Tibetans (Zàng zú, 藏族) live closest to the sun, surrounded by the highest peaks in the world on a plateau so vast that mountains look like neighbors, even if it takes a lifetime to walk there. Even their oppressors can't help but speak of them in reverent tones because a people born on the roof of the world have a gift, just like Bedouins in the desert, horsemen of the steppes and bards in a concrete jungle. All these groups have at least one thing in common: they are the last of their kind. Endangered, a remnant of a time before the world moved on.
There are about 6 million Tibetans in the world and for outsiders, every single one is special. The Khampa on a tricked-out bike; the crimson-cheeked muddy face of a dread-locked wildchild under a nomad tent; the smiling bald monk in red robes; the freckle-faced yak herder with two long braided plaits and silver dangling from her ears. They're special to us. We cherish them for what they represent, for when Tibet falls to the modern world, then all is lost. So says the West.
Where Tibetans Come From
Tibetans might have fallen from the sky, for all we know. They might be the survivors of the great consummation of India and Asia. Ask a Tibetan and he might tell you that he's the descendant of a monkey and an ogress. Or he'll just shrug and walk off. Most scientists agree that Tibetans are not related to the Native Americans, no matter how romantic that might sound. Perhaps that knowledge should remain obscure; a whole generation of Americans might not feel the pleasure of atonement as profoundly if they knew that loving Tibet does not translate into absolution for past sins against America's First People. What's more likely is a mixture of Indian, Caucasian, Asian and Mongol people with the demons that inhabited the Tibetan plateau during the Heroic Age. Those demons were done away with by the legendary hero Gesar and from his victory sprang first Bon shamanism and then later Buddhism with Tibetan characteristics.
In the war between Bon and Buddha for the heart of Tibet, Buddha won—but the peace treaty stipulated a continued Bon presence. A deep discussion of Tibetan Buddhism is a topic for another day (perhaps by a different author). It's enough to note that Buddhism is one of the unbreakable bonds that unites nomads, warriors and subsistence farmers into one people. It was the Buddhist religion that helped unite Tibet under one king, Tang Dynasty China. With both wives' encouragement, King Songsten Gampo built a radiating circle of Buddhist monasteries and temples that extended from his capital in Lhasa out to the farthest reaches of his domain, the Amdo and Kham regions in the west (present day Qinghai and western Sichuan respectively) and the Himalayan kingdoms to the south and east. The Jokhang Temple in Lhasa is the most magnificent of these Buddhist structures The Kingdom of Tibet at that time threatened the Tang capital of Chang'an and held sway over parts of the Silk Road that left Xinjiang through Kashgar into Central Asia. The Uigher, Tang Chinese, Tibetans, Mongols, Turks, Persians and others struggled for control of the Tarim Basin and the vital trade routes that ran from China to the newly created Caliphate, but none were able to dominate for any extended period of time. It was during the Tang and later the Song Dynasty that the Horse and Tea Trade Route was established, linking China's tea producing regions in the southwest - primarily Yunnan and Sichuan—with the Tibetan capital in Lhasa. The trade resulted in another struggle for domination between the Tang Chinese, Dai, Bai, Yi and Tibetan peoples—again, none were able to establish absolute control.
The struggles between the Imperial heartland and the kingdoms of the periphery for control of vital resources went back and forth for centuries until the Mongols annihilated them all in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Mongol domination had a large and lasting impact on all nations and kingdoms, Tibet included. The establishment of a dual spiritual and temporal (religious and non-religious) authority over Tibet began with the Mongols and returned every time a more powerful neighbor (usually Imperial China) decided to assert greater control over the peaks and plateaus of the Tibetan homeland. Tibetans shifted from centralized control under a priest-king and a "foreign prime minister" to decentralized independence throughout the Ming and Qing Dynasties and actually gained independence from foreign domination for just under 40 years before the Red Army marched on Lhasa, deposed the Dalai Lama and asserted Chinese control over Tibet. Today Tibetans are an oppressed people who have seen what few cities they have industrialized, while their monasteries have been reduced and put under the control of secular authorities. The results are the fruits of modernity: TVs, university education, jobs other than yak herding and carrying pails up to the abbots and a huge increase in tourism. The downsides are an assault on their identity and culture that, if successful, will transform Tibetans into dancing, smiling caricatures of themselves holding down slave-wage jobs. Like many other peoples who have felt uneasy about Progress, they will either fight or submit to a life as second-rate citizens in a nation that both admires and pities them for their quaint beliefs... or they can dismiss those beliefs and become something else altogether.
