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Tibet, the roof of the world, is a land of dramatic mountain ranges, stark open plains, and a truly unique culture and people group. The historical region in the southwest of China, lay largely undiscovered by outsiders until the beginning of the 20th century, but has since captured the worlds' imagination, where fascinated travellers seeking the unspoilt and more remote corners of the globe.
China invaded and annexed Tibet in 1950, and the country has since officially been known as the Tibet Autonomous Region. Travelling through Tibet is sadly no longer permitted unless visitors are part of an organised tour booked through an authorised tour operator. However, those who prefer to travel outside of big groups can still be granted permits so long as they have a guide and an itinerary booked through their tour operator. Travellers must be careful to remain with their tour guide for the duration of their stay. Luckily, tours of Tibet are plentiful and varied and itineraries can be arranged according to individual preference, but travellers should bear in mind that China occasionally suspends travel permits to Tibet due to political tension. In recent years, there has been a massive influx of Han-Chinese immigrants to Tibet, and Chinese-Tibetan relations can be strained at times, but Tibetan locals are famously friendly and hospitable to foreign visitors.
The vast Tibetan territory consists of a massive plateau surrounded by towering mountain ranges: the Himalayas to the south; the Karakoram to the west; the Kunlun to the north; and smaller ranges fringe the east, forming a barrier between Tibet and China's internal provinces. Most of Tibet is several thousand feet above sea level, meaning that the air is thin. The region is a major draw for mountaineers, containing some of the world's highest and most picturesque mountain peaks, capped by Mount Everest at 29,029 feet (8,848m), in the Himalayas of Tibet's Tingri Country.
Tibet is unbelievably scenic, with towering snow-covered peaks, glaciated high passes, aquamarine lakes, primeval forests, and piercingly blue skies. Despite its altitude and the thick snow and ice covering the mountains, Tibet actually has snowfall only a few times each year, with plenty of sunshine the rest of the time. Tibet's major cities and towns are congregated mainly in the southern part of the region. Here, in the agricultural sector, are the capital Lhasa and the other major city of Shigatse, which offer the region's most well-known tourist attractions, including the Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama and the Rongbuk Monastery, which is the highest in the world and has fantastic views of Mount Everest.
The vast Potala Palace stands on a cliff top above Lhasa, considered the greatest achievement of Tibetan architecture. The palace was originally built in the 7th century by the then emperor for his bride. It was later partially destroyed by lightning, and war, but restored and extended in 1645 by the Fifth Dalai Lama when he became political and religious leader of Tibet. The Fifth Dalai Lama took up residence in the palace in 1653, and it remained the Dalai Lamas' official residence until the exile of the 14th Dalai Lama in 1959.
The palace is renowned for its interior splendour. It consists of two main sections: The White Palace is the secular section containing offices, dormitories, a Buddhist seminary and printing house; The Red Palace is the sacred sanctuary dedicated to religious study and Buddhist prayer. The Red Palace contains chapels where the mummified remains of three Dalai Lamas lie, and the Great West Hall famous for its rich murals. The only remaining structures dating from the 7th century are the Dharma Cave and the Saint's Chapel but the palace houses many ancient cultural treasures and relics. In fact, the palace contains over 10,000 shrines and 200,000 statues.
The Jokhang Temple lies in the heart of old Lhasa. It was built nearly 1,300 years ago but remains the spiritual centre of Tibet, drawing pilgrims from all over the region who come to demonstrate piety to the Buddha. The original structure was enlarged under the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama and it now stands as the product of Han, Tibetan and Nepalese architectural design. It is a four-storey timber temple with a golden roof and it contains numerous valuable cultural relics and sacred sculptures, and features some magnificent murals in the main hall. Possibly the most special statue is the site's original sculpture of Buddha, called Jobo, which is richly decorated with jewels and silk. An annual prayer festival is held in the temple, which is also the venue for the initiation of the Dalai Lamas. The Jokhang Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is generally considered to be Tibet's most sacred and important temple. It is certainly one of the most popular tourist attractions in Lhasa. By all accounts, Jokhang Temple is a profoundly special place and it is said that travellers who stay long enough will discover that they are a Buddhist.
