• Get Visa
  • Get Passport
  • Check Status
  • Global Location

GUIDE TO CHINA

TIBET


Capital: Lhasa Population: 2.7 million Area: 1,220,000 sq km

'Shangri-La', 'the Land of Snows', 'the Rooftop of the World': locked away in its mountain fortress of the Himalayas, Tibet ( Xizang, the 'Western Treasure House' in Chinese) has long exercised a unique hold on the imagination of the West.

Until recently, few outsiders had laid eyes on the holy city of Lhasa and the other secrets of Tibet. It is more the pity that when Tibet finally opened to tourism in the mid-1980s, it was no longer the magical Buddhist kingdom that had so intoxicated early Western travellers.

Tibetans have never had it easy. Their en­vironment is harsh, and human habitation has always been a precarious proposition. By necessity, Tibetans have become a tough and resilient people. Even in the face of the cultural attacks of the last fifty years. Tibetans have not only kept their culture and religion alive, but retained a remark­ably cheerful outlook on life.

With a geographical area more than twice that of France, Tibet still manages only a total population of 2.7 million. There are, however, estimated to be some four million more Tibetans spread out over Qinghai. Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan.

Most of Tibet is made up of an immense plateau that lies at an altitude of 4000m to 5000m. The cultural heartland of Tibet is the fertile Yarlung Tsangpo ( Brahmaputra ) valley. On the uplands surrounding this and other valleys, the inhabitants are mainly semi-nomadic pastoralists, known as drok­pas, who raise sheep, yaks and horses. Western Tibet is higher still and its spiritual and geographical focal point is sacred Mt Kailash (Kang Rinpoche), in whose vicinity rise the sources of the Indus. Sutlej and Brahmaputra Rivers.

Since full-scale coverage of Tibetan re­gions would take a whole book, Lonely Planet has published a separate Tibet guide.

HISTORY

Recorded Tibetan history begins in the 7th century AD when the Tibetan armies were considered as great a scourge to their neighbors as the Huns were to Europe. Under King Songtsen Gampo, the Tibetans occu­pied Nepal and collected tribute from parts of Yunnan.

Shortly after the death of Gampo, the armies moved north and took control of the Silk Road, including the great city of Kashgar. Opposed by Chinese troops, who occupied all of Xinjiang under the Tang dynasty, the Tibetans responded by sacking the imperial city of Chang'an (present-day Xian).

It was not until 842 that Tibetan expan­sion came to a sudden halt with the assassination of the king, and the region broke up into independent feuding princi­palities. Never again would the Tibetan armies leave their high plateau.

As secular authority waned, the power of the Buddhist clergy increased. When Bud­dhism reached Tibet in the 3rd century, it had to compete with Bon, the traditional animistic religion of the region. Buddhism adopted many of the rituals of Bon, and this, combined with the esoteric practices of Tantric Buddhism (imported from India ) provided the basis from which Tibetan Bud­dhism evolved.

The religion had spread through Tibet by the 7th century: after the 9th century the monasteries became increasingly politi­cised, and in 1641 the Gelukpa (the Yellow Hat sect) used the support of the Buddhist Mongols to crush the Red Hats, their rivals.

The Yellow Hats' leader adopted the title of Dalai Lama, or Ocean of Wisdom, given to him by the Mongols: religion and politics became inextricably entwined, presided over by the Dalai Lama. Each Dalai Lama was considered the reincarnation of the last. Upon his death, the monks searched the land for a newborn child who showed some sign of embodying his predecessor's spirit.

With the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Tibet entered a period of de facto indepen­dence that was to last until 1950. In 1950 a resurgent China invaded Tibet (the invasion was labelled a'liberation'), making good a long-held Chinese claim on the strategically important high plateau.

It made no difference that the Chinese claim was based on highly dubious histori­cal grounds: between 1950 and 1970 the Chinese 'liberated' the Tibetans of their in­dependence, drove their spiritual leader and 100,000 of Tibet's finest into exile, caused 1.2 million Tibetan deaths and destroyed most of the Tibetans' cultural heritage.

Despite Chinese efforts to paint a rosy picture of life on the roof of the world, the general picture is of a country under occu­pation. The Dalai Lama continues to be worshipped by his people, and his accep­tance in late 1989 of the Nobel Peace Prize marked a greater sympathy on the part of the Western world for the plight of the Ti­betan people.

