Enter China to experience Tibet independently

The inscrutable stranger

Elusive. Forbidden. Spiritual. Tibet has the heavy burden of living up to its given (and well-deserved) titles. Striking tall mountains, turquoise laden lakes, and colorful lungta flags flood Google’s image search. It is finding Xanadu for the curious traveler. Yet, like an inscrutable stranger, unraveling Tibet’s mysteries are not easy.

For all non-Chinese citizens, entry into Tibet is restrictive, and annoyingly so, for those who enjoy exploring freely. A permit, which can only be requested by travel agencies, is required. Moreover a tour guide must be present for the trip’s entirety. This, by the way, only gets you into Lhasa.

Tibet’s more sociable sisters

Fortunately, seeing Tibet doesn’t have to be contained within the Tibet Autonomous Region. Historical Tibet comprised of three traditional provinces, Ü-tsang, Amdo, and Kham. And two of these provinces, Amdo and Kham, lie within modern Chinese borders. Although territorially Chinese, the Tibetan culture and heritage is omnipresent.

To enter most of Amdo and Kham, all that is required is a Chinese visa. For most visitors, this is a much less painful registration than obtaining a Tibet Permit. More importantly, traveling within China doesn’t require a constant tour guide.

Into Amdo

This is a peek into Amdo. More specifically it is a look into Xiahe County, the birthplace of the fourteenth (current) Dalai Lama.

Xiahe is home to the largest, most influential monastery, Labrang. Built in 1709, Labrang is strategically situated between two major Asian cultures, Mongolian and Tibetan. It is home to thousands of monks and around 60,000 sutras.

Inside of Labrang’s walls

Teenaged monks on their way to mid-morning prayer

Tibetan family pilgrimage

Prayer candles made of Yak butter

Pilgrims spinning prayer wheels

Modern nomads

Lush plateaus color Xiahe. They are peppered with farm animals and livestock, waiting to be herded or sold.  While Xiahe’s tourism industry is on the rise, many natives are still leading nomadic lives. However, new initiatives such as the Lungta Cooperative, are cleverly fusing nomadic livelihood skills together with tourism.

It (Lungta) is meant to accommodate their skills into the changing world and the opportunities it may offer. Spread over 100 hectares of rolling hills, the cooperative comprises 140 yaks, six mud colored cabins, a yak hair nomad tent and other tents and is manned by twelve nomad men an women.

Early mornings at the Lungta Cooperative

Old camera = light leaks

The 140 yaks

Dri, or a female yak, being milked

Associated with Lungta are Norden Camp & Norlha Textiles. Both employing local Tibetans with a focus on sustainability and retaining Tibetan way of life.

Hand woven yak hair tents at Norden Camp

Hot, lazy afternoons

Women hand weaving yak khullu, or fiber, at Norlha Textiles

High mountain, low sun

Weather on the Tibetan Plateaus can change drastically, especially during summertime. Its high altitude make for particular cruel afternoons, while nights can be blistering cold without fires to keep warm.

The dry Tibeten Plateau sun

Summers can range from extreme heat to below 0o C nights




Tibet’s culture and heritage don’t stop at Tibetan borders. Tibet is, after all, defined by its culture, not by borderlines. While there is a lot of Tibet to discover, Amdo or Kham may be the wiser choice, especially for those who enjoy independent travel.