The roof of the world
Cerulean skies, icy mountains, and turquoise lakes; ancient near-mythical palaces and monasteries shimmering in the crystalline distance; red, yellow, green, blue, and white prayer flags fluttering in the rarified air. The Tibetan Plateau, which goes from 3,500 m to the soaring heights of Mt Everest, is the legendary 'roof of the world'. Home to venerable religious and educational traditions including Tibetan Buddhism and the ancient Bön religion as well as a complex social and cultural heritage that boasts an enviably systematised study of the human body and medicine, Tibet today is a curious study in contrast between the old monastic way of life that pervaded every aspect of society, and the modern, development-oriented Han Communist system. People love travelling to Tibet the first time and on repeat visits for its heady mix of splendid landscape, wonderful aesthetics, deep-seated cultural and religious traditions, and uncrushable spirit.
A quick historical background
For most people, the history of Tibet 'really begins' after the introduction of Buddhism there in the 7th century by Padmasambhava who brought this already century-old religion from India. There are all manner of intricacies and complications, both social and religious (in Tibet authority has not for centuries been secular), that make it difficult to compress the history of the country, or to breeze through why and how the borders of the political entity known as 'Tibet' have changed, diminished, and expanded over time. Suffice it to say that there was an intricate system of dependence and exchange between feudal masters and figures of religious authority that dominated Tibet as well as its interactions and incursions into the rest of the world. There have for centuries been strong trade links between Tibet, Nepal, China, and India. Finally, over the last few centuries there have been periods when much of Tibet pledged allegiance to Han Chinese authorities, often theoretically. All this changed, of course, with the events of 1959 and Communist Chinese the occupation (also called the 'liberation') of Tibet. The Chinese government was in control of the administration and economy, not to mention the politics, such as it was, of Tibet by the mid-1960s. Tibet's history is one of relaitve insularity -- foreign travellers were neither encouraged nor often allowed to enter the borders of the old state. This did not change after 1959 and in fact until the mid-1980s, foreign travellers were simply not allowed inside Tibet. Now, over 20 years later, Tibet is safe and one of the top alternative travel destinations in the world.
Over one half of Tibet, mostly the north, is uninhabitable due to the extraordinarily harsh, cold climate and arid, lunar landscape. For the rest, it varies from the high-altitude desert that you see in classic Tibet photographs, and a near subtropical lushness, all riven through with some of the mightiest snow-fed and glacial-melt rivers in Asia, including the intimidating Yarlung Tsangpo. The average altitude of habitation in Tibet is 3,500 m, and the nomads in the summer go much higher with their yaks in search of warm weather pastures. There are splendid gorges and mountains and lakes through the country and in the Outer Plateau are golden-green-yellow of barley, buckwheat, and potato fields as well as highly productive greenhouses and some impressive irrigation systems.
While the summers are never blazing, temperatures in the Outer Plateau can go up into the mid-20s (Centigrade). Around Lhasa the lows in winter are around -10 (C). In general, except for August, when it rains, there is low humidity. Summer or winter, the intense sunlight must always be factored into how you cover up - it's easy to be sunburnt here.
People and language
Tibetans are descended from the nomads who have roamed Central Asia for centuries for reasons of climate and summer pasturing, as well as, historically, to avoid the more controlling aspects of a feudal society . There are many year-round settlements in Tibet now, and also still nomads through the country, though this is slowly changing as the government discourages nomadic lifestyles. In the Outer Plateau there are farming villages that thrive due to the more hospitable climate and fertile soil drained by rivers.
In Lhasa there is a small community of Newars from Kathmandu Valley. Traders and artisans travelled regularly between Lhasa and Kathmandu, and many had two wives and families, one in each city, and many today are the product of mixed marriages. There are many Han Chinese in Tibet due to government-supported resettlement programs, and in many places they are in the majority.
