Tibet: the Land of Snows, the roof of the world. For centuries this mysterious Buddhist kingdom, locked away in its mountain fastness of the Himalaya, has exercised a unique hold on the imagination of the West. For explorers, imperialists and traders it was a forbidden land of treasure and riches. Dreamers on a spiritual quest have long whispered of a lost Shangri-la, steeped in magic and mystery. When the doors were finally flung open in the mid-1980s, Tibet lay in ruins. Between 1950 and 1970, the Chinese wrested control of the plateau, drove the Tibetans’ spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and some 100, 000 of Tibet’s finest into exile and systematically dismantled most of the Tibetan cultural and historical heritage, all in the name of revolution. For a while images of the Buddha were replaced by icons of Chairman Mao. Today, Tibetan pilgrims across the country are once again mumbling mantras and swinging their prayer wheels in temples that are heavy with the thick intoxicating aroma of juniper incense and yak butter. Monasteries have been restored across the country, along with limited religious freedoms. A walk around Lhasa’s lively Barkhor pilgrimage circuit is proof enough that the efforts of the communist Chinese to build a brave new (roof of the) world have foundered on the remarkable and inspiring faith of the Tibetan people.
For travellers, Tibet is without doubt one of the most remarkable places to visit in Asia. It offers fabulous monastery sights, breathtaking high-altitude treks, stunning views of the world’s highest mountains and one of the most likeable peoples you will ever meet. There's Gyantse, in the Nyang-chu Valley, famed for the largest chörten (stupa) in Tibet, and hiking in Yarlung Valley, widely considered the cradle of Tibetan civilization. Base yourself in Tsetang and marvel at the monkey cave in Gangpo Ri or walk the monastery kora (pilgrim path). Your trip will take you past glittering mountain turquoise lakes and over high passes draped with prayer flags. Find a quiet spot in a prayer hall full of chanting monks, hike past the ruins of remote hermitages or make an epic overland trip along some of the world’s wildest roads. The scope for adventure is limitless.
For many people, Tibet is a uniquely spiritual place. Those moments of peace, fleeting and precious, when everything seems to be in its proper place, seem to come more frequently in Tibet, whether inspired by the devotion apparent in the face of a pilgrim or the dwarfing scale of a beautiful landscape. Tibet can truly claim to be on a higher plain.
This remarkable place is changing fast. Investment and tourism are flooding into the region, inspired by a new train line from China, and GDP is rising even faster than the train tracks to Lhasa. Unfortunately the modernisation is coming first and foremost on China’s terms. China’s current wave of tourists has been dubbed the ‘second invasion’, with a slew of new hotels, restaurants and bars set up and run by Chinese for Chinese. Once the remote preserve of hardy backpackers, it is now local Chinese tourists who dominate the queues for the Potala and Jokhang. Lhasa is booming and even small towns across the plateau are being modernised and rebuilt. With every passing month Tibet looks less and less like itself.
The myths and propaganda that have grown up around Tibet can be so enticing, so pervasive and so entrenched that it’s hard to see the place through balanced eyes. The reality is that Tibet is no fragile Shangri-la but a resilient land underpinned by a unique culture and faith. But you are never far from the reality of politics here. For anyone who travels with their eyes open, a visit to Tibet will be memorable and fascinating, but also a sobering experience. It’s a place that’s likely to change the way you see the world and that will remain with you for years to come. And that’s surely the definition of the very best kind of travel.
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