Tibet – get the lowdown on the high plateau

The world’s most sacred mountain... lost-in-time cities... remote, beautiful monasteries... close-ups of the world’s highest peak... Haven’t you always wanted to go to Tibet? Well, here’s our offer of the month – book before 31 March and you’ll get a whopping 30% off our Tibetan Explorer trip, departing 29 April. 24 days exploring the magical high plateau of Tibet as well as taking in the best of China, from Beijing’s Forbidden City to Chengdu’s giant pandas. Drop everything and go – Shangri-La awaits! To celebrate, here’s our need-to-know guide on Tibet’s majesty and mystery.

Top of the world

Tibet is regularly referred to as ‘the roof of the world’, but if you want to see where the earth really touches the heavens, head to the country’s Everest Base Camp.  The views of Everest there are incomparably better than at the Nepalese equivalent. Here, the North Face stands directly in front of you, its spire looming large and beautiful, dominating the skyline and lording it over nearby mammoth peaks. And if scaling the peak is beyond most of us, visitors to the Tibetan base camp can draw comfort from the fact that in just being there, they’re standing at a higher altitude than any mountain in Western Europe.

The world’s highest monastery

The trump card for many travellers who play ‘choose your favourite religious building in Tibet’, Rongphu Monastery may none of the architectural grace of Gyantse’s nine-tiered stupa or intimidating heft of Potala Palace – but the location is unsurpassable. Down a bumpy track a couple of hours off the Friendship Highway, the monastery stands at around 5,000 metres above sea level, its prayer flags’ vivid colours contrasting with the beautiful barren v-shaped valley that stretches out behind. Beyond that is the Rongphu Glacier’s vast sweep of snow topped with a vast pinnacle of rock – Everest.

Dive into Lhasa

Warning: once you’ve clapped eyes on Lhasa’s skyline, other cities may appear a little humdrum by comparison. It’s an endlessly arresting scene: the huddled houses and imposing religious masterpieces, topped by the beautiful red, white and gold of the 1000-room Potala Palace and backed the tawny slopes and glaciated peaks of the high Himalaya. Head to the roof of the Jokhang Temple for sunset to see the city at its most swoon-worthy.

Much of the joy of Lhasa, however, is not in the buildings but in its people. This is a city with a casually fervid, deeply friendly charm, and being swept up in the unending sea of pilgrims is the best way to experience it. A must: join the Barkhor – the clockwise circuit of the Jokhang Temple – where at times it can seem as if the entire country has converged in a mass display of devotion. This isn’t some po-faced religious ceremony however – there’s a celebratory, festive air to proceedings.  Braided-hair Khambas from eastern Tibet parade with their swords and daggers, ornate headpieces and jewellery are displayed with flamboyance, nomads in their sheepskins prostrate themselves in front of the temple, everywhere is prayer flags and incense, noise and colour. Guaranteed that once around the temple is never enough.

Afterwards, refuel by joining the good-humoured jostle at a hole-in-the-wall teahouse for a cup of cha ngama (sweet milky tea) or find somewhere to sit and enjoy a glass of chang, the local alcoholic tipple of choice, brewed from barley. Then explore Lhasa old town’s warren of alleys where, away from the blockbuster sights, peaceful old temples and monuments stand undisturbed in streets marinaded in history, and daily life offers a low-key, captivating alternative to the masses at the temple.

Getting from A to B

Bumpy? Sure thing – at times Tibet’s roads can seem ready to realign your spine. Worth it? Undoubtedly, and not just because the day’s destination will invariably be spectacular. The journeys in Tibet are part of the fun, part of the way that the spirit of the country enters those who travel there.  Case in point: driving to Zhangmu. The road first forges through the wild high plateau, your companions some of the most beautiful mountains on earth, before taking a plunge down to Himalayan foothills. The road is narrow, cut into the cliff face, the drop-off to your right vertiginous, the views spellbinding. The foliage becomes lush – suddenly forest appears, then waterfalls and a clement subtropical feel.

That’s just for starters. Tibetan Explorer takes in so much more than the taster above – check it our here.

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