Tag Archives: Tibetan


Whether you’re on the fringes of the Tibetan world in Yunnan or Sichuan,
travelling amongst Qinghai’s yak herders or heading for Tibet’s “big city”, Lhasa, make sure that you leave time for the following, our
top ten Tibetan experiences

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Everyone has heard of Shangri-La. Even for those who have not read James Hilton’s classic Lost Horizon, the name evokes visions of an earthly paradise tucked away amongst soaring mountain ranges, where humans live long and peaceful lives amidst pristine, otherworldly surroundings.

Old-growth forests in the Three Parallel Rivers region

Old-growth forests in the Three Parallel Rivers region

In northwest Yunnan there is a Tibetan town, historically known as Zhongdian. Perched at the south-eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau and astride the main route to Tibet proper, the small town has long been a trading post and meeting point between Yunnan’s lowlands and highlands. Zhongdian’s compact old town was once filled with thick-walled Tibetan houses, yaks grazed in verdant fields around the town and stupas decorated the surrounding hillsides – undeniably picturesque, but still a far cry from Hilton’s fictional paradise.

Just over ten years ago Zhongdian’s enterprising mayor decided that since no one knew where Shangri-La was, it might as well be in Zhongdian. A pretext was fabricated (certain geographical features outside the town are said to resemble those mentioned in the novel) and Zhongdian was duly renamed Shangri-La, or Xianggelila in Chinese.

The new name and a new airport spurred a building boom that has seen old Zhongdian transformed into a somewhat ugly, modern town. Then, in early 2014 a devastating fire burnt much of the old town to the ground. Whatever faint resemblance the place may once have had to the Shangri-La of fiction, it has now gone for good.

So did the idea of Shangri-La go up in flames along with Zhongdian’s timber-framed old town?

05_Tacheng_Golden Stub-Nosed Monkey_02_PAS

Yunnan Snub-Nosed Monkeys, near Tacheng

The north-westernmost region of Yunnan is formally called the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Shaped like a triangle balancing on one point, the region is composed of three counties; Shangri-La (with Zhongdian/Shangri-La at its centre) in the east, Weixi in the west and Deqin at the uppermost tip of the triangle. If you are looking for Shangri-La, stop briefly in Zhongdian/Shangri-La, if you must, but make sure you leave time to explore Diqing’s beautiful hinterland. While it might not exactly match Hilton’s description, the region is so lovely and holds such natural bounty and variety that any such qualms will quickly be forgotten.

Learning your Scriptures, in Shangri-La

Learning your Scriptures, in Shangri-La

Diqing is home to at least ten ethnic minorities. The largest of these is Tibetan, but there are also the Lisu, Naxi, Bai, Yi, Hui, Pumi, Miao, Nu and Drung, among others. Each speaks its own language, practices its own and religion, and wears – for the everyday, not for tourists’ benefit – its own traditional clothing. People are friendly and welcoming, especially in the remoter parts of Diqing where tourists are still rare.

Diqing straddles one of the world’s most bio-diverse regions, the so-called Three Parallel Rivers, named for a short-range geographical accident that sees three of Asia’s great rivers – the Yangtze, the Mekong, and the Salween – churn through lush, parallel valleys for several hundred kilometres. The Three Parallel Rivers region is home to many exotic and endemic species of flora and fauna. One of the most endearing is the Yunnanese snub-nosed monkey, one of the rarest primates on earth. Incredibly, it is easy to spot (and photograph) in a sanctuary of old-growth forest that lies in the mountains between the Yangtze and Mekong valleys.

Sumtseling Monastery, Shangri-La

Sumtseling Monastery, Shangri-La

The region’s human heritage and geography is no less rich and varied with a long list of little-visited, yet spectacular attractions. Each Sunday in the tiny village of Cizhong, a Tibetan priest holds mass in a nineteenth-century church built by French missionaries. Further north, there is the massive Meili Snow Mountain range. The highest peaks rise to over 6,000 metres, making for impressive prominence over the river valleys to the east and west. The highest peak is sacred 6,740-metre-tall Kawagebo, which – in deference to local religious beliefs – has never been summited.

While the mountaintops are left to local gods, it’s still possible to feel the magic of travelling through the mountains and climbing towards distant peaks on the ascent from lowland Yunnan to Diqing. Some may opt to fly straight into Zhongdian/Shangri-La, at the risk of both altitude sickness and a dislocating sense of culture shock. However, far better to travel overland, slowly acclimatising to the thinner air and absorbing the gradual change in your surroundings as the familiar trappings of modern life give way to something gentler and altogether rarer. By the end of your journey, you might just feel that you have, indeed, glimpsed Shangri-La after all.

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If you would like to go in search of Shangri-La for yourself, you may want to take a look at this travel idea here.


