Tibet (Bod to Tibetans), the “Roof of the World”, has exerted a magnetic pull over travellers for centuries. The scenery is awe-inspiring, the religious devotion overwhelming, and the Tibetan people welcoming and wonderful. Below the surface, however, it is all too apparent that Tibet’s past has been tragic, its present painful and the future bleak: today Tibet is a subjugated colony of China. While foreign visitors are perhaps more worldly than to expect a romantic Shangri-La, there is no doubt that many are shocked by the heavy military presence and authoritarian restrictions, both reinforced following pre-Olympic protests in 2007–08 and an ongoing campaign of self-immolations. The growing presence of Chinese immigrants and snap-happy tourists, construction of apartments and factories alongside traditional Tibetan rural homes and monasteries, and a programme of resettling nomads en masse to permanent new towns, are further causes of disquiet, but don’t stay away: many people, the Dalai Lama included, believe travellers should visit Tibet to learn all they can of the country.

One of the most isolated parts of the world, the massive Tibetan plateau sits at an average height of 4500m above sea level, guarded on all sides by towering mountain ranges. To the south, the Himalayas separate Tibet from India, Nepal and Bhutan; to the west lie the peaks of the Karakoram and Pakistan; while to the north the Kunlun range forms a barrier to Xinjiang. Eastwards, dividing Tibet from Sichuan and Yunnan, a further series of ranges stretches for a thousand kilometres. Some of Asia’s greatest rivers are born up on the plateau, including the Yangzi, Mekong, Yellow, Salween, Indus and Brahmaputra.

Today’s Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), while still a massive 1.2 million square kilometres, is but a shadow of the former “Greater Tibet” carved up by China in the 1950s, when the Amdo and Kham regions were absorbed into Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces. The current TAR comprisies only the former West and Central regions of Greater Tibet, and is itself divisible into four distinct geographical areas. The northern and largest portion is the almost uninhabited Chang Tang, a rocky desert at an average altitude of 4000m, where winter temperatures can fall to - 44°C. South of this is the mountainous grazing area, inhabited by wide-ranging nomads tending herds of yaks, sheep and goats. Eastern Tibet, occupying around a quarter of the TAR, is heavily forested. The relatively temperate southern valleys, sandwiched between the nomad areas and the Himalayas along the southern border, is the most hospitable and populated area, and where most visitors spend the majority of their time.

Tourist-friendly Lhasa, Shigatse and Gyantse offer the most accessible monasteries and temples – the Jokhang, Tashilunpo and Kumbum, respectively. The Potala Palace in Lhasa remains an enduring image of Tibet in the Western mind and should on no account be missed. Farther afield, the Yarlung and Chongye valleys to the southeast boast temples and ancient monuments, with a visit to the ancient walled monastery of Samye easily combined with these. The route along the “Friendship Highway” between Zhangmu on the Nepalese border and Lhasa is well established, with stops at the Mongolian-style monastery at Sakya and Everest Base Camp along the way. Further west lie the sacred peak of Mount Kailash, its nearby, and similarly holy, neighbour Lake Manasarovar, and the mysterious cave dwellings of the Guge Kingdom, burrowed into the walls of an enormous, crumbling canyon.

Brief history

According to legend, the earliest Tibetans came from the union of the ogress, Sinmo, and a monkey, reincarnation of the god Chenresi, on the mountain of Gangpo Ri near Tsetang. Ethnographers, however, think it more likely that Tibetans are descended from the nomadic Qiang, who roamed eastern Central Asia several thousand years ago. The first Tibetan king, Nyatri Tsenpo, who legend has it came to earth via a magical “sky-cord”, was the first of 27 kings who ruled in the pre-Buddhist era when the indigenous, shamanistic Bon religion held sway. Each of the early kings held power over a small area, the geographical isolation of Tibet making outside contact difficult. While pens, ink, silk, jewels and probably tea reached Tibet from China in the seventh century, for many centuries Tibet looked to India for religious teaching.

Arrival of Buddhism

It was in the time of King Songtsen Gampo, born in 617 AD, that expansion began. Songtsen Gampo’s twenty-year rule saw the unification of the country and the aggressive spread of his empire from northern India to China. China and Nepal each offered Songtsen Gampo a wife: in 632, he married Princess Bhrikuti (also known as Tritsun) of Nepal, and in 641 Princess Wencheng arrived from the Tang court, sent by her father, Emperor Taizong. They both brought their Buddhist faith and magnificent statues of the Buddha, which are now the centrepieces of Ramoche temple and the Jokhang in Lhasa. Songtsen Gampo himself embraced Buddhism and established temples throughout the country, although the indigenous Bon faith remained the religion of the ordinary people. Following his death in 650, his descendants strengthened the kingdom politically, and in 763 Tibetan armies even took the Chinese capital Chang’an (modern Xi’an).

In 838, having assassinated his brother, Langdarma came to the throne. A fervent supporter of the by-then marginalized Bon faith, he set about annihilating Buddhism. Temples and monasteries were destroyed, monks fled, and Tibet broke up into a number of small principalities. A century later, the arrival of Atisha (982–1054), the most famous Indian scholar of his time, sparked a Buddhist revival involving monastery construction, the translation of scriptures into Tibetan and the establishment of several of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Politically, the country was divided, with the various independent principalities having little contact with China.

Mongol period

Absorbed in domestic events, the Tibetans were largely unaware of the Muslim surge across India in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which destroyed the great Buddhist centres of teaching. Meanwhile, to the north and east, Mongol leader Genghis Khan was beginning his assault on China. In 1207, he sent envoys to Tibet demanding submission, which was given without a fight, and the territory was largely ignored until his grandson, Godan Khan, sent raiding parties to explore the country. Hearing from his troops about the spirituality of the Tibetan lamas, Godan invited the head of the Sakya order, Sakya Pandita, to his court. In exchange for peace, Sakya Pandita again offered Tibetan submission and was created regent of Tibet at the Mongolian court, effectively making the Sakya lamas rulers of the country. This lasted through the generations, with Godan’s son Kublai Khan deeply impressed by Sakya Pandita’s nephew, Phagpa.

