A country that was forbidden to travellers for centuries, whose inner culture has remained virtually untouched and whose history is seeded with religious and mysterious legends. Home to one of the world’s most dramatic mountain ranges, the Himalayas, and to one of the oldest and most mystical religions. Tibet is a country where travellers are greeted with open arms and treated as one of the family. The incredible openness of the people touches travellers alike and most experience an unexpected calmness when in the amazingly beautiful and sometimes surreal monasteries.
Tibet’s history is one of ferocious and brave warriors, with temples dating back to the 15th century. Between the 7th and 10th century this was the most imperial power in central Asia. It was around this time that Buddhism became the state religion and Tibet became ruled by spiritual leaders. Many aspects of the way of life and culture have remained unchanged for centuries and Tibetan nomads and pilgrims performing the naykor are still commonplace. Under the influence (even from exile) of the religious leader, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s flourishing culture has become one of the marvels of the world.
But it’s not just this wealth of culture and history that creates Tibet’s unmistakeable allure. The scenery in this isolated mountain kingdom is quite simply the most spectacular in the world. Soaring mountains and sweeping glaciers provide a stunning backdrop to the world’s most elevated temples, perched precariously on the slopes of the highest mountain range in the world – the high Himalaya.
Even with more of the trappings of modernity this isn’t a country to be taken lightly. Outside of the major cities is one of the harshest landscapes in the world. Divided into four plateaux, with the southern outer region being the most populous, the whole country averages over 4000m in height. Thus acclimatising is essential if you’re going to move at anything above a snail’s pace during your time in the country. The mountains carry their own dangers – the world’s fourteen highest peaks, all over 8000m in height – stand on the Tibetan plateau and are the province of only the most serious mountaineers. Even they don’t dare to challenge peaks such as Lhotse, Annapurna and Chomolungma after the monsoon breaks and even in fine weather people continue to lose their lives challenging Tibet’s most inaccessible pinnacles. The frisson of danger however means that there is never any shortage of people who come just to view these, the true roof of the world.
There is also a wide variety of climates from the Chang Tang region where it is virtually uninhabitable due to the harsh weather, to the Lhasa Valley where the weather is mild, dry and sunny from April to October. The best time to visit is in the spring before the wet season when the air is still sparkling fresh.
One of the most sacred cities in the world, Lhasa only opened its gates to foreigners in the 1980s. Many visitors are surprised by the gleaming modern stores and malls that have sprung up in the city in recent years but there are still plenty of old relics that make a trip here a unique experience. Just one is the awesome sight of the Potala, the palace of the Dalai Lama, which looks down over the city. At over 1,300 years old, the Jokhang Temple is one of the oldest and holiest shrines in Tibet. Visiting the temple is an amazing experience, particularly in the evening when the monks chant their prayers. At other times of day the temple is thronged with worshippers walking their koras and spinning the many prayer wheels. The Sakyamuni statue held within the temple is considered the holiest object in the whole of Tibet. Surrounding the temple is the Bakhor district, an open market and a great place to visit to pick up any special gifts or to find items that Tibetans themselves use on a daily basis. While here you should also visit the summer palace of the Dalai Lama, the Norbulingkha, and the Sera and Drepung monasteries, which are homes to two sects of Buddhism.
Shigatse and the Tashilunpo Monastery
At 4,000m above sea level, Shigatse (or Xigatse) is a big wide-open town getting used to greeting and accommodating weary travellers on their way to Lhasa. It is also the seat of the Panchen Lama who ranks close to the Dalai Lama. The undoubted highlight here is the Tashilunpo Monastery, which has been the traditional home of the Panchen Lama since the abbot of the temple, the teacher of the then Dalai Lama, was proclaimed the fourth incarnation of the Panchen Lama. The temple contains a great many treasures and the CNY55 admission fee is well worth it as the various buildings, statuary and artworks take a full day to get round. There are many highlights, of which the most memorable is probably the tomb of the fourth Panchen Lama, an 11m-high memorial in which, it is said, the Lama is entombed in a standing position. You should also look out for the vast Maitreya Buddha, although it is admittedly hard to miss at nearly 30m in height. Other tombs, chapels and some fabulous thankas fill the numerous other halls and buildings.
