Renowned as a magnificent, rewarding and utterly unique travel destination, Tibet is considered the spiritual, cultural and mysterious heart of Asia. Isolated from the rest of the world for years by a complex mix of harsh politics and inhospitable nature, Tibet is now slowly opening up to international tourism like a delicate bloom at springtime. Getting around the head-spinning Tibetan Plateau is still logistically challenging: distances are considerable and terrain harsh, permits needed for certain provinces and the lack of major infrastructure means travel times can be considerable. Yet the rewards, for those willing to forego a few mod cons, are some of the most authentic and unforgettable travel experiences on the planet.
A true bucket-list destination worth its weight in gilded stupas, Tibet is home to venerated Mt Everest, startling alpine lakes, mesmerizing monasteries, chanting monks and some of the most humble and welcoming people in the world. And as clichéd as it may sound: Tibet really is like no other place on earth.
Overview of Tibet
Blanketed across the world’s highest mountain range and immersed in some of the most pristine yet inhospitable wilderness on earth, Tibet is no country for the faint of heart. Daily summer averages barely cross the double digits and, this being such a high-altitude corner of the globe, the climate is always unpredictable, no matter when you visit. Yet all the physical challenges are barely worth a second thought, for the rewards are sensationally abundant. The roof of our world is a mountainous haven, where pristine nature and hardy people live in a kind of symbiosis that’s difficult to fathom. Life is tough, up here, but all that has gone a long way in helping preserve one of the most ancient cultures in the world. A journey to Tibet is like a journey back in time, a time when the spiritual belief and reverence to nature were inherently intertwined.
One thing is certain: if gods do exist, you’ll certainly be much, much closer to them here.
What to expect from a trip to Tibet
Tibet is as photogenic as it is enigmatic, perplexing as it is endearing. Local culture and religion are exotic and colourful and, although immensely alien to most foreigners who visit, they make for some of the most impressionable travel memories of all. Discovering remote and isolated monasteries and intricately decorated temples, attending a local ceremony, discovering the surprisingly delicious taste of yak butter tea, or simply watching the spectacle of monks chanting, taking alms and prostrating pilgrims around their holiest shrines, are just a few of the unique experiences you’ll savour here. And never forget that among all the man-made enticements of Tibet, you’ll cast your eyes on some of the most inspiring and picturesque treasures of Mother Nature. No matter how many mountains you’ve seen in your life, you’ll never really be prepared for the sensational spectacle that is the Himalayan Mountain Range. A country that literally begs to be toured by road, Tibet is one visual spectacle after another.
This is the top of the world, a place that humbles the human soul like few places on earth can do.
The Best Things to Do in Tibet
Watch the sun rise on Mt Everest
If the mere idea of casting your eyes on the world’s highest mountain is enough to send shivers down your spine, then best get packing. Mt Everest is the single biggest attraction in Tibet and although bagging the peak is reserved for the (very) wealthy and (even more) adventurous, trips to Everest Base Camp are becoming increasingly popular with discerning travellers looking for that ultimate thrill. You’ll still need a steely resolve to make the arduous journey to EBC, with the trip taking 2 days by road from Lhasa, or 12hrs from Shigatse, with the last 3kms section of track either hiked or driven. Once there, you can look forward to a potentially challenging night’s sleep in a tent. At 5000m above sea level, free-flowing oxygen is a bit of a dream. But never mind…if sleep is elusive, you can always rug up and stay awake, watching what can only be described as the most exceptionally starry sky you’ll ever see. All of this, of course, bags you the honour of seeing the sun rise over the peak of Mt Everest, a memory that’s bound to stay with you for the rest of your life.
Explore the Potala Palace in Lhasa
Safely preserved under proverbial lock and key for centuries, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region is an absolute treasure trove of astounding architecture and distinguished religious temples. Lhasa has been at the very core of Tibetan Buddhism for more than a thousand years and its name, which literally translates to the ‘Place of the Gods’ perfectly reflects its essence. Lhasa is the Tibet everyone falls for, the one they fantasise about and the one that delivers on its promise. Among all of its treasures, however, the Potala Palace reigns supreme. The poster child of Tibet to the outside world, this UNESCO-listed wonder showcases some of the most precious icons of Tibetan culture, art, history and religion. Sculptures, murals, statues and countless relics are showcased in more than 1000 rooms in this 13-storey palace, once the beloved abode of the Dalai Lama.