When the Chinese Ming dynasty overcame the Mongols in the fourteenth century, Tibet began a long period of independence, which ended in 1642 with the Mongols intervening directly in support of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso (1617–82), of the Gelugpa order. Often referred to as “the Great Fifth”, he united the country under Gelugpa rule and within fifteen years established authority from Kham to Kailash – the first time that one religious and political leader had ruled the country. He invited scholars to Tibet, expanded religious institutions and began work on the Potala Palace.

Regency period

One disadvantage of the reincarnation system of succession (in which a newborn child is identified as a new manifestation of the dead lama) is that an unstable regency period of fifteen or twenty years inevitably follows the death of a Lama while his latest incarnation grows up. For two centuries after the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1682 the most influential figures in Tibet were these regents, and the representatives of China’s Manchu rulers, whose influence – despite Tibet’s official continuing status as a Chinese protectorate until 1912 – waned to the extent that Tibet became, to all intents and purposes, self-governing.

British invasion

During the nineteenth century, Tibet became increasingly isolationist, fearing Russian plans to expand their empire south and British plans to expand theirs north. But Indian and Tibetan traders continued to do business along the borders: in 1904, British patience with this one-sided arrangement ran out, and a force under Colonel Francis Younghusband was dispatched to extract favourable trading terms.

Younghusband advanced into the country, slaughtering Tibet’s poorly armed peasant soldiers – largely reliant on invulnerability charms for protection – along the way. Having cut their way through to Lhasa (where they were expecting, but failed, to find evidence of Russian influence), the British faced disappointment, one accompanying journalist writing:

If one approached within a league of Lhasa, saw the glittering domes of the Potala and turned back without entering the precincts one might still imagine an enchanted city. It was in fact an unsanitary slum. In the pitted streets pools of rainwater and piles of refuse were everywhere: the houses were mean and filthy, the stench pervasive. Pigs and ravens competed for nameless delicacies in open sewers.

The invaders forced a treaty on the Tibetans which the Dalai Lama – who had fled their advance – did not ratify, and which was rejected too by China’s representative. Britain then washed its hands of the whole affair, principally because of the public outcry against the first battle of the campaign, in which 700 Tibetans were machine-gunned as they walked away from the battlefield.

Chinese Invasion

The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Tubten Gyatso (1876–1933), realized that Tibet’s political position needed urgent clarification. But he had a difficult rule, fleeing into exile twice, and was much occupied with border fighting against the Chinese and tensions with conservatives inside the country. Following his death, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama was identified in Amdo in 1938 and was still a young man when world events began to close in on Tibet. The British left India in 1947, withdrawing their representative from Lhasa. In 1950, the Chinese government declared their intention “to liberate the oppressed and exploited Tibetans and reunite them with the great motherland”. The venture, however, probably had more to do with pre-empting growing Indian and Russian influence in the region, than with any high-minded ideals of emancipation. In October 1950, the People’s Liberation Army took the Kham region of eastern Tibet before proceeding to Lhasa the following year. Under considerable duress, Tibet signed a seventeen-point treaty in 1951, allowing for the “peaceful integration of Tibet” into China.

Early Communist era

Initially, the Chinese offered goodwill and modernization. Tibet had made little headway into the twentieth century; there were few roads, no electricity or lay education, and glass windows, steel girders and concrete were all recent introductions. While some Tibetans viewed modernization as necessary, the opposition was stiff, with the religious hierarchy seeing changes within the country as a threat to their own power. In March 1959, underground resistance to Chinese rule flared into a public confrontation. Refugees from eastern Tibet fled to Lhasa complaining of the brutality of Chinese rule, including the sexual humiliation of monks and nuns, arbitrary executions and even crucifixions. In Lhasa, the Chinese invited the Dalai Lama to a theatrical performance at the Chinese military HQ. It was popularly perceived as a ploy to kidnap him, and huge numbers of Tibetans mounted demonstrations and surrounded the Norbulingka where the Dalai Lama was staying. On the night of March 17, the Dalai Lama and his entourage fled into exile in India where they have since been joined by tens of thousands of refugees.

Crushing of the rebellion

The uprising in Lhasa was ferociously suppressed within a couple of days, the Tibetan rebels massively out-gunned by Chinese troops. Recriminations and further consolidation of Chinese power, however, were to continue: between March 1959 and September 1960 the Chinese killed an estimated 87,000 people. All pretence of goodwill vanished, and a huge military force moved in, with a Chinese bureaucracy replacing Tibetan institutions. Temples and monasteries were destroyed, and Chinese agricultural policies proved particularly disastrous. During the years of the Great Leap Forward (1959–60), it is estimated that ten percent of Tibetans starved – harrowing accounts tell of parents mixing their own blood with hot water and tsampa to feed their children.

Cultural Revolution and aftermath

In September 1965, the U-Tsang and western areas of Tibet officially became the Xizang Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China, but more significant was the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), during which mass eradication of religious monuments and practices took place. In 1959, there were 2700 monasteries and temples in Tibet; by 1978, there were just eight. Liberalization followed Mao’s death in 1976, leading to a period of relative openness and peace in the early 1980s when monasteries were rebuilt, religion revived and tourism introduced. However, by the end of the decade, martial law was again in place – thanks to Hu Jintao, later China’s president – following riots in Lhasa in 1988–89. In the early 1990s, foreigners were allowed back into the region, and as the decade progressed it appeared the Chinese government was loosening their heavy-handed authoritarian approach to Tibet, and were keen to exploit Tibet’s potential for international tourism.

Olympic recriminations

All this fell apart during the build-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics: pre-Games riots and protests in Tibet, Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai focused international attention on underlying tensions in Tibet; the Chinese government, embarrassed and angry, re-sealed borders and introduced all-but martial law. Since then, thousands have been arrested and any open dissent – or even discussion – has been almost entirely stifled, arguably resulting in an ongoing campaign of self-immolation by Tibetan monks which began in 2009.

