The legendary superhuman warrior-king hero of the Gesar of Ling epic has survived in Tibet for almost a thousand years as a living oral tradition.

It’s not certain that Ling lived as an actual historical figure but some scholars argue that he did, and was born in 1027.

The epic likely has its roots in pre-Buddhist Bon traditions, but over time accumulated strong Buddhist themes.

King Gesar’s victories can be read as representing the fearless spiritual defeat of all the obstacles on the path to enlightenment.

In Tibet King Gesar is depicted as riding a horse and dressed in armor and a helmet with pennants and streamers, and often surrounded by other horsemen.

The Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling by Alexandra David-Neel >>

Tsongkhapa (1357-1419 CE)

Je Tsongkhapa at Chotang Monastery Tibet
Je Tsongkhapa flanked by his disciples Kedrup Je and Yapse Je, at Chotang Monastery Tibet. Photo by Yowangdu, December 2019.

Often called Je Rinpoche, Tsongkhapa is among the greatest Tibetan Buddhist masters and founded the major Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.

He founded also Ganden Monastery, one of the “great three” Gelug monasteries of Tibet.

Je Rinpoche is revered for his massively influential text Lamrim Chenmo or The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. He composed this in a hermitage at Reting Monastery.

You will see images of Je Tsongkhapa all over Tibet, and you can identify them by:

  • A yellow pointed pandit’s hat indicating the Gelugpa school of Buddhism with long flaps
  • Seated in full lotus meditative position on a lotus seat and a moon disc
  • His left hand holding the stem of a lotus flower. (The flower itself will be at his ear level.) On the lotus is the Perfection of Wisdom text topped with the wish fulfilling jewel symbol.
  • His right hand holding the stem of another lotus. On that lotus, a flaming wisdom sword of Manjushri.
  • His hand positions can be various.

“The Great Fifth” Dalai Lama (1642 CE)

Statuette of the 5th Dalai Lama of Tibet at the Museum of Ethnology Vienna
Statuette of the 5th Dalai Lama of Tibet. Mongolia, 19th century CE, at the Museum of Ethnology Vienna. Photo by Gryffindor, on Wikimedia Commons.

Among the Dalai Lama’s, the fifth — Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso — is particularly admired and well known.

As the first Dalai Lama to be the political ruler of Tibet, he re-unified Tibet, and created strategic alliances with both the Mongols and the Chinese Qing Dynasty.

But he was also a great thinker and writer, and wrote both religious and historical texts, in addition to an autobiography.

He began the construction of the magnificent Potala Palace but died before it was completed. His regent famously hid his death for 15 years while completing the palace, consolidating power and arranging for the succession of the 16th Dalai Lama!

For a brief history of Tibet see this excellent BBC timeline >>

THE 5 MOST FAMOUS LIVING TIBETANS

Choosing just five of the most famous living Tibetans presents some real challenges.

People who are famous in Tibetan society are not necessarily known outside of Tibetan circles.

Then, there are differences also in who is famous among Tibetans living inside Tibet and those outside Tibet.

We have tried to base the list on those people that most or all Tibetans would know, and who are well known in broader circles as well.

Let’s jump in:

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet
His Holiness the Dalai Lama during the Jangchup Lamrim teachings in Mundgod, December 2014. Photo by YoWangdu.

He is the winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, the US Congressional Gold Medal, and more honorary doctorates than you can count. The current Dalai Lama is by far the most famous and beloved living Tibetan.

To learn more, see our posts featuring His Holiness:

You may appreciate His Holiness’ own words, from our own 1996 interview with him, which we feel perfectly captures his spirit:

…my one most favorite prayer is: “So long as space remains and suffering of sentient beings is there, I will remain in order to serve.” It is that sentence which gives me inner strength. You see time does not matter. Eons and eons…limitless eons…don’t matter so long as in your life…there is some fulfillment…some purpose. And the purpose means helping others, supporting, serving others.

His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa

The Gyalwa Karmapa of Tibet
The 17th Karmapa at a teaching in Richmond, California in 2015. Photo by YoWangdu.

His Holiness the Karmapa heads the Karma Kagyu sub-school of the major Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Born in Tibet in 1985, the present Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, was recognized at 7 years old as the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa and enthroned in Tsurphu Monastery near Lhasa.

When he was 15 years old he made a dramatic escape to India that made headlines around the world, jumping from the roof of his monastery to the ground and a jeep waiting to drive him on backroads to the border area of Tibet and Nepal.

The Karmapa is known particularly for his interest in art and in preserving Buddhist texts in digital format.

Find an excellent short biography of the Karmapa’s life here >>

Venerable Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö

Venerable Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö. Photo credit to Luminous Wisdom.

Perhaps the most famous living Tibetan currently inside Tibet is Venerable Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö.

Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö was born in the Gardze area of Kham, in Eastern Tibet, and is the foremost teacher at Larung Gar, a massive Buddhist institute in Serthar, Tibet.

At 22 he became ordained as a monk at Larung Gar, where he was a personal student of the great Nyingma spiritual master Kyabje Khenchen Jigme Phuntsok.

Beginning with a 1994 trip to Singapore, Khenpo has traveled internationally to teach Buddhism.

