Tibet is a mountainous region of Central Asia located in the southwestern part of China, occupying one-eighth of China’s land area. Formally, Tibet is considered an autonomous region with Lhasa as its capital. Culturally and geographically it is much larger and covers the entire Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, although it does not have clear boundaries everywhere; besides, Tibetans also inhabit Western Sichuan, Southern Gansu and Northern Yunnan. Ethnically, linguistically, and religiously, the people of Tibet are fundamentally different from those of other Chinese territories.
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The Tibet Autonomous Region became available to foreign tourists only 30 years ago. Despite the administrative and natural obstacles facing travelers: the need to obtain entry permits from Chinese authorities and the thin mountain air, the number of tourists from abroad increases year after year.
The region is located on a high mountain plateau, with the vast majority of the area at altitudes over 4,000 meters. Tibet is full of mystery and mystery with its thousand-year history. It combines the beauty of the Himalayan mountains with ancient philosophical teachings. When you get to Tibet you immediately feel that the mystical mysteries of this country are not just rumors. They are all around you.
Tibetan Monk Turquoise Color of Yamdrok Yutso Lake
Tibet’s natural attractions
Tibet’s monotonous landscapes, with flat valleys lying between snow-capped mountains, dispose you to meditate. The most evocative natural sites also serve as places of worship for Buddhists. The pyramidal Mount Kailas, which reaches a height of 6,714 meters, is said to be home to one of the incarnations of Buddha. To get to the place pilgrims is technically extremely difficult: have to travel a few hundred kilometers to the west of the city of Lhasa, and then move on foot, making the kora, or ritual circumambulation, around the mountain.
No one had ever climbed to the very top of Kailas: the attempts of climbers were violently opposed by believers from all over the world. At the foot of the mountain lies Lake Manasarovar, the bark around which will take several days. Another revered lake, Yamdrok Tsho, located between Lhasa and Gyangdze, is famous for the unusual color of its waters, constantly changing hues.
History and Modernity
Tibet has been independent for most of its history, but it has not always been a unified state. The first to unite the country under his rule in the seventh century was King Songtsen Gampo, who ascended the throne in 629, which is considered the earliest historically accurate date in the country’s history. However, Songtsen Gampo did not rule all of present-day Tibet, but only the region of the Yarlung Valley around Shigadze and Lhasa, that is, the center of Tibet. It is true that this king made great conquests. Songtsen Gampo gained lasting fame through his marriage policy: he married the Nepalese princess Bhrikuti and the Chinese princess Wencheng, establishing kinship ties with neighboring states – both princesses are now revered as patron saints of Tibet under the names Green Tara and White Tara. Both are credited with playing a significant role in the spread of Buddhism in the country.
Residents of Western Tibet. В. Vereshchagin
Tibet continued to grow strong, and in the eighth century it even conquered large areas of the Tang Empire, including the Dunhuang oasis for 67 years. After an era of state collapse, preceded by the persecution of Buddhists in the ninth century, Buddhism once again took root in the land in the eleventh century. It was only in the 14th and 15th centuries that a unique version of Tibetan Buddhism emerged thanks to the “school of virtue” or “yellow-cap school” (Gelugpa) founded by the reformer Tsongkhapa, from which the institution of the Dalai Lama emerged in the 16th-17th centuries.
The problem of autonomy
Since 1722 Tibet belonged to the Manchu Empire. It was represented in Lhasa by two so-called Ambans, who also exercised political influence; thanks to them the Manchu domination was not only formal. In 1913. The 13th Dalai Lama proclaimed the independence of Tibet (which in the meantime fell under British influence), but the Republic of China did not recognize it.
The 13th Dalai Lama in 1910.
The unclear legal status was supported by conflicting facts: The Republic of China did not designate its authority over Tibet in any way, and for other states (except to some extent Britain) Tibet did not exist in a foreign policy sense. The payback for the lack of diplomatic relations came in 1950, when China forcibly exercised its territorial claims over Tibet. The latter tried to protest within the UN, but found little allied support.