A Chinese future

The Tibetan Government in Exile, meanwhile, based at Dharamsala in northern India, represents some 130,000 refugees. Its leader, the Dalai Lama – known to the Tibetans as Gyalwa Rinpoche and regarded as the earthly incarnation of the god Chenresi – has never faltered from advocating a peaceful solution for Tibet, a stance that led to his being awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. The Chinese government, however, has consistently denounced the Dalai Lama as being responsible for dissent, branding him “a devil with the face of a human but the heart of a beast”. His increasing age and frailty, the certainty of his death and the challenge of finding a successor pose serious questions for both China and the Tibetan authorities in exile.

In the meantime, several thousand Tibetans every year make the month-long trek to India, an arduous and dangerous journey over the mountains. Pilgrims have been picked off by Chinese snipers as they crossed the Himalayas, though increasingly those who escape stay only for a few years before heading back home. For the Tibetans who remain, life in Tibet is harsh. Per capita annual income in rural areas is pitiful and the rate of adult literacy has been describe by the UN as “horrendous”. It is estimated that China subsidized the TAR between 1952 and 1998 to the tune of ¥40 billion – yet Tibetans are among the poorest people in China, with some of the lowest life expectancies. As Tibet provides the Chinese with land for their exploding population along with a wealth of natural resources, the influx of more educated and better-skilled Chinese settlers, with considerable financial resources, threatens to swamp the Tibetan population, culture and economy.

An uneasy relationship

Any trip to Tibet faces obstacles. Following the centuries of self-imposed isolation which ended with Tibet being forcibly annexed by China in 1950, Tibet has become increasingly accessible, with approaches eased by plane links, paved roads and the Qinghai–Lhasa railway. Each new route has accelerated heavy, government-sponsored migration into the region, and although it is impossible to know how many Han Chinese actually live here it is likely that, at least in urban areas, they now outnumber ethnic Tibetans and have become economically dominant.

There are, of course, two sides to every story. The pre-Chinese Tibetan administration was a xenophobic religious dictatorship that tolerated slavery; when the Chinese arrived, the monied and the ruling classes escaped to India, leaving behind an uneducated working class. China has spent billions bringing modern infrastructure to the region, giving Tibetan people the chance to make a better life for themselves and, ironically, strengthen their culture. Meanwhile, the Chinese migrating into Tibet are not demons. Most are people simply trying to make a life for themselves and their families, with little understanding of the implications of their presence. As with Taiwan and Xinjiang, all Chinese are taught almost from birth that Tibet is an “inalienable part of China”, and to suggest otherwise is heresy.

As part of their Beijing Olympic bid, the Chinese government promised increased freedom for Tibetans, but a confluence of events – the unfurling of a Tibetan flag at Everest Base Camp by some American students in 2007, mass protests and rioting by Tibetans in spring 2008 – ended those dreams. Since 2008 an ongoing campaign in Tibet, Sichuan and even across the border in Nepal, has seen scores of Tibetan protesters set themselves ablaze. Extremely strict travel regulations are in place, and temporary bans on all foreign travellers from visiting the region are regularly imposed. Any visit to Tibet will be expensive, with transport and accommodation options for foreigners limited, on the whole, to the higher end of the market, though Tibetan organizations abroad ask visitors to try, wherever possible, to buy from Tibetans and to hire Tibetan guides. At all times, you should avoid putting Tibetans – and yourself – at risk by bringing up politically sensitive issues: you can go home, Tibetans have to live here. The Chinese authorities monitor internet activity here more strictly than in the rest of the Republic so, again, avoid sensitive topics and mentioning people by name in your emails.

Around Lhasa

Just outside Lhasa, the major monasteries of Sera, Drepung, Nechung and Ganden are easily accessible from the city as half-day or day-trips. Indeed, Sera and Drepung have virtually been gobbled up in the urban sprawl that now characterizes Lhasa, while the trip to Ganden or to Samye – the latter slightly further out to the southeast – is a good chance to get out into the countryside. Morning visits to any of them are likely to be in the company of parties of devout pilgrims who’ll scurry around the temples making their offerings before heading on to the next target. Follow on behind them and you’ll visit all the main buildings; don’t worry too much if you aren’t sure what you are looking at – most of the pilgrims haven’t a clue either. The monasteries are generally peaceful and atmospheric places where nobody minds you ambling at will, and sooner or later you’re bound to come across some monks who want to practise their English.

The Ganden–Samye trek

Though popular, the Ganden–Samye trek is no less serious or demanding than other treks. The route, which takes four days to complete, crosses the mountains that divide the Kyichu Valley from that of the Tsangpo and travels through high mountain passes and alpine pasture to the dry, almost desert-like countryside around Samye. The trek goes by Hebu village (three hours south of Ganden and a good place to hire yaks and guides) and involves camping out or sleeping in caves or nomad encampments, long climbs to the Jooker La and Sukhe La passes, and some deep-river wading.

Life in the great monasteries

Fifty years ago, there were still six great, functioning Gelugpa monasteries: Sera, Drepung and Ganden near Lhasa, plus Tashilunpo in Shigatse, Labrang and Kumbum. They each operated on a similar system to cope with the huge numbers of monks who were drawn to these major institutions from all over Tibet. In their heyday, Sera and Ganden had five thousand residents each and Drepung (possibly the largest monastery the world has ever known) had between eight and ten thousand.

Each monastery was divided into colleges, dratsang, which differed from each other in the type of studies undertaken. Each college was under the management of an abbot (khenpo), and a monk responsible for discipline (ge-kor). Attached to each college were a number of houses or khangsten, where the monks lived during their time at the monastery. Usually, these houses catered for students from different geographical regions, and admission to the monastery was controlled by the heads of the houses to whom aspirant monks would apply. Each college had its own assembly hall and chapels, but there was also a main assembly hall where the entire community could gather.

Not every member of the community spent their time in scholarly pursuits. Communities the size of these took huge amounts of organization, and the largest monasteries also maintained large estates worked by serfs. About half the monks might be engaged in academic study while the other half worked at administration, the supervision of the estate work and the day-to-day running of what was essentially a small town.

