TibetXīzàng 西藏

Capital
Lāsà 拉萨 (Lhasa)
Divisions
7 prefectures, 73 counties, 692 townships
Area
1,228,400 sq km (474,300 sq mi)
Population
3,002,166
Ethnic composition
Tibetan – 92.8%; Han – 6.1%; Monpa – 0.3%; Hui – 0.3%; others – 0.5%

Tibet is the highest region on the planet, with an average elevation of 4,900 m (16,000 ft). Apart from the breathtaking Himalayas that make up the geographic face of this land, the heart and soul of the plateau is found within the people and their unique religious credence. Tibetan Buddhism, which mixes elements of Bon Animism and Buddhist philosophy, developed almost entirely by itself with little influence from the outside world, in large part because of the region’s impenetrable geography.

History

Songtsen Gampo (604 – 650 CE), the first Emperor of Tibet, forever altered the history, culture and identity of his people when in 640 CE he married Chinese Princess Wencheng of the powerful Tang Dynasty. The Chinese claim she was the first to introduce Buddhism to Tibet. On the Tibetan side, the claim is that their Buddhist roots didn’t derive from China, and that Songtsen Gampo was the one who introduced the religion to his kingdom after learning about it in Nepal.

Regardless of its origins, Buddhism became Tibet’s official religion around the 7th century, and it was used as a tool to consolidate power throughout Western China and Central Asia. In the 700s, Tibet controlled a massive empire stretching from the doorstep of the Tang Dynasty in Chang’an (modern day Xi’an) to Kyrgyzstan, and from Urumqi to Bangladesh.

In the late-800s, Imperial Tibet collapsed and entered the Era of Fragmentation, a time when competing local warlords took control of territories without an intact centralized government. The Era of Fragmentation, in other words, was Tibet’s equivalent of China’s Warring States Period and Europe’s Dark Ages.

After the collapse of the short-lived Mongolian-dominated Yuan Dynasty (which briefly united rivaling China and Tibet under one flag), Je Tsongkhapa in the late-14th century founded the Yellow Hat Sect of Buddhism. The Yellow Hat Sect, also known as the Gelugpa School, became the most prominent and influential sect of Tibet Buddhism on the plateau (most Tibetans today still identify with the Yellow Hat order).

While the word lama has long referred to a Tibetan Buddhist, it was in 1578 that dalai came about when a Mongolian monk gave the moniker to Sonam Gyatso, a high lama of the Yellow Hat Sect. Dalai, a Mongolian word meaning “ocean,” combined with lama to form the Dalai Lama – literally meaning “ocean of knowledge” or “big sea guru.” The Dalai Lama is not only said to be the reincarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion, but is also the supreme leader of the Yellow Hat Sect. The first four Dalai Lamas had great authority over the Yellow Hat Sect in Tibet, but it wasn’t until “The Great Fifth” Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617 – 1682), that the Dalai Lama became the political leader of Tibet.

Though Tibet retained its independence during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), by the Qing (1644 – 1912) it had slipped under the umbrella of Chinese authority, and when the Qing collapsed in 1912, the 13th Dalai Lama again established his authority.

It didn’t take long, however, for the Chinese to return. After the 1949 Communist victory over the Nationalists in the Chinese Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took control of the country, initially – and quite astonishingly – allowing Tibet a high degree of sovereignty as an autonomous region within Chinese borders.

Culture

Tibetans are one of the 55 recognized ethnic minorities of China. Even though the majority of those living in Tibet are ethnic Tibetans, the province holds a few other notable ethnicities as well, such as the Qiang, Monpas and Lhobas. There are also pockets of Hui and Uighur Muslims, and there’s a rapidly growing number of Han Chinese.

In fact, due to greater transportation links connecting Tibet with the Mainland, like the Qinghai-Tibetan Railroad and the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, and the PRC’s incentive programs encouraging the emigration of Han into the province, a “Hanification” of sorts is turning the province from a Tibetan land into just another Han-dominated area.

The Tibetan language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan linguistic family and has more than five million native speakers and various dialects. All Tibetans speak Tibetan in the province, but many, especially in the big cities, have a strong grasp of Mandarin. In rural areas, however, most locals cannot speak the language, and many who can refuse to use it. The written alphabet is based off the Indic script and is written horizontally from left to right. While signs in Lhasa will have both Chinese characters and the Tibetan script, rural areas will be written entirely with Tibetan.

Tibetan food is some of the best in Asia. Unlike standard Chinese food, Tibet uses a lot of dairy products like yoghurt, cheese and butter; flour milled from roasted barley called tsampa; roots like yams and potatoes; and meats like mutton, goat and yak. They also have some dishes that may resemble those you see in a typical Chinese restaurant, including bowls of hot noodle soup and dumplings. The most popular drink in Tibet is yak butter tea; it’s common for Tibetans to drink several glasses a day.

Tibetan culture is also prominent outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Provinces like Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, Xinjiang and Yunnan – all formerly part of Tibetan kingdoms – also have strong Tibetan influences. For those looking to explore Tibet without the strict travel restrictions and inflated cost of coming here directly, consider visiting these provinces for an equally authentic cultural experience.

Travel Restrictions in Tibet

There are no ifs, ands or buts about it: NO foreigners, not even the Queen of England, are legally allowed to explore Tibet independently, and it appears it’s going to stay that way for a very long time. All foreigners planning a trip to the Roof of the World must first obtain a Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) travel permit issued by the Tibetan Tourism Board (TTB), then register with a tour company to get a guide who will literally follow you almost every step of the way (unless you’re showering or taking a restroom break, of course). Unfortunately for the free spirited, there’s absolutely no way around this rule.
With these and other draconian restrictions, Tibet is considered one of the most highly restricted travel destinations in the entire world, making it similar to paying a visit to North Korea. If you’re still keen on going, be sure to meticulously plan ahead, save plenty of cash (because it will most certainly cost you a pretty penny), and follow the instructions below.

