Tibet is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The region covers more than 1.2 million sq km. Tibet is found on the South-West of the Tibetan Plateau in the northern part of Himalayas. It is the traditional home of Tibetan people as well as some ethnic groups. However, because of its geography, the population is low and distributed unevenly. High mountains cover large territories in Tibet, where farming is not possible.
It is the highest region on Earth, with an average elevation of 4500 meters. No wonder Tibet is often called the “Roof of the World” and the “Third Pole”.
Mount Everest attracts thousands of people every year. With the new road connecting Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and Everest Base Camp in Tibet you can reach the highest mountain in two days. However, the base camp is located at an altitude of 5,050 meters and requires acclimatizing to high altitude. That’s why most tours to Everest take at least 8 days to drive to the base camp and return back to Lhasa.
There are many reasons why Tibet attracts visitors. Some come to see the world’s highest mountains, others want to learn more about Tibet’s culture and rich heritage. Tibet has a lot to offer to everyone: from old Buddhist monasteries with ancient artifacts to awe-inspiring landscapes.
The first European missioners António de Andrade and Manuel Marques arrived in Tibet in 1624. At that time, king and queen of Guge Kingdom welcomed them and even allowed to build the first Christian church. However, already in 1745 all travelers were not allowed to visit.
Nowadays you can visit Tibet, and it welcomes tourists from all over the world. Still, there are additional rules for arranging your visit. All foreigners must:
- receive special permits for traveling in Tibet arranged by local tour agencies
- travel in an organized tour with a local guide in a tourist vehicle
Before the 7th century, Tibetans practiced the Bon religion. Since the adoption of Buddhism in the 7-8 centuries, it became the main religion in Tibet. However, there are still some people practicing Bon and there are several active monasteries in Tibet. About 12% of the population practice Bon religion. While almost 90% of Tibetans practice Buddhism.
There is a Muslim minority in Tibet, comprising 0.4% of the population. There is a Muslim quarter in Lhasa with two active Mosques. Also, there is a small Tibetan Christian community.
Monk’s debates is an important and essential part of studying Tibetan Buddhism. After learning new topics, monks gather in monasteries’ courtyards. One of them asks questions and another one has to answer. Monks use specific gestures to accompany their answers. Although it is often called monks’ debates, Tibetan Buddhist nuns also practice debates.
One of the most popular to view debates is Sera Monastery in Lhasa. Monks gather for debates every day in the afternoon except Sundays.
The Maitreya or Future Buddha statue is 26 meters high and has about 300 kg of gold gilding on it. It is the most important statue in Tashi Lhunpo monastery. The monastery is located in Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet. It was founded by the first Dalai Lama in 1447.
Tibet covers a total area of 4,71,900 square miles. 2,600 km extends from West to East and 1,300 from North to South. It extends from 78 degrees to 90 degrees longitude East and 28 degrees to 37-degree latitude North. Tibetan landscapes range from green dense forests to dry moonscapes and deserts, from deep river canyons to the highest mountain ranges. There are vast grasslands, some of the most important rivers, running throughout Asia, alpine lakes and glaciers. Due to such a diversity of the climate, Tibet is home to many wildlife species, including some endemic animals and birds.
Tibet has several major rivers: Brahmaputra, Indus, Sutlej, Ganges, Yellow River, and Yangtze, and a number of smaller rivers. Rivers flow from Tibet to India, China, Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal, Bhutan and other Southeast Asian countries. Rivers not only provide the necessary water but also serve as an important electricity source.
Tibet is sometimes called “The Third Pole” of the world because of its vast water resources. Ice and snow of glaciers melt when temperatures are rising and when the sun is shining. Water from the melting glaciers feeds important rivers and lakes. Unfortunately, in recent years ice from glaciers is melting at a faster rate and their territory is shrinking.
Mount Kailash is one of the most important mountains in Tibet. It is sacred for four religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Bon and Jainism. Followers of these religions come to Kailash to walk the pilgrimage route around it. There are no roads around the mountain. To circle around it, you need to walk 52km at an altitude above 4,500 meters reaching 5,640 meters at its highest point.
Despite being the second largest province in China after Xinjiang, Tibet has the lowest population density. The total population of Tibetans is estimated to be around 6 million, including people living in TAR, as well as in other Tibetan regions in China, such as Sichuan, Qinghai, and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.
The total number of Tibetans in the Tibetan Autonomous Region is around 3.3 million. An estimated number of Han Chinese living in Tibetan territories is approximately 7.5 million.
There are other ethnic minorities living on the territory of Tibet, including Monpa, Hui, Naxi, Drung, and others.
To live in the highest plateau of the world Tibetans have:
- several specific genes allowing them to use oxygen more efficiently
- larger lungs and their lungs function better
If you are traveling to Tibet, you will certainly notice it. Tibetans walk fast, work hard and don’t get tired as fast as people from other regions at that altitude. A very popular and important religious trekking route around Mount Kailash Tibetans complete in one day, while it takes 2-3 days for everyone else.
Highland barley is an important source of protein, fiber, and carbohydrates for Tibetans. Tibet’s soil layer is very thin with ice laying as little as 10 cm below the soil. At the same time, the climate in most regions is harsh. Barley becomes
Barley became a part of Tibetan culture. People share it with anyone who is hungry. Monks use it as a part of blessing offerings for monasteries’visitors.