The most obvious feature of these monasteries today is their emptiness; hundreds of monks now rattle around in massive compounds built for thousands. Such has been the fate of religious establishments under the Chinese and the flow of lamas into exile that there are now questions about the quality of the Buddhist education available at the monasteries inside Tibet. Monks and nuns need to be vetted and receive Chinese-government approval before they can join a monastery or convent, and although there are persistent rumours of tourists being informed on by monks, it’s also apparent that both monks and nuns have been, and continue to be, at the forefront of open political opposition to the Chinese inside Tibet.

Samye

A visit to SAMYE, on the north bank of the Tsangpo River around 50km southeast of Lhasa, is a highlight of Tibet. A unique monastery and walled village rolled into one, it’s situated in wonderful scenery and, however you arrive, the journey is splendid. You can climb the sacred Hepo Ri to the east of the complex for excellent views (1hr); it was here that Padmasambhava is said to have subdued the local spirits and won them over to Buddhism.

Arranging tours

With independent travel in Tibet currently impossible for foreign tourists, the only option is to book a guided tour – including a private vehicle, driver and guide – through an agency before you arrive. Despite the huge number of travel agencies in Chengdu, Xining, Golmud and Lhasa, all claiming to offer a unique service, most operate through CITS or FIT in Lhasa, hiring drivers and tour guides who are registered with the Lhasa authorities and work as freelancers. That you are forced to book from outside the region, preventing you from meeting the tour guide or seeing the vehicle before signing up, means it pays to be circumspect – try to get a recommendation from a fellow traveller if possible, and go through your itinerary with a fine-tooth comb working out exactly what is covered and what you will have to pay extra for. Getting a group of four or five together to fill a jeep will ensure the per-person cost is as low as it can be, though if you are on your own or in a couple, most agencies will be able to match you up with a group which has spaces that need filling.

Despite the requirement to book a tour, regulations do not stipulate that accommodation reservations are made in advance. As a result, not all tour agencies include accommodation in their prices – clarify whether accommodation is included and, if so, where. You may be able to bring down the price of your tour, or ensure you’re not bedding down in the worst place in every town, by negotiating where you stay.

The most popular tour follows the Friendship Highway up to the Nepalese border, and includes three days in Lhasa and five on the road taking in Gyantse, Shigatse and Everest Base Camp. It costs around ¥7000 per person including accommodation. However, as you have to book a driver, guide and vehicle anyway, there is no reason to simply stick to the tours offered – you can draw up your own itinerary and negotiate costs with the agency. Expect to pay around ¥1300 per day to hire a Land Cruiser. For driver and guide fees it is best to haggle prices as low as you can with the agency and tip heavily at the end of the tour to ensure the money goes where you want it to.

Established agencies

In the event of a misunderstanding, you may wish to complain to the Tour Service Inspection Office of Lhasa’s Tibet Tourism Bureau, 208 Luobulingka Lu.

  • Budget Tibet Tour

budgettibettour.com

  • CITS

tibettravel.org

  • Khampa Caravan

khampacaravan.com

  • Tibet Culture Tour

tibetculturetour.com

  • Tibetan Expeditions

tibetanexpeditions.com

  • Tibet Nakqu International Travel Service

namgyal_tenzin@hotmail.com

  • Wind Horse

Windhorsetour.com

Books beware!

If you’re interested in doing some background reading on Tibet, it’s best to begin at home before you leave, as much that would be considered essential reading by Western audiences is simply not allowed or available in China – this includes almost all guide books, with their bourgeois imperialist references to Tibetan independence.

But beware: searches of luggage do take place – particularly at the Nepal–Tibet border at Zhangmu – where any literature deemed unpatriotic to China, anything remotely resembling a Tibetan flag and anything containing images of the Dalai Lama (though, with all pictures of him banned, it’s worth pondering how the guards looking for the pictures know what he looks like) will be confiscated.

To Everest and the Nepal border

Roads run southwest of Lhasa to Mount Everest and the Nepal border, past some of the region’s most historically significant monasteries: Gyantse, site of a shameful episode in Britain’s colonial past; Shigatse, spiritiual seat of the Panchen Lamas; and spectacular Sakya, home to one of the foremost orders of Tibetan Buddhism. Then comes Everest itself, though – given the surprising urbanity of the base camp “village” here – the mountain’s rugged splendor is perhaps best appreciated from afar.

Approaching Everest

Approaching Everest along the Friendship Highway from Lhatse, allow about four hours in a good jeep to get up over the Lhakpa La Pass (5220m) to NEW TINGRI (新定日, xīndìngrì; also known as Shekar). Almost entirely constructed from concrete blocks, it’s not the nicest place, but it holds the ticket office for entry to the Mount Everest area and represents the last chance to stock up on provisions before the mountain.

There’s a checkpoint on the highway about 5km further on where some visitors have reported guards being particularly assiduous in confiscating printed material specifically about Tibet (books on China that include Tibet seem to be fine). Just 7km west of this checkpoint, the small turning to Rongbuk Monastery and on up to Mount Everest Base Camp is on the south side of the road.

The Friendship Highway

From Shigatse, the Friendship Highway is surfaced all the way to Zhangmu on the Nepalese border. The only public buses in this direction are the Shigatse to Sakya, Lhatse and Tingri services. From the broad plain around Shigatse, the road gradually climbs to the pass of Tsuo La (4500m) before the steep descent to the Sakya Bridge and the turn-off to Sakya village. If you have time, a detour off the Friendship Highway to Sakya is worthwhile; the valleys are picturesque, the villages retain the rhythm of their rural life and Sakya Monastery is a dramatic sight. Further south, the side-trip to Mount Everest Base Camp is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Gyantse

On the eastern banks of the Nyang Chu at the base of a natural amphitheatre of rocky ridges, GYANTSE is an attractive, relaxed town, offering the splendid sights of the Gyantse Kumbum (pronounced goom- boom) – famous among scholars of Tibetan art throughout the world – and the old Gyantse Dzong. Despite the rapidly expanding Chinese section of town, it has retained a pleasant, laidback air. It lies 263km from Lhasa on the old southern road and 90km southeast of Shigatse.