No matter what the Age, Tibetans keep the faith. The spirit of the people is undeniable and breathtakingly self-assured despite of all the protestations of Science. Tibetan pilgrims will walk a lifetime to reach a mountain. Who today has such faith in anything? What act can compare with chaktsal, the prostrating pilgrimage across the plateau measured in body lengths? Pilgrims press their hands together, touch their forehead, throat and heart and then press themselves flat to the ground. Then the get up, shuffle forward a few paces, and do it again. In any other society, such an act would be astonishing, insane, garner all sorts of media attention, maybe even be the catalyst for a dozen cults. In Tibet, its just what people do. It's understood like a preference for yak butter tea over coffee. The spirituality of the Tibetan people is part of the draw. Tourists and admirers flock to Lhasa and environs each year to observe the spectacle of faith as much as gaze upon the tallest mountains in the world, Mount Everest and Mount Kailash, or some of the clearest, highest lakes in the world, like Lake Manasarovar.
Homes for nomads and gods
The Potala Palace is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. The 13 story palace in Lhasa was built to house the spiritual authority of Tibet and all their accoutrements, including one of the greatest stores of Buddhist scriptures in the world.
The palace is a majestic rendition of a classic architectural style seen across the Tibetan plateau. Tibetan homes tend to be two story structures, built of stone and wood with massive wooden pillars and wide windows. The roofs tend to be flat—for storage purposes and also to conserve heat—and each home is fabulously decorated in bright red, yellow and orange colors and hints of green and blue. The decorations follow Buddhist motifs and require skilled artisans for the painting and the woodwork. Bands of carpenters, masons and painters move from settlement to settlement helping families erect gorgeous homes. The details of each style differ from region to region, though the template remains similar. In Danba, the homes have large towers and rise up more vertically than others—perhaps influenced by the old watchtowers that dot the region; near Shangri-la and Litang the houses are boxy and solid, with sturdy pine pillars and stone walls to keep out the frigid winters. But most Tibetan houses have the same smells, no matter what region: incense and yak butter, woodsmoke and drying barley.
Tibetans love bling
Nomads don't usually carry a lot of cash around. In Tibet silver and gold jewelry help to distinguish a rich nomad from a poor nomad, as do beautiful coral pieces and Z-stones—strange remnants of the ancient collision that gave birth to the Himalayas. It's not uncommon to see a nomad matriarch decked out in silver chains from head to toe, with a few gold teeth and massive coral earrings to boot. Khampa men love bling too. Gold earrings are common as are massive blades (for the Khampas of western Sichuan), horses and yaks, motorcycles and beautiful Tibetan robes, called chubas. These clear indicators of wealth and prestige are being eroded by modern symbols: cars and televisions, Western clothing and cell phones—but in Tibet where the nomads roam, bling still rules. In fact, bling might have seeped into the DNA because its rare to see a Tibetan without a certain gold necklace...
Travel to Tibet is often held hostage to the social and political climate of the day. Currently, all foreign travelers to Tibet require a special Tibet Autonomous Region permit to fly into Lhasa and are assigned a tour guide. Groups traveling overland are also assigned tour guides. Be sure to read up on our complete (and regularly updated) information on Tibet travel requirements and regulations before you book a trip to Tibet.