Well known as a long-time vegetarian and as the “Life-Release Khenpo,” he sponsors annual events to save huge numbers of yaks, goats and fish from slaughter. He’s also committed to environmental protection, the preservation of the Tibetan language, the establishment of schools, and AIDS prevention.

My lama told me that the only meaning and value in our lives is cultivating and sharing love! I will never forget this for my whole life, and hopefully in all my future lives too!

Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö

See Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro’s biography here, with numerous pictures of him and his teacher, Khenchen Jigme Phuntsok >>

Ama Jetsun Pema

Ama Jetsun Pema of Tibet
Ama Jetsun Pema — “Mother of Tibet” with children in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2012.

Sister of the 14th Dalai Lama, Jetsun Pema la is much beloved in Tibetan society.

Tibetans call her “Ama,” meaning Mother Jetsun Pema.

This is because she created and led the Tibetan Children’s Villages (TCV) that has been home and family for thousands of orphaned Tibetan children.

In 1964, His Holiness asked her to manage the care and education of the many Tibetan orphans among the first groups of Tibetan refugees in India.

She ended up serving the TCV for 42 years, expanding it to include homes and schools for 15,000 Tibetan children and youths.

Jetsun Pema was also the first female Tibetan Minister, and served as a Minister of the Tibetan Cabinet.

Sikyong Lobsang Sangay

Sikyong Lobsang Sangay of the Central Tibetan Administration.
Sikyong Lobsang Sangay, President of the Central Tibetan Administration, in Berkeley, California in 2013. Photo by YoWangdu.

Lobsang Sangay first became well known as the second democratically elected head of the Cabinet of the Tibetan government in exile (the Central Tibetan Administration or CTA).

In Tibetan, Cabinet is Kashag, and its head is the Kalon Tripa.

During Lobsang Sangay’s first year in office, His Holiness requested that his own executive authority be transferred to the Kalon Tripa, who would thereafter be known as the Sikyong.

This remarkable and historic decision by His Holiness meant that Tibetans would be ruled for the first time in over 350 years by someone who was not a Dalai Lama, and importantly, that the new leader would be democratically elected.

He was born as a refugee in Darjeeling, India and became a US citizen after receiving a Fulbright Scholarship for Harvard Law School.

At Harvard, Lobsang Sangay earned both a basic law degree and a S.J.D. (Doctor of Juridical Science), the law school equivalent of a Ph.D. He’s an expert in international human rights law and Tibetan law.

In November 2020, Lobsang Sangay visited the White House, and became the first Tibetan leader of the CTA to do so in 60 years.


So that’s it for our 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.

Meantime, drop us a comment and let us know your favorite thing about Tibet!

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Updated on September 26, 2021. First published on December 6, 2020.

Your Tibet travel advisors, Lobsang and Yolanda

Most people who want to go to Tibet don't know how to get there or who to trust for help. We’re Lobsang Wangdu and Yolanda O’Bannon, and we help make Tibet travel more simple, safe and ethical so you can feel peace of mind about your trip. Learn more about us and YoWangdu here.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Bill & Kathy Cook says

    My wife and I ate at a Tibetan restaurant in Boston, USA. We asked the lovely waitress for tsampa in our butter tea. She was so delighted.

  2. Gitte Saravanja says

    When I first got acquainted with Lobsang la – I thought it was a salutation like Hello or something like it – it was first when I started sponsoring little monks that I figured it out ..
    As all 3 of them was named Lobsang too so 4 Lobsangs was difficult – so I ended up called them all the L’s – now I call them by what I thought ( up till now) was their “last” name – Thank you so much fir the clarification – I have known Lobsang la for 9 years – but he does have a real last name!!

  3. Fiona Clements-Russell says

    As ever, a fascinating insight into the world of Tibetan culture. Thank you Lobsang and Yolanda, stay safe and well. xXx

  4. Frank A. Lojewski says

    Well, nothing new for me. As to Tibetans abroad, we have a number of Tibetan temples in the city of Richmond, BC, including the magnificent Trangu temple. One item: when speaking of Tibet, I tend to think of the entire high plateau, not just the in Beijing created political unit. Consequently, getting into Tibet without permit is no issue for me. That said, all of China, including all of Tibet, is now close to foreign visitors due to the pandemic. It looks as if this situation will continue for some years in the future.

  5. Charlotte says

    Dear Lobsang and Yolanda,
    We very much enjoy reading your posts and look forward to realistically planning a trip to Tibet! Thank you 🥰
    We had some communication with you a while ago and had originally planned to come late spring 2020 – thankfully we didn’t book anything…
    We hope things will improve soon – in the meantime, take care and stay safe.
    We hope to visit your beautiful country in the near future! 🙂🥰
    With best wishes,
    Charlotte and Goran (from Montenegro)

    • Lobsang and Yolanda says

      Wonderful to hear from you Charlotte and Goran and so happy that the posts are helpful. We look forward to helping you when COVID abates. Be well!

  6. Paul says

    Hi,
    Everything mentioned in this article is true and very significant.

    Don’t forget to take the time to listen to their songs, music, and resonance of their Singing Bowls.

    Their Artwork is also full of meaning that it takes a long viewing to grasp just a handful of what is being explained by the Artist.

    TIBETANS are dedicated and extremely religious in their life and everything that they do reflect their belief.

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