Tibet, the ‘Land of Snows’, the ‘Roof of the World’ has one of the richest cultural and spiritual traditions in the world. Here men and gods inhabit the same landscape, both physical and mental.
Culturally Tibet comprises an enormous area stretching north into the provinces of Qinghai and Gansu and east into Sichuan and Yunnan as well as across the Himalaya into Ladakh, northern Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. Politically it has never been unified; its peoples often in conflict as power, politics and religion are inextricably intertwined.
Tibet’s history has always been closely linked with the gods who live so close, and in Tibet’s vast and hostile landscape it is easy to conceive the many demons from whom shaman’s offered protection. Some of these demons were real, in the form of bandits and invading Mongol hordes, others reflect the deep spiritual focus of the Tibetan people. With the coming of Buddhism the demons were tamed, converted and turned into protectors – an integral part of the unique way in which Buddhism has developed in Tibet.
Virtually every aspect of Tibetan life celebrates the teachings of the Buddha, his disciples and followers. Pilgrimage is an integral part of life. Journeys are marked by offerings made atop mountain passes. Incredible, painstakingly created works of art depict deities in minute detail. Monasteries and temples are the focal point of towns and villages.
Capital city: Lhasa (population 403,700).
Area: 1,228,400 sq km.
Population: 2.62 million.
Language: Tibetan, Chinese.
Currency: Yuan Renminbi (CNY).
Time zone: GMT +8.
Dialing code: +86.
Air China operates between Lhasa and Kathmandu on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.Thai flies daily between Kathmandu and Bangkok with connections throughout the world.From Europe there are daily flights via the Middle East on Emirates, Gulf Air and Qatar Airways as well as connections via Delhi on Lufthansa and KLM.There are daily flights from Delhi on Indian Airways and RNAC. RNAC has twice weekly flights to Osaka via Shanghai and to Hong Kong.
The land border at Kodari-ZhangMu is open.
It is only possible to enter China from Nepal with a visa issued by the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu. In order to apply for your visa you must provide RMT with a photocopy of the details page of your passport 21 days prior to your trip. The visa will be issued once you arrive in Kathmandu – it takes one full day. The Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu issues visas on Monday, Wednesday and Friday only so you must plan your itinerary to allow for this.Travel Permits are required for Tibet. RMT will apply for your permit on your behalf.
In China the currency is the Chinese Yuan (CNY), often referred to as Renminbi (RMB) or kwai when spoken.It is best to bring a mixture of cash and travelers checks in major currencies – USD, CAD, EUR, AUD – and ensure you have a mixture of large and small denominations.
Shopping is difficult to predict, but most people buy more than they intended. If you intend to buy quality art works including hand-painted thangkas, carpets or traditional jewelry allow significantly more – you can easily spend USD200+ for top quality items.
Major currencies can be exchanged for Chinese Yuan (CNY) on arrival at Gongkar Airport and at Bank of China branches in Lhasa and Shigatse.
ATM withdrawals (CNY only) are usually possible in Lhasa, but should not be depended upon.
It is possible to exchange USD and excess CNY into NPR at the Zhangmu/Kodari border and at exchange counters on return to Kathmandu.
Tibet is a land of climactic extremes and whilst it is not generally as harsh as expected, it is a good idea to be prepared for cold at any time of the year – it is wind chill rather than air temperature that makes the difference here.
In central Tibet weather is usually mild from May through October. Evenings may be cool, particularly early or late in the season. Rain is frequent in July and August.
In Western Tibet and at higher altitudes (Rhongphu, Namtso) it can be cold at any time of year if the wind is blowing off the mountains.
History and politics:
What is commonly referred to today as Tibet is the Chinese designated ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’ (TAR).
This region represents only a portion of historic Tibet which incorporated the entire expanse of the Tibetan plateau.
To gain a true appreciation of the country an understanding of its political past and present is necessary. We recommend that all our travellers try to gain an insight into the country’s political history before arriving in Tibet.
Avoid demonstrating obvious pro-Tibetan political sympathies as it could land you in trouble.
Tibetans are very curious and may stare at you or want to look at your guidebooks. Be polite and patient and you may find the experience rewarding.
Tibet observes the Buddhist tradition of begging for alms. You will probably find yourself approached many times but they are rarely pushy and do not target foreigners any more than locals.