The Dalai Lama himself has referred to China's policies as 'cultural genocide' for

the Tibetan people. Unfortunately, China's great potential as a trading nation and as a market for Western goods makes many world leaders wary of raising the Tibet issue with China. Those who believe that pressure from Western governments will eventually force China to grant Tibet inde­pendence or true autonomy are probably being unduly optimistic.

For their part, the Chinese can't under­stand the ingratitude of the Tibetans. As they see it China has built roads, schools, hospitals, an airport, factories and a bud­dins tourist industry. The Chinese honestly believe that they saved the Tibetans from feudalism and that their continued occupa­tion is a mission of mercy.

The Tibetans, who cannot forgive the de­struction of their monasteries and attacks on their religion and culture, see things differ­ently. Nor do the Tibetans get much joy from the heavy-handed presence of the Chi­nese police and military. Certainly the Chi­nese are not winning any friends in Tibet with their policy of stealthy resettlement. A massive influx of Han settlers from sur­rounding provinces threatens to make Ti­betans a minority in their own 'autonomous region' and to swamp Tibetan culture with that of the Han Chinese.

TREKKING

Trekking is not officially approved in Tibet ; the local Public Security Bureau (PSB; Gonganju) officials will tell you that it is only possible with an approved tour group.

Independent trekking is feasible for the experienced walker, providing you are pre­pared to be self-sufficient in food, fuel and shelter. The most popular route is probably the four- or five-day trek from Ganden to Samye. Lonely Planet's Tibet has a trekking chapter with full details of this and other treks.

There are now supplies of most trekking goods available in Lhasa, but it is still recommended to bring equipment suitable for subzero temperatures, such as a high-quality down sleeping bag, thermal underwear, ground mat, four-season tent, stove and fuel.

TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS

The current regulations (which could change tomorrow) say that all foreigners wanting to visit Tibet must be part of a tour group' (minimum of five people on a mini­mum three-day tour). In addition, every for­eigner should have a Tibetan Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit, and a return ticket to either Kathmandu, Chengdu or Golmud.

Travel agencies in Chengdn organise packages to Lhasa for between Y2500 and Y3200 per person. This often includes a Y200 deposit, which either has to be used to arrange onward transport or is refunded when you leave Tibet. Buses from Golmud are arranged by the China International Travel Service (CITS: Zhongguo Guoji Liixingshe) and cost around Y1600 for the Y210 bus ticket alone! It is now possible to fly to Lhasa from Zhongdian in Yunnan by first arranging the ticket and permits through a travel agency in KCmming. See the Chengdu and Golmud entries for more details.

From Kathmandu, budget travel agencies offer various tours to Lhasa starting from around USS260 for a four-day overland trip to USS500 for an eight-day trip. As long as you have an Individual, not Group, Visa (these are currently available from the Chi­nese embassy in Kathmandu but regulations, change with the wind) you can stay in Tibet its long as your visa is valid. Otherwise you are better off arriving in Nepal with a Chinese visa (available in Delhi ), which is much easier than finding a way to split from a Group Visa. It is difficult to get a visa extension of more than a few days without booking a tour.

In reality, most people pay for a tour and hen cancel or extend their return tickets,when they arrive in Lhasa. On arrival in Lhasa these temporary 'groups' disband: There are no permit checks in Lhasa. A hard­core minority try to hitch in independently.

Once in Tibet, entry to anywhere outside of Lhasa prefecture and the cities of Shigatse and Tsetang (ie, to places such is Everest Base Camp. Samye, Sakya and vit Kailash) requires you to procure a ravel permit. To get a permit you have to be a member of a tour group arranged through an authorised travel agency. Per­mits cost Y50.

At time of writing only one government sponsored travel agency, known as Foreign individual Traveler (FIT), was allowed to organise travel and permits for individual travelers, though this may well change.

It's worth bearing in mind that Tibet much more than the rest of China ) is effectively a police state, and political discussions with local Tibetans can have serious consequences. It is illegal to bring pictures of the Dalai Lama into Tibet. Incidentally, many of the secret police are ethnic Tibetans.

WHAT TO BRING

Figuring out what type of clothing to bring is tricky, due to the extremes of the climate. You can get warm clothing, trekking gear and most foodstuffs in Lhasa but it is ad­visable to bring sunscreen, books, deodor­ant, a water purification system and any medication you might need.

Food is no problem in Lhasa, but remote areas offer little to eat beyond instant noo­dles and beer. If you are considering a long journey then it would be wise to stock up before heading off.

