Monks, monasteries, meditation and mountains – Tibet conjures images of blue skies, white ice and saffron robes of a spirituality pure Shangri-La. A trip to Tibet can be rewarding and adventurous, in fact a paradise for westerns as well as Asian travelers. Tibet tour offers fascinating views of the magnificent monasteries and the world’s highest mountains, breathtaking high-altitude treks, and one of the most likeable peoples you will ever meet. A traveler dreaming to visit Tibet is required to pre-arrange a Tibet travel permit through a travel agency in Nepal or in Tibet, along with guide and transportation, making independent travel off-limits.
The remote, far-flung regions of Tibet are seemingly in a world of its own, with fabled villages tucked between some of the highest mountains in the world, and devout pilgrims prostrating around impressive temples. The elemental beauty of the highest plateau on earth is Tibet’s other highlight. Taking your trip past glittering turquoise lakes, across huge plains dotted with yaks and nomadic tents and high passes draped with colorful prayer flags, your trip, no wonder, will be an epic overland tour or a historic trekking feat along some of the world’s wildest roads and trekking trails.
The scope of adventure, however is limited only by your ability to get permits. Getting to Tibet is difficult with strict travel restrictions and visa rules. To prepare properly for this trip of a lifetime, here are some interesting and lesser-known facts and figures to assist you as your Tibet travel guide:
1. Roof of the World
The Tibetan Plateau stands over 3 miles above sea level, adding to the records by virtue of its sheer height. It is enveloped by imposing mountain ranges that harbor the world’s two highest summits, Mt. Everest and K2 along with highest lake, railway, road and tunnel in the world. The metaphoric description “Roof of the World” of this high region in the world, also known as “High Asia”, usually refers to the mountainous interior of Asia, the mighty Himalayas. Tibet shares about 3500 km international border lines with Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. Though Tibet may seem dwarfed by the rest of China, Tibet is colossal with approximately about two-thirds the size of Western Europe. What we think of Tibet is officially known as the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).
2. Weather and Climate
Tibet has dry and continental climate, with strong winds, low humidity and a huge fluctuation in annual and summer daytime temperatures. The atmosphere is severely dry for nine months of the year and the average annual snowfall is only 18 inches, due to the rain shadow effect. However, the temperatures may can drop down up to 15°C, which isn’t as harsh as one may imagine. The Indian monsoon exerts some influences on eastern Tibet and it rains quite often during monsoon and reaches around 12 inches. Northern Tibet is subjected to high temperatures in the summer while it is intensely cold in the winters.
3. Tibetan Cuisine
Tibetan people have unique food and drink due to special geographic conditions of high altitude, harsh climate, their traditional religious beliefs and ethnic customs. Their daily diet mainly consists of Tsampa (roasted barley flour), dried beef, yak and mutton strips, Tibetan noodles (thukpa), Tibetan sausages (blood sausage and white sausage), Tibetan dumplings (Momos), and endless cups of butter tea. Other food includes Milk curd and Yogurt, Ginseng Fruit Rice, Tibetan Sweet Tea and Tibetan Barley Wine (Chhang).
4. Monsoon Rains
Tibet’s dry and rainy seasons are very distinct. During the rainy season, there are more night rain, more thunderstorms and hail while during the summer period, it rains in the morning and stops at noon, it is mandatory to carry a raincoat for those who wish to visit Tibet between mid-August to mid-September. In southern Tibet, it mostly rains at night accounting for over 80% of the precipitation during the rainy season. And in the northern part of Tibet, there are more thunderstorms and hail during the monsoons.
5. Altitude Sickness
High altitude means 30 – 40% less oxygen in the atmosphere. With an average elevation of over 4500 meters, visitors can get altitude sickness, so it is important to be as healthy as possible before the trip. When traveling within Tibet, your heart rate and breathing patterns will modify themselves to increase the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity. Altitude sickness can cause severe headaches, breathlessness, irritability, fatigue, nausea and even death. The only way to prevent altitude sickness is to avoid ascending higher, keeping oneself hydrated and to avoid strenuous activities. People with serious cardiovascular (heart) diseases, should not visit Tibet. And those with less serious heart problems or high/low blood pressures should consult a doctor before traveling.
6. Respect Tibetan people and their cultures
Taking photos of Buddha statues, sensitive objects or anything military is not allowed in the majority of the places in Tibet. In some monasteries, tourists are allowed to take pictures on paying a small fee. Asking permission before taking pictures will avoid you from landing in some untoward problems. Smoking is prohibited when visiting monasteries and one should be dressed properly, not in shorts or skin – revealing outfits. When a host hands you something, for example a cup of tea, take it with both hands to show your respect and appreciation. Do not talk about sensitive topics like politics when in Tibet. Also, do not try to debate with the Lamas about their lives and religions. Do not enter the monasteries without permission and don’t ever carry a picture of the Dalai Lama with you, not even in your wallet.
7. Shoton Festival, Annual Opera Performance
One of the oldest and the most popular traditional festivals among Tibetans, the seven-day long Shoton Festival, or the Yogurt Drinking Festival takes place in Norbulingkha, the Summer Palace, in Lhasa. Celebrated at the start of the seventh month of the Tibetan calendar, the festival includes a series of events such as the annual opera performances, displays of horsemanships, yak races and ceremonies in which images of the Buddha are displayed. People go to Drepung monastery to watch the large-sized Thangka show displayed there.
8. Tibetan New Year
The Tibetan New Year, also known as the Losar Festival, which falls during February or March, is the most important festival on the Tibetan calendar. The entire Tibetan population greets one another with “Tashi Delek” and “Losar Sang”, meaning “Good luck and happiness” and “Happy New Year” respectively. Everyone drinks Chhang, the Tibetan barley wine and butter tea, toasting each other and wishing everybody good health. People celebrate ancient ceremonies, perform dances of the deer and amusing battles between the kind and his ministers, etc. around the blazing bonfires throughout the night.
9. Saga Dawa: Buddha’s Birth, Enlightenment and Death
The Saga Dawa Festival marks the beginning of a holy month, which lasts from 1st to 15th of April. During this festival, people refrain from eating meat. They offer donations to monasteries and nunneries or to individual monks or nuns. Money is given to beggars who line the roads, knowing they will receive alms on the 15th day. Lighting butter and making pilgrimages to holy places, circumambulating around the stupas are other religious activities performed by the Tibetans.
An integral part of the Tibetan culture, Yaks are used in Tibet for transportation purpose. Their hair is woven into yarn, their hides are used for making boots and boats, their meat is a nourishing source of protein, their milk provides healthy fat and is used to make butter, cheese and yogurt, and their dung is used to produce fuel for fires. However, there is a belief that most of the yaks in Tibet are not actually yaks. The large bovine beasts most prevalent across Tibet are known to be Dzo, a hybrid between a yak and a cow.