One of the most isolated parts of the world, the massive Tibetan plateau sits at an average height of 4500m above sea level, guarded on all sides by towering mountain ranges. To the south, the Himalayas separate Tibet from India, Nepal and Bhutan; to the west lie the peaks of the Karakoram and Pakistan; while to the north the Kunlun range forms a barrier to Xinjiang. Eastwards, dividing Tibet from Sichuan and Yunnan, a further series of ranges stretches for a thousand kilometres. Some of Asia’s greatest rivers are born up on the plateau, including the Yangzi, Mekong, Yellow, Salween, Indus and Brahmaputra.
Today’s Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), while still a massive 1.2 million square kilometres, is but a shadow of the former “Greater Tibet” carved up by China in the 1950s, when the Amdo and Kham regions were absorbed into Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces. The current TAR comprisies only the former West and Central regions of Greater Tibet, and is itself divisible into four distinct geographical areas. The northern and largest portion is the almost uninhabited Chang Tang, a rocky desert at an average altitude of 4000m, where winter temperatures can fall to – 44°C. South of this is the mountainous grazing area, inhabited by wide-ranging nomads tending herds of yaks, sheep and goats. Eastern Tibet, occupying around a quarter of the TAR, is heavily forested. The relatively temperate southern valleys, sandwiched between the nomad areas and the Himalayas along the southern border, is the most hospitable and populated area, and where most visitors spend the majority of their time.
Tourist-friendly Lhasa, Shigatse and Gyantse offer the most accessible monasteries and temples – the Jokhang, Tashilunpo and Kumbum, respectively. The Potala Palace in Lhasa remains an enduring image of Tibet in the Western mind and should on no account be missed. Farther afield, the Yarlung and Chongye valleys to the southeast boast temples and ancient monuments, with a visit to the ancient walled monastery of Samye easily combined with these. The route along the “Friendship Highway” between Zhangmu on the Nepalese border and Lhasa is well established, with stops at the Mongolian-style monastery at Sakya and Everest Base Camp along the way. Further west lie the sacred peak of Mount Kailash, its nearby, and similarly holy, neighbour Lake Manasarovar, and the mysterious cave dwellings of the Guge Kingdom, burrowed into the walls of an enormous, crumbling canyon.
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