Tibet offers fabulous monasteries, breathtaking high-altitude walks, stunning views of the world’s highest mountains and one of the warmest cultures you will ever encounter.
A Higher Plain
For many visitors, the highlights of Tibet will be of a spiritual nature: magnificent monasteries, prayer halls of chanting monks, and remote cliffside meditation retreats. Tibet’s pilgrims – from local grandmothers murmuring mantras in temples heavy with the aromas of juniper incense and yak butter to hard-core professionals walking or prostrating themselves around Mt Kailash – are an essential part of this experience. Tibetans have a level of devotion and faith that seems to belong to an earlier, almost medieval age. It is fascinating, inspiring and endlessly photogenic.
The Roof of the World
Tibet's other big draw is the elemental beauty of the highest plateau on earth. Geography here is on a humbling scale and every view is illuminated with spectacular mountain light. Your trip will take you past glittering turquoise lakes, across huge plains dotted with yaks and nomads’ tents, and over high passes draped with colourful prayer flags. Hike past the ruins of remote hermitages, stare open-mouthed at the north face of Everest or make an epic overland trip along some of the world’s wildest roads. The scope for adventure is limited only by your ability to get permits.
Politics & Permits
There’s no getting away from politics here. Whether you see Tibet as an oppressed, occupied nation or an underdeveloped province of China, the normal rules of Chinese travel simply don’t apply. Restrictions require foreign travelers to pre-arrange a tour with a guide and transport for their time in Tibet, making independent travel impossible. On the plus side, new airports, boutique hotels and paved roads offer a level of comfort unheard of just a few years ago, so if the rigours of Tibetan travel have deterred you in the past, now might be the time to reconsider.
The Tibetan People
Whatever your interests, your lasting memories of Tibet are likely to be of the bottle of Lhasa Beer you shared in a teahouse, the yak-butter tea offered by a monk in a remote monastery or the picnic enjoyed with a herding family on the shores of a remote lake. Always ready with a disarming smile, and with great tolerance and openness of heart despite decades of political turmoil and hardship, the people truly make travelling in Tibet a profound joy. Make sure you budget time away from your pre-planned tour itinerary to enjoy these chance encounters.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Tibet.
Commissioned by a local prince in 1427 and sitting beside Palcho Monastery, Gyantse Kumbum is the town’s foremost attraction. This 32m-high chörten, with its white layers trimmed with decorative stripes and crown-like golden dome, is awe-inspiring. But the inside is no less impressive, and in what seems an endless series of tiny chapels you’ll find painting after exquisite painting ( kumbum means ‘100,000 images’). It costs a worthwhile ¥10 for photos (not included in the ticket, bring cash).
About 170km southeast of Lhasa, on the north bank of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra River) is Samye Monastery, the first monastery in Tibet. Founded in 775 by King Trisong Detsen, Samye is famed not just for its pivotal history but for its unique mandala design: the Main Hall, known as Ütse, represents Mt Meru, the centre of the universe, while the outer temples represent the oceans, continents, subcontinents and other features of the Buddhist cosmology.
The magnificent Potala Palace, once the seat of the Tibetan government and the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas, is Lhasa's cardinal landmark. Your first sight of its towering, fortress-like walls is a moment you'll remember for years. An architectural wonder even by modern standards, the palace rises 13 storeys from 130m-high Marpo Ri (Red Hill) and contains more than 1000 rooms. Pilgrims and tourists alike shuffle open-mouthed through the three storeys, past the dozens of magnificent chapels, golden stupas and prayer halls.
The 1300-year-old Jokhang Temple is the spiritual heart of Tibet: the continuous waves of awestruck pilgrims prostrating themselves outside are a testament to its timeless allure. The central golden Buddha image here is the most revered in all of Tibet.
About 5km north of Lhasa, Sera was founded in 1419 by a disciple of Tsongkhapa as one of Lhasa's two great Gelugpa monasteries. About 600 monks are now in residence, down from an original population of around 5000. The half-dozen main colleges feature spectacular prayer halls and chapels. Equally interesting is the monk debating that takes place from 3pm to 5pm in a garden near the assembly hall. Don't miss the fine, hour-long kora (pilgrim circuit) around the exterior of the monastery.
Along with Sera and Ganden Monasteries, Drepung functioned as one of the three 'pillars of the Tibetan state', and it was purportedly the largest monastery in the world, with around 7000 resident monks at its peak. Drepung means 'rice heap', a reference to the white buildings dotting the hillside. The 1½-hour kora (pilgrim circuit) around the 15th-century monastery, 8km west of Lhasa, is among the highlights of a trip to the city.
Everest Base Camp (5150m) was first used by the 1924 British Everest expedition. Tourists are no longer allowed to visit the climbing expedition base camp, so most people have their photo taken at the ‘Mt Qomolangma Base Camp’ marker instead. In February 2019 Tibet's Everest Base Camp was closed to all visitors to allow for continued clean-up and environmental restoration efforts, begun in 2018 with the removal of 8 tonnes of garbage. The climbers' base camp reopened in mid-2019 for those with climbing permits, and a new camp for non-climbing tourists has been put into operation beside Ronghpu Monastery, where the mountain views are essentially the same as those from the previous tourist camp. Tour vehicles are now allowed only as far as the new Everest Base Camp tourist centre in the Tibetan village of Chödzom, where travellers must change for government-managed eco-friendly buses (¥120 round-trip) for the remaining 20km to Ronghpu Monastery.
Sacred Mt Kailash dominates the landscape of western Tibet through both its unique geographical allure and its sacred, metaphysical role as the religious focus of a billion people. Pilgrims show their devotion by walking around the mountain in three days; for nonbelievers it is simply one of Asia's classic treks.
You start the tour of the main Potala building from the top and descend through the bowels of the building to exit on the ground floor. The gilded buddhas, intricate mandalas and towering funeral stupas you pass en route rank as the highlights of the Potala.