Last week, we featured Bhutan, an extraordinarily beautiful country. For this issue, we are going to Tibet, an autonomous region of China which is equally breathtaking. You can take that last word literally, because Tibet is located at a very high altitude (4,500 m) and visitors often need oxygen to stay fit. Now you know why they call it the “roof of the world”. The Himalayas is practically next door to Tibet and indeed several parts of Tibet are permanently covered in permafrost.
Tibet, whose capital is Lhasa, is the second largest province in China but very sparsely populated due to its rugged and harsh geological features. (France can comfortably fit into Tibet with room to spare). Bordered by India, Nepal, Myanmar and Bhutan, Tibet used to be accessible only by air but this has been solved by a new railway that links Tibet to the rest of China. The Qinghai–Tibet railway or Qingzang railway, is a high-elevation railway that connects Xining, Qinghai Province to Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region of China. The length of the railway is almost 2,000 Km. Travellers can begin their journey from Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu, all of which can be reached in 4-5 hours from Colombo. At one point, the railway track is located at an elevation of 5,072 metres, which is the highest railway track in the world. The general elevation of the entire railway line is a staggering 4,000 metres.
Tibet is an unusually beautiful region, with hundreds of lakes and mountains dotted throughout the terrain. Several major rivers, including the upper reaches of Brahmaputra, flow through Tibet. These make for a picture perfect landscape. It is any tourist’s delight but so few travellers still come to Tibet due to its remoteness. However, Tibet is keen to let visitors in on its geographical and cultural secrets. Note that all foreign visitors must possess a valid Tibet Entry Permit in addition to the passport.
The top attraction in Lhasa (meaning “Place of the Gods) is the famed 1,000 room Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama, built on Lhasa’s Red Mountain (altitude 3,700 metres). One can see the Palace from most areas in Lhasa due to its imposing presence. It is a now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Note that the number of visitors and opening hours are restricted fearing damage to the structure. Among the other places of interest in Lhasa are the Jokhang Buddhist temple, Jokhang market, the Norbulingka palace and the Sera Monastery. The Jokhang temple and Norbulingka too are World Heritage Sites. Lingkhor is a sacred path that travellers can traverse in Lhasa, which also takes in views of the famous and sacred “Iron Mountain” Chokpori. Along with two other mountains - Pongwar and Marpori - it forms the “Three Protectors of Tibet”. Also check out the Zhol Pillar near the Potala Palace, which contains the oldest example of Tibetan script.
Tibet’s three million people are mostly Buddhist but there are Muslims and Christians as well. The main language is Tibetan, though Mandarin is used widely. Tibetans will welcome you with a smile to their wonderful and mesmerizing land.
- Pramod de Silva