Tibet, often called the “roof of the world”, is a land of immense natural beauty, rich history and unique Buddhist culture that dates back thousands of years. Hidden away from the rest of the world until the 1950s, it has a captivating combination of majestic snow-capped Himalayan peaks, turquoise lakes and vast plateaus dotted with herds of yaks, nomads, sacred temples and ancient monasteries draped in multi-coloured prayer flags. Long road journeys are generally required to get from one town to the other due to Tibet’s rugged and mountainous terrain. Despite its recent turbulent history, the Tibetans’ unwavering belief and devotion to Buddhism has enabled them to maintain their unique traditions and spiritual culture.
Lhasa, meaning the Place of the Gods, has been the spiritual and political capital of Tibet for centuries and was the traditional seat of the Dalai Lama (now exiled in India) who governed the state before Tibet came under Chinese administration. Known as the ‘Forbidden City’, it is a treasure trove of magnificent monasteries and temples and at an altitude of approximately 3,650m, is one of the highest cities in the world.
Dominating the skyline is the Dalai Lama’s former winter residence, the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Potala Palace with sloping red and white walls. First built on this site in the 7th century (though the current structure dates from 1645), Potala is an immense 13 storey building, towering 117m above the city on Marpo Hill. With 3m thick walls, containing over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and statues, it has been the winter home of successive Dalai Lamas since the construction of the Summer Palace in the 18th century. Below its walls, in the old Tibetan Quarter, you can walk through the narrow cobbled streets and explore nearby Barkhor Square where pilgrims in traditional Tibetan attire make their way around an octagonal walkway known as the Kora, before entering Tibet’s most revered temple complex, the gold-roofed UNESCO World Heritage Listed Jokhang temple. Lhasa also has several influential monasteries including the Drepung Monastery, once the world’s largest monastery housing up to 10,000 monks, Sera Monastery, Ramoche Temple (sister temple to Jokhang), Ganden Monastery, Tsurphu Monastery and Norbulingka Summer Palace.
Sitting at an elevation of 3,900m at the confluence of two rivers, Shigatse, meaning “the fertile land” in Tibetan, is around 300km south-west from Lhasa. The second largest city in Tibet, it is home to the Tashilhunpo Monastery, a large monastic compound of golden-roofed buildings and cobbled lanes. The monastery dates back to the 15th century and was the traditional seat of successive Panchen Lamas, the highest ranking lama after the Dalai Lama. In its bazaar, a wealth of traditionally crafted goods can be bought including statues of Buddha, prayer wheels, clothing, carpets and knives.
Located 260km south-west of Lhasa and 90km south-east of Shigatse, Gyantse is a historically prominent town situated in the fertile plain of the Nyang River Valley. Once an important centre of trade between India and Tibet as well as linking pilgrims journeying across the Himalayan Plateau, today it lies along the Friendship Highway that connects Kathmandu with Lhasa. With a relatively good climate and fertile soil, the Gyantse area is known as the “granary of Tibet”. The town was originally surrounded by a 3km long wall, with the imposing Gyantse Dzong, constructed in 1390, being the best preserved fortress in Tibet and guarding the southern approaches to the Tsangpo Valley and Lhasa. Gyantse is also famed for the Pelkor Chode Monastery, founded in 1418, which houses a magnificent tiered Kumbum, the largest chorten (the Tibetan version of the stupa) in Tibet. Almost as recognisable as that of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, this spectacular multi-storied chorten, built in 1427, is 35m tall and capped with a gilded dome. Packed full of decorative chapels with exquisite Tibetan paintings and murals with a Nepali influence, visitors can also set off on several hour or day hikes from Gyantse to explore the little-known monasteries around the area.
Gyantse is also known as the “hero city” for its resistance against the British army in 1904 and although it has lost the influence and commercial importance it held in former times, the slower pace of modern development has helped the city retain its typically Tibetan character and charm.
Tsedang, 160km south-east of Lhasa, is situated in the lower to middle reaches of the Brahmaputra. Perched at 3,000m on the slopes of Mt. Gangpori, it is the fabled birthplace of the Tibetan people and “the cradle of Tibetan Civilization”. Once the capital of the Yarlung Valley, Tsedang has long been the seat of ancient Tibetan emperors. Thought to have contained thousands of houses, a bazaar, a gompa and a fort during the 19th century, it is now home to several Buddhist sites, a fascinating old Tibetan quarter and remains a place of great importance for Tibetans. Tsedang is a good base for exploring the surrounding valleys, pristine lakes, beautiful rivers and ancient monasteries including Samye. Located 30km north-east from Tsedang, it is Tibet’s first monastery, founded 2,000 years ago. Samye is an important site for pilgrims with the monastery designed to resemble a giant mandala with exquisitely decorated murals and statues filling the main temple. Another place of importance is the Yumbulakang Palace; dating back to the 2nd century, it was the first palace constructed in Tibet. Now a shrine, it is a distinctive 11m whitewashed tower, fluttering with prayer flags situated on a rocky ridge above the Yarlung Valley.
Rongbuk Monastery & Everest Base Camp
Tingri county is home to Rongbuk Monastery, which at an altitude of 5000m is the highest monastery in the world. For long a place of pilgrimage for Nepalese Sherpas living on Everest’s southern slopes, the prayer flag-draped monastery offers magnificent views of the majestic north face of Everest (towering 8,848m above sea level). Tibet’s Everest Base Camp sits close to Rongbuk Monastery and can be reached by following a gravel track from the monastery. Sometimes referred to as the North Base Camp, and offering stunning views of the world’s highest mountain’s north face and the North Col Glacier, Tibet’s Everest Base Camp is arguably more scenic than the views from Nepal’s South Base Camp, which is better known and involves a challenging two week trek.
Fast Facts on countries the CENTUM+ team have explored so far ...