The Tibet issue is still on the agenda, and this is not only because of the fact of Chinese rule, but also because of the way it is exercised. Mao Zedong and the Communist Party, who were doing abuse all over China, extended it to Tibet, although the local population did not recognize the Chinese government as “theirs” and resisted foreign power.
Potala Palace, built in the 17th century
The conflict reached its climax in 1959 when a popular uprising was forcibly suppressed, causing the Dalai Lama and many monks with him to flee the country. Since then there has been a “Tibetan government in exile” in the city of Dharamsala, India, and the Tibetan problem has become internationally important. The Tibetans suffered even worse during the Cultural Revolution, when monasteries were dissolved and Mao’s “Red Guard” destroyed many sacred works of art. Although these barbaric atrocities were committed not only in Tibet, but also throughout China, here their injustice was much more keenly felt because of the greater importance of religion in social and everyday life.
The uneasy relationship between Tibet and China in modern times
The more recent monuments of religious architecture, built 300-400 years ago, have survived, but they were severely damaged during the Maoist period, when China fought against any manifestation of faith. By the end of the twentieth century, the government tried to make amends to Tibet by restoring the ancient sites to their original state.
14th Dalai Lama meets with George H.W. Bush at White House May 23, 2001 Tibetan military intervenes in 2008 during riots and self-immolations triggered by refusal of monks to fly Chinese flag at Wonpo Monastery
The district was granted broad autonomy in 1965, according to the Chinese, but not enough, as the Tibetans believe. Young citizens receive their primary education in the Tibetan language, and the paperwork is done in Tibetan. Tibet is occasionally plagued by unrest. The world community gives them verbal support, but does not risk interfering in the process, considering the weight of China in the international arena.
The Tibetan Buddhist doctrine originally acquired its special character by absorbing elements of the local Bon shamanistic religion, which had existed long before Buddhism was adopted. Distinctive features include the important role of rituals attributed with magical effects, the practical application of the doctrine of reincarnation to choose the spiritual successors of deceased lamas, and a much broader pantheon of horrifying deities, some good, some evil, compared to Chinese Buddhism. Tibetan iconography is therefore very complex.
Monkey Temple in Kathmandu
According to Tibetan Buddhist beliefs, the bearer of the teachings is the Dalai Lama, the embodiment of Avalokiteshvara, who symbolizes compassion. Tibet’s most revered temple, Jokang, is located in Lhasa, the district capital. It is a center of attraction for Buddhist worshippers, but ordinary tourists are not forbidden to enter the temple premises either. Dozens of important religious sites are scattered throughout Tibet, with quality roads to most of them. Foreign novices are not accepted in Tibetan monasteries, this is due to the resistance of the Chinese administration, and the lack of such a tradition in the local branch of Buddhism. In the absence of the Dalai Lama XIV, who lives in exile in Dharmsala, India, the next Panchen Lama, residing at Tashilunpo monastery in Shigadze, is formally recognized as the highest religious figure.
Tibetan folk medicine is closely related to religious practices. Many travelers come to the region for a visit to a doctor to hear a diagnosis and undergo a course of treatment. Those who wish can take short courses in the basics of Tibetan medicine, but don’t be fooled by their value: true healers take years to learn their craft.
Illustrations of Traditional Tibetan Medicine at the Beijing Museum of Science and Technology Tibetan Yak is an integral part of the country’s culture
Attractions in Lhasa
Tourists who come to Tibet just for a few days are advised to limit themselves to Lhasa, which combines features of Chinese, Nepalese, and Indian architectural styles.
The most recognizable object of the city, located on a hill 3700 meters above sea level in the western part of the capital, is the giant Potala Palace, built in the XVII century. A powerful fortress designed to protect against foreigners, it is a richly decorated massive rectangular building of red stone surrounded by white walls and staircases. The residence of the Dalai Lama is a UNESCO World Heritage Site within a vast complex.
In addition to the Potala, it includes Norbulinka, or “Precious Park,” laid out a 10-minute drive west of the Red Palace. In the summer and fall, secular and religious festivals are celebrated here. The most popular is the August Yogurt Festival, or Shoton. According to legend, it was invented by secular authorities to cheer up monks forced to spend half the summer in voluntary confinement for fear of stepping on fluttering insects in the fresh air. During the celebration, the park is open all night, with bonfires lit and troupes performing ethnic songs and dances.
