Tibet (Classical Tibetan: Bod; (བོད་), Lhasa dialect: Pö; Mandarin Chinese: 西藏, Xīzàng) is sometimes described as the "roof of the world"; the entire region is on a high plateau and there are many large mountains. The area has its own unique culture, and most travellers will find some of the plants, wildlife and domestic animals quite exotic as well. Entering Tibet you feel as though you've found an entirely different world.
Politically, Tibet is an autonomous region of China, but there is an independence movement and even a government-in-exile headed by the former ruler, the Dalai Lama. For discussion, see the Understand section below. Travellers who disagree with the current political situation may think they have an ethical dilemma because if they go to Tibet they feel they are implicitly supporting the Chinese regime, with some of their money going to the Chinese authorities. However the Dalai Lama encourages foreigners to go, so that they can see the situation for themselves and because Tibetans welcome their presence.
Tibet is also becoming a more and more popular travel destination among the Chinese themselves. It is almost as exotic to someone from another area of China as it is to someone from the other side of the world, and there is now a good rail link.
Qamdo, Chamdo, Chab mdo or Changdu?
Any place in Tibet can be spelled at least four different ways.
There are seven prefectures in the Tibet Autonomous Region:
This article only covers the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), although there was once a Tibetan Kingdom considerably larger than the autonomous region's current borders.
To learn more about other regions that are culturally affiliated with Tibet, see the Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Yunnan; the Indian regions of Ladakh, Lahaul and Spiti, and Sikkim; the Pakistani region of Baltistan; and the independent states of Bhutan and Nepal.
- 1 Lhasa - the capital of Tibet, and traditional seat of the Dalai Lama, the most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism
- 2 Gyantse
- 3 Qamdo (Chamdo)
- 4 Xigatse (Shigatse) - the second largest city in Tibet, and traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism
- 5 Gurum - traditional seat of the Kamarpa, the third most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism
- 1 Mount Kailash - a sacred mountain revered by both Tibetan Buddhists and Hindus.
- 2 Qomolangma National Nature Reserve - the Tibetan side of Mount Everest
- 3 Yarlong River National Park containing the world's largest canyon, the Yalung Zangbo Canyon.
This article covers only the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). There are also Tibetan autonomous prefectures and or counties located in the provinces of Qinghai, southwest Gansu, western Sichuan and northwest Yunnan, covered in the articles on those provinces. See List of Chinese provinces and regions for an explanation of the terms "autonomous region" and "autonomous prefecture" if required.
The Tibetan Empire was once much larger than the current borders, and various areas outside the TAR are culturally, historically and linguistically Tibetan to various degrees. In contemporary China, and in general English usage today, the term "Tibet" refers only to the TAR. However, the term "Tibetan Regions", with its focus on all of ethnographic Tibet is becoming more widespread amongst Chinese in China as well.
The Tibetan Plateau is the world's largest and, with average heights of over 4,000m, also the world's highest, plateau. It includes all of the TAR, most of Qinghai, and parts of Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu. Parts of the region (northwestern region) are so remote they remain uninhabited to this day.
India and the rest of Asia are on separate continental plates which are colliding; that collision is what raised the plateau to its current height. Most of the world's highest mountains are in the Himalaya range along Tibet's southern border, along the line of the subduction zone where one plate goes under the other. Mount Everest, the highest of all, is on the border between Tibet and Nepal.
- See also: Tibetan Empire
Tibet has a long and complicated history, at times an empire, at times warring with China, and at times a tributary of China or the Mongol Empire. It first came under common rule with China when the Mongols conquered both around 1300. Tibet became independent once more after the Mongols were expelled from China and the Ming Dynasty was established in the 14th century, but would subsequently be conquered by the Manchu-Chinese Qing Dynasty under the Kangxi Emperor in 1720.
For most of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Tibet was nominally part of the Chinese Empire and there was a Qing official called an Anban in Lhasa who had tremendous influence, but the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama (high-ranking religious figures) actually ran things. Pre-modern Tibet was a feudal theocracy with a caste system, with the Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama, other senior monks and the nobility forming the highest class, and a vast population of serfs and peasants at the bottom, though the new Dalai Lama would always be selected from a lower class family when the old one died. While Chinese sources claim that the traditional Tibetan system of government was an oppressive regime built on slavery and serfdom, most Western sources, the Dalai Lama and his followers reject this view, instead contending that while there was some truth to the feudalism claim, its oppressiveness has been grossly exaggerated by the Chinese government in order to justify its continuing occupation of Tibet.