Soak up the stellar views over Lake Yamdrok
Lake Yamdrok is one of the most picturesque and holiest alpine lakes in Tibet. With its deep turquoise waters and its shoreline dotted by traditional villages and fields brimming with yaks in pasture, Yamdrok offers some of the most iconic Tibetan scenery of all. On the southwest shores is where you’ll find Samding Monastery, the only one in Tibet headed by a female tulku, a religious scholar believed to be the reincarnation of a deceased master. Only a 2 hour drive out of Lhasa, Yamdrok is easy to visit on a half-day trip out of the city.
Admire Tibetan architecture at the Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse
The capital of the Tsang province is Tibet’s second largest city and considered the springboard for trips to Mt Everest. Surprisingly modern and enticingly vibrant, this bustling hub is yet another visual feast and you’ll see Tibetan architecture in its full glory when you visit the stunning Tashilhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama, the political and religious leader of Tibet believed to be the ‘2nd in charge’ after the Dalai Lama.
Visit the Yungbulakang Palace in Tsetang
Tibet’s first regal palace is almost 2000 years old and was built by the country’s first king, Nyatri Tsenpo. Converted to a monastery by the 5th Dali Lama, Yungbulakang is a three-storey colourful splendour comprising halls, chapels and towers, which commands exceptional views over the Yarlung Valley. To reach the mountaintop palace, you can either walk up the steep track in half an hour, or ditch that plan to horseback ride instead. Once there, walk the base of the palace clockwise according to local custom, following the circuit of prayer wheels, before ascending the highest tower where you’ll see pilgrims light yak butter lanterns in the hope of eternal fortune.
Enjoy the spectacular drives over the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau
Spending days driving along the world’s highest plateau is an unforgettable experience and consistently rated by all travellers to Tibet as one of the most inspiring highlights of their trip. With an average altitude of 4000m and framed by some of the most dramatic peaks you’ll ever have the privilege to see, the Tibetan landscape is imposing and ethereal. Whether by car or even train, reaching destinations overland is an experience we couldn’t recommend highly enough. If you have time, enjoy the slow spectacle of surprisingly verdant plains, of country life, of traditional villages, remote monasteries and palaces. Whoever coined the term ‘the journey is just as extraordinary as the destination’ must surely have had Tibet in mind.
Best Time to Travel to Tibet
Due to the sheer size and eclectic topography, Tibet offers the adventure traveller a distinctive travel experience in every single season. However, considering the primary reason most visitors head to this breathtaking [art of the world (hhmmm, hello? Himalayas!) the ideal time to visit is during the driest but warmest months of the year, being April, May, June, September and October. Startling sapphire skies make for sensational photography, with the backdrop of snow-drenched peaks offering the most mesmerizing views.
July and August mark the wettest months (monsoon season) along the spine of the Himalayas and, although January, February and March are also dry, they do boast the coldest temps of the year, with night-time lows during this period plummeting well below freezing point. For treks up to Everest Base Camp, aim to visit in November or December, when you’ll have the highest chance of clear skies and awe-inspiring views.
Dreaming Of Tibet? Well, dream no more…and start planning instead! Our bespoke and group tours of Tibet offer you the chance to experience this sensational destination, any way you wish. With professional, English-speaking guides at the helm, you’ll conquer the highest mountains in the world and have the time of your life in the process. Contact us for more info.
Author: Laura Pattara
“After spending years taking short vacations in Asia, Laura finally managed her dream, travelling extensively through Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia on a 3-year-long overlanding adventure that she describes as “SIMPLY EPIC”. Following in the footsteps of ancient traders, Laura meandered along the famed Silk Road through the Stans, delighted her tastebuds for 8000km across China (no mean feat) visited an insane number of temples in Southeast Asia, all the while snorkelling, diving and beach-bumming along the way. Tickled pink by history and culture, Laura loves off-the-beaten-path destinations in Asia and anything that isn’t gift-wrapped for tourists”