Tibet is a land of monks, in Tibetan referred to as the Bhikkhu
The Bhikkhu is an ordained male Buddhist monastic and literally means “one who lives by alms”. Travel through the land of the Bhikkhu and explore the ancient cities and monasteries of Tibet. From Lhasa onto the Tibetan Plateau it is rich in mystery and ancient history.
Tibet is home to numerous ancient Buddhist monasteries with a substantial number of resident monks. The so-called “Tibet Autonomous Region” (which is the area now referred to as “Tibet”), was created by China in 1950 when they invaded and annexed Tibet. The original borders of Tibet goes well beyond these Chinese created borders and includes large parts of adjacent Chinese provinces such as Sichuan and Yunnan. Many Tibetans (and Tibetan monasteries) are therefore located outside of the current borders of Tibet.
The list of monasteries inside and outside Tibet is long, and they are ranked in terms of their importance to the Tibetan Buddhist people. The Jokhang temple and monastery located on Barkhor Square in Lhasa is the most sacred temple to most Tibetan people.
The temple was founded in the 7th century and was first constructed by King Songtsän Gampo around the year 642. However, it was closed and boarded up during the reign of King Bönpo who reigned during the years of 838–841 and sacked several times by the Mongols. In more recent history, the Red Guards of Mao Zedong (who ruled China from 1949 until his death in 1976), sacked and desecrated the monastery in July 1966 and thousands of Buddhist scriptures were looted and burned.
Jokhang is one of the most important pilgrim temples
Throughout history and even today, a constant stream of pilgrims walk (or some crawl as they are procrastinating) clockwise around the temple throughout the day and night. The temple is a four-story building with roofs covered with gilded bronze tiles.
You can walk up with stairs to the rooftop from where you will have a great view over Barkhor Square with hundreds of pilgrims procrastinating in front of the main entrance. Feel free to bypass the long line of pilgrims into the temple as tourists are allowed to fast-track. It is a surreal experience to see the pilgrims concentrate on their prayers inside one of the oldest active religious buildings in the world.
Other highly sacred monasteries in Tibet include the Drepung Monastery and Sera Monastery in Lhasa, and in the town of Shigatse are the Sakya Monastery, Tashilhunpo Monastery, and the Rongbuk Monastery. All of these monasteries welcome foreign tourists, as long as they pay the entrance and camera fees, which at some monasteries are quite steep.
Planning a trip to Tibet
This can be a daunting task. China has created so much red tape with rules and regulations that can change overnight making it a risky endeavour. Current regulations stipulate that all foreign visitors to Tibet must have a pre-approved Tibetan permit, and must book an accredited tour guide to “take care of them” during their entire stay in Tibet.
The guide takes responsibility for you and, in particular outside of capital city Lhasa, should be by your side at all times. This means you need to pay for a guide every single day you spend in Tibet. Fortunately, you don’t need to be accompanied by your guide all the time in Lhasa, as long as you can reach him when needed. Should anything go wrong (i.e. police harassment), your tour guide will be informed and he needs to sort out your problems.
Foreigners are not allowed to rent or drive a vehicle.
This means you need to rent a driver and his vehicle through a travel agency. Traveling in certain rural area requires additional permits which can be arranged in Lhasa. You friendly guide will help you, as long as you pay the permit fees.
There are many travel agencies to choose from in Lhasa or in nearby China cities such as Chengdu and Chongqing. They vary greatly in terms of fees and level of service. Make sure to check online to get recommendations.
A typical route in Tibet could be as follows:
- Stay the first 3 nights in Lhasa to get used to the high altitude (you must spend at least two nights, but the more the better). While you are getting accustomed to the high altitude, visit the Lhasa attractions such as Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Barkhor Street, Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery (watch the monks during their afternoon debates).
- On day 4, get into your pre-arranged Land Rover and drive to Gyantse and sleep in the town of Shigatse. Enroute, visit the Karola Glacier, Yamtso Tso Lake, Gyatse Kumbum Stupa, and the Pelkor Chode monastery. Also check out the Gyatse Dzong on the hill. When you arrive in Shigatse, visit the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery which is home to the biggest copper Buddha in the world.
- On day 5, drive to Lhatse before crossing over the very high passes (5,200m) to Tingri and then to Tashizong to sleep. Catch a glimpse of Mount Everest before sunset.
- On day 6: Get up early to see sunrise over Mount Everest. Spend a few hours at Everest Base Camp and then take the long road back to Shigatse.
- On day 7: After a good sleep in Shigatse head to Lhasa.
If you go in winter time, be warned that some of the passes towards Everest may be closed for days. While winter is a great time to travel through much of Tibet, the high elevations may receive tons of snow and the road will then be closed for days.