The old southern road

The road west from Lhasa divides at the Chusul Bridge and most vehicles follow the paved Friendship Highway along the course of the Yarlung Tsangpo to Shigatse. However, there is an alternative route, the longer but extremely picturesque old southern road that heads southwest to the shores of Yamdrok Tso, before turning west to Gyantse and then northwest to Shigatse – it is this route that most tour groups follow. Expect around six or seven hours’ driving time from Lhasa to Gyantse in a good jeep, but day-trips to Yamdrok Tso from Lhasa are feasible.

The Panchen Lama controversy

The life of Choekyi Gyaltsen, the Tenth Panchen Lama (1938–89), was a tragic one. Identified without approval from Lhasa by the Nationalist authorities in 1949, he fell into Communist hands and was for years China’s highest-profile Tibetan collaborator. In 1959, however, his role changed when he openly referred to the Dalai Lama as the true ruler of Tibet. Ordered to denounce the Dalai Lama, Gyaltsen refused and was barred from speaking in public until 1964, when, to an audience of ten thousand people, he again proclaimed support for the exiled leader. He spent the following fourteen years in jail. Released in 1978, Gyaltsen never again criticized the Chinese in public, arguing for the protection of Tibetan culture at all costs, even if it meant abandoning independence. Some saw him as a sellout; others still worship him as a hero. He died in 1989, officially from a heart attack, though rumours of poisoning persist.

The search for a successor was always likely to be fraught, with the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government both claiming authority to choose the next incarnation. The search was initially led according to tradition by checking on reports of “unusual” children, and in January 1995 the Dalai Lama identified the Eleventh Panchen Lama but – concerned for the child’s safety – delayed a public announcement. The Chinese authorities, meanwhile, decreed selection should take place by drawing of lots from a golden urn.

In May, the Dalai Lama publicly identified his choice, and within days the boy and his family had disappeared. Fifty Communist Party officials moved into Tashilunpo to root out monks loyal to the Dalai Lama and his choice of Panchen Lama. In July, riot police quelled an open revolt by the monks, but by the end of 1995 dissent was suppressed enough for the drawing of lots to take place. The lucky winner, Gyaincain Norbu, was enthroned at Tashilunpo and taken to Beijing for publicity appearances, where he has since stayed to complete his studies. Two decades later, the fate of the Dalai Lama’s choice and his family remains unknown, though Beijing claims they are free and voluntarily opting to remain anonymous.

As for Gyaincain Norbu, despite Beijing’s best efforts, his returns home are lacklustre affairs, and it is overwhelmingly his predecessor, the rotund Choekyi Gyaltsen, who you’ll see smiling beatifically down from Tibetan living-room walls.

Sakya

The small but rapidly growing village of SAKYA (萨迦, sàjiā), set in the midst of an attractive plain, straddles the small Trum River and is highly significant as the centre of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism. The main reason to visit is to see the remaining monastery, a unique, Mongol-style construction dramatically visible from far away. The village around is now a burgeoning Chinese community, full of ugly concrete, and can be crowded with coach parties in peak season, but while it’s not a place to linger, the monastery makes this a more than worthwhile side-trip from the Friendship Highway.

Sakya’s Northern Monastery

Originally, there were two monasteries at Sakya: the imposing, Mongol-style structure of the Southern Monastery that visitors come to see today, and a Northern Monastery across the river, which was a more typical complex containing 108 chapels. The Northern Monastery was founded in 1073 by Kong Chogyal Pho, a member of the Khon family, whose son, Kunga Nyingpo, did much to establish Sakya as an important religious centre. He married and had four sons; three became monks, but the fourth remained a layman and continued the family line. The Sakya order has remained something of a family affair, and, while the monks take vows of celibacy, their lay brothers ensure the leadership remains with their kin. One of the early leaders was a grandson of Kunga Nyingpo, known as Sakya Pandita. He began the most illustrious era of the order in the thirteenth century when he journeyed to the court of the Mongol emperor, Godan Khan, and established the Sakya lamas as religious advisers to subsequent emperors and effective rulers of Tibet. This state of affairs lasted until the overthrow of the Mongols in 1354.

The Northern Monastery was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and has been largely replaced by housing. Prior to the Chinese occupation, there were around five hundred monks in the two monasteries; there are now about a hundred.

Sakya’s Northern Monastery

Originally, there were two monasteries at Sakya: the imposing, Mongol-style structure of the Southern Monastery that visitors come to see today, and a Northern Monastery across the river, which was a more typical complex containing 108 chapels. The Northern Monastery was founded in 1073 by Kong Chogyal Pho, a member of the Khon family, whose son, Kunga Nyingpo, did much to establish Sakya as an important religious centre. He married and had four sons; three became monks, but the fourth remained a layman and continued the family line. The Sakya order has remained something of a family affair, and, while the monks take vows of celibacy, their lay brothers ensure the leadership remains with their kin. One of the early leaders was a grandson of Kunga Nyingpo, known as Sakya Pandita. He began the most illustrious era of the order in the thirteenth century when he journeyed to the court of the Mongol emperor, Godan Khan, and established the Sakya lamas as religious advisers to subsequent emperors and effective rulers of Tibet. This state of affairs lasted until the overthrow of the Mongols in 1354.

The Northern Monastery was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and has been largely replaced by housing. Prior to the Chinese occupation, there were around five hundred monks in the two monasteries; there are now about a hundred.

Shigatse

Traditionally the home of the Panchen Lamas – religious and political rivals to the Dalai Lamas – Tibet’s second city, SHIGATSE (日喀则, rìkāzé), is used by travellers as an overnight stop on the way to or from Lhasa. One day is long enough to see the two main sights, Tashilunpo Monastery and Shigatse Dzong, but if you’re not pressed for time it’s worth spending at least an extra night here simply to do everything at a more leisurely pace, take in the market, wander the attractive, tree-lined streets and absorb the buzz provided by the huge numbers of Tibetan pilgrims and foreign visitors. Although most of the city is modern, you’ll find the traditional Tibetan houses concentrated in the old town west of the market, where you can explore the narrow alleyways running between high, whitewashed walls.