There are several medications that are particularly useful in Tibet, and you should bring them from abroad rather than rely on local supplies. Drugs to consider carrying include Diomox, Tiniba and Flagyl. For more information see the Health section in the Facts for the Visitor chapter.

DANGERS & ANNOYANCES

The greatest dangers to travelers' health are acute mountain sickness (AMS) and giardiasis. For a full discussion of prevention and treatment, see the Health section in the Facts for the Visitor chapter.

Tibetans are among the friendliest, most hospitable people in the world but do not expect smiles all the way. Travelers who have poked their noses into Tibetan funer­als and other personal matters have quite rightly received a very hostile reception. Stories abound of surly monks, of aggres­sive Tibetans at checkpoints and of rip-offs by Tibetan tour operators.

Tibetan dogs are even more xenophobic than the PSB, especially in the countryside. Keep your distance during the day, and watch your step in the dark.

FOOD

The staple diet in Tibet is tsampa (roasted barley meal) and bo cha (yak butter tea). Tibetans mix the two in their hands to create dough-like balls. Mornos (dumplings filled with vegetables or yak meat) and thukpa (noodles with meat) are usually available at small restaurants. Tibetans consume large quantities of chang, a tangy alcoholic drink derived from fermented barley. The other major beverage is sweet milky tea, known as cha ngnmo.

GETTING THERE & AWAY

Although there are five major road routes to Lhasa, foreigners are officially allowed to use the Nepal and Qinghai routes only.

Nepal Route The 920km road connecting Lhasa with Kathmandu is known as the Friendship Highway. It's a spectacular trip over high passes and across the Tibetan plateau, the highest point being Gyatso-la pass (5220m) outside of Lhatse.

If the weather's good, you'll get a fine view of Mt Everest (8848m) and Cho Oyu (8153m) from the Tibetan village of Tingri. Accommodation en route is generally basic with fairly reasonable prices (Y 15 to Y25), and there's no great hardship involved, as long as you don't mind doing without lux­uries such as a shower for the duration of your trip. The food situation has improved greatly in recent years.

By far the most popular option for the trip is renting a 4WD and driver through a travel agency in Lhasa ; see the Lhasa, Get­ting There & Away section. A five-day 4WD trip from Lhasa to the Nepalese bor­der, via Shigatse, Everest Base Camp and Tingri, will cost about Y1200 per person. It is possible to hitch along the Friendship

Highway if you have enough time. Public transport runs as far as Lhatse.

When travelling from Nepal to Lhasa, foreigners must arrange transport through tour agencies in Kathmandu (see Travel Re­strictions earlier).

Qinghai Route The 1754km road that connects Xining with Lhasa via Golmud crosses the desolate, barren and virtually uninhabited northern Tibetan Plateau. The highest point is the Tanggu-la pass (5180m), but despite the altitude, the sur­rounding scenery can be quite monotonous.

Reckon on anything from 30 to 50 hours from Golmud to Lhasa and remember to take warm clothing, food and water on the bus, since your luggage is often not acces­sible during the trip.

Other Routes Between Lhasa and Sichuan, Yunnan or Xinjiang provinces are some of the wildest, highest and most dangerous routes in the world. They are officially closed to foreigners, though increasing numbers of travelers are making it through.

The lack of public transport on these routes makes it necessary to hitch, but that is also prohibited. At the time of writing there were a few travelers hitching into Tibet from Kashgar, via Ali, with minimal hassles (see the Xinjiang chapter for more details). However, the authorities have come down very heavily on truck drivers living lifts to foreigners, particularly on the Yunnan and Sichuan routes in or out of Tibet so don't expect to find a ride easily. A few travel companies in Yunnan have started to organise overland trips from Lijiana or Zhongdian to Lhasa. Prices are high but will probably drop over time.

GETTING AROUND

Transport can be a major hurdle if you want to explore the backwaters. The main types of vehicle are bus. minibus, truck and 4WD.

So-called public 'pilgrim buses' to monastery attractions have become more widespread in recent years, but are gener­ally restricted to the major monastic sites in the Lhasa region.

Minibuses run around Lhasa prefecture and from Lhasa to the main towns of Shi­,,atse. Tsetang and Gyantse. Land Cruisers are the most common form of transporta­tion. They are pricey, but not impossible for non-budget travellers willing to split the cost among several people.

