The Reality of Visiting Tibet as a Traveller (6 minute read)

(Last Updated On: April 19, 2022)

Dubbed the ‘roof of the world’ and considered the original Shangri-La, the mystical land of Tibet holds a potent draw over travellers looking to delve into Buddhist spirituality and long-held traditions. No doubt cemented in the minds of western travellers thanks to the Hollywood film Seven Years in Tibet, based on the bestselling autobiographical book of the same name, Tibet has for many decades been synonymous with dignity, majesty and mythology. Many travellers head there hoping for some sort of life-affirming or revelatory experience but is this the reality of visiting Tibet?

Under Chinese rule

Since the 1950s China has claimed sovereignty over Tibet and it has been an uneasy relationship between the two parties ever since. Like the rest of China, Tibet suffered devastating destruction during the Cultural Revolution, losing many of its monasteries and works of Buddhist art. Large numbers of Han Chinese have migrated to Tibet since the 1980s in state-sponsored programmes that critics interpret as a way to overwhelm the local culture and make Tibetans the minority. The number of monks and nuns in Tibet are overseen by the Chinese government with restrictions on their practices while sacred land is ravished in the pursuit of economy-boosting mineral riches and the Buddhist balance with nature is compromised.

Of course, there’s always two sides to every argument with improvements in education, employment and living standards cited as just some of the benefits that China has brought to Tibet with cities modernised and tourism booming. However, a quick walk around Lhasa suggests it’s the migrant Chinese that have benefited most from developments in Tibet with the majority of businesses owned by Han Chinese.

Chinese rule is hotly contested by Tibetans with the Dalai Lama the gregarious face of the Tibetan people and their plight. Although the Dalai Lama is himself a proponent of a middle-ground approach that calls for autonomy rather than independence, there are many well-known campaigns to ‘free Tibet‘. Vitally important to Tibetans worldwide, all images of the Dalai Lama are banned in Tibet and any Tibetan caught with such imagery faces detention.

The reality of  visiting Tibet

For many years now the Chinese have made great advances in making access to what they have labelled the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) ever more easier with the Qinghai-Tibet high-altitude railway opening in 2006 to much aplomb. Yet visitors are still denied independent travel with all visitors required to join an organised tour with restrictions on where in Tibet you can travel. There’s even reports of Chinese spies and listening devices waiting to catch anyone that may try to incite calls of independence.

I travelled to Tibet back in 2008 and had some idea of the political situation after spending a month teaching English to Tibetan monks in Dharamsala, the residence of the Tibetan government in exile. Here I read the reports on violations of human rights in Tibet and spoke to Tibetans who had made the perilous journey across the Himalayas to India where they could enjoy some semblance of freedom. When I arrived in Tibet a few months later I felt informed and ready to question what I saw.

What did I find and what was my reality of visiting Tibet? The unshakeable impression of artifice. I was told by our tour guide not to mention the Dalai Lama or talk about politics. I visited monasteries where monks seemed to be performing for tourists rather than going about their daily rituals. I was surprised by the distinction between affluent Chinese and clearly less wealthy Tibetans. It all felt a little hollowed and seemed that I could only observe Tibet’s culture rather than engage with. This was in stark contrast to a 2004 visit to Litang, a small Tibetan town in the Chinese province of Sichuan that was historically part of geographical Tibet. Here I encountered Tibetan cowboys and monks unfettered by restrictions on movement and behaviour, and was invited to lunch by a young monk and his family. There were few Han Chinese to be seen.

A young monk in Litang - the reality of visiting Tibet
I met this friendly young monk when I visited Litang in 2004

Should you visit Tibet?

Aware of the political situation, it may leave you wondering whether you should travel to Tibet. Should you? The Dalai Lama certainly thinks so, urging as many people as possible to visit Tibet and share their experience with the rest of the world. And I agree with him. Whether it’s a weekend city stay or a year spent backpacking, travelling is one of the world’s greatest educators and opens you up to cultures, politics and history that otherwise remain minor headlines in newspapers or a distant consideration.

But before you go, educate yourself. Read the links shared here and do your own research online. Better yet, see if there’s a local Tibetan community in your home city and get in touch – talk to the people that know first-hand. Forewarned you’ll be a conscious observer rather than just a consumer of travel experiences.

The political situation shouldn’t stop you from enjoying Tibet when you’re there – with good reason it’s called the ‘roof of the world’, home to incredible Himalayan vistas and awe-inspiring high-altitude lakes. The Potala Palace is quite easily one of the most dramatic and memorable buildings you’ll ever see and the slow circumambulation of Tibetans throughout the day will inspire a sense of awe and peace that many of us were looking for when we first chose Tibet as a travel destination.

The Potala Palace in Lhasa - the reality of visiting Tibet
The majestic Potala Palace in Lhasa is one very good reason to visit Tibet

Other options

But Tibet isn’t the only place to immerse yourself in Tibetan culture – there are other options. Outlying regions of Tibet fall under the jurisdiction of provinces Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan in China where less authoritarian control is implemented. Underdeveloped compared with other towns in China and somewhat of a mission to get to, in these Tibetan bastions you’ll find businesses owned by Tibetans and practising Buddhist monks and nuns free from restraints. The undeniably scenic towns of Xiahe and Litang are two good places to start.

As a geographical region, Tibet is large and wild. As a political region, it is complex and tempestuous. Tibet is as likely to magnetise and captivate you as it will confound and shock you. There’s no right or wrong choice when it comes to visiting Tibet and it’s a choice that only you can make. Travel with your eyes wide open and the world will educate you.

We use Tibetan guides on our group tours and tailor-made holidays to Tibet, as well as Tibetan-owned hotels wherever possible so if you’ve been inspired to travel to the ‘roof of the world’, browse our selection of Tibet tours safe in the knowledge that your visit will benefit local Tibetans. 

If you’ve visited and would like to share your experience of Tibet, please use the comments section below. 

One comment on “The Reality of Visiting Tibet as a Traveller (6 minute read)

  1. I have learned a lot by reading your blog. While moving in the winter season, I suggest to pack your essential things to cover up yourself so that you can enjoy your tour well. I really like your other options to hangout at different places in china. Love to hear your experience. Thanks for sharing it.

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