Difference between revisions of "Tibet"
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Tibet (Classical Tibetan: Bod; (བོད་), Lhasa dialect: Pö; Mandarin Chinese: 西藏, Xīzàng) is an autonomous region of China.
Entering Tibet you feel as though you've entered an entirely different world. The traditional Tibetan culture, though heavily diluted recently by government-sponsored migrations of Han and Hui Chinese, remains strong.
This article only covers the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). There are also Tibetan autonomous prefectures and or counties located in the provinces of Qinghai, southwest Gansu, western Sichuan and northwest Yunnan, covered in the articles on those provinces. These areas are culturally, historically and linguistically Tibetan to various degrees; there was once a Tibetan Kingdom considerably larger than the autonomous region's current borders. The question of Tibetan sovereignty is a hot-button issue. All of what is today the TAR, plus additional bordering areas were indirectly under Chinese control (as a tributary state) until the end of the Qing Dynasty and the founding of the first Republic in 1912. Then depending on whom you ask, the history gets murky. In contemporary China, the term Tibet refers only to the TAR, but the term "Tibetan Regions", with its focus on all of ethnographic Tibet is becoming more widespread amongst Chinese in China as well.
See List of Chinese provinces and regions for an explanation of the terms "autonomous region" and "autonomous prefecture" if required.
Tibet spans the world's largest and, with average heights of over 4,000 m, also the world's highest plateau. The Tibetan Plateau also spans most Qinghai, western Sichuan provice, northern Yunnan, and lastly southwestern Gansu. Consequently, Tibet is often referred to as the "Roof of the World". Parts of the region (northwestern region) are so remote they remain uninhabited to this day.
In the mid-7th century, Songtsan Gampo established the unified Tibetan Empire, and married two princesses, one from China and one from Nepal. Tibet and Tang China fought repeatedly for control over the Silk Road during this time. Although the country was unified, it was seldom peaceful and between the 9th century and the mid-17th century it was often embroiled in turmoil. This period finally drew to a close when the Dalai Lama invited a tribe of Mongols to intervene. The Mongols under Altan Khan created a symbiotic patron-priest arrangement, whereby the Mongols provided military and governmental leadership and Tibetans would provide religious instruction.
In the early 18th century, Tibet was again in turmoil, and seeking to replicate the success of the earlier means of restoring peace, the Dalai Lama invited another tribe of Mongols to take control. However, the emperor of Qing China was unhappy with this arrangement, and ordered an invasion. The Mongols were expelled, and the Chinese and Tibetans began a special relationship which was maintained until the end of the Qing dynasty. The institution of the Dalai Lamas was first created at this time; Dalai is a Mongolian word meaning "ocean." Sonam Gyatso was recognized as the Third Dalai Lama in 1578; his two previous incarnations are considered the first and second Dalai Lamas.
The British invaded Tibet in 1904, while the Qing emperor carved out states from areas under Tibetan control in the north and east. With the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Tibet declared independence from China under the authority of the 13th Dalai Lama and remained an isolated de facto independent nation for over thirty years. Its borders were slightly larger than the current TAR and included what are now portions of Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan.
After the retreat of the Nationalists to Taiwan in 1949, the Communists turned their attention towards Tibet as they wished to consolidate control over all former Qing dynasty territories. In 1950, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) liberated Tibet. In the UN Security Council, the Nationalists (who still had China's seat) vetoed a motion that would have censured the liberation; they too considered Tibet part of China. In 1951 an agreement was signed to liberate Tibet, offering Tibet — on paper — full autonomous status for governance, religion and local affairs. The newly established Communist Chinese Government even installed the current Dalai Lama as the vice-secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in the early 1950's.
Communist reforms and the heavy-handed approach of the People's Liberation Army lead to tension with the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan followers. Following the Tibetan uprising in March 1959, the Dalai Lama and many of his followers went into exile in India, setting up a government in exile in Dharamsala. Tibet's isolated location did not protect it from the terror of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Tibet's rich cultural heritage as well as much of neighboring Chinese ancient culture lay in ruins due to the Communist government inspired chaotic Cultural Revolution movement.