Tashi Lhunpo is one of Tibet's most revered and influential monasteries, lying about a mile (2km) to the west of Shigatse at the base of Drolmari Mountain. It dates from 1477, having been founded by the first Dalai Lama, and became the seat of the Panchen Lama (Tibet's second most important spiritual leader) in 1713. The monastery today houses about 800 monks in its 3,229 square foot (300 sq m) buildings. The oldest section of the monastery is the main chanting hall that houses the throne of the Panchen Lama. The tallest section is the Maitreya Chapel, which contains the world's largest brass statue of Maitreya. The seated figure is 86 feet (26m) high and has been decorated with gold, pearl, amber, copper, coral, diamonds, and many other precious stones. It is said that it took 900 craftsmen nine years to complete the statue. The Tashi Lhunpo Monastery boasts many other treasures, including the remarkable Thanka Wall, which is nine floors high and was built by the first Dalai Lama. The wall is used to display massive images of Buddha on important days in the Tibetan Lunar Calendar. There are also exquisite wall paintings, or murals, to be found within the monastery.
The Shigatse prefecture is the gateway for climbers to the North Col climbing route of the world's highest mountain, Mount Everest. The ultimate climber's challenge, Mount Everest towers at 29,028 feet (8,848m) on the border between Tibet and Nepal. The Tibetan name for the peak is Mount Quomolangma, which means 'the third goddess'. Access to the Everest Base Camp is via the town of Tinggri. About 20 miles (30km) from the town hiking tracks take climbers on a 48-mile (78km) trek to the first camp.
About six miles (10km) from the base camp is the highest monastery on earth, Rongbuk Monastery, at an altitude of 16,728ft (5,099m). The monastery is being restored and offers hostel accommodation. Just south of the monastery is the world-renowned Rongbuk Glacier. Because of its height, adventurers wishing to climb Mount Everest will need to allow several weeks simply to acclimatise to the thin atmosphere. Climbing Mount Everest is not to be entertained without the aid of a guide, and should only be attempted by extremely experienced climbers. Many have died attempting to reach the summit - about 280 people are thought to have perished on the mountain and fatalities occur almost every year. However, it is an awe-inspiring area to explore even for travellers not intending to climb the peak.
Numerous travel agencies offer package multi-day hikes around the area and up to the Everest base camp.
The unique Palkhor (Baiju) Monastery is situated about 143 miles (230km) south of Lhasa and 62 miles (100km) east of Shigatse, at the foot of Dzong Hill. It has an unusual structural style and houses a collection of pure silk costumes worn in Tibetan opera, all richly embroidered, that date from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The architecture of the monastery is diverse, incorporating Han, Tibetan and Nepali styles. The monastery is also unique in that it is the only one known to accommodate monks from three different Buddhist orders: the Gelugpa, Sakyapa and Kahdampa monks all get along famously. The main hall of Palkhor Monastery is about 500 years old. This famous monastery is a popular pilgrimage site and houses a number of shrines and frescoes: the 18 Arhat clay sculptures in the Arhat Shrine are renowned throughout Tibet. The most famous attraction of the monastery, however, is the Bodhi Dagoba, a building consisting of nine tiers, with 108 gates, that houses 76 shrines to Buddha. The views in the area are phenomenal and visitors will be enchanted by the location and the devotion of the pilgrims who flock to the site.
Lhasa is a holiday destination set in a marshy valley and dominated by surrounding mountain peaks. It is the capital city of the Tibet Autonomous Region and one of the highest cities in the world, at an elevation of 12,000ft (3,658m). Lhasa has long been the religious, cultural and political centre of Tibet, sheltered from the harsh winds of the Tibetan plateau in a spot that has been inhabited from at least 1500 BC. Today Lhasa has a population of more than 400,000. Being the religious centre for Lamaist Buddhists since ancient times, flocks of pilgrims have made their way to Lhasa over the centuries to worship at the feet of the Dalai Lama. Now tourists on holiday are following in their wake to explore the surrounding mountains and investigate Tibet's unique culture and long history.
