If there is anything between heaven and earth, it’s Qinghai – the Tibet Plateau in south-western China.
Surrounded by chuckling mountains, abounding with virgin biodiversity at an elevation of over 4,000 metres, it’s also known as the Roof of the World or Third Pole of the Earth.
The plateau is no longer an enigma. For, China has opened the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) to the tourists after keeping the region, which attracted more than 15 million visitors last year – up more than 20 percent – out of bounds for ages.
This administrative, economic, cultural and economic centre of TAR and its nearby small, scattered villages, located at elevations ranging from 15,000 to 20,000 ft above sea level, give a taste of Tibetan Buddhism, culture, heritage and adventure too.
“It’s simply a land of Buddhism, dotted with holy mountains and lakes,” remarked British tourist David Cook in Lhasa, also known as City Sunshine and which has a history of over 1,300 years.
Spread over more than 1.2 million sq. km, the Tibet region constitutes about one-eighth of China’s territory.
It has a population of about three million. Tibetans (2.7 million) and people of other ethnic groups (40,500) account for 92 percent of the population, says the sixth national census of 2010. The balance eight percent (245,200) population is made up of Hans.
At the hilltop of Lhasa stands the famed mud and wood structure – the 13-stored Potala Palace that was once the seat of the Dalai Lama.
It was added to the list of world cultural heritage sites by UNESCO in 1994.
The authorities restrict visitors to the Potala Palace to less than 4,000 a day and it stays open from 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. every day.
The busy season is May to October. At that time, a fee of 200 yuan (Rs.2,000) is charged from each visitor. Otherwise, it’s 100 yuan (Rs.1,000) per visitor.
“Since the current (14th) Dalai Lama is not in China, the Potala Palace is used for cultural purposes, not for religious purposes,” an official said.
The current Dalai Lama is residing in India with his followers. He fled Tibet after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.
The Potala Palace was first built by Srongtsen Gampo in the 7th century during the Tang Dynasty and was extended during the 17th century.
The white and red palace, comprising a group of large-scale castle-like buildings with 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and 200,000 statues, along with the Norbulingka and the Sakya Monastery, constitute the three main Tibetan cultural heritage sites.
Located on the popular Barkhor Street in the vicinity of the Potala Palace is Tibet’s holiest Jokhang Temple with a golden roof.
The temple, also a World Cultural Heritage Site, has a life-size, seated statue of Sakyamuni (the Buddha) when he was 12 years old.
On an average 10,000 devotees visit the temple daily, say officials. There is an 85 yuan ticket (Rs.850) for the tourists at the temple, while the locals are exempted from this.
The entire Tibet region is populated mainly by tribals. The climatic conditions are harsh as much of the land is a cold desert where the mercury drops to below minus 20 degrees Celsius in winter.
The important festivals of TAR include Shoton, also known as the Yoghurt festival, in Lhasa, the Yarlung and Qomolangma (Mt. Everest) festivals in Shigatse, the Grand Canyon festival in Nyingchi and the Khampa art festival in Qamdo.
The staple food is barley, wheat, peas, rice, rapeseed and salted tea mixed with yak butter.
‘Lhasa’, beer from the Roof of the World, is the most popular brew in Tibet. A 350-ml can costs 5 yuan (Rs.50). It’s a light drink made from barley.
Located in eastern Tibet, picture-perfect resort Nyingchi, some 420 km from Lhasa, is known as ‘Switzerland in Tibet’.
It is home to fauna like the Tibetan antelope, the common wild yak, the elusive snow leopard and the Tibetan kiang.
Getting to Lhasa:
How to travel: By public or private transport.
Beijing and Lhasa are connected by the rail, road and air.
The 4,000-km rail journey, which takes roughly two days, reach altitudes of over 5,000 metres on the Tibetan plateau.
The rail link connecting Lhasa and Shigatse – an extension to the Qinghai-Tibet Railway – is now in service.
Tibet also has five airports.
A network of optical cable, satellite and long-distance telephone lines has been established in the region. By the end of 2013, the penetration rates of telephones and Internet stood at 98.1 percent and 37.4 percent, respectively.
Where to stay in Lhasa: Hotels in Lhasa and home stays with local people on its outskirts.