Travel Arrangements

1. It doesn’t matter if you’re single or in a group, you must apply for the TAR travel permit. For the permit, you should first create your itinerary and list how many days you would like to stay, along with which places you’d like to see. Generally speaking, the more people you have in your group, the cheaper the tour will be, and the more time you spend in the province and the more sites you visit, the more the price will increase.

2. Next, you must submit your itinerary, passport with your Chinese visa, and several passport sized photos to the Tibetan tour operator. There are numerous tour groups to choose from that will do all the work for you, and all will have different prices and procedures since the laws concerning travel to Tibet change so often. It’s also important to note that most tour providers also have set itineraries you can chose from in case you don’t feel like making your own.

3. After you get your Tibet Entry Permit and your passport back, book a flight, a train or bus ticket. (Note: sometimes, depending on the situation, you may be required to have your inward and outward transportation booked before receiving your Tibet Entry Permit.) Remember to stick to your outlined itinerary because it will have your entry and exit points listed on the TAR permit. If you have a quick change of plans at the last minute and don’t cross the border where you originally intended, be prepared to turn around and do the long march back into the Mainland on your own dime.
Without question the best way to enter Tibet is by land, because you get to see all the stunning mountain scenery and some of the untouched villages that foreigners aren’t allowed to visit. Plus, it’ll help you acclimate to the thin air and curb altitude sickness. The four best land routes in and out of Tibet are the Qinghai – Tibetan Railway, the Sichuan – Tibet Highway, the northwestern border of Yunnan and Highway 219 from Xinjiang near the Pakistani and Indian border (this route is extremely isolated, politically volatile, underdeveloped and often closed, so not many tour operators pass through 219).

4. Once you’ve received you travel permits and arranged your transport in and out of the TAR, you’re on your way. The only thing that could possibly delay or cancel your trip is a political upheaval or a protest. If this scenario unfolds and your trip is canceled, you should be granted a refund from your tour company. Unfortunately, the TTB who granted the permit will most likely not give you a refund.

Always remember that the situation in Tibetan can change overnight, and prices are constantly fluctuating. It’d be very wise to follow current events closely before getting started on the costly and lengthy Tibetan visas. You can speak with your hotel, hostel or tour provider to check up on the latest info. You can also check Wikitravel for up to date travel info at www.wikitravel.org/en/Tibet.

Visas

At the time of research, there were three different kinds of TAR travel permits available for your trip. Your travel company will review the places you wish to travel to and decide which permit is necessary.

Tibet Entry Permit – Used to enter Lhasa and some of the nearby surrounding areas.

Aliens Travel Permit – Used to venture further outside of Lhasa.

Military Permit – Despite the name, foreign civilians are able to apply for this one as well. This will grant you access to those hard-to-reach places near the Indian and Pakistani borders, and is necessary for those looking to visit Mount Kailash and the Guge Ruins.

Sample Itineraries

It’s fairly easy to customize your trip into Tibet as long as you pay the fee, get the permits and map everything out on your itinerary beforehand. For those pressed for time, many tour providers offer a few journeys that tackle the top attractions for a good deal. Here are some of the most popular ones with estimated prices listed in RMB:

Note: due to the changing tourism environment in Tibet, the prices and itineraries listed below are only to be used as samples. Please check with your tour provider for exact costs and destinations.

Lhasa City Four Day Tour

Day 1 – Arrival in Lhasa
Day 2 – Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery
Day 3 – Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Barkhor Street
Day 4 – Departure from Lhasa

Price includes: Tibetan travel permit and English speaking guide

Price excludes: Transportation in and out of Tibet, transportation within Lhasa, airport pick up and drop off, meals, accommodations, tourist entrance fees, personal expenses for shopping, tips.

There are some extra side trips you can take to some other sites in the area for an added cost. Please speak with your tour provider to find out more.

Lhasa to Shigatse Six Day Tour

Day 1 – Arrival in Lhasa
Day 2 – Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery
Day 3 – Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple
Day 4 – Yamdrok Lake, Gyantse, Shigatse
Day 5 – Shigatse back to Lhasa
Day 6 – Departure from Lhasa

Price includes: Tibetan travel permit, English
speaking guide, transportation between cities in minibus or Land Cruiser.

Price excludes: Transportation in and out of Tibet, transportation within Lhasa city, airport pick up and drop off, meals, accommodations, tourist entrance fees, personal expenses for shopping, tips.

There are some extra side trips you can take to some other sites in the area for an added cost. Please speak with your tour provider to find out more.

Lhasa to Nepal Border Seven Day Tour

This is a great sample itinerary for those looking to end their China trip in and start a new adventure in Nepal.
Day 1 – Arrival in Lhasa
Day 2 – Norblingka, Sera Monastery
Day 3 – Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Barkhor Street
Day 4 – Yamdrok Lake, Gyantse, Shigatse
Day 5 – Tashilunpo Monastery, Rogbuk Monastery, spend the night at Everest base camp (during the winter spend the night at Rogbuk Monastery or Tingri)
Day 6 – Zhangmu (Nepal border)
Day 7 – Departure from China

Price includes: Tibetan travel permit, English speaking guide, transportation between cities in minibus or Land Cruiser.

Price excludes: Transportation in and out of Tibet, transportation within Lhasa, airport pick-ups, meals, accommodations, tourist entrance fees, personal expenses for shopping, tips.

 

© 2015 All rights reserved. www.pandaguides.com