Tingri and Chomolangma
The starting point for most Everest expeditions, Tingri is home to the ruins of Xegar Dzong. At nearly 4,500m, Tingri is also near to the Ronbuk monastery that is claimed to be the highest in the world. From here a full day’s excursion can be enjoyed at the Everest base camp watching the carnival atmosphere as the climbers prepare for their challenge of climbing the highest mountain in the world.
The most religious mountain in Tibet, Mt Kailish (or Kang Rinpoche, “Precious Jewel of Snows” in Tibetan), is a view that no-one should miss. Pilgrims and their entire families walk around around its base, prostrating themselves at intervals. It’s a little off the beaten track but if you have the time it is well worth the trip, especially if you can walk some of it. You should note that the trek around the mountain is rather arduous and not to be undertaken lightly.
Legal accommodation for foreign tourists and travellers is restricted to specially designated government-approved lodgings. Some monasteries also provide accommodation but these will be extremely basic. Lhasa has large number of approved hotels but elsewhere you will have little choice. The normally Russian built hotels are nearly all non-heated, have limited hot water and the electricity may only come on at set times. You should also note that hotels are always honeypots for hangers-on, beggars and people trying to make a fast buck. Black market moneychangers who accost you in such places offer extremely poor exchange rates as well as breaking the law.
Since 1999 new regulations require travellers to book their initial accommodation in Lhasa with a tour operator before entering Tibet. This obviously restricts your choice as to price and location. Consequently do not think you can simply turn up at a hotel and expect a bed. Even in the capital you can expect slightly rundown accommodation although the Lhasa Hotel for one makes an effort to rise above the standard and offers a good quality of accommodation and service. Elsewhere, prices are low but so are standards, even among the more popular hotels.
Note that although some families in towns and cities throughout Tibet may be willing to put travellers up, this is illegal and will put your hosts at risk after your departure.
To and From the Airport
Most travellers flying into Lhasa airport will be with tour groups, so transport will have been arranged already. It is more than likely that this will be in the form of Land Cruisers (that go all over Tibet) or small mini-buses that would take you on the short and pleasant drive to the city prices start from CNY20 per person.
Local taxis will take you into the city should you need them for less than CNY120-150. Otherwise catch one of the usually rather crowded mini-buses. They run fixed routes between the city and the airport but they stop pretty much anywhere along the way. The attendant on board will collect your CNY2 fare.
An alternative to flying directly into Tibet is to fly into Kathmandu airport (Nepal) or into one of the nearby Chinese airports and then be driven into Tibet.
Lhasa is now connected by the newly extended rail link from Quinghau, which at it’s highest point of 5,072 meters above sea level makes it the highest railway line in the world. As you may imagine the scenery along this route is nothing short of spectacular, with alpine lakes, snow capped mountains and grasslands teeming with wildlife. It’s possible to catch the train from a number of cities on route, including Beijing, Chongqing, Xining, and Chengdu, journey time from Beijing is 48 hours, and costs CNY1262.
Public transport in Tibet is very unreliable and can be costly. The roads from Lhasa to Shigatse and out of Tibet to Golmud in the province of Quinghai are open to all travellers although for other places especially coming into Tibet you will need to obtain a permit before buying a bus ticket. Catching a train to Golmud from Hong Kong or Chengdu is possible and would then require you to either get a public bus to Lhasa or wait for a travel company to get enough travellers together to hire a bus, which could work out cheaper.
Lhasa’s bus station is located in the west of the town on Minzu Lu. Although public buses do exist you are prohibited from catching a bus that travels outside the tolerated zone of tourism in the territory – namely the area surrounding Lhasa. However, foreigners are allowed to buy tickets for some public buses, and there is even a kiosk devoted to tourist ticket sales. Restrictions on travel throughout Tibet are imposed and lifted with regularity so it is advisable to check with the Chinese embassy in your country before visiting if planning to travel alone. Tour groups can normally cut through some of the bureaucracy, and if you want to travel outside of Lhasa and its immediate locale it is often easier hopping on an organised tour.
A Chinese tourist visa allowing free travel throughout the People’s Republic does not permit free access to Tibet. To travel to Tibet you need a Chinese Visa PLUS an Alien Travel Permit. These can usually be obtained via tour operators or Chinese embassies but it is advisable to check your status before planning a trip. The Alien Travel Permit will allow you passage through Tibet or via air to Lhasa. Once in the capital you can explore the immediate locale freely, but exploring the rest of Tibet independently requires another permit, rarely given to individuals.
