Central Tibet

The region of Tibet often called “Central” is not so much a geographical designation as a recognition of the centrality of Lhasa in Tibetan history as the home of the Dalai Lama “god-kings”, the imposing Potala Palace and the ancient Jokhang Temple, a place of pilgrimage for all Tibetans. The big three Buddhist monasteries of the Gelugpa sect, DrepungSera, and Ganden, are within easy reach of Lhasa itself and give the visitor insight into the unique monastic aspect of traditional Tibetan life. Central Tibet is home to the cradle of Tibetan civilization, Tsetang (south of Lhasa), where the first monastery, Samye monastery, was built in the eighth century. Shigatse is also only a day’s journey from Lhasa and is the traditional home of the Panchen Lama and the Tashi Lhunpo monastery.

People of Central Tibet

Central Tibetans are traditionally farmers and nomads. Outside of Lhasa city in the valleys that follow the parallel rivers of Kyichu and Yarlung Tsampo, sit farming communities that have existed for centuries. Historically, these farmers bring there crops into Lhasa to trade for meat, salt, and other products available through the shop keepers in Lhasa and the nomads that have come to the city from the vast grasslands north of Lhasa. Central Tibetans love festivals and continue to celebrate their heritage with annual religious events such as Losar (the Tibetan New Year) and the Shodön “Yoghurt Festival” which features Tibetan Opera and a yearly unveiling of a huge Thangka or religious painting.

Mountains & Lakes

Famously, Central Tibet is home to the highest mountains on earth. On the border with Nepal sits Mt. Everest (Jomolongma in Tibetan) and 4 other peaks over 8000m: Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu, and Shishapangma. In far western Tibet, Mt Kailash draws pilgrims from Tibet and across South Asia representing four different religions. Central Tibet is known for two famous emerald lakes: Yamdrok sits between Lhasa and the Himalaya range, while Namtso is north of Lhasa and supports a large nomadic population.

Transportation

Access to Central Tibet from within China is made convenient by domestic flights from many cities across the country, all flights being operated by one of the following airlines: Air China, China Eastern, China Southern, Sichuan, Shenzhen, Hainan, and Tibet airlines. However, purchasing flights to Lhasa direct from one of the above airlines is usually not possible. The reason for this is to prevent foreign travelers from purchasing flights without the needed Tibet Travel Permit (usually happens due to ignorance). For this reason domestic flights to Central Tibet are most often booked by the same travel company through which a traveler obtains his or her TTP. The only international flight that flies into Lhasa Gonggar Airport is from Kathmandu, Nepal.

Next to air travel, the most popular means of travel to Central Tibet is the train. Those who enjoy scenery prefer to see China from the ground. Departing from Beijing or Chengdu requires over 40 hours on the train to reach Lhasa, while boarding in Xining will cut the journey in half and allow travellers to enjoy the scenery of the Tibetan plateau for the duration of the trip. Be sure to book a soft sleeper bed as they are the most comfortable and only have four beds per cabin, as opposed to six per cabin for a hard sleeper. Travel overland to Central Tibet by private vehicle is the least popular due to both the cost and organization required. However, there are many travel companies that will happily arrange a private vehicle for travellers who desire an overland journey to Central Tibet. There are two main advantages: vehicle travel offers the best possible experience of taking in the land and the people, and the several days required for the trip allows you to naturally acclimatize along the way.

For a helpful introduction to the geography of Tibet’s three regions relative to each other and the rest of China, be sure to visit our page on Tibet Travel Essentials.


Yamdrok Yumtso (Yamdrok Lake)

Yamdrok Lake Tibet

Yamdrok, Yamdroktso (ཡར་འབྲོག་གཡུ་མཚོ།  ), or Yamdrok Yumtso, is a breathtaking lake lying between the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and the town of Gyantse. Yamdrok Lake is viewable along the old Friendship Highway that links Tibet with Nepal, and is a favorite route for those heading to Everest Base Camp. Sitting at an altitude of 4,441 meters above sea level, the lake is 130 …

Norbulingka Summer Palace

Norbulingka 2.0

Located on the western edge of Lhasa at the bank of River Kyichu and just a kilometer from the famous Potala Palace, Norbulingka Palace (ནོར་བུ་གླིང་ག) offers the best landscapes in the region. Spread over an area of 360,000 square meters, Norbulingka features the summer palaces of the Dalai Lamas with 374 rooms, and the largest, most beautiful, and well-preserved gardens …

Jokhang Temple

Jokhang Temple 2.0

Standing four stories tall, spread over an area of about 25,000 square meters in the heart of Lhasa, the UNESCO World Heritage Jokhang Temple (ཇོ་ཁང་།) with its golden roof is an esoteric blend of local Tibetan elements with Nepalese, Chinese, and Indian influences. The spinning of prayer wheels, murmur of mantras, and humble prostrations of devout pilgrims all year long …

Lhasa

Jokhang Temple from Lhasa's Barkhor Square

Lhasa (ལྷ་ས་) has been considered the capital of the Tibetan peoples since as early as the 7th century. After conquering several surrounding kingdoms and two significant political marriages with Chinese and Nepali princesses, Songtsan Gampo became the first leader of a unified Tibetan Empire. He began construction on a palace which formed the foundation and determined the design of the current …

Shigatse (Rikaze)

Shigatse

Also known as Rikaze (日喀则), Shigatse (གཞིས་ཀ་རྩེ་ས་) is the second largest city in Central Tibet. It is a prefectural capital city with a population of over 700,000, and is most famously known for Tashilhunpo Monastery. This monastery is home to the Panchen Lama, the second highest lama in the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, and best survived the excesses of China’s …

Chomolungma (Mt. Everest)

Mt. Evereset by day.

