Tibet travel guide
2 minute summary
The ‘Roof of the World’ has a mystic allure. Perhaps because it sits high up on the Tibetan Plateau, a massive highland elevated heavenwards and guarded on all sides by towering mountains, we have given it a mythical quality.
There is no question that Tibet is truly beautiful inside and out, but having been occupied by China since 1949, this land is besieged by change. Much of traditional Tibet – its territory, society and architecture – is fast being subjugated by all things Chinese; horror stories about the cultural suppression and appalling injustices of human rights towards Tibetans fighting for their freedom are all too common.
That said, the Tibetans’ devotion to Buddhism transcends any past, present, or future plight; the religion is in their very veins and the awe-inspiring monasteries are a testament to their unshaken belief. Seek and you will find pockets of abject peace – any visitor would be wise to learn as much as possible about this fascinating nation, and getting behind tourism in traditional Tibet is a surefire way to show your support too.
a deeply spiritual and evocative place where Buddhism is the only true leader
Tibet map & highlights
Make the most of your time
In line with the country’s religious teaching, it’s a good idea to channel your inner Buddha and find patience while traveling in Tibet. The means of travel is straightforward – foreigners may only travel by private bus, so public transport is a no-no and organised tours are the way to go. It’s the travel times that may vary; major roads are paved and smooth with journeys between towns and cities averaging three hours, although you can expect some pretty hair-raising stretches that snake along high valleys, and if you’re heading into rural Tibet, expect some longer traveling days of eight or nine hours including lunch and breaks.
An important spot throughout history for pilgrims traveling along the Himalayan Plateau, Gyantse has an old-fashioned, small-town charm about it. Its trump card is the Gyantse Kumbum, an enormous temple packed full of decorative chapels, but take some time to wander around its bustling backalleys and you’ll discover a snapshot of Tibet’s still very old-school ‘modern’ life.
A mountain-fringed valley, Lhasa translates as ‘Place of the Gods’, which it is… in the main. Though your first glimpse of the Potala Palace, the towering former winter residence of the Dalai Lama that sits resplendent atop Marpo Ri, will give you goosebumps, China’s architectural stamp is rampant: concrete and glass now feature heavily, but much of traditional Tibet remains to be enjoyed.
Monks & monasteries
Buddhist monasticism is part of the very lifeblood of Tibet and has always been part of the mysticism that encapsulates the region. You will find some of the world’s most enchanting monasteries in Tibet; their intricate architecture and prominent geographical positions are astounding, and visiting one to see how they have developed into philosophical centres of learning and debate is unforgettable.
Mount Everest National Park
The world’s highest altitude national park lays claim to five soaring mountain peaks as well as hot springs and snow-capped forest. The Tibetan approach gives you the chance to stand aghast before Everest’s staggeringly beautiful north face and is also home to Ringphu, the world’s highest monastery, where 50 monks and nuns live and worship in peace.
A small village that feels worlds away from Tibet’s developing towns, Sakya is an atmospheric slice of old Tibet accessed through a patchwork of traditional farmland. Its eponymous monastery is considered one of the finest in the region and its architecture stands out too: Sakya’s silver-grey buildings are striped red and white in honour of the Rigsum Gonpo trio of deities.
The traditional capital of Tibet’s Tsang Province, Shigatse sits at the confluence of two rivers and is an interesting, dusty city with some impressive fortresses including Tashilhunpo Monastery, whose golden roofs glint proudly under the sun. There’s a tiny old Tibetan town based at its foot with some lovely old-world charm, though the rest of the city is becoming a very Chinese modern expanse.