Tibet: Not Just Any Ol’ Plateau

There’s more than just simple altitude separating Tibet from the rest of the world –there’s also everything from Chinese domestic policy to the tight lips of native Tibetans.

Without a doubt, Tibet has been on the must-visit list of every would-be lama from Annapolis to Zurich. Outdoors enthusiasts, spiritual devotees, historians, and curiosity seekers all consider traveling to the famed plateau of tibet.

That’s perfectly understandable, given Tibet’s media attention. The recent history of Tibet’s takeover by Chinese forces and displacement of the Dalai Lama has inspired a whole range of books, movies, and magazine articles. Martin Scorsese’s Kundun is excellent and plenty of people dig Brad Pit in Seven Years in Tibet.

tibets china
By Desmond Kavanagh

Tibet is probably the most well known barren plateau in the world. While such media is certainly educative, much of this fascination is thanks to media coverage of China and the Dalai Lama’s very vocal advocacy –not Tibet’s significance. Make no mistake –the recognized Tibetan Buddhist leader certainly has insight and levelheadedness to spare, even if he galvanizes support and awareness by making celebrity rounds. His lobbying is just. Tibet was a victim of Chinese aggression and current Chinese authorities aren’t exactly known for their fair treatment of native Tibetans.

That mention, what’s mostly stunning about Tibet is that people ever bothered to settle there. That’s not Han Chinese political acid. That’s just the plain ‘ol truth. Visiting is to witness human durability –along with tightwad bureaucracy and the ramifications of structural terror.

So…is it really worth the visit? Maybe, but explorative travelers and religious pilgrims have best know a few things before going.

Tibet & China, Forever Intertwined Together

China has an ambivalent relationship with Tibet. On one hand, it has an occupational policy that fiercely roots out vocal dissidence –arguably a grudge that goes back to the Tang dynasty, when Tibetan soldiers occupied the Tang capital of Chang’an for two weeks in 763. On the other hand, China likes trade even more than it likes territory and bad PR over Tibet certainly can jeopardize it.  There’s also how Tibet self governed before China’s aggression.

Thanks to this concern with PR, visitors to China have had a relative free hand traveling throughout Tibet from the 1980s onward. Until 2008, that is. The combination of Beijing Olympics and activity from Tibetan nationalists spurred China to once again clamp down on tourism in Tibet.

tibet china aggression

Those looking to enjoy the country are bound to have a harder time than most, including:

  • Tibet Traveling Permit – Travelers looking to visit Tibet absolutely require a special travel Visa to enter the region. While just about anybody can receive these, expect to fork over an extra $50. If your stated profession is decidedly political or journalistic, even creative, then Chinese officials may simply refuse passage or extradite you from the province at the first whiff of trouble.


  • Tibet Time limitations –Speaking of trouble, Chinese officials often close the region to tourism during predicted patterns of protest and turmoil. This can happen at any time, but is usually around March each year, as this is the anniversary of the Tibetan uprising. Last thing Chinese officials want are tourists to witness self immolation or brutally repressed protests. Plan accordingly.
  •  Chinese guides – Though China might not consistently encourage tourism, the nation certainly recognizes what a cash cow it can be. Since 2008 independent touring has been tightly controlled, so all tour guides are sanctified by the Chinese government and all tourists must stick with an organized group run by such guides.
  •  More permits –Specific permits are required to visit certain areas throughout Tibet. First and foremost, Aliens’ Travel Permit is required to enter certain areas, but these requirements oscillate and different regions require the permit at different times. Those looking to checkout isolated reaches of Tibet may need the military permit. Make sure to have a solid reason to request such permits, as Chinese officials are quite picky over who are granted these passes.

Not Recreational, Just Rough

Tibet is far from a recreational spot. Don’t expect restaurants to offer much variety, for inns or hotels to have ritzy amenities, or for many playpens such as spas or night clubs. In fact, the only locations that even feature such possibilities are large settlements like Lhasa, and even then such attractions are quite limited. That mentioned, if you’re considering Tibet then that probably doesn’t bother you.

Tourism in Tibet is mostly spurred by pure curiosity. The inner anthropologist and historian tingle over visiting such remote lands. Places to visit mostly consist of ancient relics, Buddhist shrines, and naturalist sites. For many, the inner Spartan also tingles –the region is known for also lacking many basic amenities tourists are used to.

Atop of all this, there’s the people themselves. Make no mistake –Tibet has whole heaps of very helpful and amiable locals who collaborate with tourists just as they would anybody else. That mentioned, helpful, amiable, or collaborative doesn’t mean hygienic or progressive. Tibetans are likely to smell riper and be shyer outside of urban centers. However, these situations do allow more fulfilling interactions. While polite, many urban Tibetans will likely not volunteer information due to scrutiny from Chinese officialdom.

Tibet With Traveling to…The Plateau of Tibet

Tourists don’t actually need to see Tibet to get an understanding of Tibetan culture. Tibetan communities can be found in neighboring provinces without the hassle or roughness of actually visiting Tibet. Such communities result both from forced relocation and the Tibetan diaspora, both spurred by brutal 20th century Chinese policies.  Of course, there’re also migratory Tibetans merely looking to leave what’s essentially a backwater province. Large Tibetans communities are known primarily settling in Dharamshala, India –where Tibetan expatriates and refuges have traditionally entered India. Atop of this there’s a whole slew autonomous regions in the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan.

Visiting areas similar to Tibet and full of Tibetans, yet not actually Tibet? Probably sounds like a cop-out. Depending on the motives for visiting the region, that very well might be the case. After all, Tibet has the Himalayas and Samye Monastery, the first Buddhist monastery created in Tibet. Just remember that a fuller understanding of modern Tibetan culture calls for exposure to the aftermath of Chinese conquest. Tibet is not just a place, but a people.