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Tibet is a plateau region in Central Asia and the home to the indigenous Tibetan people. With an average elevation of 4,900 metres (16,000 ft.), it is the highest region on Earth and is commonly referred to as the "Roof of the World." Geographically, UNESCO and Encyclopædia Britannica consider Tibet to be part of Central Asia, while several academic organizations consider it part of South Asia.
The region was unified in the seventh century by King Songtsän Gampo. In the 13th century Tibet became a part of Mongol-ruled Chinese empire and four centuries later Tibet was further incorporated into the Chinese Empire in the Qing Dynasty.
The Dalai Lama lineage was established in 1578, and rose to political power during the times of the 5th Dalai Lama (1617-1682). In 1653, the "Dalai Lama" became an official title, as it is recognized by the Qing government.Between the 17th century and 1951, the Dalai Lama and his regents were the predominant political power administering religious and administrative authority over large parts of Tibet from the traditional capital Lhasa.
In 1912 the 13th Dalai Lama unilaterally declared separation from China. but two years later the Tibetans accepted nominal subordination to China. From 1912 to 1950, Tibet possessed de facto independence,although no nation has ever recognized Tibet as independent. In 1951, under Chinese military pressure, Beijing and the Tibetan government signed an agreement reintegrating Tibet.The 14th Dalai Lama, the head of the Tibetan government in exile believes that in order for it to modernize, Tibet must remain within the People's Republic of China, although he also wants China to give "a full guarantee of preservation of Tibetan culture.
The Roof of the World
Today in the age of information with jet aircraft,highways and computer networks mysterious places are rare to be found; but Tibet is an exception.
Refereed as Shangri La, The forbidden Land, The Roof of the World, and by many more, the mysterious Buddhist Kingdom remained long closed to foreigners, exerting a strong hold on the imagination of the world.
For centuries, it has fascinated mankind. It was hardly accessible to the outside world and has been always a challenge to human beings. Tibet, a "forbidden land" not only by man but also by nature, attracted many explorers, scholars, and pilgrims and adventure lovers, all in pursuit of "Real Shangri La".
It is not only the geographical and natural enchants but also a long historical culture and religion that appeal the foreigners to visit Tibet at least once in a lifetime.
Places to Visit
Lhasa was and still is, the religious, cultural & economic center of Tibet. Places of interest include the Potala, the 13 storey, 1,000 room palace of the Dalai Lama; the monasteries of Drepung & Sera, the summer palace of the Dalai Lama, Norbulinka; and the Jokhang, the holiest shrine in Tibet. The circular Barkhor Street with innumerable shops & wayside peddlers intermingle with the devotees walking clockwise around the Jokhang infusing the magic that is Tibet.
Potala Palace, located on the red hill, was built in 640 A.D. during the reign of Songtsen Gompo. The original Potala Palace was destroyed in the 9th century but was rebuilt in the 17th century during the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama. It is best viewed from outside, where one can observe the different aspects & moods of its sophisticated design. The architectural wonder stands 117m high, has 13 stories and over 1,000 rooms. The most poignant areas are the roof terraces housing the Dalai Lama’s residences, the large courtyard & the spectacular multi–storied interior atriums that extend upwards to the roof terraces. It is replete with ancient artifacts; the sacred statue of Arya Lokeshwara, ornate burial Chortens of the Dalai Lamas, galleries and chapels noted for their murals, the intricate three-dimensional Mandala & much more.
Norbulinka means “the jeweled garden” is the summer palace of the Dalai Lama. This large complex of small palaces like Gesang Palace, Jianse Palace and Daktanmiju lies within a walled garden that covers 360,000 sq. mts. The whole garden consists of two main parts – Norbulinkha at the western area & Jianselingka at the eastern area. It has fascinating murals in excellent condition, superb Mandalas & frescoes.
Sera means hail stone in Tibetan language. Set at the foot of the Wudu hill to the north of Lhasa city, Sera comprises of a great sutra chanting hall, a college and 32 sections that covers 114,964 sq. mts. Founded by Jamchenchupje in 1419, Sera was famous for its fighting monks, who spent years perfecting the martial arts.
Jokhang temple was built in 647 A.D and is the spiritual center of Tibet and the holiest destination for Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims. It houses the sitting statue of Sakyamuni, when he was 12 years old. From dawn till dusk, one can see an astounding display of chanting, prostrating pilgrims circumambulating the temple. Hundreds of faces, ornaments, clothes & colors swirl round in a gigantic whirlpool of religious fervor.
