Tibet is the original home of Tibetans and the population today primarily consists of ethnic Tibetans along with other cultural communities such as Menpa, Han, Chinese, Sherpa, Dengs and Luopa. Tibet has had a tumultuous past, see-sawing between independence and forced rule. The Chinese took control in the 1950s after the 14th Dalai Lama fled the country and today Tibet is governed as an autonomous region of China. The exiled Central Tibetan Administration of the Dalai Lama, residing in Dharamshala (Himachal Pradesh) in India, accuses China of bombarding Tibet with migrants with the ulterior motive of altering the demographic makeup. A new train line from China and increasing modernisation efforts of the Chinese is leading to a burgeoning wave of Chinese tourists – dubbed the ‘second invasion’ by many. The Chinese government estimated the population of Tibet to be about 3 million in 2011, out of which they stated 90% were native Tibetans. Nobody really knows the truth though.
The harsh climate and hardships of mountain life take a toll on the locals. But the beaming smiles on their ruddy sun-burnt faces show no evidence of their laborious lives. The land’s innate spiritualism juxtaposed with the people’s stoic resilience makes it an intriguing treat for travellers.
Tibetan food exhibits a strong influence of Indian and Chinese methods of cooking. The food found in Tibet is unique and quintessential mountain fare.
The most important foods in Tibet are barley, meat and dairy products. Being a high mountainous region with scanty rainfall, vegetation is sparse, so you won’t see a lot of veggies on your plate. Tsampa is the staple food of Tibetans, made from barley flour dough and rolled into noodles or made into steamed dumplings called momos. Dairy foods are the other ubiquitous items on a Tibetan table. Yak butter is a favourite among Tibetan people, which is separated from yak milk by hard churning. It’s considered highly nutritious and deliciously smooth. Yak yoghurt and cheese are also commonly had.
Non vegetarian food is a prominent part of Tibetan cuisine. Yak, goat and beef are the common meats, which are cut into long stripes and hung in the winters to be air-dried. The dried meat is crisp and is also eaten raw as the winter chill is said to kill all bacteria. Blood sausage, meat sausage, and liver sausage are also eaten on a regular basis by many Tibetans.
Tibet’s salted butter tea is the perfect accompaniment to Tsampa. It is made by churning boiled tea in a long cylinder along with salt and yak butter. The Tibetan barley beer, called Chang in local parlance, is mild and slightly sweet.
It’s worth planning your trip in such a way that you get to partake in a Tibetan festival. The Tibetan New Year is celebrated with the Losar festival in February or March. It is the most widely celebrated festival in the country. Lhasa is the place to be to witness the full splendour of this event, whether it’s the brightly coloured streets and houses or the ritualistic offerings to deities. Losar is followed by the Great Prayer Festival or Monlam, celebrated through dancing, sports and picnics. The last day of this festival is celebrated as Butter Oil Lantern festival. Saga Dawa, usually held in June, is marked by the burning of incense sticks and picnics.
A horse racing festival is held in July, commemorating the popular sport in Tibet. The Yalong Cultural festival is a vibrant showcasing of Tibetan culture and is usually held in July. The Shalon festival which is celebrated in August and September is an important occasion. The multi-day affair culminates in the serving of yogurt accompanied with music and dance. In September, the harvest festival is celebrated in Lhasa with merriment.
You hear the word ‘Tibet’ and you immediately think ‘politics’ and ‘revolution’. Tibet has had a long and eventful past, being both independent and occupied at various points in its history. Part of China for many years, yet with a clearly distinctive culture, Tibet has a unique character.
