Unique topography and climate
Tibet is located on the highest and largest plateau on the planet, Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. This is a harsh, alpine environment where the average altitude is above 4,000 meters. The winter is quite cold and almost all remote settlements lose access to the major cities due to snow. The high-altitude Plateau lies amid towering mountain ranges. These mountains trap most of the rain before the rainfall reaches the plateau and steppe and tundra, ravine and lofty peaks are frequently seen.
If you are planning Tibet travel in the winter, you need thick, warm clothing. Even for summer, the nights can be cold and especially if you are planning to visit high altitude locations like Everest Base Camp, you will need thick clothing. Rain resistant pants, nice trekking shoes or boats, plenty of underwear, socks and other stuff. If you are planning to go to an activity which requires camping, you would also need a good, warm sleeping bag.
Climate is quite harsh and cold in the winter and during the tourism season from April to Oct., nights can still be chilly. The summer month of July is known to be rainy and the rain normally falls at night.
Cultural and religious significance in Tibet
Traditional Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism still has a major influence on contemporary life in Tibet. Tibetan culture has developed among the nomadic ancestors of Tibetan people in thousands of years and reflects both the nomadic lifestyle and harsh environment of the Plateau. These nomadic ancestors have put special emphasises on harmonically coexisting with the harsh environment of Tibet Plateau. The life in this harsh environment significantly dependent on breeding of crops and animals, and most of the daily life activities as well as festivals are associated with husbandry.
Tibetan Buddhism is also quite unique. Although it shares many common aspects with other Buddhism sects, it also assimilated animistic aspects of pre-Buddhism religion in the region. Highly ritualistic and colourful, the religion shapes the life in every corner of Tibet. Even today, Tibetans are deeply religious and puts significant importance to their religion which has created a unique Buddhist culture. Today a visitor to Tibet will be greeted with both an incredible alpine scenery in Tibet as well as the influence of the Tibet Buddhism in every corner. Tibetan Buddhism has shamanistic and animistic elements melted into Buddhism and its unique character shapes both Tibet tradition and its festivals.
Mani stones, weisang, wooden bowls and unique Tibet delicacies like Tibetan butter tea and tsampa are some examples of unique Tibet customs.
You can see mani stones everywhere. This colourful stones are scripted with Buddhist prayers and thrown into stacks. Tibetans circle this stacks as a religious practice which probably evolved due to the remoteness of many Tibetan settlements. Instead of taking the long and harsh way to a temple, Tibetans perform some of their religious duties using mani stone piles.
Weisang is a unique Tibetan household custom. It is called “smoke offering” and involves burning offerings to make cloudy smog. Branches, pine, cypress, leaves of herbs such as Artemisia argyi are common material for the smoke.
Wooden bowls you will see in many souvenir shops are also not only decorative: they are one of the most important aspect of traditional Tibet custom. They are in every household (even when cheaper porcelain bowls are sold everywhere), Tibetans carry them in journeys and they have an integral role in ceremonies and cultural protocols. The bowl is usually used to drink buttered tea (the most popular drink in Tibet made from tea leaves, butter, water, and salt) and for many Tibetans, buttered tea drank from a wooden bowl tastes better. Tibetan men liken their sweethearts as wooden bowls, wishing to take her in his bosom wherever he goes.
A salty mixture of black tea and Tibetan butter made from dri milk (female yak is called dri), Tibetan butter tea is a sort of light, creamy, cheesy soup for outsiders rather than a beverage. Tibetan Butter tea is a must have for every Tibetan daily. In Tibet’s alpine environment, butter tea’s high caloric energy content is much needed and appreciated. Tsampa is the most unique Tibetan food of all foods. This hearty, nutty-tasting flour made from roasted barley is so integral to Tibetan culture that Tibetan people are collectively referred as po mi tsamsey (tsampa-eaters). Whereas Tibetans speak various dialects, worship in different sects, and live in different regions, all Tibetans eat tsampa.