Britain sent a force to Lhasa in 1904/05, but the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907, widely seen as the end to the Great Game (a competition for influence in Asia between those empires that lasted most of the 19th century), stipulated that neither country would interfere in Tibet, leaving it in China's sphere of influence. In 1910, Qing China sent a military expedition of its own to Tibet for direct rule.
However, after the Qing Dynasty fell in 1911, Tibet declared independence under the authority of the 13th Dalai Lama. Tibet was an isolated de facto independent nation for almost forty years; its borders were larger than the current TAR and included what are now portions of Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan. The Chinese government, however, never accepted their claim to independence.
After the retreat of the Nationalists to Taiwan and the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, the Communists turned their attention towards Tibet as they wished to consolidate control over all former Qing territories. In 1950, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) invaded Tibet. In the UN Security Council, the Nationalists (who still had China's seat) vetoed a motion that would have censured the invasion; they too considered Tibet part of China.
In 1951 an agreement was signed that annexed Tibet into China, giving Tibet — on paper — full autonomous status for governance, religion and local affairs. The current (14th) Dalai Lama was even made a vice-secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in the early 1950s. However communist reforms and the heavy-handed approach of the PLA led to tensions. After a failed Tibetan Uprising in March 1959, the Dalai Lama and many of his followers went into exile in India, setting up a government in exile in Dharamsala. Each side accuses the other of failure to live up to the 1951 agreement. The CIA assisted the uprising and Chinese propagandists still mention this often.
Tibet's isolated location did not protect it from the terror of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and large numbers of Tibetans were killed or imprisoned at the hands of the Red Guards. Tibet's rich cultural heritage as well as much of neighboring Chinese ancient culture were reduced to ruins. After the end of that era, the rise of Deng Xiaoping and China's "reform and opening up" policies since 1978, the situation in Tibet has calmed considerably, though it still remains tense. Monasteries are slowly being rebuilt and a semblance of normality has returned to the region. Despite this, Tibet still suffers from independence-related civil unrest from time to time. The Chinese authorities often close Tibet to foreign tourists, usually in March, the anniversary of the 1959 uprising.
When the 10th Panchen Lama died in 1989, the Dalai Lama selected a new one, as was customary in Tibetan tradition. The Chinese government, however, did not accept this and instead installed a different boy as their officially-recognised Panchen Lama. The Dalai Lama's appointee disappeared shortly after, and has never been heard from since.
To a considerable extent, the issues in Tibet are the same as for indigenous peoples anywhere, such as Uyghurs in China's western province Xinjiang or the native peoples in North or South America. The government points proudly to development work such as mines, railways and highways; locals complain that those facilities are all owned by outsiders, outsiders get most of the good jobs while locals do most of the heavy work, and environmental consequences are often ignored. The government say they are improving education; locals complain that the system aims at forcing assimilation by using a language foreign to them. Immigration is encouraged and sometimes subsidized; locals complain of an influx of outsiders that do not want to adapt to local culture and often do not even bother to learn the local language. When the locals get really agitated, the government does not hesitate to send in troops to "restore order"; generally the locals see this as vicious repression, but the government claim they are only dealing appropriately with "hostile Indians", "reactionary elements" or whatever.
The question of Tibetan sovereignty is a hot-button issue in China. The party line is that Tibet has always been part of China and foreigners have no business meddling in internal Chinese affairs. There was no invasion in 1950, only the central government asserting its authority over a province to liberate it from a severely oppressive feudal system, a corrupt medieval theocracy with slavery. (That part makes a lot of sense to Chinese, liberated from their own feudal system in 1911.) Western powers are being extremely hypocritical since they roundly condemn theocracy (rule by priests) in Iran and simultaneously support it in Tibet. Many Chinese people agree with the government position, and some of those will ask foreigners about Tibet then firmly "correct" their "errors". Avoiding such discussions is a good policy.
