The Tibetan Autonomous Region, known as Xizang in Mandarin, is China’s most remote province. Located on the world’s highest plateau and strictly controlled by the Chinese government, Tibet is a challenge to visit. All tourists must go with an official Tibetan tour guide and carry a travel permit issued by the Tibetan Tourism Bureau. It is recommended to apply for the permit a minimum of 200 days in advance of your trip. While the permit itself is free, most tourists decide to conduct all bureaucratic procedures through a travel agency, which will charge fees around RMB2,500. Thus, all trips to Tibet must be planned carefully and well in advance. However, anyone who has been there will unequivocally say that the experience is worth it. With one of the world’s oldest preserved cultures, and dramatic scenery abounding, Tibet offers the trip of a lifetime to those willing to put in the work.
Lhasa is the capital of Tibet and the city through which most travelers will arrive. The eastern half has extremely well-preserved Tibetan culture, with locals frequently engaged in the traditional act of kora, a clockwise walk around a sacred site. This is also the location of the Potala Palace, the home of the Dalai Lama and one of Tibet’s most iconic places. The rest of the city is nearly indistinguishable from any other Chinese city. However, with plenty of Tibetan handicrafts on sale on Barkhor Street (as well as some touristy junk to avoid) and several significant temples and monasteries, Lhasa is still a unique destination that will amaze the most worldly of tourists.
With 50,000 residents, Xigatse (also spelled Shigatse) is Tibet’s second largest city. Tourists who visit in mid-July will be delighted to witness the Linka Festival, which kicks off here. Observed on May 15 of the Tibetan calendar, Linka is a celebration of nature. On that day, Tibetans dress in traditional garb and carry barley wine, butter tea and other delicacies to the nearby city of Linka, where they relax and picnic with friends and family. Xigatse iself is quite a walkable city. The Tashilhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama, is not far from Xigatse Fortress or the markets in Old Town.
Other Travel Destinations
No trip to Tibet is complete without a visit to the North Base Camp of Mt. Everest. While seasoned climbers can rest here before summiting the legendary peak, less daring travelers will be glad to know that the 16,900 foot (5,150 meters) destination is accessible by bus, at least in the summer. On the base camp is located the Rongbuk Monastery. A separate permit from the Chinese government is required to visit.
Namtso Lake, the highest saltwater lake in the world, is located in the Nyainqêntanglha mountain range of northwest Tibet. Easily one of the most beautiful destinations in the province, the lake was also once a popular pilgrimage site for Tibetans before being closed to such activity by the Chinese government. Still, its no surprise that pious men long found meaning in the caves and islands of Namtso and its awe-inspiring sights.
The first Buddhist monastery established in Tibet, Samye has been a working monastery since 779 A.D. The complex, which takes about a half a day to see in its entirety, is constructed in the shape of a mandala, with eight smaller temples representing six continents, the sun and the moon revolving around the central temple. Nearby is Mt. Häburi; it peak offering an astounding view of Samye.
Due to its cold and mountainous climate, Tibetans grow and eat few vegetables and herbs and instead rely on a meat, dairy and barley-based diet. Popular dishes include yak or mutton stew, barley dumplings called momos, thukpa noodle soup and a yak butter tea that takes some getting used to. Unlike most other Chinese provinces, Tibet is not known for its food, and foreigners might not like it right away.