View from Jokang Temple Ramoche Monastery
The Jokang Temple, easily recognized by its symbol – two golden deer stretching on both sides to the dharma wheel – houses ancient Buddha statues brought as a gift to King Songtsen Tampo, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism. The figure of the monarch and his wives can be seen in the adjacent Jokang Hall. The site is open to the public from 8 a.m. to noon daily, with opening hours in the afternoon to be checked locally. Around the building are shops of artisans and souvenir vendors.
The second most important monastery in Lhasa is Ramoche. It houses a bronze statue of the young Buddha, according to legend, made by master Vishvakarman, who at the same time created our universe. At a distance of about 10 km from the city are built monasteries Sera and Drepung.
Pilgrims in front of Jokang Temple
The second largest city in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Shigadze is connected to Lhasa by road and rail. One of the largest monasteries of the Tibetan branch of Buddhism, Tashilunpo serves as the residence of the Panchen Lama, the second most important hierarch, the Dalai Lama’s preceptor. Tourists come here to observe the daily life of the monks and admire the 26-meter gold statue of Maitreya Buddha, a “new model” that recently turned 100 years old.
A secular monument, the city fortress-dzong, which once housed the country’s kings, was completely destroyed in the unrest of the 50s and under the Maoists, but several years ago was restored exactly from the preserved photographs and drawings.
The famous stupa of Gyangdze village
The humble village of Gyangdze, lying 240 kilometers southwest of Lhasa, is known for the Pelkor Chedo monastery with its four-story Kumbumbu stupa. Inside the elegant religious structure there is space for 108 halls and altars. The settlement, which has undergone little or no Chineseization, is usually visited by travelers traveling from Tibet to Nepal.
Every house in Central Tibet flies flags of five different colors. Blue represents the sky, white the clouds, red the sun, green the water, and yellow the earth. Many of the doors have a lying sickle painted on them, with a circle floating between the ends, from which a fiery plume comes off: this is the sun and the moon. An image of a scorpion on the wall of a house protects its inhabitants from adversity.
Colorful Tibetan flags
Tourists will feel comfortable from late spring to late fall, as far as possible at 3000-4000 m above sea level. In winter, travelers are inaccessible to some high altitude areas. One week is enough for minimal acclimatization and sightseeing in Lhasa, the remote monasteries and natural sites will require a trip for 2-3 weeks. It is categorically not recommended to be in the autonomous region on March 10, which is a memorable day of the Tibetan uprising, when riots are possible. The Chinese authorities usually do not give permission to enter the region on these dates.
Where to stay
In recent years, many decent hotels have been built in Lhasa and other cities. You can rent a room from locals in the mountains: they do not offer any special amenities, but they guarantee cleanliness. You should definitely bring warm clothes, as the difference between day and night temperature in any part of Tibet is quite noticeable. It rains in July and August, but it is not too abundant.
Hall at the Shigatse Hotel Room at the 5-star Lhasa Zong Shan Hotel in Shigatse
The cuisine of Tibet does not put extra strain on the stomach: spices are not abused here, unlike in other Asian countries, they prefer boiled dishes. Due to the peculiarities of location the traditional menu has no fruit and fish. Alcoholic beverages except for weak rice wine and beer are not consumed, people drink salty tea with added oil. Credit cards are accepted within the capital, otherwise it is better to bring cash in small denominations.
Momo with chicken (similar to our dumplings)
Traditional Tibetan food is tsampa, a dough made of burnt barley and eaten with tea and yak oil, but it is not a restaurant dish.
Momo, a stuffed dumpling, is popular; you can order it at any café in the Old City. Lhasa also offers good Nepalese and Indian cuisine, as well as, of course, Chinese.
Climate and Health
Tourists arriving in the mountainous areas from Beijing can experience oxygen deprivation on the way. Oxygen masks are provided in trains for this case. Even athletes find it difficult to breathe in high altitude conditions without a habit; it is simply contraindicated for cardiac patients, hypertensive patients, pregnant women and children. To facilitate adaptation to the lack of oxygen, it is not recommended during the trip to drink alcohol, to overcool, to be nervous, to sit on a diet or, on the contrary, to overeat. It is necessary to drink a lot, to dose physical activity.