- Eight Years in Tibet by Peter Aufschnaiter and Martin Brauen ISBN 9789745240124
- Dialogues Tibetan, Dialogues Han by Hannü: Tibet through the Tibetans with a Han traveller ISBN 9789889799939
- Tears Of Blood: A Cry for Tibet by Mary Craig ISBN 9781582431024
The main language of Tibet is Tibetan, which is co-official with Mandarin within the region. Many Tibetans speak or understand some Mandarin except the nomadic tribes in the Far East Tibet. Tibetan is closely related to Burmese and much more distantly to Chinese. Several dialects of Tibetan exist, and not all of them are mutually intelligible; standard Tibetan is based on the Lhasa dialect. Depending on the dialect of Tibetan spoken, it may be tonal or non-tonal. In the cities people speak Chinese fluently; in the villages it may not be understood at all. Han Chinese people, on the other hand, normally don't know any Tibetan at all. Signs in Tibet, including street signs, are at least bilingual - in Chinese and in Tibetan - plus a major local language when there is one.
Although this makes Chinese a more useful language for travellers in many ways, you should remember that language can be political in this charged environment. If you speak in Chinese to Tibetans you are associating yourself with the Chinese, the presence of whom is often resented among the ethnic Tibetan population. That said, many Tibetans seem to view Chinese as a useful lingua franca and a few Tibetan pleasantries are enough to befriend Tibetans. Tibetans from different regions converse in Chinese since Tibetan dialects vary so much that they are not immediately mutually understandable. If you speak Tibetan to Chinese police you'll raise suspicions that you may be in Tibet to support Tibetan Independence.
Tibetan is, however, an extremely difficult language to learn, and most foreigners who claim to know Tibetan can hardly get by. When it comes to writing, a focus on Mandarin in the education system means that even the Tibetans themselves have difficulties and many are in fact illiterate.
As of 2018, unless you are a citizen of the People's Republic of China (including Hong Kong and Macau), travel to the Tibet Autonomous Region is only possible by joining an organized tour lasting the entire duration of your time in Tibet. This requires going through an approved Chinese travel agency, who will apply for your Tibet Entry Permit (外国人进藏许可证 wàiguórén jìncáng xǔkězhèng) and arrange a mandatory guide and car to take you around. Many tour guides are ethnic Chinese and even the ethnic Tibetan guides have to sit exams in Chinese and learn the official Han Chinese government-sponsored perspective on Tibet in order to gain and keep their tour guide licence. Some particular occupations (e.g. press, professional photographers, diplomatic personnel and foreign government officials) can only obtain the permit from the Foreign Affairs Office of Tibet Autonomous Region.
As you need to pay for all this, the cost of travel in Tibet is far higher than anywhere else in China, with barebones group rates starting around US$120/day and going up if you want a private tour, decent accommodation, etc. Demand also far exceeds supply in the summer high season, with flights and train tickets into Tibet very difficult to get, not just for foreigners but Chinese as well. For these financial, ethical and logistical reasons, some travellers opt to travel to other Tibetan regions of China instead: Qinghai, Northwestern Yunnan and western Sichuan.
If you do opt to go, you will need to start your paperwork well in advance, and beware that regulations may change and permits to Tibet may be halted at short notice: for example, the entire month of March is off-limits every year due to sensitive anniversaries, and Norwegians were not permitted to enter for several years after Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel prize.
- You must have a Chinese visa before the agency can apply for your Tibet entry permit, but Chinese visa applications that mention travel to Tibet are routinely rejected. The usual workaround is to apply for your Chinese visa without mentioning Tibet — travel agencies may even offer certified but fake itineraries to help you do so!
- Once the visa has been granted, the agency will apply for the Tibet entry permit. The permit can only be applied for 20 days before your trip, and usually takes 8-9 days to issue. The permit must list all places you intend to visit, so make sure your itinerary is locked down, or negotiate with your tour provider to ensure that all places you may want to visit are listed.
Some parts of Tibet also require an Aliens' Travel Permit (ATP), which is issued by the Public Security Bureau (PSB) in major Tibetan cities like Lhasa, Shigatse and Ali. The list of regions that require ATPs changes constantly, so enquire locally. Lhasa's PSB has a poor reputation, while Shigatse and Ali are said to issue permits without any unnecessary difficulties. If your papers are in order, the permit can be issued in several hours for ¥100.
Finally, some remote areas also require a military permit. These are only available in Lhasa, where processing takes several days, and are only granted for an appropriate reason.
Tibet without a permit?
Before the riots in 2008, legal individual travel was occasionally possible and some brave souls even snuck illegally into Tibet. Since the consequent clampdown, this has become effectively impossible: your Tibet permit is inspected on boarding any plane or train headed to Tibet, once more when you arrive, and then again repeatedly by hotels on checking in, major tourist sights like the Potala Palace, checkpoints on roads, etc. The only way to experience Tibetan culture without a permit is to explore the Tibetan regions of Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan.