In 1959 Lhasa saw several days of warfare in a revolt against communist reforms being imposed by the Chinese administration. The Dalai Lama fled to India and communism was instituted in Tibet. Many historic and religious buildings were destroyed, and Tibetan traditional culture discouraged. With political reform having taken root in China, however, economic progress has reached Lhasa as well and the city is currently enjoying a period of rapid modernisation, while retaining its importance as a holy city for Lamaist Buddhism. The remaining historic buildings are drawing more and more holiday visitors to Lhasa.
Tibet has a peculiar climate due to its unique topography and high altitude. The weather is harsh because the air is thin and temperatures can rise or drop suddenly. Tibet has a dry, cold climate and is particularly cold in the mountains and plateaus, which are swept by strong winds all year round. In summer (June to August), the daily temperature fluctuates greatly between day and night. At midday it may be 80°F (27°C), but after sunset the mercury plummets abruptly to as low as 32ºF (3°C). There is more sunshine in Tibet than many would expect, which prevents temperatures getting too low during the day. It does also make ultraviolet rays a problem for travellers, so they should be sure to take plenty of sunscreen no matter what the season. July and August are the wettest months, particularly in the central area around Lhasa, but average annual precipitation is actually very low. Northern Tibet experiences frequent thunderstorms and hail during the rainy months.
The best time of year to visit Tibet is between April and October, when the weather is mild. This only really applies to the central and southeast regions of Tibet though; the best months to visit the north are July and August, as winter at this altitude is freezing.
Tibet is relatively undeveloped compared to the rest of China and, as such, does not have much in terms of public transportation infrastructure. Despite considerable plans for development, it is unlikely that public transport in Tibet will improve significantly any time soon. Public transport is not really a concern for travellers, however, as they are required to organise their itineraries through tour operators and should at all times be accompanied by a guide and driver when exploring Tibet. Tourists are prohibited from traveling outside Lhasa independently. The Tibet Transportation Co-Op is the government-approved option for car rental and 4x4 vehicles are the most popular choice. For package tours with big groups the cost of the vehicles is invariably included but individuals and small groups on private tours may need to organise car rental themselves - either way, your tour operator should advise you.
The region of Tibet is a paradise for those who prefer to travel off the proverbial beaten track. The Tibet Autonomous Region is unbeatable in terms of natural beauty, but there are also a multitude of cultural and historical tourist attractions to be discovered.
Lhasa, the capital city, is a good place to start, as it has been the global religious centre for Lamaist Buddhists since ancient times and offers an array of interesting things to see and do. The Jokhang Temple in Lhasa is arguably Tibet's most sacred temple and is a popular destination for pilgrims. Lhasa is often filled with pilgrims, adding to the atmosphere of devotion, peace, and majesty. Just above the city looms the famous Polata Palace, which was the official residence of the Dalai Lama for centuries and is celebrated as the greatest achievement of Tibetan architecture.
Many tours of Tibet include a visit to Shigatse, a city en route to Mount Everest, not far from Lhasa. On the way, travellers can stop off at the Palkhor Monastery and Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama. The Sakya Monastery in Shigatse is particularly popular with visitors.
Travellers interested in ancient civilizations and archaeology can venture further afield to Guge in Zana County, where they'll find the truly enthralling remains of an ancient kingdom. Guge is more difficult to access than some of the other sites, but it's worth the extra effort for those who prefer attractions that are off the main tourist route.
Of course, many travel to Tibet for the magnificent landscapes and mountains and, in this regard, the region will not disappoint. Apart from the notorious Mount Everest, the world's highest peak, there are innumerable scenic areas worth exploring. Stunning natural areas include Ranwu Lake and Valley, in Basu County, and Basongcuo Lake Tourist Area, in Gongbo'gyamda County. When it comes to untamed wilderness, travellers to Tibet are spoiled for choice.
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