In Lhasa itself a small network of mini-buses form a public transport system of sorts. The most useful is probably the number 5 which runs from the minibus stop on Yuthok Lu to Sera monastery. Most have a conductor on board who will take your fare. The public buses charge CNY2 for each ride.
The general quality of roads in Tibet is poor. In towns there will usually be a couple of miles of tarmac or concrete but outside of the bigger settlements it is more than likely to be dirt or stone tracks which are corrugated and pot holed.
This can be very uncomfortable for travellers especially over long trips. Sudden stretches of tarmac in the middle of nowhere will also be a good indication that you are coming up to a checkpoint. The rural landscape of the majority of the country does not easily lend itself to exploration, and in many places the only way to penetrate the interior is via trekking.
Car rental is impossible but you can hire a driver with a vehicle. Hire prices vary but on average expect to pay around USD20-30 a day. Note that if you’re planning on it, hitch-hiking is illegal and drivers face heavy fines if caught.
It is possible to find taxis in Lhasa at least. The easiest way is to get the hotel to arrange one. Stopping one on the street may be difficult and dangerous, and you should look out for newly arrived Chinese drivers who quite often have as little idea of where they’re going as you do.
Like all Asian countries the prices vary and a common trick is to pretend the meter isn’t working (if they have one). Arrange a price before you set off and, if sightseeing, make sure the driver will pick you up at a set time. In smaller towns rickshaws replace taxis, and are a fun way of getting around.
Outside of Lhasa, there are few shops other than food stalls or garages. You may find some markets in bigger towns such as Lhasa, Gyangtse and Shigatse depending on the day and season you visit. The Barkhor Market in Lhasa is the best place to go for buying gifts and pretty much anything Asian. Merchants here sell domestic and imported goods ranging from foodstuffs to bolts of cloth. Tour guides will know the best places to go and, importantly, will also be available to advise you on the prices that you should expect to pay.
In Lhasa you will find several more modern shopping centres and department stores. Modern stores usually encased in glittering green glass are becoming more familiar sights as Lhasa’s lightning rate of development shows no sign of abating. Yuthok Lu is the centre for such activity and in the Lhasa Department Store it boasts the largest and most modern store in the city. A concrete and glass building its modern lines often come as a shock to tourists. Inside it’s full of imported goods and general items, including clothes and food. For tourists planning to tour Tibet a visit here to stock up is a must, elsewhere in the territory there is nowhere comparable.
What to Buy
Most monasteries will sell small items such as prayer flags, singing bowls, small prayer-wheels and bells. Some of these can be very old and you should be aware that the export of genuine antiques is illegal. Colourful Tibetan rugs and hangings make excellent decorations when you return home but vary in size, quality and price.
You should note that jewellery is usually of poor manufacture and the more claims made as to gems’ worth, the more likely that the stones are fakes. Inspect workmanship carefully before purchasing. If you do find good quality merchandise, such as belt buckles, necklaces or the ornate traditional knives it is often advisable to try to get your guide to purchase the item for you. Local merchants put massive mark-ups on expensive items when they notice that a tourist is interested, quite often so significant that even for Westerners the item becomes prohibitively expensive – up to five or six times the “local” price is not uncommon.
In a reverse of the usual practice of souvenir buying some foreigners take pictures of the Dalai Lama into the country to distribute among the local Tibetans, many of whom covet such pictures of the exiled erstwhile ruler of Tibet. It should be noted that such activity is illegal and attempting to bring images of the Dalai Lama into Tibet can result in immediate deportation. You may be asked for such images by locals although some of these are officials attempting to catch foreigners in the act of distributing pictures of the prelate.
It’s much better to stick to less costly items such as fur hats or leather belts made from the hide of the shaggy beast of burden, the yak. These are normally made to a high standard, although the traditional Tibetan herder’s hat might not seem like such a good fashion statement once you get it home.
More run-of-the-mill souvenirs include the usual range of small Buddha ornaments and the traditional “thanka”, small stylised hand-paintings depicting traditional deities. Poor quality thanka are extremely cheap. The higher the quality the better the colours and artwork but prices increase accordingly.
Unless you’re in a supermarket or suchlike “haggling” is a way of life as it is in any Asian country. Don’t haggle and you’ll usually pay at least twice what the object is worth and a third more than the seller expects to get. Whatever you’re trying to buy it’s commonly worth around half of the initial asking price.