The following is a partial list of well-recognized tour companies licensed to host foreigners in Tibet:
- China Highlights, well-connected pan-China agency specializing in tailored tours; expensive but may be worth it
- Explore Tibet, Tibet based Tibet Travel Agency who offers the smallest group tours in the industry
- Tibet Highland Tours, well connected, custom trips.
- Tibet Ctrip Travel Service, local longstanding Tibetan travel service
- Tibetan guide small group tour by group of local Tibetan guides.
- Tibet China Tibet, local travel agency in Lhasa
- Travel China Guide, the largest online tour operator in China, operating trips throughout China.
- Tibet Vista, managed by local Tibetans and operated by CITS, the tourism and travel agency of the government of the People's Republic of China.
You can fly directly to Lhasa, which is well connected with most major Chinese cities and has a few flights to Kathmandu, but flying in from a much lower altitude city puts you at high risk of altitude sickness because of the quick transition. Most other larger Tibetan cities including Shigatse and Ali also have airports, but flights are very limited.
Safest is to follow the Yunnan tourist trail to Zhongdian (Shangrila) and fly from there to Lhasa. If you spend a night or two each in Kunming (2,000m), Dali (2,400m) or Lijiang (2,400m), and Zhongdian (3,200m) to acclimatise, you should be able to fly to Lhasa (3,650m) with little risk.
If you are in Sichuan or nearby and aren't satisfied visiting the many ethnically Tibetan areas to the east of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, flying from Chengdu (500m) is the easiest option, but the rapid increase in altitude risks altitude sickness.
- See also: Qinghai–Tibet railway
The Qinghai-Tibet (Qingzang) Railway from Golmud to Lhasa started operating in July 2006, and was extended to Shigatse in 2014. The journey from Beijing to Lhasa takes just under 48 hours, costing ¥360 in the cheapest hard seat class and ¥1144 for a soft sleeper. Direct trains to Lhasa originate from Beijing, Xining, Lanzhou, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Chengdu. For a hard sleeper from Chengdu with 6 bunks in each compartment, the cost is ¥692 per person.
The main advantage for this mode of transportation is often claimed to be that you can gradually acclimatise to high altitudes instead of the sudden shift if you were to take a plane. However, in reality the high-altitude parts of the journey are all covered within the last 12 or so hours and this does not offer enough time to acclimatise. Some thus opt to acclimatize for a few days in Xining (2,300m), which can be reached by overnight trains from most major Chinese cities and is near several points of interest like Lake Qinghai (Koko Nor) and Kumbum Monastery. Golmud (2,900m) is the last city of any size on the railway before Tibet, but it's an unattractive industrial town with no sights of significance.
Be warned that the lower classes in these trains are not for the faint-hearted and the less adventurous type: they do not have Western-styled toilets and bunks are relatively cramped. Soft sleeper class is recommended, and here you will mix with middle-class Chinese tourists or business people.
The trains to Tibet are available from any major city in mainland China though not all have daily service and some routes involve changing trains part way. See the main China article for information on how to book.
A new direct railway line from Chengdu, Sichuan to Lhasa via Nyingchi is under construction, but will not be ready until 2025 or so.
- See also: Overland to Tibet
There are four roads into Tibet, roughly corresponding to the cardinal directions. Foreigners on any of these routes are rare, so make sure you have all the necessary permits and tour guide accompaniment for these trips. If you are caught by the authorities in Tibet without the appropriate permits, you will either be sent back (at your expense), have your visa cancelled, be sent home, or in extreme cases banned from ever re-entering China. There are even reports of foreigners being imprisioned for breaking travel bans.
North: The road from Golmud is the easiest legal land route at present, and the only fully paved road into Tibet. The landscape is beautiful but difficult to appreciate after the long rough ride, and the Tanggula Pass near the Qinghai/Tibet border is over 5,000 m high.
West: From Kashgar the road is totally unpaved for over a thousand kilometres with villages and water few and far between. The main advantages of this route is that it passes by Mount Kailash and through a beautiful, very remote region inhabited by nomads. You should be very well prepared to travel this way and take everything you would need for independent trekking: camping equipment suitable for freezing temperatures even in the summer, a good tent and at least a few days of food (there are a few truck-stop places on the way but not always when you want them). Expect the trip to take two weeks or more. From Kashgar it's much farther to go to Lhasa via Urumqi and Golmud but the better transport (trains and good paved highways) make it no more time consuming to travel this way. There are many interesting things for the tourist to see on the way and it is worth considering travelling this way instead of via Mount Kailash.
