Administrative and Traditional division
Territories historically populated by Tibetan people are vast, stretching over 2,250,000 square kilometers. The administrative division includes Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and 10 autonomous prefectures located in Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai, and Gansu. Travel regulations in TAR are different and much more restrictive than in other areas (often referred to as Eastern Tibet).
Foreign tourists wishing to visit TAR have to apply for a Tibet Travel Permit through one of the travel agencies. You can find more information about Travel Permits and the process here»
There are no regulations regarding visiting one of the territories outside of TAR. Tourists can freely travel there the same way they would do in China.
Main Regions in Tibet
Traditionally, Tibetan plateau was divided into the following main regions:
- Amdo (Chamdo) on the North-East
- Kham (Nyingchi) on the South-East
- Lhasa region in the center
- U – central and Northern Tibet, including Nagqu
- Lhoka – on the South
- Shigatse Region (Tsang) on the South-West of the country
- Ngari on the West
It is not uncommon to see the maps where the three regions of U, Tsang, and Ngari are listed together as U-Tsang. Some maps, on the contrary, further divide regions into smaller areas, such as Changtang on the North-West.
Brief Description of Main Regions in Tibet
The main regions differ in climate, culture, traditions and even language.
U – Central and Northern Tibet
The central Tibet, where according to the legends, Tibetan people first appeared, stretches from the Yarlung Valley with it’s the oldest structure – Yumbulakhang and the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery Samye in the South, to the Namsto lake, the largest saltwater lake in Tibet, on the North. It also includes Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and you will find more information on it further in the post.
The legend says that the first Tibetans appeared in the Gangpo Ri caves near Tsedang, from the union of an ogress and the monkey – the emanation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion (Avalokiteshvara).
Tibetans believe that Buddhist scriptures fell on the roof of Yumbulakhang – the old fortress later converted into a monastery approximately in the 5th century. By the 6th century, the first kings settled in Yarlung valley and united tribes living all across Tibetan plateau. Later king Songtsen Gampo made an alliance with China and Nepal through marriage. At the same time, he initiated translation of Buddhist scriptures and received several very important Buddhist artifacts. More about it in our article about Jokhang Temple»
Four Sects of Tibetan Buddhism
Following some periods of raising and falling, Buddhism finally spread and flourished all over Tibet. New teachers were summoned from India, more scriptures were translated from Indian and Sanskrit.
The tradition of learning religious texts from teachers was very strong, and teachers sometimes emphasized different aspects of practicing Buddhism more than others. There were also variations in reading and translations of religious texts. As a result, several different schools, or sects of Tibetan Buddhism appeared throughout the history of the country.
The main sects are the following: Gelugpa (Yellow Hat), Nyingmapa (Red Hats), Kagyupa (Black Hat) and Sakyapa. Some of the sects were further divided into different schools. They would still regard the same main leader of the sect but keep a clear record of the particular sect lineage.
Monasteries in Central Tibet
You can see monasteries of all four main sects of Tibetan Buddhism in Central Tibet, and many of them are in or near Lhasa.
The Samye monastery is the first Buddhist monastery built in Tibet, marking the important step in the adoption of Buddhism religion by Tibetans. Samye monastery remains one of the most important monasteries of the Nyingma (also called Red Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Tsurphu monastery is located to the West from Lhasa. It is one of the main monasteries of the Kagyupa (or the Black Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The head of the sect – Karmapa is one of the most influential religious leaders in Tibet, following only the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. During the Saga Dawa festival, monks perform the traditional Cham dance. During that time, many pilgrims visit Tsurpu monastery and stay there for several days.
The history of the Gelugpa (or Yellow Hat) sect begins near Lhasa, where Tsongkhapa founded Ganden monastery in the 14th century. Nowadays, Gelug is the most popular sect in Tibet. The Dalai Lama is the head of the Gelug sect. The Fifth Dalai Lama became not only religious but also the political leader of Tibet in the 17th century. This tradition was unbroken until the recent years when the 14th Dalai Lama escaped to India during the time of cultural revolution in China.
Reting monastery is another important Gelug monastery. After the death of the Dalai Lama, two regents rule Tibet and they are responsible for the search of the new Dalai Lama. They were traditionally chosen from the abbots of the Reting monastery. The monastery is located approximately 160 km away from Lhasa in a beautiful Rongchu valley, surrounded by a juniper tree forest.
Lakes in Central Tibet
Namtso Lake is located in about 250 km on the North West from Lhasa. It is the largest saltwater lake in Tibet. There are stunning views from the surrounding mountains, and the color of the lake can be different depending on the time of the year. Namtso lake is at a higher elevation than Lhasa at an altitude of approximately 4700 meters.
Lhamo Latso is an oracle lake. Dalai Lamas visited the lake to see predictions. Regents travel to the lake to get hints on where to look for the next Dalai Lama. Tibetans make pilgrimages to the lake as well.
