You don't need to watch Seven Years in Tibet to discover what this magical region of China has to offer.
Nicknamed “Roof of the World” for its towering mountains, Tibet boasts more lofty peaks, hidden temples and serene monks than you could ever fit into an itinerary. With its restrictions on solo and self-guided trips, visitors are expected to join a prearranged tour with approved operators to visit the region. Regardless, here are seven not-to-be-missed Himalayan highlights.
1. Check out where the Dalai Lama spends winter
It's a steep walk up to Potala Palace, but it's worth it
Prepare yourself for a steep walk up to Potala Palace. As one of the highest ancient palaces in the world, it stretches an impressive 3,700 metres into the sky at its highest point. Perched on Red Mountain, the complex comprises the Red Palace that houses several mausoleums, and the White Palace that was home to 10 successive Dalai Lamas. The Tibetan government offices, as well as artefacts from Tibetan history are also housed in this hard-to-access location. But the thousands of pilgrims who flock here every year don’t seem to mind.
Why: Magical scenery and an insight into Tibetan history
2. Exercise with the pilgrims
Head to Barkhor Street – often called the "Window of Tibet" – and take part in a pilgrim-style workout. The Barkhor Kora is a meditative practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, where practitioners commonly walk the 20-minute hexagonal circuit that runs clockwise around Jokhang Temple, starting at Barkhor Street – there’s no better way to burn off a few calories while meditating at the same time. This cultural hotspot-cum-marketplace is a hub of activity.
Why: For a chance to exercise with pilgrims
3. Marvel at ‘Yellow Hat’ treasures and watch monks debate
Don’t miss the monks debating at Sera Monastery
Founded in 1416, Drepung Monastery was the Dalai Lama’s residence until Potala Palace was built. It’s widely regarded as one of the most important monasteries of Gelugpa or the Yellow Hat school of Tibetan Buddhism. One of the “great six” Gelug monasteries, almost 10,000 monks resided here in its heyday. Inside, you'll be awed by the countless Buddha statues, wooden carvings, scriptures written in gold powder and precious sutras. In the afternoon, head to Sera Monastery – another of the six "greats" – and catch the monks’ debate of the Buddhist doctrines between 3pm and 5pm. Here, junior monks are drilled by their seniors on various doctrines to a soundtrack of much hand-slapping, which is a signal for a seated monk to answer a question.
Why: Watching the monks debate is truly fascinating
Where: Near Lhasa
4. See winding rivers and musical fountains
Head to the Yarlung Tsangpo River for stunning views
Start your day of watery wonder at Yarlung Tsangpo River, also known as the Everest of Rivers because it flows through some of the least explored stretches of Earth. While the brave go white-water kayaking here, many visit simply for its scenery – the lake meanders through valleys of stunning sand dunes – and to snap a photo of Hidden Falls, the largest waterfall on the river that wasn't publicised outside China and Tibet until 1998. After, head back to Lhasa's famed Potala Square to photograph the west side at sunset and catch the musical fountain performance from 8pm to 10pm.
Why: A chance to capture some of your best travel shots
Where: 170km southeast of Lhasa
5. Visit the cradle of Tibetan civilisation and the first Tibetan building
A visit to beautiful Tsedang, considered the cradle of Tibetan civilisation, is a must
Drive to Tsedang, just under four hours from Lhasa, for some quality time in Yarlung Valley, considered the cradle of Tibetan civilisation. Yumbu Lhakhang is said to be the first building to be constructed in Tibet and offers incredible views from its hilltop perch. Also in the area is the 1,300-year-old Trandruk Monastery and Samye Monastery, Tibet’s first Buddhist monastery whose layout is an intriguing homage to Buddhist cosmology.
Why: It's called the cradle of Tibetan civilisation. That has to be an Instagram moment!
Yumbu Lhakhang is said to be the first building to be constructed in Tibet and offers incredible views from its hilltop perch
6. Meditate at 4,300 metres
Hike to Chim-puk Hermitage and see the 108 meditation caves
For a mind-blowing insight into Tibetan culture and beliefs, you can't do better than Chim-puk Hermitage. If you're prepared to hike there, the views alone are worth the effort. The walk takes 4-5 hours and winds through desert terrain into lush green hills, where the warren of 108 meditation caves constituting Chim-puk Hermitage sit at a dizzying altitude of 4,300 metres. A total of 108 sky burial grounds and 108 “magical healing” streams also draw practicing monks, who head there all year round to the spot where Guru Rinpoche, a revered 8th-century Indian Buddhist master, would often retreat to meditate.
Why: For the incredible views, rich Tibetan history and a magical atmosphere
Where: Close to Tsedang
7. Eat like a local
The local food in Tibet is delicious - don't miss the thukpa!
You can't spend time in Tibet without sampling tsampa, a doughy bread that's often served with yak or mutton, or dipped into steaming bowls of Tibetan noodles known as thenthuk or thukpa. Or try the momo, half-moon shaped Tibetan dumplings stuffed with either meat or vegetables that are eaten steamed or fried, and served with chilli sauce. For luck and nutrition, Tibetans love sweet and sticky ginseng fruit rice. Try Alu Cang Restaurant near Jokhong Temple in Lhasa, which has been serving the staples dishes for over 20 years, or the popular Makye Ame on Barkhor Street.
Why: Because no one serves Tibetan food better than the Tibetans!
Where: Lhasa and Tsedang
From working out with dedicated pilgrims to scaling dramatic heights and standing in the birthplace of Tibetan civilisation, there's no doubt Tibet is a destination that’s worth exploring.
Best Time to Visit
Tibet is closed in March for the Tibetan new year and reopens to tourism in early April. Summer (June – August) is the busiest tourist season, so book ahead.
Transportation and Visa
All foreigners must have a travel permit and a tour guide in Tibet. All holidays must be booked through a tour operator, who will organise all transport while you're in the country, including transfers from the airport to your destination.
As in the rest of China, Renminbi (RMB) is the legal currency in Tibet.
Air China and Sichuan Airlines operate regular flights via Chengdu from Changi Airport to Lhasa each week.
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