South: From Nepal, the only option to get to Tibet is to book a tour with a travel agent in Kathmandu. In addition, you cannot use a normal Chinese visa, but need to apply specifically for a "Group Tourists Visa" (团体签证 tuántǐ qiānzhèng) in Kathmandu, which will only be granted once you have a confirmed and paid tour. The drive from Kathmandu to Lhasa takes a couple of days and is very rough, but pretty.
Southeast: After 44 years of closure, the Nathu La pass to Sikkim, India — a part of the historic Silk Road — opened again in July 2006 for trade traffic. The border is not yet open to foreign tourists.
Tibet is large, rugged and sparsely populated. While China has poured large amounts of money into improving infrastructure, meaning that there are now modern four-lane highways connecting major towns, travel off the beaten track remains very rough.
Good road maps of Tibet are common in China, including the Baidu Maps app, but they are only in Chinese. Beware that Chinese names can be very different from those used by Tibetans. Tibetmap.com has a free downloadable set of maps covering much of Tibet with detail almost good enough to use for independent trekking.
Tibet Airlines has limited services connecting Lhasa to regional towns.
The train line from Lhasa to Shigatse opened in 2014, and is open to non-Chinese tourists if they have arranged this as part of their organized tour. The trip takes about 3 hours and is the most comfortable way to travel between the two cities.
A train line to Nyingchi is under construction and is scheduled to open around 2020, with plans to eventually extend this across eastern Tibet all the way to Sichuan.
There are even plans and early stages of construction for a rail line all the way to Nepal.
Central Tibet has a reasonable public bus network. However, non-Chinese tourists cannot make use of it since even with travel permits they cannot generally buy a ticket.
Jeep tours are a popular way of getting around Tibet, while not cheap, the tour operator will sort out all the necessary paperwork, and they offer you a reasonable chance of sticking to a schedule.
Your driver will likely be an indigenous Tibetan who can speak Chinese. He'll get to eat and sleep for free wherever you go (he'll often be treated like a king), and he'll often need to stop for a smoke or a pee by certain vendors on the road. ¥4500 will get a jeep that can seat 4 people and luggage comfortably for 4 or 5 days.
Hitchhiking used to be a good way to get around Tibet for someone who is flexible and has a lot of time. However, tighter regulations and enforcement introduced since 2008 have made this effectively impossible, with frequent police checkpoints and heavy punishments for both hitchhikers and their drivers.
- See also: Cycling in China
There are a surprising number of Chinese tourists travelling to and around Tibet by bicycle, but foreigners can only do this by joining an organized tour. The roads vary from rough dirt tracks to good quality paved roads. There are restaurants, truck stops and shops scattered around often enough so that you don't need to carry more than a day's worth of food (with the important exception of the west of the country). The roads are often well graded, being built for overloaded trucks. 26-inch wheels would be preferable as 700-cm (ISO 622) are almost unknown in China. Good mountain bikes are available in large cities of China or in Lhasa.
- The Potala Palace, the home of successive Dalai Lamas is in Lhasa
- The Jokhang Temple in Lhasa was built in 647 AD by Songtsen Gampo and is one of the holiest sites in Tibet.
- The Barkhor in Lhasa is the name for the ring of streets of traditional Tibetan buildings surrounding the Jokhang Temple.
- The 'Norbulingka (Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama) is located in Lhasa, about 1km south of the Potala.
- Samye Monastery - constructed in 779 AD, Samye was the first Buddhist Monastery established in Tibet, and is located near Dranang, Shannan Prefecture, 150 km south-east of Lhasa.
- Tashilhunpo Monastery, the traditional seat of the Panchen Lamas. It was constructed in 1447 and is located in Shigatse.
- The Rongbuk Monastery, one of the highest monasteries in the world, from which the view of the Mt. Everest is just amazing.
Trekking is a major draw in Tibet, with Mount Kailash (Lake Manasarovar) and Everest Base Camp (5200m) in Qomolangma being the best-known attractions. Both are remote and challenging, generally requiring at least ten days in Tibet to complete.
