For centuries, Tibet was an almost mythical land hidden behind the Himalayas, closed to outsiders and visited by only the hardiest explorers. These days, the capital city of Lhasa is readily accessible by air or road from China or Nepal.
The airport connecting the rest of China to Tibet is 60 mi/100 km from Lhasa. The road to town follows the beautiful Yarlung Tsangpo River through a stark desert valley, past rural Tibetan villages, Buddhist rock paintings and grazing yak herds—although a tunnel has shortened the journey.
Other interesting towns in Tibet include Gyantse, with its fabulous 15th-century Golden Temple; Zhangmu, a pretty area near the border with Nepal—once there, you can arrange lodging in yak-hair tents; Tsedang, located 7 mi/12 km from the castle of Yumbu Lakang, the oldest known dwelling in Tibet; Lhoka (Shannan), which has tombs of Tibetan kings; and Damxung, to see Lake Namtso and to experience the culture of Tibet's nomadic yak herders.
Most visitors must have a travel permit to enter Tibet, although nowadays this is more of a formal revenue-gathering exercise than a restriction. However, visiting areas outside the main tourist destinations of Lhasa, Shigatze, Gyantse and Tsedang will require extra paperwork. All this can be arranged by travel agencies either in Lhasa or before you arrive. Most hotels in Lhasa have an agency attached.
Prior to the 1950s, Tibet experienced varying levels of independence from China. Today, the 500,000-sq-mi/1,070,000-sq-km area is fully under Chinese administration (they call it Xizang). In the 1960s and '70s, religion was banned, monasteries were destroyed and monks imprisoned or executed. Limited freedom of religion has been allowed since the late 1980s, and some monasteries have been rebuilt. Despite this, authentic Tibet can still be experienced, and a visit is very much worthwhile.
Lhasa is 12,000 ft/3,660 m above sea level, and if you are arriving by air, it's best to take things easy on the first day, at least to acclimate. Avoid exercise and alcohol and expect headaches, mild nausea and loss of appetite. Most hotels from midrange up have supplies of oxygen if needed. Accommodations in Lhasa are improving and range in quality from the most basic hostels to luxury. Tibetan food is typically very bland, though the city is serviced by many good Indian and Chinese restaurants, again ranging in price and quality.
From Lhasa, traveling to other centers is fairly easy, although visiting more remote places can be something of an expedition. The best way to get around is to hire a Jeep with a driver and even a guide. Plan an itinerary and settle on a price. Tours can be arranged to visit the vast lake Nam Tso and to experience nomadic life with yak herders in their yak-hair tents—join them by their fires for a bowl of tea made with yak butter and salt.
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