More about Tibetan food: traditional Tibetan food
Traditional Tibetan drink is butter tea when black tea is mixed with blended yak butter. For visitors it takes more like a soup. Tibetans drink it by itself or with other snacks, such as bread or boiled potatoes. Butter tea helps Tibetans to replenish energy and warm up, and it is so important in a harsh climate.
Of course, it doesn’t mean that you cannot find regular tea in Tibet. Another popular variety served in all tea houses is sweet tea. The tea is served wit milk and sugar. In many restaurants you can order green or jasmine tea. Coffee on the other hand is available in a few restaurants and coffee shops in Lhasa and Shigatse.
The life of Tibetans heavily depends on yaks. It is a source of meat and milk. Tibetans use the milk to produce yogurt, cheese, and butter. Yak’s hair is used to make the nomad’s tents. Yak’s dung is used to make a fire for cooking and keeping tents warm during the cold weather. Most of Tibet is located above the tree-growing line. That’s why Tibetans use scarce timber to make furniture and household items, but not to make fire.
Tibetans use sky burial as the main funeral practice. They take the dead body high to the mountains to feed to vultures. It is the last deed of merit that they can do by feeding what can no longer serve them to the birds. It is also a more ecological way than digging graves or burning trees for cremation.
LOCATION OF TIBET
The historical and administrative Tibet have different borders. Historically, territories of Tibet were vast, spreading on the Tibetan Plateau. Nowadays, the name “Tibet” is usually associated with the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). However, the territory where Tibetans live, and where the culture is predominantly Tibetan, is spreading beyond the borders of the TAR. Tibetan territories are a part of several other prefectures in China, including Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan.
Tibet has borders with Bhutan, Nepal, and India, and majestic Himalayan mountains separate Tibet from the neighboring countries. Some of the highest mountains on the planet lie between Tibet and Nepal, such as Everest, Cho Oyu, and Shishapangma. There is an overland border between Nepal and Tibet at the Gyirong port. Traveling between these countries is a long journey, however, it is difficult to find a more scenic route. The border between Tibet and India is currently open for Indian citizens only.
Because of Tibet’s high elevation, weather in many Tibetan regions is harsh. At an elevation above 4,500 meters, weather conditions can change very fast, and it is not uncommon to see snow even in the summer months.
The level of precipitation is uneven throughout the year. The rainy season usually starts in the middle of June-July and lasts until the beginning of September.
However, weather in the valleys can be very pleasant. for example, in Lhasa summer months are warm, with hot days and cool nights. Even during the monsoon season in July and August it usually rains during the nighttime only. During the day, the weather is very pleasant. That’s why the summer months are the most popular among visitors.
The main language in Tibet is the Tibetan language. However, there are several variations of the language. Standard Tibetan is spoken in Lhasa and throughout the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Along with Chinese, it is the official language of TAR.
The written language is the Classic Tibetan, dating back to the 7th century when the first Buddhist texts appeared. Regardless of the variation of the dialect in the spoken language, all Tibetans use the Classic Tibetan writing script.
In addition to the Standard Tibetan, there are several dialects. Sometimes these dialects are called separate languages. They are all based on the same written script, but pronunciation is different, and grammar has some variations. People in Kham and Amdo regions speak the Tibetan language, which Lhasa people don’t even understand. In turn, these dialects are further divided into more dialects within each group. For example, Kham Tibetan has five different dialects within it. Amdo Tibetan has seven different dialects.
There are other dialects that are used in Ladakh, India, and Bhutan.
In addition to Tibetan, people working in the tourism industry speak English.
Tibetan calendar follows the phases of the Moon. That’s why the dates of the festival celebrations according to the Western calendar will be different every year.
Most of the important festivals in Tibet are religious. These are the most important festivals for Tibetans:
The Losar or New Year festival
It starts on the first day of the first month and lasts for 3-7 days. Tibetans love this holiday, as they always celebrate it with their family. They prepare for Losar in advance, cleaning everything and cooking special dishes. When the day comes, they wake up early to dress up in traditional costumes, have a nice meal with family, relax and enjoy the day. For several days after Losar, they will be visiting relatives and friends to offer delicious meals to each other.
Saga Dawa Festival (15th day of the 4th month)
It is the most important religious festival in Tibet. Saga Dawa commemorates the day of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death. Some monasteries prepare a special Cham dance and monks demonstrate it during the festival. Also, it is widely celebrated at the foot of Mount Kailash – an important pilgrim destination.
Want to see the celebration of Saga Dawa in Tibet? We offer a special tour package to Mount Kailash during the Saga Dawa»
Tibetans celebrate Shoton or yogurt festival on the 30th day of the 6th month. It usually falls in August. The history of the festival goes back to the 17th century when Tibetans started serving yogurt to monks, celebrating the completion of long retreats. During Shoton, large monasteries display huge Thangka paintings. You can only see these paintings once a year during that festival. At the same time, troupes of artists perform opera in Norbulingka park in Lhasa. Tibetans gather with families for a picnic in a park.
If you are interested in Shoton, consider visiting Tibet during the festival time»
There are other festivals during the year, including the Butter Lamp Festival, the Panden Lhamo festival, the Bathing festival, and Wongkor festival.