Think of Tibet and images of spinning prayer-wheels, yak-butter tea, clifftop monasteries and breathtaking mountains spring to mind. A visit to this land is something to be savoured as the air, heavy with juniper incense, guides you to the doorways of Tibetan Buddhism.
Spanning the world’s largest and highest plateau, Tibet is home to some of the highest mountains on the planet and the source of major rivers including the Yangtze, Mekong and Ganges. Essentially Tibet is a geographical dream of humbling and epic proportions.
Walk among prostrating pilgrims who, carried by the centrifugal force of the Kora, gravitate to the spiritual heart of Tibet – the Jokhang Temple. Breathe in the magnificence of Potala Palace as it soars above the city – immense in size and symbolism. Meander through the whitewashed back-streets of the old Tibetan quarter or simply stand still and be captivated by the sheer diversity of people. Nomads from the Kham regions of Tibet with their braided hair and ornate daggers and those from Amdo walk by spinning their prayer-wheels, clothed in sheepskins and striking coral headpieces.
Lhasa is just one part of a complete experience. Venture further into this mesmerising land of surreal geography and a sensory adventure will unfold. Bumpy roads and rugged highways reveal traditional rural scenery – vast fertile plains that stretch as far as the eye can see. Dusty towns once the centre of thriving trades, offer a glimpse into the past and winding roads zig-zag through vertiginous mountains that reveal glistening turquoise lakes below. Old ruins spread across sweeping plains are a reminder of past invasions while beige mud house settlements adorned with colourful prayer flags, raise a nostalgia and innocence that is fast disappearing.
A Dramatic Arrival
What better way to arrive in Tibet than overland on the highest plateau on earth. Though controversial, The Qinghai – Tibet Railway provides an exhilarating taste of the natural wonders of the Tibetan Plateau. Sweeping panoramas, mesmerising mountains, turquoise lakes and wandering nomads are all part of the magical journey that involves being catapulted into head-spinning altitudes.
Without doubt, Tibet has a unique spirituality. You’ll see it in the architectural wonder of the monasteries that balance precariously on mountain sides. You’ll feel it in the presence and majesty of spectacular landscapes that make you feel insignificant and you’ll hear it in the whispered prayers of monks and pilgrims congregating in flickering candle lit prayer halls.
One thing you’ll notice on arrival in Lhasa will be the heavy and authoritarian presence of the Chinese military. Add to that the rapid development of fast food chains, hotels and imposing construction of factories and it won’t be long before the remote mystery of Tibet will be diluted. Despite this, you won’t fail to recognise the inherent spirituality and resilience which is at the heart of the Tibetan people. Despite a tragic past, an ever-shifting present and uncertain future, they display an unflinching strength in their fight to express their religious freedom and an openness and generosity to all who take the time to get to engage with them.
The political situation means tourism is strictly controlled. Currently independent travel isn’t possible and travellers have to arrange a pre-arranged tour to visit the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Here are a few guidelines:
- All foreign visitors must get a Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit to enter Tibet and an Alien Travel Permit (and other permits) to travel outside of the capital Lhasa.
- All tourists will need to pre-book an itinerary, guide and transportation with an agency before travelling to Tibet.
- It’s not unusual for restrictions to result in Tibet being completely closed to foreigners, so check the most up-to-date regulations with travel companies.
- You will need to show your TTB permit before boarding a plane or train to Lhasa.
- You’re required to stay with the group throughout your entire stay in Tibet and are prohibited from taking pictures of tourist sites unless accompanied by a guide.
- Avoid taking pictures of the military, police or govt officials otherwise the tour agency may be asked to pay a penalty or be at risk of having their licence revoked. They are held accountable for your actions!
- There are frequent police checkpoints along the major roads outside Lhasa. Your guide will normally deal with this by showing and registering your passport for you. However, at times you’ll be required to present this information in person.
Tibet is a privilege waiting to be explored. Don’t be deterred by the politics or the expectation of a rough ride. In fact, it’s for these very reasons that you should go. Learn about its troubled history, witness its geography and experience the warmth of its people. There’s a rawness and remoteness in its beauty. It’s like going back in time. Go now before it’s innocence is completely lost.
I promise it’s unlike anything you’ll ever experience again!