Since Deng Xiaoping and the "reforms" took control in Beijing, the situation in Tibet has calmed considerably, though it still remains tense. Instead of pure brute force, Chinese tactics have switched to assimilation. However, slowly, monasteries are being rebuilt and a semblance to normality is returning to the region. Despite this, Tibet still suffers from independence-related civil unrest, most notably in 1987, 1989 and most recently in 2008. The Chinese authorities often close Tibet to foreign tourists, usually in March, the anniversary of this Tibetan Uprising. Tourists wishing to tavel to Tibet face an ethical dilemma. If they go to Tibet they are implicitly supporting the Chinese regime and their money goes mainly only to Chinese authorities. However the Dalai Lama has always strongly encouraged foreigners to go, so that they can see the situation for themselves and also because Tibetans welcome their presence. Tibet is also becoming more and more popular a travel destination among the Chinese themselves. While very few Chinese support the secession of Tibet, you will find many younger Chinese very open to the idea of fair and real autonomy for this special place in the world.
Recently, Tibetans have undertaken a series of self-immolations  to protest Chinese rule and lack of religious freedom. In addition, the Chinese regime continues to draw human-rights criticism to itself with its policies, including brutal repression of protests and extra-legal detentions , .
The main language of Tibet is Tibetan; which comes in many varying dialects, but many Tibetans speak or understand some Mandarin except the nomadic tribes in the Far East Tibet. Tibetan is closely related to Burmese and much more distantly to Chinese. Depending on the dialect of Tibetan spoken, it may be tonal or non-tonal. In the cities people speak Chinese fluently; in the villages it may not be understood at all. Han Chinese people, on the other hand, normally don't know any Tibetan at all. Signs in Tibet, including street signs, are at least bilingual - in Chinese and in Tibetan - plus a major local language when there is one.
Although this makes Chinese a more useful language for travelers in many ways, you should remember that language can be political in this charged environment. If you speak in Chinese to Tibetans you are associating yourself with the Chinese, the presence of whom is often resented among the ethnic Tibetan population, as evidenced by the widespread rioting throughout the region in the run-up to the Olympic Games. That said, many Tibetans seem to view Chinese as a useful lingua franca and a few Tibetan pleasantries is enough to befriend Tibetans. Tibetans from different regions converse in Chinese since Tibetan dialects vary so much that they are not immediately mutually understandable. If you speak Tibetan to Chinese police you'll raise suspicions that you may be in Tibet to support Tibetan Independence.
Having said that Tibetan is an extremely difficult language to learn and most foreigners who claim to know Tibetan can hardly get by. Tibetan is only taught in school until the 8th grade. Therefore, when it comes to writing, even the Tibetans themselves have difficulties and many are in fact illiterate.
Tourism to Tibet is strictly controlled by the Chinese government, and restrictions were further ratcheted up after the riots and before the 2008 Olympics. As of 2009, the previous "backpacker" tours, which included the permit and a couple of nights stay in Lhasa is no longer an option and all travellers must stay with an organised trip the entire time they are in Tibet. That means you will not be allowed to travel on an independent basis and you will be presented Tibet from an official Han Chinese government sponsored perspective. Prospective travellers should consider the amount of time and money put forward to travel to this region of China in comparison to others, in addition to the fact that little or no money will enter into the hands of the local population. Thus, for financial, ethical and logistical reasons, some travellers simply opt to travel to other Tibetan regions of China. If you really want to go, be prepared for lots of paperwork and other manufactured hassles. Tibet is also the only region of China where travellers have reported being stopped or questioned by the Chinese police, which are normally either courteous or simply uninterested in a traveller's whereabouts or plans in the rest of the country.
