Tibet is not, of course, literally an island. But this ancient land has remained substantially untouched by the rush of modern social evolution. Though China has undergone several political, cultural and economic revolutions in the last hundred years, Tibet is still very much as it has been for hundreds of years.
With areas very much under dispute (the People’s Republic of China claims jurisdiction over large parts), Tibet is nominally a sovereign country. Whatever the political controversy, large sections of Tibet are necessarily independent as a result of their geographical isolation. The mountains of Tibet are among the highest and most remote and difficult to traverse anywhere in the world.
Some of those areas are, of course, among the more desirable tourist destinations. Many visitors come to Tibet seeking a view of the world largely untouched by any form of modern civilization. Even so, visitors will often find guides that have some of the latest climbing gear. Most of the Himalayas lie within the borders of Tibet and Mount Everest lies at the border with Nepal.
The traditional home of Buddhism, Tibet has numerous temples and monasteries that continue to attract visitors from all over the globe.
Potala Palace, a 13-story building is a popular destination. Depicted in many films, it dates back to the 7th century AD. Once the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas and the seat of Tibetan government, it remains a major pilgrimage site for Tibetans. Set atop Mount Marpori, there are two separate buildings available for viewing. The views both inside and out are astounding.
Norbulinka was the Summer palace of the Dalai Lamas. Though in disrepair, it’s still possible to clearly imagine the deer that once roamed the grounds outside the stunning display of Tibetan architecture.
Jokhang is considered among the holiest sites in Tibet, attracting Buddhists far and wide. Though dimly lit, and sometimes crowded with tourists, it offers a view of Tibet’s past little changed over the centuries.
The Rongbuk Monastery, located in the Rongbuk Valley, offers a view of human striving among the stark landscape. The twenty-mile long valley has windswept plains at the base of gray mountains, with a view of Mt. Everest off in the distance.
The Sera Monastery is a functioning religious site, still populated by Tibetan monks. The Buddhist monks will gather in the afternoon and clap and dance, then settle down for a debate about the finer points of their religion.
Yarlong Valley, often referred to as the cradle of Tibetan civilization, is a 72km-long area nestled among the mountains. It is filled with temples, monasteries, caves and other sights that continue to attract scores of visitors every year.
As the river meanders through a gorge three times as deep as the Grand Canyon, it’s easy to picture the valley as it was a thousand years ago, since little has changed since.
Special arrangements should always be made in advance when planning a visit. Owing to the political situation, the geography and the sometimes primitive infrastructure – not to mention the extreme weather conditions – any visit will need to be carefully worked out ahead of time.
But the intrepid will find it well worth the effort.