Already in Lhasa, which lies at an altitude of 3700 above sea level, which is not very high in Tibet, you may get an attack of altitude sickness in the form of severe headaches. After you arrive by plane you should plan a slow acclimatization process, during which you should stay at rest regardless of your age and physical condition. This is especially true for the more mountainous regions. Strong solar radiation and big differences in temperature between day and night also pose a threat to your health. In addition, north of the Transhimalayas it can be as cold as Siberia in winter.
Tibet Travel Permit
How to get there
To enter the Tibet Autonomous Region, in addition to a normal Chinese visa, tourists need to obtain a “Tibet Travel Permit” – a special permit to visit Tibet. It is granted only to organized groups of 5 people or more, so singles have to unite at least at the stage of issuing entry documents.
After entry, a “Tibet Travel Permit” is no longer needed. Certain regions, including Lhasa with its surroundings and Shigadze, can be traveled freely, while others in turn require another permit, which can be obtained, for example, in Lhasa through the travel agency where you book the tour.
When you travel through Nepal, you must additionally obtain a double Nepalese visa in order to return to Kathmandu for your flight back home without any problems.
On the outskirts of Lhasa, an hour’s drive from the capital, the high-altitude Gonggar airport is open, connecting the region with Kathmandu and the Chinese metropolises. The other airports in the area are reserved for local irregular flights.
Tangla – the highest railway station in the world Gonggar Airport in Lhasa Mountain roads
A train leaves Beijing for the capital every day and reaches its destination in two days. A railroad with many tunnels and bridges at an altitude of 4,000 meters connects Lhasa and Shigadze. Tibet’s major population centers are connected by a network of highways.
13 questions about Tibet
What is Tibet? Is it a mountain? Is it part of China or a separate country? What does yoga have to do with Tibet? What about the Dalai Lama? And who is he anyway?
This year the Institute of Classical Orient and Antiquity at the National Research University Higher School of Economics for the first time opened enrollment in the new bachelor’s program “Mongolia and Tibet”. To help prospective students decide on their choice, Arzamas asked the academic director of the program, Professor Anna Tsendina, to tell us about what Tibet is like.
1. What does Tibet look like? Is it only high mountains?
Nicholas Roerich. Everest (Dzhomolungma). 1936 Nicholas Roerich Museum
Yes and no. Tibet is indeed home to the Himalayas, the highest mountains on the planet. Their peak, Jomolungma, is 8,848 meters high. Yet Tibet has not only mountains, but also fertile valleys, deserts, rivers, and lakes. It’s just that all of this is raised to a higher altitude: the average altitude of Tibet is about 4,000 meters above sea level. This is why geographers and travelers have called Tibet “the swelling of the Asian continent,” “the table mass,” “the giant pedestal.” And for the same reason many think that Tibet is only mountains.
2. Which is more ancient, Tibet or Russia?
Yan Liben. Emperor Taizong gives an audience to Gar, the ambassador of the King of Tibet, who has arrived to matchmake Princess Wencheng. 641 According to legend, Chinese Princess Wencheng brought Buddhism to Tibet. 故宫博物院 (Imperial Palace Museum, Beijing)
It depends what you mean. If we take the acceptance of the world religion and the formation of the statehood as a starting point, Tibet is older: Buddhism was accepted there in the VII century and the Tibetan Empire emerged then. In the 7th-9th centuries this struggle was dominated by the so-called Yarlung dynasty, and in the 7th century a huge empire emerged in Tibet, which even conquered the capital of Tang China, Chang’an (modern Xian) and by the second half of the 8th century had spread to Samarkand. In Russia, remember, statehood began with the invocation of the Varangians in 862, and Christianity was adopted in . Chinese written monuments mention proto-Tibetan tribes that existed even before our era. Russia was less fortunate in this sense – among its neighbors were not such lovers of historical records as the Chinese.
