Entering Tibet can feel like entering a different world. It is situated on the slopes of the Himalayas, some 12,000ft above sea level. Altitude sickness can be a real struggle, non-Chinese tourists must obtain a special permit in advance of their arrival, and even when here you can’t go anywhere without an official guide. These restrictions make it seem a little bit like North Korea, only with much, much more culture – and that’s why people flock here en mass every year.
I have visited China many times, but always Tibet was off of my radar (while being on my bucket list). Eventually, I summoned the courage to make that arduous journey (and obtaining a visa) and enjoyed everything that the autonomous state could throw at me. The capital of Tibet, Lhasa, is where almost all tourists stay. It is an amazing city, full of charm and was a cultural experience like no other. Accommodation in Lhasa is not cheap compared to the rest of China, but it’s still cheap when you consider prices in Europe and Australia (from where most tourists to Tibet seem to originate).
One of the first things that struck me about Tibet was its people. They are surely the most relaxed and laid-back people I have ever seen. I don’t think they have a problem with tourists, but as tourism is restricted here in Tibet by the Chinese Government, we are still infrequent enough to be something of a curious clan to the Tibetan people. That said, they will go about their business in their own merry ways, seemingly without a care in the world that people from across the globe have turned up to explore their homely Himalayan habitat! Even the blue and white taxi drivers, who won’t charge more than 10 CNY for a day trip around the city (including waiting times), eagerly overcome the language barrier by utilising their friendly smiles!
The Drepung Monastery and the Potala Palace are two of the most important tourist sites in Lhasa, as well as the Jokhang Temple. Drepung is one of the main Buddhist monasteries in the world, whereas the Potala Palace is the home of the Dalai Lama, no less. This “palace” is a resplendent abode, perched atop a small mountain, and dominates the view for miles around; an icon of Tibet it certainly is! Incidentally, you are not allowed to mention his name when in Tibet, and local monks can get into trouble if they are overheard discussing the subject with tourists. However, you would be foolish to think that monasteries and “palaces” are the main attractions in these parts. The stunning landscapes of the Tibetan Plateau – much of which can be seen and experienced just a stone’s throw from downtown Lhasa – will remain in your thoughts long after you have flown home!
It is always advisable to spend a few days doing very little in Lhasa, as you need to acclimatise to the altitude. There is plenty to do if you’re laying low, and experiencing the local Tibetan cuisine is a great way to do this. Why not try the yak meat momos? Momos are steamed dumplings in Tibetan parlance, and these are also sold in northern India and in Nepal. Tibetan butter tea (known as Po Cha) is also a must have when in Lhasa, and if you’re lucky you find some monks relaxing outside the monasteries with which to enjoy it!
A trip to Tibet may not be possible for everybody. It requires a lot of hard planning in advance to make sure that your arrival is as smooth as possible. Yet for those who dare to seek the adventure of a lifetime, I guarantee that you will be rewarded in the best possible way. Compared to other Chinese provinces, such as Yunnan or Guangdong, Tibet is somewhat sparse in tourist attractions. But as a matter of fact, that’s exactly the reason you will want to come here! After all, Lhasa is more.