It is located at the foot of the West Valley Mountain (Gyephel-Ou-Tse) about 10 kms from Lhasa. Drepung Monastery was built by Jamyang-Choje Tashi-Phiden in 1416 AD. Drepung is one of the six largest monasteries of the Gelupa sect & comprises of six main temples: Ganden Palace, Tsochen, Ngakpa, Losaling, Gomang & Dyeyang. The main relics in these temples are image of Maitreya, Yamantaka, Mitrukpa, Sutrakangyur with golden letters, Thankas, Silk scrolls (which are very precious & are rarely seen in the world), various gilded statures, Buddhist scriptures & countless other cultural relics. There are monastic colleges for the study of Philosophy & one for the practice of Tantric Buddhism. The monastery covers an area of over 20, 000 sq. mts.
In the trace of origins of Yarlung Valley, the Monkey Cave on Mt. Gongpori tells us that Yarlung is the origin of the Tibetans. The stone wares unearthed from Traduk & Yartu further confirm that the Yarlung is the cradle of Tibetan civilization. Over several thousands of years, Yarlung culture, as an important component of Tibetan culture, has had an impact on the history of Tibet & the country as a whole. The Yarlung people have created their own unique folk culture including marriage ceremonies, funeral arrangements, rites, clothing, food, tattoo & farming that depicts a full picture of the good nature of the people of the plateau.
The Yarlung River
The Yarlung River descends from the beautiful snow- capped Yarla Shangpo Mountain, irrigating the fertile land through which, it passes. The Yarlung people have lived generation after generation on this piece of land with glorious flowers in spring & sweet fruits in autumn.
Shigatse is most famous for its Tashilumpo Monastery – the seats of the Panchen Lama, who is regarded as the reincarnation of the Buddha of Endless Enlightenment. Items of interest inside this monastery built in 1447 by the first Dalai Lama are: the relics of Sakyamuni, the Hall of Maitreya & a mind-boggling collection of Thankas, frescoes & statues. There is a bustling ‘free’ market at the foot of the ruins of the Shigatse Fortress, where one can buy local handicrafts, embedded with coral & turquoise, Tibetan draggers, Chinese porcelain & yak butter.
Founded by the first Dalai Lama, Gedun Drupa in 1447 is one of the four “Yellow hat Sect” monasteries of Tibetan Buddhists. The monastery comprises of congregation hall from 5th to 9th century Panchen Lama’s stupa and chapels, the golden stupa of 10th century and the big Maitreya statue of the Buddha in gold & copper alloy. It occupies an area of 300,000 sq. mts.
Gyantse is a small agricultural town famous for its woolen carpets & the Phalkor Chorten. Amongst the Lamasery & the fort, this unique structure built in 1414 AD consists of five stories representing the five steps to enlightenment, topped by thirteen rings, which symbolize the stages of advancement towards Buddhahood. There are 108 halls inside, each with frescoes & Buddha shrines, the frescoes showing a strong Indian influence. Before 1959 traders coming from Kalimpong & Gangtok used to enter Tibet through Yandong and then to Gyantse, en route to Lhasa.
Established in the mid 8th century and covering an area of 25,000 sq. mts, Samye Monastery is located in Zhang county on the northern bank of the Yarlung Zhangpo river. The three–storey building was built in Han, Tibetan & Indian styles. It was the first formal monastery in Tibet.
This stupa was one of the eight Buddhist stupas known as Tashi Multi stupa that stood 42m high & was said to have 108 cells containing venerable mural paintings & holy images amounting to 1,00,000 pieces of art. The Chorten is located in Gyantse.
Xegar is a new Chinese commune built at the foot of the ruins of Xegar Dzong and is 7 km from the main highway. With a population of about 3,000 inhabitants, its importance lies in the fact that it is the center of this large and remote country and also a base from where expeditions to Mt. Everest & other peaks are launched from the Chinese side.
Zhangmu, better known by its Tibetan name Khasa, is a small settlement clinging to a hillside 10kms inland from the Friendship Bridge across the Bhotekoshi river which serves as the border with Nepal. After the closure of the China/India border from Gangtok, Zhangmu has become the major trading post between Tibet & Nepal. The hills around Zhangmu are heavily wooded with innumerable waterfalls in the summer & frozen ‘icicles’ during the winter.