I want to write about Tibet, but I’m struggling with where to start. Should I begin by describing the raw beauty of the Himalayas? Maybe with the profound way that Buddhism permeates the Tibetans’ daily lives? Or perhaps I should start with the rigours that are inevitably involved in a journey on the Tibetan Plateau?

Miss Daisy in Tibet

Miss Daisy in Tibet

This forbidding region draws me to it in many ways, but it boils down to the following; the pursuit of adventure, a love of mountains, the challenge of overcoming adversity, and witnessing the Tibetan people’s devotion.

Above all, to me Tibet stands for adventure. In exchange for moving myself out of my comfort zone, I know that I will come home with unforgettable memories.

The photo shown here is from one of many such adventures, and taken on my 21,000km journey through China in a Caterham Super 7.

It was July 2007 and early rains had swollen a nameless river in eastern Tibet, sending it gushing across the road. Attracted by the odd sight of a yellow sportscar on this remote stretch of road, three passersby rolled up their sleeves and volunteered to help Miss Daisy (the Caterham) and I through the water. When you scream ‘push’ and three kind volunteers heave you through an icy cold river, you won’t forget it!

Beyond the thrill of adventure, there is the magnetic pull of the mountains. I grew up in the Austrian Alps and thought them magnificent – until I went to Tibet, that is. In Austria you reach sky at 2,000 metres above sea level. In Tibet there are cities with airports and golf courses at that altitude. The Tibetan highlands start where the Alps end, more or less. The plateau is, almost literally, quite out of this world.

But while Tibet’s mountains – from Mount Everest on down – lend the landscape an unparalleled drama and beauty, the region’s high altitudes also make plateau life and travel uniquely challenging. Lhasa’s iconic Potala Palace may seem an appealing place to visit on your first day in the Tibetan capital, but climbing the staircases to the entrance is best left until the end of your trip when you are properly acclimated.

Mt. Everest at dawn

Mt. Everest at dawn

Pilgrims on the way to Lhasa

Pilgrims on the way to Lhasa

Perhaps the Tibetans’ profound Buddhist faith is related to the challenges of living at such altitudes. Almost every time I find myself in the Tibetan world, sooner or later I encounter people making the arduous pilgrimage to Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple. Each pilgrim will prostrate themselves, get up, walk three steps, and prostrate again (in Chinese this is called 磕长头). This slow progress continues, not for a hundred meters, not for one kilometer, but for hundreds – if not thousands – of kilometers.

Weatherbeaten, dirty, exhausted, and yet with their broad smiles hinting at inner bliss, the pilgrims have retained a depth of faith that many of us have long since lost. I’m not a religious man, but I never fail to be moved by others’ devotion. Add to this the outer trappings of Tibetan Buddhist ritual – monks chanting by flickering lamplight, prayer flags snapping from mountain passes and timeless festivals – and this is clearly one of Tibet’s many attrations for me and many others.

Some places offer one of these drawcards, perhaps one destination offers mountain adventure, while another posseses a unique culture, say, but few offer such a beguiling combination as the Tibetan Plateau. It is small wonder that this special place has attracted generations of adventurers and romantics…

What is it that draws you to Tibet?

Peter

 

 

 

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If you agree with me about Tibet’s many and varied attractions, you might like to read more about our upcoming Tibetan journeys.

Mountain-lovers will be interested in Roads on the Roof of the World, a fantastic 8-day itinerary that runs from the Tibetan heartland to Mount Everest Base Camp. The 11-day Tibetan Highlands is an epic journey from Kunming to Lhasa overland across the beautiful and rugged eastern foothills of the Himalayas. Both will have departures in spring 2016.

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When we leave the highway behind and opt to discover the world from its back roads, curious things can happen. More often than not, those things can give us a glimpse of what makes local people tick.

A recent research trip of ours ended in Shangri-La, the main settlement in Yunnan’s ethnically Tibetan northwest. On the day of our team’s departure, we caught a taxi to the airport. Our driver was a burly Tibetan gentleman with an infectious laugh, who had somehow managed to squeeze himself into the cab’s cramped driver’s seat.

On the outskirts of Shangri-La a large white stupa stands at the centre of a roundabout – seemingly a typical piece of Chinese municipal architecture. As we joined the roundabout, the driver turned left instead of right and calmly circled the roundabout clockwise, against the usual flow of traffic.

A stupa in Tibetan China beckoning the sky for good luck

A stupa in Tibetan China beckoning the sky for good luck

Mercifully, nothing seemed to be about to crash into us. Still, we asked with some alarm, “What are you doing?! Aren’t you supposed to go the other way around?!”

“No, in the mornings we can go around it this way,” he assured us, smiling, “because the stupa is holy, isn’t it?” For Tibetans circle all holy things – roundabout stupas included – clockwise, in a show of respect.

“And what if a non-believer should come the normal way around?” Peter pursued the argument to its inevitable conclusion.

“Well, there might be a crash,” he said, his expression deadpan.

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