All foreign visitors to Tibet need one or more permits. The basic one is the Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit, which can be issued to you by Chinese travel agencies that handle trips to Tibet, or (if overseas and arriving via Nepal) by the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu on proof of purchasing a package tour (there is no way around this). If you buy an expensive package tour, the TTB permit will only cost you US$6, but if you just want train/plane tickets (which, as of 2009, no longer seems to be possible), the travel agency will inflate their cut accordingly and you'll need to fork out up to US$50-70. For land crossings (including the train), you'll get a physical permit that will be checked; for plane tickets, the permit may just be an annotation on your ticket record.
Some parts of Tibet also require an Aliens' Travel Permit (ATP), which is issued by the Public Security Bureau (PSB) in major Tibetan cities like Lhasa, Xigatse and Ali. The list of regions that require ATPs changes constantly, so enquire locally. Lhasa's PSB has a poor reputation, while Xigatse and Ali are said to issue permits without any unnecessary difficulties. If your papers are in order, the permit can be issued in several hours for Y100.
Finally, some remote areas also require a military permit. These are only available in Lhasa, where processing takes several days, and are only granted for an appropriate reason.
You can fly to Lhasa and also Nyingchi but flying in from a much lower altitude city puts you at high risk of altitude sickness because of the quick transition. If you are in Sichuan or nearby (and aren't satisfied visiting the many ethnically Tibetan areas to the east of the Tibetan Autonomous Region) flying from Chengdu or Chongqing is the easiest option.
A flight from Chengdu or Chongqing to Lhasa plus all the necessary paperwork will cost around 2000 yuan, and can be arranged through most large hostels or travel agents.
An alternate route is to follow the Yunnan tourist trail to Zhongdian and fly from there to Lhasa. If you spend a few days each in Kunming (2000 m), Dali (1800 m), Lijiang and Zhongdian (3200 m) to acclimatise, you should be able to fly to Lhasa (3650 m) with little risk,
The Qinghai-Tibet (Qingzang) Railway from Golmud to Lhasa started operating in July 2006. The journey all the way from Beijing takes just under 48 hours, costing 389 yuan in the cheapest hard seat class and 1262 yuan for a soft sleeper. Direct trains to Lhasa originate in Beijing, Xining, Lanzhou, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Chengdu. For a mid-range sleeper from Chengdu with 6 bunks in each room, they are 692 yuan. Be warned that these trains are not for the faint-hearted and the less adventurous type: they do not have Western-styled toilets and bunks are relatively cramped. The main advantage for this mode of transportation is the fact that you could slowly adapt to high altitude conditions instead of a sudden shift if you were to take a plane.
If you're not up to rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi, Tangula  runs roughly weekly luxury trains (Apr-Dec only) from Beijing to Lhasa and back. The 4-day journey costs US$5,500 (twin sharing), including all meals, drinks and excursions. However, as of January 2010, the Tangula still has no official launch date and are not accepting reservations until Summer 2011, due to economic hardships.
Oxygen Supply System
The oxygen supply system is one of the most significant designs. It ensures passengers' comfort and safety when the train arrives in the area over 4,000 meters above sea level, which easily causes high altitude sickness. Each train is provided with two oxygen-supply systems. Both of the oxygen supply systems are working when the trains are running in Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Zone. One is used for increasing the oxygen level in the train, by temperature and air pressure controlling systems once the train enters into the plateau zone from Golmud to Lhasa. When the oxygen supply systems are working, no smoking is allowed in all the cars. The other is directly used by passengers through an independent port. There are oxygen supply tubes and masks in each cabin for emergencies. Private oxygen masks are provided to every passenger, whatever ticket they have.
As the air on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau is quite thin, the solar radiation is very strong. In order to help passengers enjoy the scenery along the railway at most, every train is installed with sealed sightseeing windows that are covered by anti-ultraviolet film so as to protect passengers from the wind, sand and ultraviolet radiation. All the windows are provided with double-layered vacuum glass. The outer layer is covered by anti-ultraviolet film. Apart from that, there are two layers of curtain in the cars for preventing ultraviolet radiation.
Different train carriages
In order to meet different demands from different passengers taking Tibet train, the carriages of the train to Tibet are classified into three classes, soft sleeper, hard sleeper and hard seat.
