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Tibet, the mysterious land perched high in the Himalaya, has long had a seductive hold over the Western consciousness, luring traders and travellers alike.

And no wonder. With ice-clean air, some of the world’s tallest peaks and Buddhist monasteries galore, its reputation as a scenic, spiritual Shangri-La is well deserved.

It’s not all a bed of rhododendrons, though; since the 1950 invasion (or ‘liberation’, as described by the Chinese) of Tibet, indigenous traditions have been suppressed, and hundreds of thousands of Tibetans – including the Dalai Lama – have fled. Today the Tibetans are clinging defiantly to their way of life in the face of an influx of Han Chinese settlers, industrialisation and mass tourism.

Sidestep the pockets of hasty modernisation, though, and you can stride out into a wilderness of lonely summits, grunting yaks, prayer flags and temples.

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Tibetan and Chinese
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Wanderlust recommended

Reach the heady heights of Everest Base Camp where you can drink in views of the world’s most awe-inspiring mountain

Wander Lhasa’s Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple then gorge yourself on a traditional Tibetan banquet – brace yourself for no fewer than 18 dishes

Take a ride on the world’s highest railway, which speeds from Golmud in China across the Himalayas to Lhasa

Peruse some of Tibet’s 1,700 Buddhist monasteries. Go to Tashilhunpo Monastery for blow your socks off splendour, and Samye Monastery, Tibet’s very first

Hike around Jangtang, an otherworldly landscape and the world’s second biggest nature reserve, flecked with lakes and traversed by nomads

Wanderlust tips

Take a trusty supply of toilet paper and a comprehensive first aid kit. Keep a stash of food to hand (tinned goods, soups, noodles, chocolate) in the event of stomach upsets or being stuck in a remote region. Take layered clothing fit for all weathers.

When to go to Tibet

Tibet is dubbed the ‘Land of Snow’ but don’t be fooled – the cold winter months between November and March don’t see a huge amount of snow at all. In the winter months there are few tourists, many places shut up shop and you run the risk of some mountain passes being closed. Summers are warm, though up high (above 4,000m) it can get chilly. July and August are wet; eastern Tibet receives a monsoon between July and September. Avoid Lhasa during summer high season and for a week after 1 May and 1 October as Chinese tourists flock here. March is a politically delicate month. The weather in spring and autumn is changeable but this is a great time to visit. Spring is the best time to clap eyes on Everest and autumn boasts some fine festivals.

International airports

There is no international airport. Visitors must fly to one of 12 gateway cities (Chengdu, Kathmandu, Lanzhou, Lijiang, Kashgar, Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Chongqing, Kunming, Guangzhou or Shenzhen) for a connecting flight to Tibet. An alternative is to take the Golmud-Lhasa railway linking Tibet with the nearby province of Qinghai.

Getting around in Tibet

In Lhasa and some towns there are minibuses, taxis and pedicabs but travelling elsewhere can really test your mettle. Public transport is available in open areas but in closed (restricted) areas it’s reserved for the locals. If you’re not in an open area and the buses are off limits then it is possible to hire a 4WD (preferably with a driver and support vehicle). Hitchhiking is banned but travellers still use this as a means of reaching far flung places. Cycling and motorbiking are possible in some open parts of the plateau. There is a rail link from Lanzhou to Lhasa.

Tibet accommodation

Tibet has numerous hotels of varying standards. Five-star opulence can be enjoyed in places such as Lhasa, Gyeltang, Dzitsa Degu and Ziling. Spacious, modern hotels are also scattered in other locales. You may need to fall back on budget hotels and cheap guesthouses in out of the way regions; these have varying standards, facilities and room options – some are pleasant, others definitely less so. Some villages have traditional Tibetan guesthouses, built around a walled courtyard. Camping is also possible.

Tibet food & drink

Few crops survive in Tibet’s high altitudes, so the cuisine is pretty basic. The staple food is tsampa, a barley-based dough used for noodles and dumplings. Meat is usually mutton, yak or goat, made into a spicy stew. Mustard seeds are found in many dishes. Dairy products such as curd, cheese and yoghurt are revered. Dessert, when available, consists of fruit (apricots, peaches and apples). Butter tea is the standard drink, but if you can’t stomach any more, ask for jasmine tea instead. Chang is alcoholic barley ale, while arak is a local liquor. Some city restaurants offer international dishes but they are few and far between.

Health & safety in Tibet

To minimise altitude sickness try to ascend gradually, get lots of rest and avoid alcohol, cigarettes and big meals. Consult your GP or travel health clinic before departure to check your jabs are up to date. Travellers’ diarrhoea, hepatitis, and leptospirosis can be contracted. Leeches can make a nuisance of themselves during the wet season.