Like almost all ethnic groups in China Tibetans belong to the Mongoloid group of peoples. They are probably descended from a variety of nomadic tribes who migrated from the north and settled into sedentary cultivation of Tibet’s river valleys. Within the Tibetan population there are a number of distinct groups.
The nomads who comprise approximately one quarter of Tibet’s population.
The most visually distinct of Tibet’s peoples, the Khampa of eastern Tibet wear red or black tassels in their long hair and are usually a heavier build than other Tibetans.
The Golok are an independently minded nomadic people who have maintained their distinctive cultural traditions for centuries. Their homeland is the Golok Tibetan Autonomous Region of Qinghai Province centered on the holy mountain Amnye Machen.
Tibet’s original Muslims were largely traders (or butchers). Most recent immigrants are traders and restaurant owners from Gansu.
Buddhism: a brief introduction
Buddhism is one of the most tolerant of religions – everywhere it went it adapted to local conditions, yet the basic tenets have remained the same and all schools are bound together in their faith in the value of the teachings of Shakyamuni. The Buddha is the archetype of the enlightened consciousness who, by attaining his own awakening as the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, proved that enlightenment bodhi was possible for all sentient beings. In brief, Buddhism teaches that all life is essentially suffering, an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth that can only be broken by attaining Nirvana. This can only be achieved by loosing desire for all things of the world. Nirvana means cessation or to extinguish – liberation from the cycle of rebirth and should not be equated with a western ‘heaven’ concept. An essential concept is the interconnectedness of all things; the Buddha concept of the universe is often depicted as a net of jewels: each jewel endlessly reflecting the totality of reality.
There are two principal schools of Buddhism. The Hinayana or Theravada (Thailand, Lao, Cambodia, Burma, Sri Lanka) originated in Sri Lanka. The earliest available teachings of the Buddha are to be found in Pali literature and belong to the school of the Theravadins, who may be called the most orthodox school of Buddhism. This school admits the human characteristics of the Buddha, and is characterized by a psychological understanding of human nature; and emphasizes a meditative approach to the transformation of consciousness. The teaching of the Buddha according to this school is very plain. He asks us to ‘abstain from all kinds of evil, to accumulate all that is good and to purify our mind’. These can be accomplished by The Three Trainings: the development of ethical conduct, meditation and insight-wisdom.
The Mahayana (Nepal, China, Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan, Japan) elevates compassion to an all important ideal and teaches that perfection for the individual is not possible without perfection for all, and that many of those who have already attained enlightenment would remain in the world as bodhisattvas to help others. Over time bodhisattvas came to be ascribed miraculous powers and were worshipped in a manner very similar to traditional ancestor worship.
Buddhism in Tibet
Tibetans first came into contact with Buddhism when they occupied the oasis cities of Central Asia. In the 8th century, the first of many missionary monks (Padmasambhava/Guru Rinpoche) arrived and the country’s first monastery was established in 787. However, despite some early success Buddhism soon went into decline due to opposition from Bon, the indigenous religion, and political turmoil. In the 10th century monks from India and Tibetans going to India re-introduced the religion together with many aspects of Indian civilization and it soon began to flourish. As Tantra was the main type of Buddhism in India at the time, it was that which became established in Tibet.
From the 7th century a new tradition of Buddhism began to develop that was in several important respects radically different from the earlier traditions. This new tradition incorporated Tantric elements and is known as Vajrayana (diamond or thunderbolt vehicle). Tantrayana is characterized by an emphasis on the value of magic and the propitiation of the bodhisattvas and gods in the quest for Nirvana. It is an esoteric and ritualistic doctrine that incorporates the use of rituals, sacred gestures, symbols, mantras and visualization to achieve realization.
The fundamental precepts of Tibetan Buddhism are:
Our accommodation in Lhasa is located near the central Barkhor Square, in what remains of the Tibetan Old City.
Rooms are on a twin share basis with hot showers and western toilets however bathrooms may be shared.
Outside Lhasa our accommodation is usually in small and very simple guesthouses that vary considerably in quality.
On some trips you should be prepared for some very basic conditions.
In remote regions rooms will be multishare with no washing facilities apart from a thermos of water and a bowl, and pit or “long drop” toilets that are used by everybody (and consequently not places to hang around in longer than necessary!).
In more remote areas there may be no/erratic electric.
We use both 4 wheel drive Toyota Landcruisers and minibuses when travelling in Tibet.
