Tibet, the "Roof of the World", has attracted travellers for centuries from all over the world. The scenery has a majesty and grandeur that are spellbinding, the religious monuments and practices are overwhelmingly picturesque. The Tibetan people are welcoming and wonderful. But look just a little below the surface and it is all too apparent that Tibet's past has been tragic, its present is painful, and the future looks bleak. Tibet today is a sad, subjugated colony of China. While foreign visitors are perhaps more worldly than to expect a romantic Shangri-la, there is no doubt that many are surprised by the heavy military and civilian Chinese presence, the modern apartments and factories alongside traditional Tibetan rural lifestyles and monasteries. All this doesn't mean you should stay away, however: though tourism provides legitimacy as well as foreign currency to the Chinese government, many people, the Dalai Lama among them, believe that travellers should visit Tibet to learn all they can of the country and its people.
The massive Tibetan plateau, at an average height of 4500m above sea level, is guarded on all sides by towering mountain ranges: the Himalayas separate Tibet from India, Nepal and Bhutan to the south, the Karakoram from Pakistan to the west and the Kunlun from Xinjiang to the north. To the east, dividing Tibet from Sichuan and Yunnan, an extensive series of subsidiary ranges covers almost a thousand kilometres. The plateau is also birthplace to some of the greatest rivers of Asia, with the Yangzi, Mekong, Yellow and Salween rising in the east, and the Indus, Brahmaputra, Sutlej and some feeder rivers of the Ganges in the west near Mount Kailash.
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. 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.
For travellers, Tibet is one of the most remarkable places to visit in Asia. It offers fabulous monastery sights, breathtaking high-altitude treks, stunning views of the world’s highest mountains and one of the most likeable peoples you will ever meet. There's Gyanstse , in the Nyang-chu Valley, famed for the largest chörten (stupa) in Tibet, and hiking in Yarlung , Yarlung Valley, widely considered the cradle of Tibetan civilization. Base yourself in Tsetang and marvel at the monkey cave in Gangpo Ri or walk the monastery kora (pilgrim path). Your trip will take you past glittering mountain turquoise lakes and over high passes draped with prayer flags. Find a quiet spot in a prayer hall full of chanting monks, hike past the ruins of remote hermitages or make an epic overland trip along some of the world’s wildest roads. The scope for adventure is limitless.
For many people, Tibet is a uniquely spiritual place. Those moments of peace, fleeting and precious, when everything seems to be in its proper place, seem to come more frequently in Tibet, whether inspired by the devotion apparent in the face of a pilgrim or the dwarfing scale of a beautiful landscape. Tibet can truly claim to be on a higher plain.
This remarkable place is changing fast. Investment and tourism are flooding into the region, inspired by a new train line from, China and GDP is rising even faster than the train tracks to Lhasa. Unfortunately the modernisation is coming first and foremost on China’s terms. China’s current wave of tourists has been dubbed the ‘second invasion’, with a slew of new hotels, restaurants and bars set up and run by Chinese for Chinese. Once the remote preserve of hardy backpackers, it is now local Chinese tourists who dominate the queues for the Potala and Jokhang. Lhasa is booming and even small towns across the plateau are being modernised and rebuilt. With every passing month Tibet looks less and less like itself.
The myths and propaganda that have grown up around Tibet can be so enticing, so pervasive and so entrenched that it’s hard to see the place through balanced eyes. The reality is that Tibet is no fragile Shangri-la but a resilient land underpinned by a unique culture and faith. But you are never far from the reality of politics here. For anyone, who travels with their eyes open, a visit to Tibet will be memorable and fascinating, but also a sobering experience. It’s a place that’s likely to change the way you see the world and that will remain with you for years to come. And that’s surely the definition of the very best kind of travel.