Food & Drink
Lhasa and Shigatse are the best places in Tibet to eat with a wide variety of restaurants catering for most tastes. Naturally there is a heavy Chinese influence on the cuisine nowadays, but for this you should be thankful as Tibetan cuisine is famously frugal and bland. Tsampa (barley and flour) is the staple food of Tibetans along with the always-present salted butter tea. Thankfully jasmine tea is always available too and certainly helps quench the thirst, and remove the taste of the barely palatable alternative should you be tempted to try it. It is wise to always carry bottled water on long trips and keep hydrated as this will help with the altitude.
The choice of fresh vegetables is limited but many Tibetan meals are now commonly supplemented with imported Chinese food so fish is now available in the markets. Tibetan barley beer, Chang, is a mild, slightly sweet and sour mixture and contains little alcohol. It is worth tasting but also wise to keep in mind that it will have a greater effect at altitude. Moonshine is also occasionally available but is extremely potent.
Another suggestion is to buy dried fruit or biscuits to carry. Many hotels serve food that they think Westerners will like. This can sometimes be a strange concoction and it may be better to ask your guide where they would eat. Breakfast can be especially substandard. Tea houses on the road will often provide a better standard of food than hotels although choice will usually be restricted. Use common sense when buying from markets or open food stalls. Health issues are not as strict as in the EU.
Thankfully in Lhasa you should have no problem finding a variety of food in the city’s seemingly hundreds of eateries. It is common to eat on the move rather than in a sit-down restaurant and to this end there are literally countless opportunities to obtain filling snacks in Lhasa’s shopping streets and markets. Sichuan style cooking dominates although explore the Desenge Lu night market and you’ll unearth flavours from all over China. Some of the newer hotels such as the Lhasa do have Western restaurants that offer good quality food but prices are high, especially when you compare it to the handful of renminbi that gets you a filling meal elsewhere. Some of the most interesting cuisine draws on the flavours of India and you’ll find flat bread with fillings such as spicy daals and curry sold as snacks.
East Beijing Lu is the best place to go for sit-down restaurants. As well as the hotel restaurants, favourites include the Lhasa Kitchen which offers traditional Tibetan cooking. For something a bit more familiar, albeit with a twist, head for one of the backpackers’ haunts to try a yak burger, a true amalgam of East and West.
On guided tours, entertainment in the form of cultural evenings will be provided but in addition to these some of the larger cities have disco halls and karaoke bars. Craft workshops such as carpet factories are another frequent stopping point on guided tours and can be very informative on the cultural make-up of Tibet as well as the product.
Tibetan festivals, such as the Losar (New Year), Gyantse Horse Racing Festival or the Chökor Duchen Festival (to celebrate the Buddha’s first sermon) can be an amazing spectacle, as can the various regular ceremonies in the monasteries. In Lhasa you will find entertainment is restricted to small venues in hotels or restaurants with the Mad Yak being the most famous place offering this kind of tourist oriented entertainment. Tibetan opera is noticeably different to the Chinese version and worth seeing if you get the chance on your visit. It has an Indian influence that is lacking from Chinese opera performed further north in the People’s Republic.
Cinemas are around in the bigger towns although the Chinese favour dubbing over subtitling so check before you buy a ticket. If you’re tempted to try watching a Chinese movie be aware that the plots are often impenetrable without fluent Chinese and a good grounding in Chinese culture, history and mythology. In Lhasa some of the restaurants and hotels favoured by backpackers and travellers show Western videos on large screens. The cinemas in the capital also sometimes show Western movies although the pirate shows tend to be more popular as the cinema lags behind releases in the video and DVD markets. The Lhasa Cinema is located on Yutuo Lu 30 (Tel: +86 (0)891-634-8855).
Lhasa’s nightlife is very lively, mainly being fuelled by foreign trekkers and tourists passing through the city. It might come as a cultural disappointment for Westerners seeking some kind of spiritual enlightenment to find locals eager to pile into Central Beijing Lu’s many pubs and bars to listen to the latest Western music. There are some largish discos as well, although the karaoke bars still prove the most popular. You will find them literally everywhere and they are all much of a muchness. However, you should be warned that Lhasa has something of a reputation of a free and easy city and there are more than a few bars that offer more robust entertainment than the chance to sing along to cheesy Euro-pop. If wandering around the livelier streets at night you should make sure you know what sort of establishment you’re heading for.
[first written in 2000 – all correct at time of writing]