With so many incredible countries to visit in Asia, and tourism so tightly restricted, you might ask yourself, why travel to Tibet? This beleaguered region has so much to offer, from breath-taking scenery to world-famous hospitality. From prayer-halls filled with chanting to earth’s highest peaks, you’ll leave Tibet as a changed person.
We’ll take it from the top. Tibet is known as the ‘Roof of the World’, as it’s the highest region on Earth, with an average elevation of 4,900 metres. It’s home to some of the tallest mountains on the planet, including Mount Everest, which provides a spectacular backdrop to any photos you might take. The Tibetan Plateau is the source of several major rivers, including the Yangtze, Yellow Ricer, Ganges, Indus River, Mekong, Salween and the Brahmaputra River, earning it the nickname of the ‘Water Tower of Asia’. In contrast to the stark, desert-like landscape of the Tibetan Plateau is the lush greenery of Eastern Tibet, ideal for trekking. If you’re not the hiking type, taking in the sights on horseback is a great alternative. High-altitude lakes glisten stunningly in the watery sunlight, including the beautiful Qinghai Lake, the largest lake in the People’s Republic of China. From the highest highs to the lowest lows, the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon is one of the world’s deepest and longest canyons. This is but a small sample of the most beautiful places in Tibet.
Of course, not all of Tibet’s spectacular sights are natural. However, they do fit perfectly with their surroundings. The most famous Tibetan building is the magnificent Potala Palace, looming over Lhasa, expertly built into the 130m-high Marpo Ri (Red Hill) and rising 13 stories above it. Containing over 1000 rooms, this incredible fortress was once the seat of the Tibetan government and the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas. Today, it functions as a museum, and visitors can view the various chapels, prayer halls and apartments that make up the structure. Norbulingka, ‘The Jewelled Park’, the former summer residence of the Dalai Lamas and another UNESCO World Heritage site, is considered to be the largest man-made garden in Tibet, a triumph of both traditional architecture and horticulture. A strong police presence around the Palaces and throughout Lhasa serves as a reminder of the region’s tumultuous political situation. However, the warmth and openness of the Tibetan people speaks to their resilience to maintain their faith and cultural identity in the face of oppression. Indeed, a visit to Tibet would be incomplete without spending some time in the various Buddhist monasteries, the whitewashed exterior of which hide the wealth of art, colour and symbolism contained within. Be sure to watch a masked dance, or even go on a pilgrimage, just follow the prayer flags.
Tibet hosts festivals bursting with colour, including the Nagqu horse racing festival; the month-long Saga Dawa Festival which celebrates the birth of Buddha, enlightenment, and Nirvana; and the week-long Sho Don Festival when the parks of Tibet fill with singing, dancing and music. Of course, a trip to Tibet is also a culinary experience. Sample a yak burger, yak momo, sho or Tibetan noodles at a teahouse. In more remote areas, get your hands dirty kneading your tsampa together with yak butter and butter tea. It’ll taste better for it! And of course, wash everything down with a pot of yak-butter tea. Delicious!
Tibet is a truly stunning region filled with indescribable beauty and the friendliest people. It offers an escape from the madness of modern life and a return to a more wholesome way of living. Get closer to nature and times past by staying in a rustic farming village, traverse the bustling markets of Lhasa, take a moment to stop and watch the yak leisurely chopping at the grassland, sleep in the shadow of the world’s peak by spending a night at Mt. Everest’s base camp; whatever way you choose to do Tibet, you’ll leave as a whole new person.