(1) The first class - Soft Sleeper
Of course, soft sleeper is the first-class carriage, and also the most comfortable and expensive. At first, soft sleeper class gives you access to a separate waiting area and priority boarding. There are twelve compartments with private doors in a carriage; four berths in each compartment, two upper and two lower, with a small table next to the window, between the two lower bunks. There is enough private room in the soft sleeper compartments.
(2) The second class – Hard Sleeper
Hard Sleeper is the second class car. Do not be misled by the name. The hard sleeper berth is not a hard-board like its name. It is still comfortable and soft but less spacious and private. There are eighteen compartments without doors in a carriage; six berths per compartment forming 2 triple bunk beds, two upper, two middle and two lower.
(3) The third class - Hard Seat
Hard seat on the train is also not hard chair like its name. It is soft and comfortable for a short journey. There are usually 4 hard-seat cars in each train from or to Tibet, which can totally contend 392 people. Different as a standard hard-seats car, which totally content 108 seats, one hard-seating car just offers 98 seats in a Tibet train. Since travel to Tibet by train is quite a long journey, it is not recommended for you to take hard seat to Tibet.
Services on Tibet train
All the attendants on Tibet train take training sessions before working on the train: simple Tibetan language and ethnic traditions, crash courses in English. Each train has a doctor attending the medical emergencies of the passengers suffering from altitude sickness.
The dining car offers fast combination meals throughout most of the day for sale, although choices are quite limited. For example, passengers can purchase a western breakfast for approx $4 consisting of eggs, bread, butter, jam, milk, tea. Traditional Chinese or Tibetan meals are always available, with rice, noodles and meat-vegetable combinations. Beer, water, soft drinks are also available for sale in the dining car.
(3) Drinks and Snacks
There is a dispenser in the sink area which provides hot water 24 hours a day so you can make your own tea, coffee, hot chocolate or instant noodles which you can purchase easily in any market. Each compartment has a thermos so that you can bring the hot water back to your room. You will need to bring your own mug and utensils as well. You may want to bring your own bottled water for drinking, as it will be less expensive than buying bottles on the train. We recommend you buy snacks in a market or supermarket, ahead of time as the dining room meals may not suit your taste.
The schedule of the trains to Tibet
Currently, seven cities in mainland China offer direct trains to Lhasa, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Xining and Lanzhou. But it does not indicate that one can board a train to Tibet only in these cities. Trains to Tibet pass through many important cities in China, like Nanjing, Zhengzhou, Xian, Changsha and Taiyuan. Whichever city you board, all trains pass through the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, from Xining to Lhasa.
Train Code Dep. Time Arr. Time Distance Duration Frequency
Beijing to Lhasa Train (T27) 20:00 15:40 (the 3rd day) 3761km 43hr.40min. Every Day
Shanghai to Lhasa Train (T164/T165) 19:36 20:15 (the 3rd day) 4373km 48hr.39min. Every Day
Chengdu to Lhasa Train (T22/T23) 20:55 16:35 (the 3rd day) 3360km 43hr.40min. Every Two Days
Chongqing to Lhasa Train (T222/T223) 19:37 16:35 (the 3rd day) 3641km 44hr.58min. Every Two Days
Guangzhou to Lhasa Train (T264/T265) 12:19 19:20 (the 3rd day) 4980km 51hr.1min. Every Two Days
Lanzhou to Lhasa Train (K917) 12:05 14:35 (the 2nd day) 2188km 26hr.30min. Every Two Days
Xining to Lhasa Train (K9811) 22:00 21:40 (the 2nd day) 1960km 23hr.40min. Every Day
Xining to Lhasa Train (K9801) 15:05 14:35 (the 2nd day) 1960km 23hr.30min. Every Two Days
There are four roads into Tibet, roughly corresponding to the cardinal directions:
(If you are caught by the authorities you will either be sent back (at your expense), have your visa canceled or sent home or in extreme cases banned from ever re-entering China. There are even reports of foreigners being jailed on a temporary basis for breaking travel bans). Keep this in mind!
