Tibet (Chinese: ?? Xi-z�ng) is an autonomous region of China.
Here Tibet is used as a synonym for the Tibetan Autonomous Region (T.A.R.) of China not the historic Tibet before the Chinese take over. This is not a political statment. The strict restrictions on freedom of movement put on foreigners sharply divides the T.A.R from ethniclly Tibetan areas just east.
Entering Tibet, you feel as though you've entered an entirely different world. As much as the Chinese government pushes forward with its campaign of cultural assimilation, Tibetans manage to preserve their unique heritage.
There are seven prefectures in the Tibet Autonomous Region:
- Lhasa - the capital of Tibet
- Xigatse - the second largest city in Tibet
- Mount Kailash - a sacred mountain revered by both Tibetan Buddhists and Hindhus.
Almost all Tibetans know Mandarin Chinese to some degree. In the cities people speak Chinese fluently; in the villages it may be none. Chinese is also the language the police. Chinese people, on the other hand, normally don't know any Tibetan at all.
Although this makes Chinese a more useful language for travelers in many ways, you should remember that language is political in this charged environment. If you speak in Chinese to Tibetans, you are associating yourself with the Chinese government resented by many Tibetans. That said many tibetans seem to view Chinese as a useful lingua franca, and a few Tibetan plesantries is enough to befriend Tibetans. If you speak Tibetan to Chinese police, you'll raise suspicions that you may be in Tibet to suport Tibetan Independence. Try to avoid letting police (even ethnicly Tibetan officers) know you speak any Tibetan.
You can fly to Lhasa, but flying in from a lower altitude city puts you at greater risk of altitude sickness because of the quick transition. If you are in Sichuan Province or around (and aren't satisfied visiting the many easily accessible ethniclly Tibetan areas to the east of the Tibetan Autonomous Region ) flying from Chengdu is the easiest option.
A railway from Kashgar (Ch:Kashi) much of the way is technically off limits. However there is a steady stream of hardy travelers coming this way, usually hitching rides on trucks. The road is totally unpaved for over a thousand kilometers, villages and water are few and far between. The main advantages of this way 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, take everything you would need for independent trekking: camping equipment suitable for freezing temperatures even in 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 Urumchi 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 traveling this way instead of via Mount Kailash.
South: From Nepal the international border makes any sort of breaking of the rules impossible, so the only option is to book a tour with a travel agent in Kathmandu. If you have a Chinese visa before getting to Nepal, you will probably be able to stay in Tibet after the visa expires, if you get the visa in Kathmandu it will probablly be only be for the duration of the tour.
Many parts of Tibet are technically off limits to foreign tourists without travel permits. Exactly where you are allowed to go and where not is a matter of great dabate among travellers. It is complicated by the fact that the police don't seem very clear about it themselves, and as you normally get the permit through a travel agent they have a tendency to overstate the need. The truth seems to be that you don't need one for Lhasa Prefecture, you do for all others, and permits can be acquired in the prefecture capital or in Lhasa. (Here Prefecture is being used as the administrative level one down from state) The police in each prefecture seem to hold discretionary powers to a large degree. In Lhasa they do not give permits to travelers directly, only through a travel agent, and only once a tour has been booked. In other words it's expensive in Lhasa. In Xigatse the police are happy to give travel permits to tourists directly for a small fee, but they can only issue them for their prefecture, which includes the road to Nepal. Ali is another prefecture where the police give out the permit without any unneccesary difficulties, their administration includes Mount Kailash.
Central Tibet has an OK public bus network.
Hitchhiking can be an good way to get around the country for someone who is flexible, and has a lot of time. It can however mean you end up getting stuck without a lift for days. In the west of the country this problbly means hanging around the truck stop, as the distances are far too far to walk, and finding water would be a major problem. In central and eastern Tibet, where there's more water and villages, walking becomes a more reasonable option. It might not get you there quicker, but at least it offers a change of scenery.
There are a surprising number of tourists traveling Tibet by bicycle, both foreigners and Chinese. 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 cary 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 prefrable as 700c are almost unknown in China. Good mountain bikes are avalable in large cities of China, or in Lhasa. Golmud is not a good place to get a bicycle if you want it to get you past the check point just outside of town.
- The Potala Palace, the home of succesive 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 Street in Lhasa is a street of traditional Tibetan buildings that encompasses the Jokhang Temple.
- The 'Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama is located in Lhasa, about 1km south of the Potala.
- Samye Monastery was constructed in 779AD under the patronage of King Trisong Detsen and overseen by Santarakshita and Padmasambhava, two prominent Buddhist teachers from India. It was the first Buddhist Monastery established in Tibet and as such remains one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the region. Samye is located in Dranang, Lhoka Prefecture, 150 kms south-east of Lhasa.
Tragic as the Chinese takeover is, many Tibetans will nevertheless admit that at least it brought some decent restaurants. Even good Tibetan food is very monotonous, most Tibetan restaurants serving nothing other than thukpa (noodle soup) and tea. Even Chinese restaurants in villages often put out some excellent food. Some travelers feel that Hui (ethnic Chinese Moslem) places are cleaner because of halal food laws; they can be recognised by the green flags and cresent moons (and because they do look cleaner).
While traveling almost anywhere be prepared for the bus to be late, break down or whatever. Carry a snack on short trips and for something like out to Mount Kailash enough food for a few days or a week. Instant noodles are convenient even if you don't have a camp stove, ether eaten cold, or with boiled water poured on it. Tsampa (roasted barley flour) makes the ideal travel food because it's already cooked it can be eaten mixed with tea, butter and salt, or less conventionally mix tsumpa with, water, milk powder and sugar to it into a high energy snack.
Generally speaking, it is easier getting out of Tibet than in.
It's easy to get travel permits in Xigatse, and once you have one, you are free to travel to Nepal by any form of transport you like.
- Circumambulate stupas and other sacred objects in a clock-wise direction.
- Do not climb onto statues, mani stones or other sacred objects.
- Do not discuss politics; much friction exists between Tibet and China due to the 1949 invasion and occupation of Tibet. Watch what you say and do to avoid confrontation with the Chinese.
- Don't photograph people without permission. Some locations prohibit photography without a fee.