A Brief Guide to Tibet

Alex Mellon /
Alex Mellon / | © Culture Trip

Find out about the autonomous region of Tibet, including its history, its terrain and how it operates on the world stage today.


Tibet makes up a large area (over 450,000 square miles) in the west of China, situated just north of India, Bhutan and Nepal. It also sits on the Tibetan Plateau, surrounded by vast mountain ranges. It is home to Mount Everest and is the highest region in the world.


From the 7th to 9th centuries areas inhabited by Tibetan people began to unify to form a more recognised region. In 1244 Tibet was conquered by the Mongols, but was afforded relative autonomy under their rule. Throughout most of the 17th century the region was fought over between Mongol and Manchu factions within China. In 1720, the Chinese Emperor Kangxi eventually took control, before re-establishing a Dalai Lama (the title given to the spiritual leader of Tibet) to rule.

The mid-19th century saw Russia and Britain both keep tabs on Tibet as part of trying to gain control of central Asia. As a result, Tibet shut its borders and banned all foreigners from entering. In 1904 Britain forced Tibet into signing a trade agreement to block any potential trade in the future with Russia, but the British-Chinese Convention two years later swiftly saw Britain agree to sever ties with Tibet.

In 1912, the 13th Dalai Lama returned from India – where he had fled from Chinese troops – and Tibet reasserted its right to independence. By 1950, with Chairman Mao and the newly formed People’s Republic of China in place, the Dalai Lama became head of state in Tibet at the age of 15. A year after the Seventeen Point Agreement was signed, which gave Tibet autonomy, came in return for the establishment of Chinese civil and military headquarters in Lhasa (Tibet’s capital), with the Chinese government establishing the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) in 1965. To this day, the region continues to campaign and fight for complete independence from Chinese rule.
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Political status:

Although officially part of China, Tibet operates as an autonomous region. It is China’s second largest division and the least densely populated, mainly as a result of its tough, mountainous terrain. It follows national law, like any other region in China, but has autonomous powers for aspects such as education. China maintains that the region is an important part of the country, but Tibet’s own government-in-exile claim that Tibet is currently under unlawful occupation. There is a global movement that campaigns for Tibetan independence which has gathered large portions of celebrity endorsements.


In 2010 the population of TAR was just over three million, with the vast majority (nearly as much as 90%) being ethnic Tibetans. Although most Tibetans are buddhists, there are small pockets of Christians and Muslims.


Population: 240,000 approx.
Capital: Lhasa
Major languages: Standard Tibetan, although there are a wide variety of differing dialects.
Currency: Renminbi
Major religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam


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