Lhasa

Situated in a wide, mountain-fringed valley at 3700m on the north bank of the Kyichu River, LHASA (拉萨, lāsà; Ground of the Gods) is a sprawling modern city with a population of around 200,000. An important settlement for well over a thousand years, it was not until the seventeenth century, with the installation of the Fifth Dalai Lama as ruler by Mongolian emperor Gushri Khan, that Lhasa became the seat of government. It continues now as the capital of the TAR, but with its wide boulevards, shopping centres, and the concrete-and-glass high rises spreading south and west along the valley, China has well and truly left its architectural stamp upon the city. Despite the passing of sixty years, Lhasa is still palpably under imposed rule; the armed soldiers may have taken a lower profile, with much of the security work now falling to large numbers of police and plain-clothes officers on street corners and rooftops, but the air of occupation remains.

There are enough sights in and around Lhasa to keep visitors occupied for at least a week (even if most tours cram them into a couple of days): the Potala Palace, Jokhang and the Barkhor district are not to be missed, and at least one trip to an outlying monastery is a must. It’s also worth taking time to see some of the smaller, less showy temples and simply to absorb the atmosphere of the “Forbidden City”, which large numbers of explorers died in vain efforts to reach just over a hundred years ago.

The Jokhang

The Jokhang – sometimes called Tshuglakhang (Cathedral), and the holiest temple in the Tibetan Buddhist world – can be unprepossessing from afar, but get closer and you’ll be swept up by the anticipation of the pilgrims and the almost palpable air of veneration. It stands 1km east of the Potala Palace, in the centre of the only remaining Tibetan enclave in the city, the Barkhor area, a maze of cobbled alleyways between Beijing Dong Lu and Jinzhu Dong Lu. Inside, you’re in for one of the most unforgettable experiences in Tibet. Devout pilgrims turn left to move clockwise and enter each chapel in turn to pray and make offerings, though they don’t hang around; stand still to admire anything and you’ll be trampled in the rush. As with all temples in Tibet, it’s often difficult to know exactly what you are looking at. Some of the statues are original, others were damaged during the Cultural Revolution and have been restored either slightly or extensively, and others are replicas; in any event, all are held in deep reverence by the pilgrims. The best time to visit is in the morning, when most pilgrims do the rounds.

Suppressing demons

King Songtsen Gampo built the Jokhang in the seventh century to house the dowry brought by his Nepalese bride, Princess Bhrikuti, including the statue known as the Akshobhya Buddha. This later changed places with the Jowo Sakyamuni statue from Princess Wencheng’s dowry, which was initially installed in Ramoche temple, and which is now regarded as Tibet’s most sacred object. The site of the temple was decided by Princess Wencheng after consulting astrological charts, and confirmed by the king following a vision while meditating. However, construction was fraught with problems. Another vision revealed to the king and his queens that beneath the land of Tibet lay a huge, sleeping demoness with her head in the east, feet to the west and heart beneath Lhasa. Only by building monasteries at suitable points to pin her to the earth could construction of the Jokhang succeed. The king embarked on a scheme to construct twelve demon-suppressing temples: four around Lhasa, which included Trandruk, to pin her at hips and shoulders; a set of four farther away, to pin elbows and knees; and four even more distant, to pin her hands and feet. When these were finished, construction of the Jokhang began.

Southeast from Lhasa

The region around Tsetang, southeast of Lhasa and just south of the Tsangpo River, is steeped in ancient history. Legend has it that the first Tibetans originated on the slopes of Gongpo Ri to the east of Tsetang, and that the Yarlung Valley (where the country’s earliest Buddhist scriptures magically appeared) was where the first king of Tibet descended from the heavens on a sky-cord, to father the original royal dynasty – many members of which are buried in the nearby Chongye Valley.

Tibet Travel Permits

In order to enter Tibet – in fact, even to buy a plane or train ticket to Lhasa – foreign travellers must have a Tibet Travel Permit. Issued by the TAR authorities, this lists a full travel itinerary and provides evidence of having booked a car, driver and guide for every day you are in the region. Available through registered travel agencies only, the permit should be included as part of your travel package by whichever agency you book with. Though the permit officially carries no cost, agencies arranging permits will charge a significant handling fee for the service, covering the huge amount of paperwork and “other costs” involved.

Be aware that until the permit is issued, which often occurs only a day or two before your tour will be due to start, you will not be able to independently book flights or trains into the region. The agency you have booked your tour through, safe in the knowledge of your full itinerary and in possession of a fair-sized deposit, is likely be willing to make reservations on your behalf, or you can wait to book travel yourself at the last minute; either way, don’t expect discounted tickets. While it may be tempting to try to sidestep the regulations, all foreign travellers coming from inside China will have their permits checked at point of purchase, on departure, and on arrival; hotels will not let foreigners stay unless accompanied at check-in by an official tour guide with a valid permit, and they are required to be shown again when visiting the Potala Palace and other tourist sights. Add the regular checkpoints along roads outside Lhasa and it would take a serious, concerted effort, and a massive slice of luck, for a permitless traveller to get very far.

Once in Tibet, further permits are needed for specific areas. Travel along the Friendship Highway to Everest, and to Mount Kailash, requires permits that are most often secured from the Public Security Bureau in Shigatse, costing around ¥150. Getting these permits is the responsibility of your tour guide and costs will have been included in the overall agency fee, so its not something you should have to worry about. That said, it’s best to politely double check that they are being taken care of. Anyone caught without permits or overstaying their alloted time faces fines and deportation from the region. The agency that applies for the permit on your behalf may also face stiff penalties, so your guides will also be anxious for you to stick to the leaving dates set out on the permit. Bear in mind that regulations have shifted fairly regularly in the past, so it’s best to check up on the latest requirements before booking.

Travellers’ Tibetan

Although most tour guides are now conversant in several languages, including English, most Tibetans speak only their native tongue, with a smattering of Mandarin. A few words of Tibetan from a foreigner will always be greeted enthusiastically, and the further off the beaten track you get, the more useful they’ll be.