Historically the language used in Tibet was, naturally, Tibetan, of which there are many compellingly different dialects, such as those of Lhasa, Kham, etc. Now, however, young Tibetans are increasingly growing up to be more comfortable in Chinese, since that is now the official language of the land.
Religion and festivals
Prayer flags fluttering in thin air against a piercing blue sky - although our perception of Tibet and Tibetan culture is fundamentally linked with Tibetan Buddhism, that religion is in fact the newer one. Before Guru Rinpoche, or Padmasambhava introduced Buddhism from India to Tibet in the 7th century, and it gained widespread acceptance especially among the political elite. The older religion is called Bön, and it is often described as being animist, focusing more on appeasing and propitiating local deities and natural spirits. There has been plenty of influence of each religion on the other, and in addition to the prayer flags, cairns and shrines also dot the landscape. You'll see one of the most interesting differences between the two traditions manifested in most holy places you visit. Circumambulation and spinning prayer wheels in Buddhism must be done clockwise, as in other religions. In Bön, however, these actions as well as others whose direction is prescribed are all done counterclockwise.
There is also a lesser-known but few centuries-old community of Tibetan Muslims. Its members are said to be descended from Kashmiri Muslim traders who settled in Lhasa, rather than from Central Asian Muslims such as Uighurs.
There are festivals virtually every month, with the most important ones being Lhosar (Tibetan New Year) in February and Saga Dawa, the birthday of the Buddha in late-May. In addition there are numerous festivals specific to individuals monasteries in as well as secular horse-racing and archery festivals in Gyantse, Shigatse etc.
The arts, architecture and culture
Although much of it has been vandalised, destroyed, or smuggled out to go to Western museums and private collectors, there remains some spectacular art in Tibet. The murals and frescoes in monasteries, as well as the thangka are sublime examples of how religious art can display both brilliant craftsmanship, as well as intricate systems of iconography. Thangka uses pre-determined symbols and figures to tell various stories about the life of the Buddha and his many manifestations. Ideally the paints used are of a deep, dull sheen and made from stone and other natural materials. There's a whole set of conventions ruling the traditional consutruction of palaces, temples, and gardens, as also the lovely coloured furniture you see in Lhasa as well as Kathmandu, usually in specialty shops. Tibetans are known for their strong aesthetic feel for design outside these conventions, too, and as refugees in the 1960s in Kathmandu one of the major ways that the Tibetan community got back on their feet was through putting to use their traditional carpet-weaving skills to use. Their success, however, came from developing new, very modern-looking designs that draw on the geometric, floral, and animal motifs that occur in traditional art, architecture, and carpentry.
The Newar artisans of Kathmandu Valley have for centuries been in demand Tibet for their facility with wood and metallurgy. A man called Arniko, after whom the highway to Tibet today is named and who is credited with having introduced the pagoda style of architecture to China and Tibet was in the 13th century a consultant to the court in Lhasa.
Flora and fauna
Animals found here include the kyang (Tibetan wild ass), fox, blue sheep, pika, blue sheep, pika, marmots, and the fearsome Tibetan mastiffs. Tibet is, to the surprise of many people, a paradise for birders - here are all manner of finches, pheasants, warblers, geese, cranes, buzzards, grouse gulls and other birds.
Food and drink
Tibetan food, at least as most travellers experience it, is simple, but hearty and nourishing. You don't have to drink the butter tea - yak butter, often rancid mixed in with brick tea to create a savory, almost soupy, and very very buttery - but it will be difficult to avoid or, indeed, object to much else. In Lhasa you'll find some western food, but in most other places it is wiser to stick to Tibetan and Chinese food. A common favourite is thukpa, the noodle soup with vegetables and meat. Other preparations include the famous steamed or fried stuffed ravioli called momo, a savory stuffed griddle bread called shabhalay and various meat-and-veg preparations such as shyapta, sautéed beef with green peppers. Traditionally the Tibetan diet was heavy on meat, buckwheat, and potato, but the year-round greenhouses have done some good, and there are fresh fruits and vegetables available.