Mount Kailash & Mansarovar
Mt. Kailash claimed to be the apex of the Hindu religious axis is also one of the highest mountain in Tibet at 6,656m and the holy Lake Mansarovar at 4,700m lies closeby. Visitors can opt to make the trip by surface to Kailash either via Kodari on Nepal/Tibet border or on foot through remote west Nepal. The walk around Mt. Kailash takes around three days while two days are required for Lake Mansarovar. The best period to make this tour is May through October.
Food & Snacks
While travelling in Asia, one must be careful about food & drink. Many travellers have problems with diarrhea in Tibet. Despite the most conscientious efforts, they may still come down with the dreaded ailment. Nevertheless, there are ways they can decrease the probability of getting sick and limit the bad effects of diarrhea once it has started. We recommend to carry iodine solution or tablets to purify drinking water. Normal concentration of chlorine tablets are not strong enough to kill giardia, a common cause of diarrhea in this region. No non-chemical filters eliminate viruses such as hepatitis & therefore should not be used alone to purify water. All boiled or tea water is probably safe. Ice cubes should not be taken unless one can be sure that they are made from boiled water. Many people forget that contaminated tap water used in brushing teeth could be a source of diarrhea. Any water going into the mouth should be purified with iodine or previously boiled.
Foods that come hot & recently cooked are best. Foods that are peeled or skinned are also usually safe to eat. Especially when visitors are not sure under what conditions the food has been prepared, they should avoid cold salads or other not recently cooked food that may have been sitting out for a long period of time. Salads cleaned & soaked in iodine are also safe. However, it is hard to determine whether or not the food has actually been soaked or whether the restaurant personnel just want to please the clients and tell them what they want to hear.
Good restaurants are not available on the highways in Tibet. Therefore, we recommend clients to carry lunch boxes. However, realizing that lunch stops during the tour can be a bit unappetizing, bringing own snacks would be a great idea. They should bring foods they like & can eat easily (i.e. crackers, cheese, cookies, chocolate bars, granola bars, soup mix or peanut butter). But it is advisable not to bring too much. Ascending to high altitude many people find their appetites greatly diminished. This is a mild symptom of altitude sickness, so they should not be surprised if they are not very hungry. Also, unlike trekking, they will not have a lot of exercise as they will sit in the bus and watch the passing scenery most of the time.
Tibet is not a particularly good place for shopping. Most of the things, which hawkers sell in Lhasa & other parts in Tibet are made in Nepal including Thanka paintings and prayer wheels and hence much more expensive. Sometimes it is possible to buy real Tibetan carpets in places like Shigaste, Gyangtse & Lhasa.
The Chinese/Tibetan guide provided for our groups may not speak very good English and may not know much about the local monasteries, history & culture. For best information, we recommend clients take a guidebook along on the tour. The Tibet Guide by Stephen Bachelor and the most recent one, Tibet Handbook by Victor Chan is an ideal book to take along. It gives general information about Tibetan culture as well as specific information about the usual sights. Unlike Lonely Planet's Tibet: A Travel Survival kit, which gives more logistics about travelling around Tibet independently. The Tibet Guide & Tibet Hand Book concentrates more on Tibetan culture & sacred places. Both books are useful. Also quite useful is a route map, to know where they are going and have been each day.
The clients should not have high expectations of these and they will not be disappointed. Camping trek style might be a better alternative but currently it is not a Chinese-offered option, where the accommodation is available. The Chinese-built luxury tourist hotels that are found in Tibet are large, cold (figuratively & literally) cemented buildings set amidst fenced-in compounds.
The hotels in Zhangmu and Xegar and most guest houses in Tibet are poorly kept with dirty carpets, broken windows and a feeling of abandonment, that permeates the lobbies & bedrooms. Hotel Lhasa (former Holiday Inn) and few other hotels in Lhasa are comparable to average Western lodging. While all the hotels have rooms with bathrooms, some hotels/guest houses do not routinely have either hot or cold running water. Several hotels (except in Lhasa) have hot water for bathing available during certain hours in the evening only; these hours of availability are announced, when guests arrive in the hotel.
All hotel guest rooms are provided with a thermos flask of hot water for tea as well as comfortable beds with lots of warm blankets. While all the hotels are wired for electricity, power in some of the hotels/guest houses are limited to a few evening hours. Taking a flashlight along is a must. All hotels provide toilet paper, but for toilet stops during the day while on the road, it's a good idea to take some toilet paper along. Except the Lhasa Hotel in Lhasa, none of the hotels are heated. People wearing down jackets & hats while eating dinner or breakfast is a common sight. In November, the mean temperature in Lhasa goes from -4°C to 12°C. In August, the mean temperature ranges from +8°C to +22°C.