They are sturdy vehicles and well suited to the rough terrain and punishing roads that will be experienced during the entire trip.
They are not infallible though, and the terrain does take a considerable toll. Breakdowns and disruptions to our travels are common, and are usually dealt with in true “bush mechanic’ style by our local Tibetan drivers.
Food and drink
The food in Tibet is best described as basic, but there are a surprising amount of western and Nepalese choices available, especially in Lhasa.
There are any number of restaurants catering to western tastes in Lhasa, but usually with a fair mix of local, Chinese and Indian flavours.
Out of Lhasa the food becomes more basic the more remote the region, though you can usually get some momos (dumplings), noodle soup or the ever present egg fried rice. In many places that is all you can get!
Tipping is not expected in Tibet
Tsampa (barley flour mixed with yak butter).
Yak butter tea .
An alternative to yak butter tea is cha ngamo, a sweet, milky tea.
Chinese green tea is also widely available.
Chang, a fermented barley beer is the local alcoholic brew. It is generally OK to drink however can be made with contaminated water.
Lhasa Beer is the homegrown beer.
Expect to pay around CNY50 for a restaurant meal.
In the high altitude of Tibet it is important to drink a much higher quantity of water than you are used to. Always carry drinking water with you and have some nearby at nights, as it is amazing how quickly you can dehydrate, even at rest.
Tap water is not safe to drink however there may be a thermos provided in the rooms. Boiled water is OK for drinking.
Bottled drinking water is available everywhere however we recommend taking water purification tablets or a bottle with an in-built filter as these are more environmentally-friendly options than bottled water.
Private internet bars can be found in main cities
Alternatively you can use business centres in China Telecom offices.
Some websites have been blacklisted by the Chinese government and cannot be accessed from within China.
Be careful making international calls from hotels as they can be very expensive.
Private telecom booths are cheaper and easy to use.
To make international calls you will need a phone card bought from inside Tibet.
All cities and even most small towns have mobile phone reception if your phone is enabled with international roaming.
Receiving post is not recommended as we are usually doing something or travelling during the opening hours of most post offices.
Allow up to 10 days for mail to arrive at international destinations.
Writing the address in Chinese can help speed delivery .
Toilets are generally drop or squat toilets.
Some hotels may have western-style toilets.
Carry toilet paper or tissues with you as they are rarely provided.
It is advisable for women to dress modestly, as the Tibetans do, although the climate generally makes this necessary anyway.
What to buy?
The most common items you will find are religious items such as prayer flags, prayer wheels, thangkas, shawls and daggers.
Traditional clothing and jewellery are also available.
Sometimes you will be able to find beautiful carpets available .
Expect to bargain. Being polite while doing so will get you a better deal.
Check with your local customs officials to ensure that you are able to import some items back into your home country. Australia and New Zealand for example have strict quarantine
Tibet visa: It is only possible to enter Tibet from Nepal with a visa issued by the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu. In order to apply for your visa you must provide Royal Mountain Travel with a photocopy of the details page of your passport at least 14 days prior to your trip. The visa will be issued once you arrive in Kathmandu – it takes one full day. The Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu issues visas on Monday, Wednesday and Friday only so you must plan your itinerary to allow for this. Travel permits are required for Tibet. RMT will apply for your permit on your behalf.
Experience is not necessary at this level: anyone who is in good health and fit enough to enjoy a good weekend hill walk can manage this trek. However, walking always involves some exertion: trails are seldom flat, and you must still expect to have a reasonable amount of ascent and descent.Days are generally short in duration (3-5 hours).Altitude is around 3000m.
Most people who enjoy a weekend in the hills or mountains at home are capable of undertaking a trek at this level: you need to be in good health and reasonably fit, and taking regular exercise.days generally involve 4-6 hours walking – it may include the occasional longer or more difficult day.Altitude is around 3000m.
Rrelaxed sightseeing with private transport to sights.
Whilst no strenuous activity is involved conditions will be harsher than you are used to. Accommodations on some days will be extremely basic with shared ‘pit’ variety toilets and no washing facilities. Food will be sometimes be basic, with little variety available. Driving days can be long, dusty and bumpy and you may feel some effects of altitude.
All the aspects of a moderate trip, but sustained over a longer period of time. The koras (circumambulation) of Mount Kailash and/or Lake Manasarovar are challenging due to the altitude, but generally achievable by anyone in good health.