And last but not the least, Tibetan culture is best experienced in one of the colourful Tibetan festival such as Tibetan New Year, Shoton Festival and Angkor Festival.
7 prefectures in Tibet
Tibet Autonomous Region is composed of 7 prefectures: Ngari, Nagqu, Qamdo, Xigazê (Shigatse), Lhasa, Shannan and Nyingchi.
Ngari Prefecture the westernmost part of Tibet and is one of the remotest areas on the planet. Once the heart of the ancient kingdom of Guge, this remote area is famous for Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. The holy mountain and lake draws thousands of pilgrims and tourists to the region. The ruins of Guge Kingdom and Zanda Clayforest. The main and largest town in the prefecture is Shiquanhe.
Nagqu Prefecture on the North and Northwest Tibet is the largest prefecture. Nagqu is a sparsely populated region with protected wildlife, unspoiled grassland and Tibetan culture at its most rural. “Heavenly Lake” Namtso, the highest salt lake in the world and the largest salt lake in Tibet is in this region.
Chamdo prefecture is the easternmost prefecture. Chamdo prefecture-level city is Tibet’s third largest city after Lhasa and Shigatse. Chamdo Bangda Airport is the world’s highest airport and has the longest runway. Jampaling Monastery in Chamdo has well-preserved buildings, Buddhist sculptures and paintings make the temple an art treasury.
Shigatse means ‘the fertile land’. It sits in the plain at the confluence of the Yarlong Tsangpo and Nyangchu Rivers, where Tibet’s most fertile land is to be found. Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet and is a central location to access Mount Everest and Everest Base Camp, some important holy lakes and Sakya Monastery.
Ancient capital of Tibet, Lhasa, and the surrounding area are densely populated in Tibet standards. Lhasa is the entry point for many tourists and houses many tourist attractions and spiritual centres such as Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Barkhor Street. Surrounding area is also popular by entry level trekking routes.
Lying in southern Tibet, Shannan prefecture is often regarded as the birthplace of Tibetan civilization. Yumbu Lhakhang Palace, Trandruk Monastery and Samye Monastery.
Nyingchi also known as Linzhi prefecture is the location of Yarlung Tsangpo Canyon. The canyon is 496 kilometers long and is deeper than the Grand Canyon in America. Because of the large number of river valleys and alpine gorges, the region is sometimes referred to as the ‘Switzerland of Tibet’
Tibet Flight and Tibet Train
There are mainly two ways to go to Tibet. You can either take a flight to Lhasa or you can take a train to Lhasa. There are flights and trains to Tibet from many major Chinese cities and there is one international flight to Lhasa which is from Kathmandu.
Tibet flights are relatively expensive and in the peak season it is difficult to find tickets to Lhasa. On the other hand, it takes only hours to fly to Lhasa. For example, Beijing – Lhasa flight takes 4 hours 30 minutes.
Since its opening in 2006, Qinghai-Tibet Railway a.k.a Tibet Train became a popular way to go to Tibet. The railway starts from Eastern tip of Tibet Plateau, from Xining, and goes all the way to Lhasa but you can take train from major Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu using the railway and directly going to Lhasa.
The advantage of taking a flight to Tibet is the speed; it takes only 4 hours plus to arrive to Tibet from Beijing or Shanghai by a plane. If you take a train ride, it takes anything from 40 to 53 hours.
If you have a first class or business class flight ticket, your luggage allowance will be 40 kg and 30 kg compared to 20 kg of economy class. On the other hand, Tibet train luggage allowance is 20 kg.
Tibet train has advantages though. First, it is usually cheaper to take the train compared to the flight. Second, it is a better way to acclimatize (making your body adjusted to low oxygen levels of high altitude of Tibet so you don’t get altitude sickness) compared to flight. And last, but not the least, the scenery is just awesome; especially the Tibet Plateau part starting from Xining.
There is also a third alternative, which combines a flight and Tibet Train. You can first fly to Xining, acclimatize there for a few days and then take the Tibet train. The real Tibet train part starts from Xining anyway.