Unfortunately, foreign tourists are not permitted to visit the lake. We hope that the situation will change in the future.
More Information about Places to Visit in Central Tibet
Lhasa, the Capital of Tibet
Lhasa is not only the capital of Tibet but also the center of the country’s cultural and religious life. Most of the tourists start their visit to Tibet from Lhasa. It is very easy to get here, with several flights a day from all major cities in China, and several trains arriving at the train station. The city is located at 3600 meters above sea levels, and it makes it easy to acclimatize before heading to higher areas in Tibet.
Lhasa was home to Dalai Lamas. Don’t miss the magnificent Potala Palace, the winter residence of the Dalai Lama. Jokhang temple is another must-see in Lhasa. King Songtsen Gampo initiated construction in the 7th century. The unique statue of 12 years old Buddha, created during his lifetime, is displayed in Jokhang. This is the most important statue in Tibet and pilgrims from all over the country arrive in Lhasa to visit it.
Monasteries in Lhasa
Some of the most important and oldest monasteries are located in Lhasa or nearby. Sera monastery is one of the largest and oldest monasteries in Lhasa. It is famous for monks debates, that you can see in the afternoon in the courtyard. Drepung monastery was founded by the disciple of Tsongkhapa. It was the seat of Dalai Lamas before the construction of Potala Palace. Ani Tsamkhong Nunnery is the largest nunnery in Lhasa and the most active. The nunnery is very well maintained. If you visit the nunnery early in the morning, you can see nuns chanting in the assembly hall of the main building.
There are many monasteries and temples everywhere in the old parts of Lhasa. When you walk around the Jokhang temple on the Barkhor street, you can visit several small temples and chapels.
More Information about Lhasa and main attractions:
- Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Sera Monastery, Drepung Monastery, Ani Tsamkhong Nunnery, Norbulingka – summer residence of the Dalai Lama.
Shigatse Region (Tsang)
The two main cities of the Tsang region are Shigatse and Gyantse. Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet. There is an important Tashi Lunpo monastery. Tashi Lunpo is the seat of the Panchen Lama, highly revered lama, second only to the Dalai Lama.
You can reach Shigatse from Lhasa by a highway in 6 hours. Alternatively, you can take mountain roads, and driving from Lhasa to Shigatse can take most of the day. However, it is the only way to see some of the most spectacular views in Tibet.
The road will take you through the high pass to the sacred Yamdrok lake. The lake is famous for its turquoise colored water. On the way, you will also see the Karola glaciers. These magnificent peaks are covered with ice all the year round and the melting ice from them feeds rivers.
Driving further towards Shigatse, you will reach the town of Gyantse. There is a large Pelkor Choede monastery and Kumbum Stupa, the largest stupa in Tibet. The town is also famous for its old fort and walls, dating back to 14th century.
More Information about Places to Visit in Tsang Region of Tibet
- Shigatse, Gyantse, Pelkor Choede Monastery, Kumbum Stupa and Tashi Lhunpo Monastery»
- Everest Base Camp»
Ngari (Western Tibet)
Ngari (མངའ་རིས་) is the region of the Western Tibet. The new airport opened in 2010 in the town of Ngari at the elevation of 4,500 meters. The altitude of the area is so high, that most of the visitors are still traveling by car, to acclimatize during the slow ascent.
The landmarks of the region are Mountain Kailash, Manasarovar lake and the ruins of the Guge Kingdom.
Kham ( ཁམས) is the area on the South-East of the Tibetan plateau, now part of Tibetan Autonomous Region and Sichuan, Yunnan, Ganzu and Qinghai Provinces.
Tibetans living in the region are called Khampas. They look different from the Tibetans from Central Tibet (usually they are visibly taller), and they speak a different dialect of Tibetan language.
Khampas traditionally were skillful warriors, and never under control of a single king. Instead, they had a number of chief commanders ruling over separate kingdoms.
The landscape of the area is very diverse. Four large rivers flow through the Kham lands Yangtze, Yalong, Mekong and Salween. The Hengduan mountain range is running through Kham.
There are several distinct regions in Kham, including Derge, Nangchen, Kingdoms of Chakla, Lhatok, and Lingtsang.
Amdo ( ཨ༌མདོ) is the large region on the North-East of the Tibetan Plateau. It is stretching over three Chinese provinces: Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu. Amdo was the birthplace and home to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tsongkhapa, 10th Panchen Lama and many other important Tibetan lamas and scholars.
Amdo was an important religious center and there are a lot of monasteries, including Labrang, Kumbum and Kirti Gompa.
The Amdo territories are primarily grasslands. There are two main rivers – Yellow river (Machu) and Yangtze (Drichu), and a Qinghai Lake.