3. what is Tibet: a state, a religion or a place?
Map of Tibet and surrounding areas. 1906 Royal Geographical Society
More like a place. Tibet is a geographical area consisting of a large number of separate areas. They are inhabited by peoples who speak the same language. They also share a common religion, culture, and history. Today these areas belong to different administrative regions and even countries. Central Tibet forms the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China, the northern region of Amdo is partially included in Qinghai and Gansu provinces of the PRC, eastern Kham is part of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces of the PRC, and the western regions (Ladakh and others) belong to India.
4. So Tibet is part of China?
Signing of the Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, or the 17-Point Agreement. Beijing, 1951 བོད་མིའི་སྒྲིག་འཛུགས། (Government of Tibet in Exile)
Today China is often referred to as the People’s Republic of China, but in reality it is only a part of the People’s Republic of China. Historically, China is a state largely inhabited by Han Chinese, an ethnic group of the Sino-Tibetan language family. They are the most numerous people on Earth and the largest ethnic group in the PRC. . During the era of the Manchu Empire, which established the Qing Dynasty in China, which ruled from the 17th to the 20th century, the power of Beijing began to spread to the neighboring territories of East Turkestan, Mongolia, and Tibet. After the revolution of 1949, a new state, the PRC, was formed: parts of these areas became part of it as autonomies. In 1951 in Beijing signed an agreement on the annexation of Tibet to the PRC, and the People’s Liberation Army of China occupied Lhasa Lhasa – the former capital of the independent Tibetan State, and now a city district in the Tibet Autonomous Region of the PRC. This is how the Tibet Autonomous Region was formed and became part of the PRC. Other areas inhabited by Tibetan peoples became part of the provinces of the PRC: Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan. However, many Tibetans live outside the PRC – in India (Sikkim in particular), Nepal, and Bhutan.
5. Who rules Tibet?
The Dalai Lama XIV in exile in India. 1959 © John Topham / public domain
PRC government This refers to the part of Tibet that is part of the PRC. . It governs all aspects of life – state, administrative, political, economic, cultural and others. But there is also the so-called exiled Tibetan government: it was formed in 1959, after the fourteenth Dalai Lama and the Tibetans who followed him fled Tibet. The aim of this government is to liberate Tibet. At the same time it is concerned with the education and culture of Tibetans living in exile. There are about 150,000 such people.
6. Who lives in Tibet: Chinese or Tibetans?
Vasily Vereshchagin. Residents of Western Tibet. 1874-1876 State Tretyakov Gallery.
Tibetans. But they are not a monolithic ethnos, but different local groups: the Amdossians, Khambas, Sherpas, Ladakhs and others. Today the territory of Tibet is also inhabited by the Chinese (mostly officials and military), the Uighurs (traders), the Uighurs – the Turkic indigenous people of Eastern Turkestan, currently the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of the PRC, and the Mongols (Buddhist monks). They are related to each other in a purely functional way: the Chinese are in charge, the Uighur sells pumpkins, and the Mongols pray. Inter-ethnic marriages are quite rare. The linguistic research, a small amount of archeological excavations, and, most importantly, the Chinese written sources that appeared in the 2nd century B.C. show that the Tibetan ethnos was based on the so-called Qian: they came from the Northeast and formed the Tibetan ethnos by mixing with various groups of Indo-Iranian, Turkic-Mongolian and Australo-Asiatic origin.
7. Tibetan is spoken in Tibet?
A specimen of ancient Tibetan script found in Turfan. 618-907 Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften
Quite right. Tibetan is a member of the Tibeto-Burman subfamily of languages of the Sino-Tibetan family. The classical written language appeared in the seventh century. However, the different ethnic groups living on the territory of Tibet speak different dialects and do not always understand each other. For example, a resident of Amdo, a region of Tibet now divided between the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, and Gansu, from Qinghai Province, may not understand a resident of Central Tibet. And vice versa.