North: The road from Golmud (Geermu) is the easiest legal land route at present. The landscape is beautiful but difficult to appreciate after the long rough ride.
It's possible to travel this way by hitch-hiking on trucks if you are well prepared (camping equipment, food and water for a day). Expect to spend a few days. There are police checkpoints on the way but the only one that is a problem is the one 30 km or so out of Golmud. If you walk around it and a few km beyond you should be able to get a ride without too much of a problem. There are plenty of places to eat on the way but be prepared to get stuck in the middle of nowhere. There are also are places to sleep ranging from truck stop brothels to comfortable hotels, however these should be avoided as you're likely to get picked up by the police.
East: There is no legal way to travel this road (except as part of an expensive organised tour; see Overland to Tibet) and the security is tighter than from the north. Travellers do get through this way, but for people who are obviously not northeast Asians it's difficult.
West: From Kashgar (Kashi) much of the way is technically off limits. However there is a steady stream of hardy travellers coming this way, usually hitching rides on trucks. The road is totally unpaved for over a thousand kilometres with villages and water few and far between. The main advantages of this way is that it passes by Mount Kailash and through a beautiful, very remote region inhabited by nomads. You should be very well prepared to travel this way and take everything you would need for independent trekking: camping equipment suitable for freezing temperatures even in summer, a good tent and at least a few days of food (there are a few truck-stop places on the way but not always when you want them). Expect the trip to take two weeks or more. From Kashgar it's much farther to go to Lhasa via Urumqi and Golmud but the better transport (trains and good paved highways) make it no more time consuming to travel this way. There are many interesting things for the tourist to see on the way and it is worth considering travelling this way instead of via Mount Kailash.
South: From Nepal the international border makes any sort of breaking of the rules impossible, so the only option is to book a tour with a travel agent in Kathmandu. In addition, as of 2007, you need a group visa for China itself to cross the border into Tibet, so don't bother applying before you get to Kathmandu. The drive from Kathmandu to Lhasa takes five days and is very rough, but pretty.
Central Tibet has a good public bus network, although foreigners are not allowed to use an intercity bus currently.
Jeep tours are a popular way of getting around Tibet, while not cheap, the tour operator will sort out all the necessary paperwork, and they offer you a reasonable chance of sticking to a schedule.
Your driver will likely be an indiginous Tibetan who can speak Chinese. He'll get to eat and sleep for free wherever you go (he'll often be treated like a king), and he'll often need to stop for a smoke or a pee by certain vendors on the road. 4500 RMB will get a jeep that can seat 4 people and luggage comfortably for 4 or 5 days.
Be very precise with your itinerary and very careful with payment. Every stop, monastery and lake you wish to visit, etc should be written on the itinerary. Payment should never be made in advance. Many foreigners, especially pro-Tibetan ones, are so trusting of Tibetan drivers that they hand over their money in advance but never get to see their drivers again. These drivers operate in rings and will approach their targets in hostels and speak against the Chinese government to gain support and sympathy from tourists who then lower their guard, and have their trip ruined. Some such stranded tourists, already identified as easy targets, will then be approached by a second Tibetan driver in the ring, and the same scam happens one more time.
Hitchhiking can be a good way to get around the country for someone who is flexible and has a lot of time. It can, however, mean you end up getting stuck without a lift for days. In the west of the country this probably means hanging around truck stops, as the distances are far too long to walk, and finding water would be a major problem. Trucks often break down though and it can take a long time before the journey continues. Hitchhiking in general is not free and a small fee is expected. In central and eastern Tibet, there's more water and villages, and so walking becomes a more reasonable option. In short, hitching may or may not get you to your destination any quicker, but at least it offers a change of scenery. Payment is usually expected after you arrive at your destination. Charging money for lifts is illegal for the driver and having a non-Asian face in the car may raise the suspicion of the authorities at tolls and check points.