Tibet is not an area people visit for the cuisine. Due to the harsh climate, only a limited variety of foodstuffs can be produced locally. The traditional Tibetan diet is largely limited to barley, meat (mutton or yak) and dairy products, with very few spices or vegetables, although brutally hot chili sauce may be served on the side. Even good Tibetan food is very monotonous with most Tibetan restaurants serving nothing other than thukpa (noodle soup) and tea. A selection of popular Tibetan fare:
- Momos - dumplings filled with meat or vegetables, steamed or fried
- Tingmo - bland, nearly tasteless steamed bread
- Thukpa - a hearty noodle soup with veggies or meat
- Thenthuk - thukpa with handmade noodles
- Yak butter tea - salty tea churned with butter, a Tibetan staple and a rather acquired taste for most Westerners (see Drink)
- Tsampa - roasted barley flour, a common travel food and temple offering, usually eaten by mixing it with butter tea to create dumplings or porridge
Restaurants in Tibet can broadly be categorized into three groups:
- Tourist restaurants catering to non-Chinese, which have near-identical English menus of foreigner-friendly Tibetan fare, some Nepalese dishes, and varyingly successful attempts at Western food like pizza, spaghetti and hamburgers. While comparatively few, in Lhasa you will likely eat most of your meals in these, because your tour guides will inevitably take you to them: not only is the food "safe", but they pay the best commissions too.
- Chinese restaurants catering to ethnic Chinese, serving authentic but often delicious Chinese food (fearsomely spicy Sichuanese is prominent) and Chinese-friendly Tibetan fare like yak hotpots. Some travellers feel that Hui (ethnic Chinese Muslim) places are cleaner because of halal food laws; they can be recognised by the green flags and crescent moons (and because they do look cleaner).
- Tibetan restaurants/tea shops catering to Tibetans, serving drinks and a very limited range of Tibetan food, often just thukpa noodle soup.
Despite being a predominantly Buddhist region, Tibet is not particularly vegetarian-friendly - the altitude being the main justification for this. In rural areas, vegetarians need to be prepared to compromise or live on very simple diets. Even if a thukpa is without meat, you can bet the broth they use is a meat broth.
However, monastery restaurants and some large towns do offer restaurants serving vegetarian food and even some Tibetans observe a vegetarian diet on particular days of the religious month. So it is worth asking. One key term to look out for is དཀར་ཟས་ (literally, "white food" - kar zey) which you will see, for example, on some monastery restaurants or in Lhasa, where there are Tibetan vegetarian restaurants. In spoken Tibetan, vegetarian food is also simply referred to as "without-meat-food" ཤ་མེད་ཁ་ལག sha mey kha la'.
Tea houses are an important social venue in Tibet, and offer a chance to sit down and relax. The tea houses in the larger towns and cities offer sweet milk tea, salted black tea or salted butter tea; in the villages you may only have the option of salt tea. The line between a tea house (ཇ་ཁང་ cha khang) and a restaurant (ཟ་ཁང་ za khang) is blurred and many tea houses also offer thukpa noodle soup.
Tibetan butter tea (བོད་ཇ pö cha, Chinese 酥油茶 sūyóuchá) is a must try, though it may not be a pleasant experience for all — even the Dalai Lama famously said that he's not a fan of the stuff! It is a salty mixture of black tea and Tibetan butter. Traditionally it is churned by hand with a thick rod in a long upright wooden container. However, when electricity came to the city, modernized Tibetans turn to use electric mixers to make their butter tea. The Tibetan butter is not rancid as commonly described, but has a cheesy taste and smell to it, close to blue cheese or Roquefort. Think of it as a cheese broth rather, that you will appreciate particularly after a long hike in cold weather.
An alternative to Tibetan butter tea is sweet milk tea (cha ngar mo) which is more familiar to western palates. Sweet tea drinking was introduced by merchants returning from India, first among well-off Tibetans, since sugar was a luxury on the Plateau, then when sugar became more available among the general public. Unlike Indians, Tibetan do not use spices (clove, cinnamon, cardamon) to flavour their tea.
Salted black tea (cha thang) is another alternative, refreshingly free from milk or butter!
When ordering tea in a teahouse, the price is usually for a full thermos bottle of the stuff, not a single cup.
Chang, or Tibetan beer made of barley, has a lighter flavour than a Western-type, bottled beer, since they do not use bitter hops. Often home-brewed and with as many taste and strength variants as industrial beers, but the blue cans of Shigatse Chang sold in restaurants and shops around Lhasa are quite mild-flavored and low in alcohol (around 1.5%).
