Those who venture up into Tibet’s almost-mythical landscape are often moved to poetic descriptions. The Roof of the World. The Third Pole. Land of the Gods. Whatever you want to call it, here you can expect to be challenged and amazed at every step.
It’s almost impossible to have a clear-eyed view of Tibet without taking a position on the political situation, though despite the ever-present tension in the background, this is a country that has lost none of its fascination for the visitor. Tibetans are fiercely protective of their ancient culture and Buddhist religion, which is reflected most obviously in the temples and monasteries dotting the plateau, joyful festivals, and a profound reverence towards the monastic tradition. Beijing may claim sovereignty, but it hasn’t yet managed to sever the bond that many still feel with the exiled Dalai Lama.
Since the worst years following the establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region and the devastating Cultural Revolution, some freedoms have been restored, the iron grip has been loosened somewhat, and the country is a lot more accessible, except around sensitive anniversaries. Chinese investment and modernisation from the 1980s onwards has turbo-charged cities such as Lhasa and Shigatse, with many significant religious sites including ancient monasteries being renovated and rebuilt in largely sympathetic styles. A huge influx of Han Chinese has dramatically changed the country’s ethnic makeup, and Tibetans have little or no say in governance, but the political situation is at least stable.
So why, then, are we convinced that Tibet should be the next destination you explore? Well, let’s start with those incredible views. This is the world’s highest country after all, with an average elevation of 4,500 metres, and surrounded by some of the tallest mountains on the planet, many of them in Mount Everest National Park. During the spring and autumn months, that epic scenery can be admired with wonderful clarity, and even in winter you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how hospitable the weather can be.
Most tours will begin in the capital, Lhasa, with a few days to acclimatise and discover landmarks such as the beautiful Potala Palace, the Drepung Monastery and the hallowed Jokhang temple. Joining the pilgrims and worshippers on the morning kora around the Jokhang is a rite of passage for many visitors, and an unforgettable experience. Southeast of Lhasa in the fertile Yarlung Valley, the area around Tsetang holds several of Tibet’s most sacred religious sites, including Samye, the first monastery ever built in the country.
In the other direction, Gyantse, one of Tibet’s best-preserved towns, is a five-hour drive west over steep mountain passes, taking in the holy lake of Yamdrok on the way. The magnificent Palcho Monastery here, with its tiered Kumbum, is a work of art. A little further along the Friendship Highway (you’ll be glued to the window throughout the journey), Shigatse is the second-largest city in Tibet, a modern metropolis that’s home to the 15th century Tashilhunpo Monastery, and the Summer Palace of the Panchen Lamas, as well as being the birthplace of Tibetan opera. From Shigatse to Mount Everest National Park, it’s just another day’s drive, while continuing further west brings you to the iconic Mount Kailash, another superb area for trekking.
In Tibet, religious devotion mingles with respect for ancient traditions and proud defiance to create an enthralling culture, and the Himalayan landscape is absolutely spellbinding, even in the freezing depths of winter. Is it any wonder the imagination takes flight?
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