Hitchhiking from Lhasa to Mount Everest
According to Free Tibet it's advised not to hitch-hike as heavy fines may be given to drivers found giving lifts to tourists, thus the organization considers Westerners hitching as an activity that may potentially endanger Tibetans. A few travelers choose to ignore the travel permit requirement and continue to travel south of Shigatse which is the limit for traveling without a permit. This is very adventurous but can be done if the traveler is willing, in a worse case scenario, to risk imprisonment. It is a good advise to check with foreigners who live in Lhasa to point out the location of road check points and get tips on safety. Take enough food (snacks) and cigarettes (for truck drivers) and only go on this trip after you have adjusted to the high altitude.
From Lhasa to Shigatse you can take a public bus. A travel permit is not required for buying a bus ticket. Have an overnight in Shigatse. It is impossible to buy a ticket at the ticket counter (in Shigatse) without a travel permit, but sometimes it works fine to show up before the bus leaves and buy the ticket in the bus. Keep a low profile while seated in the bus. Before departure the conductor checks the ticket. Hand him over the fare money plus a little tip. The bus might leave, only to stop again a few minutes later around the corner. It might happen that the official from the ticket counter who refused to sell tickets without permit shows up with your ticket in hands and wishes you a happy journey. Immediately outside Shigatse are the first check posts. Usually a very young Chinese official enters the bus. Keep a low profile or smile at him. If he asks something, just show him the tickets.
After this checkpost the journey continues on dirt roads with occasional stops at small stone huts which serve Tibetan food or noodles. You find a room with restaurant in small inns, usually there is one in every bigger village, but don't expect any luxury. Many times the only shower facility consists of a bucket of water.
Further south there are no public buses one can use, but truckdrivers can be asked to get a ride. A fee is usually negotiated before the ride. Truckdrivers won't take a traveler through checkpoints. It is wise to walk or hitch to a checkpoint, then walk around it, out of sight of the officials and try to get another ride from the other side. Sometimes a ride on a local transport, e.g. tractor up to the checkpoint can be arranged.
Around Mount Everest is a huge Everest National Park. Park tickets have to be bought before arriving at the National Park Checkpoint. Towards Everest there are hardly any local transports and no trucks, but numerous jeeps coming from Nepal all go to Mount Everest. Tourists usually pay a high price for this tour and are very reluctant to take on a free guest. The driver and tourist guide might refuse to take you in without a travel permit. Some gift money to the Tibetan driver plus a bold lie to the mostly Chinese tourguide might work. Once the jeep stops at the National Park Checkpoint, all passengers have to leave the car and pass through the checkpoint where car documents, park tickets and passport with travel permits are checked. If you have already traveled that far without a travel permit, the moment of surprise might add to your luck and the young Chinese officials might let you pass. Again keep a low profile, have a big smile and some money which changes hands might work. If not, be prepared for a long walk around of the check post.
From there it is a direct way to Mount Everest over stunning 5500 meter passes. When you arrive at the tiny monastery which serves as a very simple hotel and restaurant be prepared for a wonderful sight of Mount Everest at sunrise - if you are lucky. Everest can be shrouded in clouds for many weeks. Only continue to the base camp when you have adjusted to the high altitude. If you want to continue from Base Camp 1 to Camp 2, paying some fee is unavoidable.
Getting back from Mount Everest to Lhasa usually is less of a hassle. When stopped tell that you are heading to Lhasa. Sometimes you might be lucky and find a ride in a tourbus which returns empty to Lhasa having unloaded the tourists at the Nepalese border.
If you decide to hitchhike to Mount Kailash be prepared for an even harder journey. Villages are more remote and it is a long journey sometimes taking up to 2 or 3 weeks to Kashkar.
