For Westerners, Tibet has long evoked romantic images of mysterious plateaus, holy cities, and breathtaking mountains. Known as "Bod" in Tibetan and "Zàngqū" (藏区) or "Xīzàng" (西藏) in Mandarin, its high altitude has also earned it the nickname "the Rooftop of the World." One of five designated "autonomous regions" in China, Tibet sits an average 4,000 m (13,100 ft) above sea level.
The complex reality of today's Tibet however, is often far from romantic, and visitors can be surprised when what they encounter does not meet their preconceptions.
One of the most recent and significant changes is the Qinghai-Tibet Railroad which opened in 2005. Cutting straight to the capital Lhasa, the railway allows direct land access to what was once one of the most remote cities on earth, and with it ever growing numbers of tourists and settlers. Despite the rapid changes that have accompanied these incursions of modernity and outside cultures, Tibet still very much delivers on the promise of exhilarating spiritual, physical and aesthetic encounters with a fascinating people, and stunningly beautiful terrain.
Once in Tibet (be sure get your permits in order before you set out or you'll never get past the border) there is plenty to see and experience. Don't miss Lhasa's Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple, the embodiment of Tibet's majestic architectural and cultural heritage. Numerous holy sites are scattered across the country, offering insight into Tibetan Buddhist culture and further south, a trek to Everest Base Camp is sure to inspire even the most worldly of travelers. Finally, the colorful and courageous Tibetan people themselves will both delight and inspire.
Note that you will see Chinese military forces throughout Tibet, where "autonomous" currently means "tightly controlled" by a government that is highly concerned with unrest among Tibetans who would prefer a bit more actual autonomy than they've received to date from Beijing. Politics are, clearly, a hot-button issue, so be aware of the fact that anything you might do that could be construed on the part of authorities as activism sympathetic with the exiled government led by the Dalai Lama could quickly end your trip.
Any trip to Lhasa will warrant a few visits to Barkhor (Bākuò Jiē, 八廓街; "Barkhor Street")—the religious heart and market center of the capital surrounding Jokhang..
Ganden Monastery (Gāndān Sì, 甘丹寺) is an important monastic university—the first of the three great Gelugpa spiritual and educational centers built in the early 15th..
Sitting well exposed to the glare of the sun, the summer experience at Potala Palace prompted the Seventh Dalai Lama (1708-1757) to have Norbulingka built, a summer palace for..
A palace was originally built at this site in 637 by the founder of the Tibetan Empire Songtsän Gampo, and even though none of that original structure remains, it's..