While a comparatively recent import, Western-style beer is also widely available, particularly the rather light/bland locally brewed Lhasa Beer. Various Chinese-style baijiu spirits are also sold, often with herbs of dubious medicinal value blended in.
Plan your route to manage altitude sickness; the main thing is to give your body enough time to acclimatize before going higher. This is important both when getting in, and when ascending within Tibet. Be prepared to adjust your plans, descend or spend a few extra days acclimatizing if it proves necessary.
You are very high up, the sun is going to be very strong; see sunburn and sun protection. Wear protective clothing, UV-protective sunglasses, and sunscreen.
When travelling in the countryside be prepared for the vehicle to break down and for bad weather. Carry a snack and some warm clothes. Water and fluids are essential.
Be warned that driving at night can be particularly dangerous in Tibet.
Beware of the dogs! In the cities there are numerous stray dogs about and in the country side the villagers and nomads keep large guard dogs for security, (usually chained up). A modest level of caution is enough to prevent you from being bitten, as the strays usually run in packs and if you don't get too close you should be okay. If guard dogs are unchained, keep them at bay by staying away from the house or tent they are protecting at all costs as their barking will indicate they have picked you up on their radar and pray they don't come running after you. If they do, pick up (or pretend to pick up) some stones and be prepared to be attacked at the ankle. Sometimes kicking or lunging at the dogs before they attack may scare them off. Some other ways to protect yourself is by wearing boots and thick pants. Much is made of the viciousness of the Tibetan dogs, but few travelers have problems with them. See also aggressive dogs.
Steer clear of political protests. They're rare, but suppressed brutally by the authorities, who do not look kindly on Western witnesses (especially those with cameras).
Earthquakes are common in Tibet due to the fact that it is at the converging plate boundary between the Eurasian and Indian plates.
Names can be a complicated matter in Tibet:
As a result, the foolproof method is to ask how the person wants to be addressed.
- Refrain from discussing politics. This includes anything about the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. While you're unlikely to get in trouble, a casual comment overheard by the wrong person may risk them their job or land them a spell in prison.
- Be respectful and cooperative when your papers are checked or bags inspected, which they will be, often multiple times per day. That said, foreigners are rarely if ever hassled and your tour guide will take care of the vast majority of the paperwork anyway.
- Travellers to Tibet usually find Tibetans to be friendly. It is appreciated when you try and use the local Tibetan dialect when communicating with Tibetans. The further from Lhasa you travel, the more often Tibetan is used.
- Religion is extremely important to the majority of Tibetans, and travellers should endeavour to respect their customs and beliefs. Always walk around Tibetan Buddhist religious sites or monastery in a clockwise direction, and when in a monastery do not wear a hat, smoke or touch frescoes. In addition, refrain from climbing onto statues, mani stones or other sacred objects.
- Do not take photographs of police, military, checkpoints, etc. Don't photograph people without permission; photography inside temples and palaces is generally prohibited unless you pay fees ranging from reasonable to extortionate. Sky burial sites are obviously off-limits.
- Tibetan Buddhism and its impact on Tibetan culture is a major draw for tourists. Funds used to pay entry fees at major religious sites will probably go into the coffers of the local Communist Party and its Chinese members. Funds donated directly to individual monks and nuns and left on altars will remain and be used to maintain and support the local religious infrastructure. Appreciate the work of the monasteries and those within and help support these great institutions with non-monetary donations and by attending the festivals and just spending a little time getting to know the monastic community.
- Supporting the Tibetan economy by purchasing from Tibetans is a great way to help. Pay a fair price while bargaining. Beware that some vendors may try to swindle tourists by selling at very high prices.
- Help protect Tibet for future generations by not purchasing products made from wild animals. Many items are made from endangered species. Remember to leave only footprints and take lots of photographs while visiting Tibet. Take the initiative and pack out trash and recyclables you see around while travelling outside of urban Tibet. The ecosystem in the Himalayas is very fragile due to the weather being so cold, so be careful of where you hike and try to keep erosion down.
- When visiting temples, monasteries or shrines you may wish to leave a donation, which will help their upkeep. It is best to leave it on the altar or give it directly to a monk or nun. This will ensure it stays in the temple. You may also wish to give a small donation to pilgrims from rural Tibet.
Generally speaking, it is easier getting out of Tibet than in, however, to the south the Himalaya rises even higher, presenting a formidable barrier to travel.