Tibet Overview

Tibet: the Land of Snows, the roof of the world. For centuries this mysterious Buddhist kingdom, locked away in its mountain fastness of the Himalaya, has exercised a unique hold on the imagination of the West. For explorers, imperialists and traders it was a forbidden land of treasure and riches. Dreamers on a spiritual quest have long whispered of a lost Shangri-la, steeped in magic and mystery. When the doors were finally flung open in the mid-1980s, Tibet lay in ruins. Between 1950 and 1970, the Chinese wrested control of the plateau, drove the Tibetans’ spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and some 100, 000 of Tibet’s finest into exile and systematically dismantled most of the Tibetan cultural and historical heritage, all in the name of revolution. For a while images of the Buddha were replaced by icons of Chairman Mao. Today, Tibetan pilgrims across the country are once again mumbling mantras and swinging their prayer wheels in temples that are heavy with the thick intoxicating aroma of juniper incense and yak butter. Monasteries have been restored across the country, along with limited religious freedoms. A walk around Lhasa’s lively Barkhor pilgrimage circuit is proof enough that the efforts of the communist Chinese to build a brave new (roof of the) world have foundered on the remarkable and inspiring faith of the Tibetan people.


Tibet’s fact quick look


Official Name: Xizang Zizhiqu (Tibet Autonomous Region), "Zang" for short"

Nickname: Roof of the World

Provincial Capital: Lhasa, the "Holy City" and the "City of Sunlight"

Other Notable Cities: Shigatse, Tsetang, Nagqu

Location: Situated in the southwest of China, on the Tibetan Plateau, the highest region on Earth. See the location map of Tibet.

Area: 1,200,000 square kilometers. Making up 12.8% of China's area, Tibet is the second largest region of China after Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Bordering Provinces: Xinjiang, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan

Bordering Countries: Nepal, India, Sikkim, Bhutan, Burma. Map of Tibet and Nepal

Population:  2.81 millions (as of 2007). Tibet is the least populated province in China, mostly due to its mountainous and harsh geographical features.

Name for Residents:  Tibetans

Ethnic Composition:  92.8% Tibetan, 6.1% Han, 0.3% Hui, 0.5% others

Religions:  Tibetan Buddhism, Animism

Official Languages:  Mandarin, Tibetan

Currency:   RMB (Renminbi, Chinese Yuan)

Festivals: Tibetan New Year, Shoton Festival, Bathing Festival. Click to see more about the festivals celebrated in Tibet Geography & Average Altitude:  Bounded by the Himalayan Mountains to the south, the region sits on a high plateau at 4,000-5,000 meters (13,000-16,400 feet), resulting in its nickname "the roof of the world."

Main Rivers:  Brahmaputra River, Nujiang River, Jinshajiang River, and Lancang River

Transportation:  The high altitude, rugged topography and harsh natural environment made Tibet almost inaccessible to the outside world for century. Today, however, frequent flights to Lhasa, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and several highways to Tibet have made Tibet easily accessible.

Tourism:  Tourists were first permitted to visit Tibet in the 1980s. The main tourist attractions are the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Namtso Lake, Tashilhunpo Monastery and Mt. Everest. Some areas remain restricted to tourists. A special visa beyond the Chinese visa is needed to visit Tibet.

Economy:  The Tibetans traditionally depended upon agricultural work and animal husbandry, with most of the people being farmers and herders. And now the tertiary sector has surpassed the area's primary industry and contributed more than half of its GDP growth. Local handicrafts and tourism are greatly developed.

Weather:  Average temperature 28 degrees Celsius (in Summer) and 15 degrees Celsius (in Winter), extremely dry except during rainy season (May to September). Winters in Tibet, as might be supposed, are fiercely cold. But for half the year, strong sunlight warms the thin air, making most days in Tibet comfortably mild and, owing to protective mountains, relatively windless. Summer temperatures hover above 30'C (high-80s F) and only to drop to -23'C (-10'F) in midwinter. The best time to visit is from late spring to early fall.