Ah, Tibet. Full of mystique and intrigue, Tibet holds a special place in the minds of many travelers. The ancient rituals and traditions. Potala Palace. Everest Base Camp. What’s not to like?
Sadly, actually seeing Tibet first hand can be an exercise in frustration. Given its rather tumultuous history under Chinese rule, the government doesn’t make it particularly easy for foreigners to visit. Want to go solo? Sorry, that’s not possible. Try a group tour! Want to enter from Nepal? Okay, but not with a Chinese visa. Try a group visa that won’t be valid beyond Tibet!
But what if I told you there was a way to experience Tibet without jumping through all the hoops that the Chinese insist that you jump through? What if I told you that you could go solo and it was entirely legal?
What’s in a Border?
You see, back in the day, Tibet used to extend beyond its modern borders, meaning that areas in neighboring provinces near the border are fully Tibetan…so much so that you won’t even believe that you’re in China anymore! And best of all, since these areas aren’t technically part of what the Chinese consider the province of Tibet, none of those crazy restrictions exist, allowing you to generally travel wherever you please completely solo (which is not to say the government doesn’t on occassion close the area to foreigners)!
The Sichuan-Tibet Highway
One of the most popular ways to explore these areas is via the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, which runs between Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province and Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Given the restrictions on entering Tibet, you cannot legally head to Lhasa this way, but you can get awfully close to the Tibetan border into some very isolated territory!
Be forewarned: the journey is not an easy one. You’ll experience very long travel days, some of the highest altitudes in the world and roads that Lonely Planet so eloquently termed “ass killing.” (I’m talking buses that travel dirt roads and get stuck in the snow here…)
Bur rest assured, the rewards for your troubles are immense. Even after the first day, when you arrive in the city of Kangding, capital of the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, the differences are immediately apparent. From Prayer Wheel street lights to that distinctive maroon stripe on buildings, it’s clear that this isn’t the same China anymore!
As you continue on west towards the Tibetan border, you are immersed more and more into Tibet. Higher and higher into the Himalayas the buses climb, topping altitudes of 14,000 feet or 4,267 meters and treating you to spectacular views of some of the most stunning mountain scenery you have ever seen! It’s a slow going journey, but some 300km (186 miles) or 10 hours away is the next major stop on this epic journey…
From the moment you roll in to the town of Litang, you know that you are deep into Tibet. This is a place that few foreigners travel to, partially because it is so difficult to access! Believe it or not, it sits higher than Lhasa at a whopping 13,169 feet or 4,014 meters, meaning that life here has had little influence from outside sources. It’s hard to walk down the street without constantly hearing, “Tashi Dalek!,” the Tibetan greeting, even from the most imposing looking Tibetan men (who happen to some of the friendliest!).
Tibetan traditions are in full swing here. People wear traditional dress (though not nearly to the extent that those in Bhutan do), eat Tibetan food (Yak meat anyone?) and have strong ties to Tibetan Buddhism! The town’s impressive (and enormous) temple sits at a perfect spot overlooking the region, while the tradition of “sky burial” is still followed, where ones corpse is chopped into pieces and fed to birds. Sounds hugely unpleasant to many in the west, I know, but think about how wood is scarce at this altitude and how the ground tends to be frozen solid…
This is a land where you can have those local experiences that are cherished by so many travelers. Duck into a restaurant only to join the owner for a cup of Tibetan Butter Tea. Chat with the children who are more than eager to practice their English. These are experiences that you really couldn’t have so easily on the guided tours you must take in “real” Tibet!
Something to Consider…
Sure, you won’t get to see the majesty of Lhasa first hand, but I can almost guarantee you that you will get a far more genuine experience. And your spending will go straight to the people versus padding the pockets of a tour company.
So before you shell out the cash for a tour to Tibet, don’t forget that there are other ways to experience the culture and have an incredible adventure in the process!
What do you think?
Have you been to Tibet or Tibetan-regions in China? What are your thoughts on the experience?