As for cycling - it is possible, but is not without its hazards. Aside from hassles with the PSB, cyclists in Tibet have died from road accidents, hypothermia and pneumonia. Tibet is not the place to learn the ins and outs of long-distance cycling - do your training elsewhere. Despite the odds, a number of ex­perienced cyclists have individually traveled around Tibet without too many problems.

LHASA

Area Code 0891 • pop 200,000 • elevation 3700m

Lhasa (Lasa) is the heart and soul of Tibet, the abode of the Dalai Lamas, and an object of devout pilgrimage. Despite the large­-scale encroachments of Chinese influence, it is still a city of wonders.

As you enter the Kyi Chu Valley, either on the long haul from Golmud or from Gon-kar airport, your first hint that Lhasa is close at hand is the sight of the Potala Palace, a vast white and ochre fortress soar­ing over one of the world's highest cities.

The Potala Palace dominates the Lhasa skyline. The home of the tombs of previous Dalai Lamas, it was once the seat of Tibetan government and the winter resi­dence of the Dalai Lama. While the Potala Palace serves as a symbolic focus for Ti­betan hopes for self-government, it is the Jokhang Temple, some 2km to the east of the Potala Palace, that is the spiritual hrart of the city.

The Jokhang, a curious mix of soluble darkness, wafting incense and prostrating pilgrims, is the most sacred and active of Tibet's temples. Encircling it is the Barkhor, the holiest of Lhasa's devotional circum­ambulation circuits. It is here that most visitors first fall in love with Tibet. The medieval push and shove of crowds, the street performers, the stalls hawking every­thing from prayer flags to jewel-encrusted yak skulls, and the devout tapping their foreheads to the ground at every step is an exotic brew that few newcomers can resist.

Orientation

Modern Lhasa divides clearly into a Chi­nese section in the west and a Tibetan old town in the east. For travelers who have ar­rived from other parts of China, the Chinese part of town harbours few surprises. Nes­tled at the foot of the Potala Palace and ex­tending a couple of kilometres westward is an uninspired muddle of restaurants, karaoke bars, administrative blocks and de­partment stores.

The Tibetan part of town, which begins west of the Jokhang Temple, is altogether more colorful and the better area to be based in.

Information

The best place for the latest on Tibetan in­dividual travel these days is in the court­yards of one of the popular Tibetan hotels, or at a table in Tashi's restaurants. The in­formation boards in some of the hotels can be very useful if you're looking for a travel partner or a used travel book.

Money

The most convenient place for travelers is a branch of the Bank of China located between the Banak Shol and Kirey Hotels (open Monday to Friday 8.30am to 1.30pm and 3.30pm to 5.30pm.)

The main Bank of China is west of the Potala Palace-turn right at the yak statues and look for it on the left. Come here for credit card advances, bank transfers and foreign exchange on the weekends. Its opening hours are 9am to 6.30pm weekdays and l0am to 3pm weekends.

Post & Communications

The main post office is east of the Potala Palace on Beijing Donglu. It is open 9am to 8pm Monday to Saturday, 10am to 6pm Sunday. Buy stamps from the counter in the far left cor­ner as you walk through the main door. There is a telephone office next door, open 8am till midnight.

There is another post and telephone of­fice located in the north-east of Lhasa on the corner of Linkuo Donglu and Linkuo Beilu.

IP phone cards are available in Lhasa but can be used only in Lhasa.

Internet access is available at many places around Tashi I, the Banak Shol Hotel and at the telephone office on Beijing Donglu for around Y5 per hour.

Travel Agencies

If you want to do any of­ficial trekking or visit remote areas, you need to visit a travel agency in order to secure a permit, transport and (possibly) a guide.

At the time of writing, independent travel agencies had been outlawed by the Tibetan government and all independent travelers had to arrange travel with one of two FIT offices run by the TTB. These offices are located in the Snowlands Hotel and Banak Shol Hotel (Te: 634 4397, fax: 681 5615).

Regulations change frequently so you may find that the old backpacker-oriented travel agencies have since resurfaced.

PSB

There are two PSB offices in Lhasa, although it's doubtful that either will prove to be of much use. The one on the eastern end of Beijing Donglu issues travel permits, but the staff are unwilling to issue these to individual travelers and will instead refer you to a travel agency.

The PSB office on Linkuo Beilu has been more helpful with information and grants visa extensions of up to seven days. If you require a longer extension contact one of the travel agencies.

Medical Services

In the case of an emer­gency you will probably be taken or dir­ected to the People's Hospital on Linkuo Beilu. Expect minimal hygiene standards, hut the staff are competent.