There are a surprising number of tourists traveling Tibet by bicycle, both foreigners and Chinese. The roads vary from rough dirt tracks to good quality paved roads. There are restaurants, truck stops and shops scattered around often enough so that you don't need to carry more than a day's worth of food (with the important exception of the west of the country). The roads are often well graded, being built for overloaded trucks. 26 inch wheels would be preferable as 700c (ISO 622) are almost unknown in China. Good mountain bikes are available in large cities of China or in Lhasa. Golmud is not a good place to get a bicycle (assuming you want it to get you past the check point 30 km outside of town). Cyclists have reported that distances cited in the Lonely Planet guidebooks can be quite inaccurate so be very well-prepared.
Good road maps of Tibet are common in China, but only in Chinese. These are of limited use even for people literate in Chinese as the Chinese names are very different from the ones used by the Tibetans. They are useful for reading road signs, even for people with low literacy in Chinese.
The Star publications map is probably the best. Amnye Machen Institute publishes an excellent map of similar scale and detail but with the Tibetan names, with a version written in Latin script and one in the Tibetan. It makes a useful companion. Tibetmap.com has a free downloadable set of maps covering much of Tibet with detail almost good enough to use for independent trekking.
If you understand the Cyrillic alphabet, the Soviet military produced good topographic maps in a range of scales from 1:2,500,000 down to 1:10,000. Coverage was virtually world-wide, although many areas were not mapped at the more detailed scales. The maps originally were classified, but were released to the larger world following the breakup of the USSR in 1991. These maps can be dated, particularly where infrastructure has been actively developed since 1991 or there have been major political changes, but representation of topography remains valid.
Much of Lhasa has been replaced by post-1950 Chinese developments with only a small quarter dating from pre-invasion times. This part is now under renovation to attract tourists. It is still worth to take a stroll through the old part of Lhasa and buy goods from Tibetan vendors, who sometimes come from remote provinces of Tibet. Watch the impressive bargaining for Shish stones but refrain from buying turquoise or coral items as most of them are synthetic or dyed. Nevertheless Tibetan vendors have a huge range of beautiful Tibetan articles and it pays out to buy directly from them instead of spending money in shopping malls which started to appear everywhere in the centre of Lhasa.
There are some small cafes and bars run by young Chinese or Tibetan people which are very good hangouts and a fantastic meeting place for the few expats who live in Lhasa. They provide great information about Tibet.
A must are the small Tibetan restaurants who serve authentic Tibetan food. If you have never tried momos or gyantok, a definite must together with a cup of salted Tibetan butter tea.
Tibetan people in general are wonderful and friendly people who always have a warm smile. Some speak a bit of English and are happy to have a chat with you.
For an authentic, fulfilling visit to Tibet, you must have a native Tibetan guide. Many of the Chinese guides are relocated from other areas of China and don't have a real understanding of the people or culture of Tibet that make the country so amazing.
Since visiting Tibet requires being accompanied by a licensed tour company, the following is a list of some Tibetan owned and operated tour guides:
Tibet Highland Tours, well connected, custom trips. http://www.tibethighlandtours.com/ Tibet Shaman Tours, former Buddhist monk turned tour guide. http://tibetanshamantour.com Tibet Kyunglung Travel, http://www.en.tibetkyunglungtravel.com/ CITS Tibet Travel,Specialized in Tibet Train Travel.http://www.tibettravel.org/
If you come from Nepal, there are may agents specialized too and mostly it is easier to arrange the trip there.
The traditional Tibetan diet is largely limited to barley, meat (mutton or yak) and dairy products, with very few spices or vegetables, although brutally hot chili sauce is often served on the side. Even good Tibetan food is very monotonous with most Tibetan restaurants serving nothing other than thukpa (noodle soup) and tea. By comparison, Chinese restaurants in villages often put out some excellent food. Some travelers feel that Hui (ethnic Chinese Moslem) places are cleaner because of halal food laws; they can be recognised by the green flags and crescent moons (and because they do look cleaner).
Unfortunately there is not a single genuine Tibetan restaurant of high quality in Tibet, which can only be found in neighbouring provinces such as Sichuan. All Tibetan restaurants in Lhasa featured in guidebooks and frequented by non-Chinese tourists are westernized ones serving a few Tibetan dishes along with pizzas, spaghetti, pancakes, etc.