Also known as Chomolungma (ཇོ་མོ་གླང་མ། )in Tibetan, (珠穆朗玛峰 in Chinese), the mere mention of the name “Everest” already evokes enough pictures in our imaginations: ice axes, climbing ropes, avalanches, sherpas, basecamps and lots and lots of snow. The tallest point from sea level on planet earth (8,848m) is assisted to its dizzying heights by the craggy edge of the vaulted Tibetan …

Tsetang ( Zedang)

Zedang Yubulangkang

Nestled in one of the most fertile regions of the Yarlung Tsampo River basin, Tsetang (རྩེད་ཐང་།) was the perfect place to start a new civilization. Referred to as Zedang in Chinese (泽当), Tibetans consider this quaint city the birthplace of their people. According to legend, the union of an ogress and a monkey led to the first Tibetan people. Regardless …

Namtso Lake

Woman overlooking Namtso.

Located in Central Tibet, on the south side of Namtso Lake (གནམ་མཚོ།), travellers will find a lakeside tourist town selling souvenirs, hot sweet milk tea, selfies with yaks, and very basic accommodations. The route from the 109 highway will lead travellers straight to this town located at the base of the Tashi Dor peninsula. Peak season at Namtso Lake exhibits …

Potala Palace

Potala Palace, Lhasa.

Located in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, one can find the famous Potala Palace(  ཕོ་བྲང་པོ་ཏ་ལ། ). As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this remarkable set of buildings is visited by thousands of tourists daily. “Potala” itself comes from the Hindi name of a mountain in Southern India, while in Sanskrit it means, “The Abode of the Buddha.” Construction of the palace …

Zhangmu (Dram) Border Crossing

China Nepal Friendship Bridge

  *UPDATE JUNE 2016: due to the Nepal earthquake in April 2015 this border is still closed due to reconstruction. Overland travel between Tibet and Nepal is not possible. An alternative border crossing at Kyirong is expected to open in the summer of 2016. Zhangmu border crossing is in Zhangmu 樟木 town, known as Dram འགྲ་མ in Tibetan, on the …

Peiku Tso

Salt line on the shore of Peiku Tso

Imagine you are a flea on the head of a king with a crown of peaks all around you. The stretch of road on the way to Peiku Tso is something like that. The king’s forehead is facing south with the crown jewel set upon the tallest point – Shisapangma – the 8,013 meter point that is the highest mountain …

Drepung Monastery

drepung Monastery Tibet

Historically, the most significant monastery in Tibetan Buddhism, Drepung Monastery(འབྲས་སྤུངས་དགོན་པ།) used to be the seat of political and religious power in Tibet (before the Potala Palace was built). This significance came in part due to its location just outside of Lhasa, and in part due to it being the primary seat of the Gelugpa sect. The Gelugpa sect practices celibacy, …

Samye Monastery

Samye Monastery

History of Samye Monastery Two hours drive southeast of Lhasa sits Samye Monastery(བསམ་ཡས་དགོན་པ།) – the oldest Buddhist training institution in Tibet, established in the lifetime of Padmasambhava in the eight century. The temple monastery compound is enclosed by a circular brick wall. It is said that from above, the circular wall and its contents resemble a Mandala – a Hindu and …

Ganden Monastery

Ganden Monastery Hillside Tibet

Located 50 km northeast of Lhasa, Ganden Monastery (དགའ་ལྡན་དགོན་པ།)is a relatively quick trip outside of Lhasa for visitors who wish to see the monastery, and enjoy the beautiful view of the valley below. Ganden Monastery is the biggest of the Gelugpa Monasteries, and was the first founded in the sect. Tsongkhapa was the founder of the Gelugpa sect (also known …

Kang Rinpoche (Mt. Kailash)

Mt Kailash

Mt. Kailash (Kang Rinpoche/གངས་རིན་པོ་ཆེ) in Western Tibet (TAR) is one of the most venerated religious sites in the world. Four separate religions consider the mountain holy, so it is no surprise that it is pilgrimaged by thousands each year. Conceivably, that number would most likely be greater if it weren’t so difficult to obtain permits to the area. Kailash is …

Sera Monastery

Sera monastery

Sera Monastery (སེ་ར་དགོན་པ།) is one of the most beautiful monastery compounds you will see in Tibet, and one of Lhasa’s several great religious institutes. Built on the gentle slope of a mountain overlooking Lhasa, its white stone roads and walkways feel almost Mediterranean. The roads are lined with beautiful trees and the debating courtyard looks like a private garden for …