From the 6th century when Buddhism was first introduced till the 16th century, various dynasties ruled the region including the Yuan and Phagmodrupa dynasties. The first Europeans to set foot on Tibet in 1624 were Portuguese missionaries who were allowed to build a church and introduce Christianity. Following the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912, Qing soldiers were disarmed and escorted out of Tibet. The region declared its independence in 1913. However, in 1950 Chinese communist troops invaded Tibet and the incumbent government surrendered. Tibet was incorporated into the People’s Republic of China and the previous Tibetan government was abolished in 1959. The Dalai Lama fled to India and subsequently set up headquarters of a government in exile in Himachal Pradesh, while the UN deplored the suppression of human rights in Tibet. Today, Tibetans still demonstrate their protests against Chinese rule. Tibet’s political status is under debate and dissident groups are active in exile.
The Buddhist plateau of Tibet is the highest region in the world with an average elevation of 4,900m, thus the sobriquet “roof of the world”. The country generally experiences genial weather, punctuated with snowfall or rainfall from time to time.
Summer lasts from May to September, with warm days and cool nights. The higher altitude regions, especially northern and western Tibet, however can witness chilly days. As the thin air at this height can make the sunshine pretty intense in peak months, early summer is a better time to visit Tibet.
The summer season is greeted by the monsoon rains sometime in mid-July. Eastern Tibet is affected more by rainfall than other parts, and receives a bulk of its moisture in July and August. Travel during this time will be hindered by landslides and washed away roads. The temperature drops a bit, beckoning autumn, which is another great time to soak in the sights and sounds of Tibet. Snowfall may unexpectedly knock on the door.
Winters (November to March) are bitingly cold in Tibet, particularly in January, although interestingly it doesn’t snow as much as you’d expect, owing to a rain shadow effect. April and May are bestowed with delicious weather and clear skies, making this period the best time to view the Mount Everest in all its glory.
Tibet is located north-east of the Himalayas on the Tibetan Plateau, the world’s highest region. The country is to the west of the Central China plain, and within mainland China. The topography is a mosaic of some of the highest mountains, vast valleys, deep and long canyons, mammoth rivers and high-attitude sparkling lakes. Due to limited rainfall and cold temperatures, vast expanses of arid land bear weak vegetation, leading to subsistence agriculture.
The tallest mountain in the world, Mount Everest, lies on Tibet’s border with Nepal. Called the “Water Tower of Asia”, Tibet is home to some major rivers and numerous high-altitude lakes. The mighty rivers of Indus and Brahmaputra find their source from a lake near Mount Kailash, a pilgrimage site for Hindus and Tibetans as it’s considered to be the abode of Hindu Lord Shiva. The Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, along the Yarlung Tsangpo River, is among the deepest and longest canyons in the world.
One of the best known lakes in Tibet is Lake Mansarovar, a freshwater expanse of brilliant blue situated in proximity to Mount Kailash. A fabled lake, Buddhists and Hindus believe that its waters can purge people of their sins and cure all diseases. The lake is a major pilgrimage site today, and is usually coupled with a religious visit to Mount Kailash. The crystal clear waters reflect the frigid snow-clad Tibetan Himalayas in the backdrop – this lake is truly fantastical.
Religion has been the mainstay and defining aspect of Tibetan life for centuries and has fundamentally shaped Tibetan identity. Tibetan Buddhism has been the key religion in Tibet since the 8th century. However, all but eight of the 6,000 monasteries and nunneries in Tibet were ransacked and destroyed by the Chinese communists during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ from the 1960s to the 1970s. Religious artefacts and scripts were burned, and monks and religious leaders were imprisoned. Today, efforts of the Tibetans have partially revitalised the major monasteries, albeit many remain in ruins. Religious freedom is limited, but the wilful nature of the Tibetans stays indomitable.
The spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhists is the 14th Dalai Lama, who is currently in exile in India. Despite this, he exerts great influence not only on Buddhists, but patrons of peace throughout the world.
Tibet is home to some small communities of Muslims, who trace their lineage back to Kashmir, Ladakh and Central Asian Turkic countries. Most of them can be found in the capital Lhasa and Shigatse. Christianity traces its roots back to the 6th century in Tibet and today a small populace follows the faith, particularly in the traditionally Catholic community of Yanjing.