The inscrutable stranger
Elusive. Forbidden. Spiritual. Tibet has the heavy burden of living up to its given (and well-deserved) titles. Strikingly 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 is 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.
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.
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 rugged 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.
Associated with Lungta are also Norden Camp & Norlha Textiles. Both employing local Tibetans with a focus on sustainability and retaining Tibetan way of life.
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.
Tibet is filled with rich heritage and culture but it doesn’t have to 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.