8. Is everyone in Tibet a Buddhist?
Johan Nieuhof. Four men with Buddhist rosaries. 1665 Bibliotheek van het Vredespaleis
Not all, but the vast majority. Buddhism is the real national idea of Tibetans and the basis of their self-identity. However, it is heterogeneous and consists of many local traditions. In European literature they are often called sects, but this is not quite correct: the concept of “sect” implies the existence of a main current and a number of branches, whereas Tibetan Buddhism consists of local schools – Nyingma, Kagyu, Gelug and so on. The Gelug school emerged in the 14th century and became incredibly popular. It reformed the church structure, religious rituals, the canon, and the clothing of the monks and hierarchs. For example, representatives of the Gelug school invented high yellow hats: therefore the school first came to be called yellow-hat, and then simply yellow. The Dalai Lama and the second most important hierarch of the Tibetan Church, the Panchen Lama, belong to this school. Some Tibetans profess the ancient pre-Buddhist Bon religion. There are also a small number of Christians in Tibet.
9. By the way, who is the Dalai Lama?
Dalai Lama XIV. Tibet, 1939 བོད་ཀྱི་འགྲེམས་སྟོན་ཁང་།་ (Tibet Museum, Dharmsala)
The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetans. The current, fourteenth Dalai Lama’s name is Tenzin Gyatso: he is Tibetan and was born in the northeast, in the Amdo region, to a simple peasant family. Buddhists believe that when people die, they are reborn as other people or animals, but have no memory of their previous births. But holy men are reincarnations of deities and great saints of the past: the Dalai Lama, for example, is the reincarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. When a “living god,” which is what European literature calls Buddhist saints, dies, his associates go in search of the boy in whom the deceased incarnated. A set of magical (e.g., special omens, dreams of hierarchs) and bodily (e.g., the shape of ears and nails) signs point to this or that infant. In the case of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, everything pointed to the Amdo boy.
10. Are the Shaolin monks also from Tibet?
Fresco from the Shaolin Monastery. Qing Dynasty 嵩山少林寺 (Shaolin Monastery)
Shaolin Monastery is located in Central China and has nothing to do with Tibet. Shaolin and Tibet have only Buddhism in common: Shaolin, which was originally a Taoist monastery, became a Buddhist monastery almost a century earlier than Tibet.
11. The words “Freedom to Tibet” immediately cause an uproar. Why?
A demonstrator for a free Tibet. London, 1999 © Walter G. Allgöwer / Getty Image
The question of the political independence of a large ethnic group with a history of autonomy and its own statehood is a very painful one. After his escape in 1959, the current Dalai Lama gained great popularity and support in Western countries. This is why the northern, Tibetan branch of Buddhism is so prevalent in the West, not the southern branch (e.g., Thai or Burmese). This also explains why the question of Tibetan independence often sounds louder than the question of Kurdish, Uighur or other independence.
12. yoga was invented in Tibet?
A yogi sitting in a garden. 1620s-40s Columbia University
No, the yogic practices came from India. They came to Tibet with Buddhism, like so much else: the great literary monuments, the writing, the Hindu pantheon of deities, the myths. Elements of yoga entered the tantric practices of Tibetan Buddhists, who use physical and mental exercises to achieve a higher spiritual state. However, this is not at all the mainstream of Buddhism in Tibet.
13. Is there civilization in Tibet?
Tibetan Nomad. 1938 © Das Bundesarchiv
Tibet is changing rapidly. A few decades ago it was indeed a country where people lived like in the Middle Ages. In the northern areas, pastoralists roamed, herding yaks and rams as they did ten centuries ago. The inhabitants of the Tsangpo River valley grew millet and vegetables, hauling water in wooden buckets. Wealthy landowners used the labor of hired laborers. Goods were delivered in caravans. Polygamy and polyandry, i.e. polygamy, were common. The dead were dismembered and given to the birds of prey to eat. When the British made the military invasion of Tibet in 1904, they were confronted by people armed with bows and arrows, slings and spears, as well as incantations and magical rituals. There are now five-star hotels in Lhasa. Tibet has excellent roads, and Lhasa can be reached by train. There are power plants, universities, publishing houses. Of course, in some areas people live like in the old days. In addition, all Tibetans believe in magic and are very religious. The latter, however, is characteristic of many peoples, whose faith and superstition coexist well with technological progress.