Tibetan belongs to the small Tibeto-Burmese group of languages and has no similarity at all to Mandarin. Tibetan script was developed in the seventh century and has thirty consonants and five vowels, which are placed either beside, above or below other letters when written down. There are obvious inaccuracies when trying to render this into the Roman alphabet, and the situation is further complicated by the many dialects across the region; the Lhasa dialect is used in the vocabulary here. Word order is back-to-front relative to English, and verbs are placed at the ends of sentences – “this noodle soup is delicious” becomes “tukpa dee shimbo doo”, literally “noodle soup this delicious is”. The only sound you are likely to have trouble with is “ng” at the beginning of words – it is pronounced as in “sang”.

Trekking Tibet

For the experienced hiker, Tibet offers plenty of enticing trekking routes – though you will currently need to negotiate for a guide and a travel agency to endorse your travel permit and accompany you for the entire duration of the trek. The popular Ganden–Samye trek has the advantages that both the start and finish points are relatively accessible from Lhasa and that it takes only three to four days. Also worth considering are treks to the cave hermitage of Drak Yerpa from Lhasa (allow a full day and be prepared to camp), and the five-day trek from Tingri to Everest Base Camp via Rongbuk. More challenging options include: the sixteen-day mammoth trek to the Kangshung face of Everest, exploring the valleys east of the mountain (the trip to second base camp and beyond on the mountain itself should only be tackled by experienced climbers); the 24-day circumnavigation of Namtso Lake, including the arduous exploration of the Shang Valley to the southwest; and the great thirty-day circuit from Lhatse to Lake Dangra up on the Chang Tang plateau.

Spring (April–June) and autumn (Sept–Nov) are the best seasons in which to trek, though cold-weather threats such as hypothermia and frostbite should be taken seriously even in these months. While trekking is possible at any time in the valleys, high altitudes become virtually impossible in the winter; anyone contemplating trekking at this time should be sure to check information about the terrain and likely conditions. During the wettest months (June–Sept), rivers are in flood, and crossing them can be difficult, even impossible. Once you start trekking, you get off the beaten track extremely quickly, and there is no infrastructure to support trekkers and no rescue service; you therefore need to be fit, acclimatized, self-reliant and prepared to do some research before you go. There are two essential books: Tibet Handbook: a Pilgrimage Guide by Victor Chan (Moon), and Trekking in Tibet by Gary McCue (Cordee), which is especially good for shorter day-treks that anyone can do without all the gear.

Tsurphu and Namtso

One of the most rewarding and popular trips in Tibet is to Namtso Lake, around 230km northwest of Lhasa, taking in Tsurphu Monastery on the way. This can be done on a two-night/three-day jaunt from Lhasa by jeep.

Black Hat Lamaism

Founded in the twelfth century by Dusun Khenyapa, the Karmapa order is a branch of the Kagyupa tradition, where members are known as the Black Hats after the Second Karmapa was presented with one by Kublai Khan. Most powerful during the fifteenth century, when they were close to the ruling families of the time, they were eventually eclipsed in 1642 when the Fifth Dalai Lama and the “Yellow Hat” Gelugpa order, aided by the Mongol army, gained the ascendancy. The Karmapa were the first order to institute the system of reincarnated lamas, tulkus, a tradition later adopted by the Gelugpa school.

Namtso

Set at 4700m and frozen over from November to May, Namtso (Sky Lake) is 70km long and 30km wide, the second-largest saltwater lake in China (only Qinghai Lake is bigger). The scenery comes straight from a dream image of Tibet, with snowcapped mountains towering behind the massive lake and yaks grazing on the plains around nomadic herders’ tents.

Western Tibet

Travellers spend huge amounts of time and money plotting and planning trips to Western Tibet, with its key sights of Mount Kailash, Lake Manasarovar and the remains of the tenth-century Guge kingdom. However, this is no guarantee of reaching any of these destinations – regulations change frequently and weather can be a factor. Access to Mount Kailash generally isn’t a problem – you just need to find a tour agency running the trip. Cost is likely to be the largest obstacle as tours to Kailash take at least two weeks.

Mount Kailash

Top of most Western Tibet itineraries is Mount Kailash (6714m, Gang Rinpoche to the Tibetans), the sacred mountain at the centre of the universe for Buddhists, Hindus and Jains. The 58km tour around the mountain takes around two and a half days (though Tibetans usually do it in one); you might consider hiring a porter and/or yak (from about ¥120/day each) as it’s a tough walk and you need to carry all your gear and at least some food. On the first day you should reach Drirapuk Monastery; on the second day you climb over the Dolma La Pass (5636m) to Zutrulpuk Monastery; and the third day you arrive back in Darchen.

Routes through Western Tibet

The southern route, a well-surfaced highway running parallel to the Himalayas all the way to Western Tibet’s main town, ALI (also known as Shiquanhe), passes through Saga, and on to Darchen, and makes for a stunningly picturesque journey. From Lhasa to Mount Kailash is around 1400km.

The alternative northern route via Tsochen, Gertse and Gakyi is longer: it’s over 1700km to Ali, and then another 300km or so southeast to Mount Kailash. It is also less scenic, but less liable to be affected by snow or flooding. Some tours plan to go on one route and return on the other – expect around a week’s-travelling time on either.

Zanda and the Guge Kingdom

These days just another arid army town, ZANDA (also known as Tholing; 托林, tuōlín) was once capital of the Guge Kingdom. Today only Tholing Monastery, some chortens, and ruins just outside town remain, but it is still the best place to base yourself to visit the Guge sites.

Everest Base Camp

Everest Base Camp (5150m) is 4km due south from Rongbuk Monastery. There’s a bus, but the walk alongside the river through the boulder-strewn landscape and past a small monastery on the cliff is glorious and the route fairly flat. Base camp is often a bit of a surprise, especially during the climbing seasons (March–May, Sept & Oct), when you’ll find a colourful and untidy tent city festooned with Calor gas bottles and satellite dishes. At other times of year it’s almost completely deserted, save for a perpetual detachment of Chinese troops keeping an eye out for potential “trouble”.

