Tibet is a magical place! Visit this part of China, and you’ll feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. The plateau, bounded by the Himalayas to the south and west and the Thanggula mountain range to the north, can be a harsh climate to live in. In fact, some parts of the region are as-yet uninhabited. However, you’ll have a fantastic time exploring the beautiful landscapes and traditional villages, taking a Himalayan tour, learning about the history and having a totally unique holiday.
The thing is, the Chinese government is strict about allowing tourists into Tibet. You will need to acquire permits, and you won’t be able to travel on your own; you’ll need to have a guide and sign up for a licensed tour. Technically the permit is free, but most tour agencies will charge you $100+ for it, and you’ll need to apply for the permit a couple weeks before you plan to visit the region.
So why go?
Teahouses are an excellent way to get involved in the local Tibetan culture, as they are an important place for Tibetans to socialize, meet friends and hear the news. There are two kinds of Tibetan tea: salted or sweet. The Tibetan butter tea, or pöcha, is a bit of an acquired taste that doesn’t appeal to a lot of tourists. A lot of people describe the taste as similar to a blue cheese, but if you imagine it as a kind of cheesy soup, you might find it delicious after some time spent in the Tibetan cold.
Sweet tea is a relatively new concept in Tibet and was originally reserved only for the rich since both the tea and the sugar had to be imported and were quite scarce. Now you should be able to find sweet tea at many cafés, and although not entirely cultural, this can be a great thing to drink while enjoying some time in a teahouse and warming up.
When you think of the best places in the world for architecture, Tibet may not be on your list, but only if you’ve never seen a picture of Potala Palace. This structure, rising above the city of Lhasa, was once the home of the Dalai Lama and currently houses a museum. It’s an immense building, truly a wondrous feat of architecture. Make sure you head up to the roof for some spectacular views of the surroundings!
To see a different side of Tibetan architecture, you should definitely head out to Palcho Monastery. Kumbums, or tiered buildings with separate chapels on each floor, are peculiar to Tibetan Buddhist architecture, and Palcho Monastery is one of the largest such structures in Tibet.
Image courtesy of Rainer Haessner under CC-BY-SA-3.0
Religion is an important part of Tibetan culture, and no place exemplifies this more than Jokhang Temple in the center of Lhasa. Originally constructed in the mid-seventh century, this is considered one of the most sacred places in Tibet and is the spiritual center of the Yellow Branch of Tibetan Buddhism. Head into the central hall to see the life-sized Buddhist statue and the pilgrims prostrating themselves before it. You will also see many pilgrims circling the temple on Barkhor Street in a devotional ritual.
If you have more time, visit Samye Monastery, the oldest monastery in Tibet and birthplace of Tibetan Buddhism. Traveling from Lhasa, it will take about a day to get out to the monastery, but it’s well worth the trip. Not only is the monastery itself of interest, but the surroundings of barren mountains and sand dunes lend a stunning backdrop to the building.
You can approach Everest through either Nepal or Tibet. Be aware that this plan is not for the faint of heart: it’s a long drive from Lhasa, and you’ll need to arrange separate permits in addition to your general permit to travel in Tibet. Even if you plan to go no further than the base camp, you might find it difficult to cope with the altitude, so make sure you’re aware of the symptoms of altitude sickness and bring along the appropriate medications in case they’re needed. But if you make the trip, you’ll enjoy stunning views of Everest and will get to explore little villages along the way, plus you’ll get to meet a lot of cool people during the journey.
Tibetan New Year and Festivals
If you have the chance, don’t pass up the opportunity to visit Tibet during the Tibetan New Year. This is the most important festival in the Tibetan calendar. Thousands of monks flock to the cities, where there are plenty of special activities and events marking the occasion. The first three days are the most important days of the celebration, which lasts approximately two weeks. This is the time when Tibetans prepare for and then celebrate the New Year with much merriment and delicious food!
Although the New Year is the most important of Tibetan festivals, there are plenty of other festivals held throughout the year. These can be a great way to explore the local culture and traditions, so if you have the chance, don’t pass up this unique opportunity to get involved!
There’s no doubt that taking a trip to Tibet can be a challenging endeavor due to all the paperwork and planning that you have to do prior to your trip, but if you get everything sorted out, you’re in for the trip of a lifetime. Tibet is a truly special place, from the buildings to the landscapes to the history, and the people are extremely friendly and welcoming. You’re guaranteed to have a spectacular time.