The old Tibetan Empire had three provinces — Ü-Tsang, Amdo and Kham. The names are still sometimes used, the three regions still have different dialects, and the Dalai Lama's Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala still claims all three as parts of Tibet. To a traveller, though, that claim is completely irrelevant; all three former provinces are firmly under Chinese control.
What is relevant for travellers is that access to China's Tibetan Autonomous Region is strictly controlled — foreigners need a permit to set foot there, and other restrictions may apply; see Tibet — but other parts of the former empire can be visited without those hassles, and some are still ethnically and culturally Tibetan. See Destinations below.
Tibet has only intermittently been fully independent since it was conquered by the Mongol Empire around 1250, though various rulers of China — Mongol, Ming, Qing, Nationalist, and Communist — have allowed autonomy in some areas. Large parts of the former empire have not actually been ruled by Tibet since the Qing Dynasty (Manchu rulers of China 1644-1912) expanded its borders into the area in the early 1700s.
This section describes the three provinces that existed under Tibetan rule. The Qing made major changes and both the Republic of China (1911-1949) and the People's Republic (1949-date) kept most of the Qing setup, so the current political and administrative boundaries are quite different from the old provinces.
- What was once Ü-Tsang province plus a large chunk of Kham are now the Tibetan Autonomous Region or TAR. The Chinese name for the region, Xizang (西藏) is their rendering of the Tibetan name which we transliterate as Ü-Tsang. This is what the term "Tibet" typically refers to in current English usage, and the area that our main Tibet article covers. Its dialect is the subject of our Tibetan phrasebook, and is the one taught in schools as the standard version of the Tibetan language. During the period of de facto independence from 1911-1950, Ü-Tsang was the only area actually controlled by the Tibetan government.
- Kham was historically controlled by several tribes and small kingdoms (not all Tibetan) who fought each other often. Some places that are major tourist destinations today, such as Dali and Lijiang, were regional capitals in that era. The governments of both China and Tibet tried for some centuries, and with considerable success, to control the area, but there were rebellions against both.
- The Qing put the eastern parts of Kham under the jurisdiction of the Chinese provinces Yunnan and Sichuan, and they still are. Our article on the Yunnan tourist trail covers travel through parts of Kham.
- In the 1950s, the western part of Kham was incorporated into the TAR. In the current administrative system, Kham has no role; all of its old territory is now part of other administrative divisions. However, the locals still call themselves Khampas and speak a somewhat different dialect of Tibetan.
- Amdo is a Tibetan term; the area is known as Kokonor in Mongolian and Qinghai in Chinese. Geographically, the area is part of the Tibetan Plateau with an average elevation over 3,000 m. Ethnically it is quite mixed; Tibetans were historically the largest group and Mongols second, but now it is just over 50% Han (ethnic Chinese). However, Han Chinese are mostly concentrated in a small area in the eastern part of the province, around the provincial capital Xining, while the rest of the province is sparsely populated and predominantly Tibetan.
- The Qing established the province of Qinghai, roughly corresponding to historic Amdo, and it has been retained by later governments. Wikivoyage has an Amdo Tibetan phrasebook. The current Dalai Lama was born here in 1935.
None of the current boundaries correspond exactly with the older ones; the above is just a general guide.
Naturally, Tibetan is the main language spoken in most parts of the former empire, though Mandarin is also widely spoken these days because of decades of Chinese control. There are numerous dialects of Tibetan, not all of which are mutually intelligible, though the Lhasa dialect is regarded as the de facto standard and taught in Tibetan schools. Tibetan is co-official with Mandarin not only within the TAR, but also in other primarily ethnic Tibetan areas, meaning that you will see bilingual road signs.
For destinations within the TAR, see the Tibet article. Here we describe some that are culturally Tibetan but outside the TAR so they can be visited independently without any special permits, and without being limited to a guided tour.
The Yunnan tourist trail is mostly in Kham. The region has many ethnic groups; Tibetans are only a small minority in its southern parts but become more important as you move north. The towns of Shangrila and Deqin at its northern end are predominantly Tibetan, and the inhabitants of the countryside around them are almost all Tibetan.
If you go trekking in the Three parallel rivers region, your guide is quite likely to be Tibetan, especially if you hire one in Shangrila. The park includes Kawagarbo, a 6,740-m (22,100-foot) peak that is sacred to Tibetans. You may encounter pilgrims who have come to walk a route that circles the mountain.
The famed scenic destination of Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan used to be part of Kham, and is named after nine traditional Tibetan villages in the area, seven of which are still inhabited by ethnic Tibetans.
The Qiang are an ethnic group related to but distinct from the Tibetans who live in the part of Kham that is today part of Sichuan. The main centre of their culture is in the Maoxian area, near Jiuzhaigou.
Except for the two largest places, Xining and Golmud, all the towns listed at Qinghai#Cities are predominantly Tibetan. Huangzhong is important in Tibetan history and has a major monastery. Yushu has several monasteries and an annual horse fair in July that brings many nomads to town. Tongren also has monasteries and is known as a center of Buddhist art.
Pu'er in southwestern Yunnan was the traditional starting point for horse caravans packing tea to Tibet and Burma (now called Myanmar). Many of the horse drovers were Tibetan and the area still has a significant Tibetan population. The region's tea, pǔ'ěrchá (普洱茶), is China's most famous fully fermented tea. It comes compressed into hard cakes, originally a packing method for caravan transport. The cakes are embossed with patterns, some pretty enough that people hang them up as wall decorations.
Besides the ethnic Tibetans, Tibetan Buddhism is the dominant religion among the ethnic Mongols, and historically among the ethnic Manchus. Numerous Tibetan Buddhist temples can be found in Inner Mongolia, as well as in the predominantly ethnic Mongol regions of the neighbouring provinces. In Beijing, the Yonghe Temple a is well-known Tibetan Buddhist temple whose architecture is a mix of Chinese and Tibetan styles, built by the ruling Manchus during the Qing Dynasty.
The region of Ladakh lies north of the Himalayas and is controlled by India, though both China and Pakistan also claim it. In medieval times it was sometimes ruled by Tibet and its culture is quite close to Tibetan; it has been called "Little Tibet". Today, its capital Leh is a popular tourist destination.
The Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh was once part of the Tibetan Empire, and the culture still shows a heavy Tibetan influence. It was ceded to the British Empire by the de facto independent Tibetan government in 1914, and became part of India when the British withdrew. The Chinese government never accepted the Tibetan government's claim to independence, does not recognise the treaty between the Tibetan and British governments, and continues to claim the area as part of Tibet.
There are substantial communities of Tibetans in India and Nepal; many fled there after the failed uprising of 1959. The main centers are Dharamsala and Kathmandu; both have Tibetan restaurants and plenty of Tibetan art and handicrafts on sale. Many merchants in Kathmandu seem to think that seeing a foreign face and uttering the magic word "Tibetan" allows them to raise prices a lot; you may have to bargain fiercely to get a reasonable deal.
If the goals of your journey include serious study of Tibetan Buddhism, then Dharamsala is an obvious place to go, partly because there are many teachers in the Dalai Lama's entourage. Such study is not encouraged in China, and Nepal has its own rather different variety of Buddhism. Alternatively you might go to Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha became enlightened; that is now a major pilgrimage site and has several monasteries including a Tibetan one.