A selection of popular Tibetan fare:
While traveling be prepared for the bus to depart late or break down. Carry a snack on short trips and enough food for a few days or a week or more for longer journeys, such as to Mount Kailash. Instant noodles are convenient even if you don't have a camp stove. They can be eaten cold or softened with boiled water. Tsampa (roasted barley flour) is an ideal travel food because it's already cooked. Eat it mixed with tea, butter and salt, or as a high energy snack by mixing it with water, milk powder and sugar.
Tea houses are an important social venue in Tibet, and offer a chance to sit down and relax. The tea houses in the larger town and cities offer sweet tea, or salted; in the villages you may only have the option of salt tea. The line between a tea house and a restaurant is blurred and many also offer thukpa.
Tibetan butter tea (pöcha) is a must try, though it may not be a pleasant experience for all — even the Dalai Lama famously said that he's not a fan of the stuff! It is a salty mixture of black tea and Tibetan butter. Traditionally it is churned by hand with a thick rod in a long upright wooden container. However, when electricity came to the city in recent years, modernized Tibetans turn to use electric mixers to make their butter tea. The Tibetan butter is not rancid as commonly described, but has a cheesy taste and smell to it, close to blue cheese or Roquefort. Think of it as a cheese broth rather, that you will appreciate particularly after a long hike in cold weather.
An alternative to Tibetan butter tea is sweet tea which is more familiar to western palates. Sweet tea drinking was introduced only recently by merchants returning from India, first among well-off Tibetans, since sugar was a luxury on the Plateau, then when sugar became more available among the general public. Unlike Indians, Tibetan do not use spices (clove, cinnamon, cardamon) to flavor their tea.
Chang, or Tibetan beer made of barley, has a lighter flavor than a western-type, bottled beer, since they do not use bitter hops. Often home-brewed and with as many taste and strength variants as industrial beers.
The following Text was entered by someone but is completely false: "Beware of chang: the yeast is still alive in it, and will carry on fermenting and producing alcohol in the warm temperatures of your stomach! Usually no germ risk since yeast prevents bacteria proliferation."
The truth is all unfiltered/unpasteurized beers will have some live yeast in them - most of the time settling at the bottom of the bottle. Brewers yeast cannot survive at temperatures and acid levels associated with human stomachs. Lastly the amount of yeast present in any one bottle of beer would produce negligible amounts of alcohol even if it could ferment your stomach's sugar contents.
Plan your route to manage altitude sickness; the main thing is to give your body enough time to acclimatize before going higher. Be prepared to adjust your plans, descend or spend a few extra days acclimatizing if it proves necessary. you are very high up, the sun is going to be very strong. Bring and use sunscreen.
When traveling in the countryside be prepared for the vehicle to break down and for bad weather. Carry a snack and some warm clothes. Water and fluids are essential.
Beware of the dogs! In the cities there are numerous stray dogs about and in the country side the villagers and nomads keep large guard dogs for security, (usually chained up). A modest level of caution is enough to prevent you from being bitten, as the strays usually run in packs and if you don't get too close you should be okay. If guard dogs are unchained, keep them at bay by staying away from the house or tent they are protecting at all costs as their barking will indicate they have picked you up on their radar and pray they don't come running after you. If they do, pick up (or pretend to pick up) some stones and be prepared to be attacked at the ankle. Sometimes kicking or lunging at the dogs before they attack may scare them off. Some other ways to protect yourself is by wearing boots and thick pants. Much is made of the viciousness of the Tibetan dogs, but few travelers have problems with them. See also aggressive dogs.
Steer clear of political protests. They're rare, but suppressed brutally by the authorities, who do not look kindly on Western witnesses (especially those with cameras). Stay clear of pro-independence talk both in person and on the internet. You are putting LOCAL people at risk.
Generally speaking, it is easier getting out of Tibet than in.
It's easy to get travel permits in Xigatse and once you have one you are free to travel to Nepal by any form of transport you like.