Don’t be surprised if you suffer with the altitude here – breathlessness and headaches are the norm. However well you were acclimatized in Lhasa, base camp is around 1500m higher, so be sensible and don’t contemplate a trip here immediately after arrival up on the Tibetan plateau.

The Potala Palace

Perched 130m above Lhasa atop Marpo Ri (Red Mountain), and named after India’s Riwo Potala – holy mountain of the god Chenresi – the Potala Palace (布达拉宫, bùdálāgōng ) is dazzling inside and out, an enduring landmark of the city. As you revel in the views from the roof, gaze at the glittering array of gold and jewels and wend your way from chapel to chapel, you’ll rub shoulders with excited, awestruck pilgrims from all over ethnic Tibet, making offerings at each of the altars. But be aware that, beyond the areas approved for tourists and pilgrims, the Potala is a shadow of its former self: most of the rooms are off limits, part of a UNESCO World Heritage grant was spent on a CCTV system and the caretaker monks are not allowed to wear their robes.

Though close enough to town to reach on foot, don’t tackle the Potala on your first day at altitude – the palace is a long climb, and even the Tibetans huff and puff on the way up; you’ll enjoy it more once you’ve acclimatized. Morning is certainly the best time to visit, when the place bustles with pilgrims. Photography is banned inside, and neither, bizarrely, are you supposed to take pictures of the fabulous views from the roof. Snapping away in the palace’s courtyards is tolerated, however.

Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism is divided into several schools that have different philosophical emphases rather than fundamental differences. The Nyingma, the Old Order, traces its origins back to Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet. The Kagyupa, Sakya and Kadampa all developed during the eleventh-century revival of Buddhism, while the now-dominant Gelugpa (Virtuous School) was founded by Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) and numbers the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama among its adherents. Virtually all monasteries and temples are aligned to one or other of the schools, but, apart from an abundance of statues of revered lamas of that particular school, you’ll spot little difference between the temples. Tibetan people are pretty eclectic and will worship in temples that they feel are particularly sacred and seek blessings from lamas they feel are endowed with special powers, regardless of which school they belong to.

Visiting temples

There is little ceremony attached to visiting temples, which are generally welcoming places. Most are open in the mornings (9am–noon), when pilgrims do the rounds, and again after lunch (around 2pm or 3pm, until 5pm). Smaller places may well be locked, but ask for the caretaker and the chances are you’ll be let in. There is no need to remove your shoes, but you should always circulate in a clockwise direction, and shouldn’t eat, drink or smoke inside. Ask before taking photographs, which isn’t always allowed, and if it is, you may be charged for the privilege. Entrance fees collected from tourists are often claimed by local authorities, so if you want to give to the institution itself, leave an offering on an altar or pay the photography charge.

The range of offerings Tibetans make to their gods is enormous: juniper smoke sent skyward in incense burners, prayer flags erected on rooftops and mountains, tiny papers printed with religious images (lungda) and cast to the wind on bridges and passes, white scarves (katag) presented to statues and lamas, butter to keep lamps burning on altars, repetitious mantras invoking the gods and the spinning of prayer wheels that have printed prayers rolled up inside are all part of religious observance. The idea of each is to gain merit in this life and hence affect karma. If you want to take part, watch what other people do and copy them; nobody is at all precious about religion in Tibet. Giving alms to beggars is another way of gaining merit, and most large Tibetan temples have a horde of beggars who survive on charity from pilgrims. Whether or not you give money is up to you, but if you do it’s wise to give a few small denomination notes or so, the same amount as Tibetans.

Gods and goddesses

Tibetan Buddhism has an overwhelming number of gods and goddesses, and each deity in turn has different manifestations or forms. For example, there are 21 forms of the favourite goddess Tara, and even the most straightforward image has both a Sanskrit and Tibetan name. Here are some of the most common you will encounter:

Amitayus

(Tsepame) and Vijaya (Namgyelma), often placed with White Tara to form the Three Gods of Longevity.

Avalokiteshvara

(Chenresi in Tibetan, Guanyin in Chinese temples), patron god of Tibet, with many forms, most noticeably with eleven faces and a thousand arms.

Maitreya

(Jampa), the Buddha of the Future.

Manjusri

(Jampelyang), the God of Wisdom.

Padmasambhava,

with eight manifestations, most apparent as Guru Rinpoche. You may see him with his consorts, Yeshe Tsogyel and Mandarava.

Sakyamuni,

Buddha of the Present.

Tara

(Dolma), Goddess of Compassion. Green Tara is associated with protection and White Tara with long life.

Festivals

Festival dates are calculated using the Tibetan lunar calendar and as a result correspond to different dates on the Western calendar each year. There is a list of festival dates in the Western calendar at kalachakranet.org/ta_tibetan_calendar.html.

February/March

Driving out of evil spirits. Twenty-ninth day of the twelfth lunar month, the last day of the year.

Losar, Tibetan New Year. First day of the first lunar month.

Monlam, Great Prayer Festival, Lhasa. Eighth day of the first lunar month.

Butter Lamp Festival, on the final day of Monlam. Fifteenth day of the first lunar month.

May/June

Birth of Buddha. Seventh day of the fourth lunar month.

Saga Dawa (Buddha’s Enlightenment). Fifteenth day of the fourth lunar month.

Gyantse Horse Festival. Fifteenth day of the fourth lunar month.

July

Tashilunpo Festival, Shigatse. Fifteenth day of the fifth lunar month.

July/August

Buddha’s First Sermon. Fourth day of the sixth lunar month.

Drepung Festival. Thirtieth day of the sixth lunar month.

August/September

Shotun (Yoghurt Festival), Lhasa. First to the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.

Bathing Festival, Lhasa. Twenty-seventh day of the seventh lunar month.

September

Damxhung Horse Festival. Thirtieth day of the seventh lunar month.

September/October

Harvest Festival. First to the seventh day of the eighth lunar month.

November

Lhabab (Buddha’s descent from heaven). Twenty-second day of the ninth lunar month.

November/December

Palden Lhamo Festival, Lhasa. Fifteenth day of the tenth lunar month.

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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