Tibet map & highlights

In line with the country’s religious teaching, it’s a good idea to channel your inner Buddha and find patience while travelling in Tibet. The means of travel is straightforward – foreigners may only travel by private bus, so public transport is a no-no and organised tours are the way to go. It’s the travel times that may vary; major roads are paved and smooth with journeys between towns and cities averaging three hours, although you can expect some pretty hair-raising stretches that snake along high valleys. If you’re heading into rural Tibet, expect some longer travelling days of eight or nine hours including lunch and breaks.
Everest Base Camp

1. Everest Base Camp

Unlike its more popular equivalent in Nepal, Tibet’s Everest Base Camp can be reached by vehicle, rather than entailing a multi-day, high altitude trek. What’s more, it also affords sweeping views of the world’s highest peak.
Ganden Monastery

2. Ganden Monastery

Founded in 1409, brightly painted Ganden is one of Tibet’s “Great Three” university monasteries, and is home to Tibetan Buddhism’s Gelugpa sect. Although it was destroyed in the 1959 rebellion and ruins can still be seen, several sections have been rebuilt. Walks here take you through a dramatic natural amphitheatre, and past pilgrims and monks walking the “kora” ritual circumnavigation.

3. Gyantse

An important spot throughout history for pilgrims travelling along the Himalayan Plateau, Gyantse has an old-fashioned, small-town charm about it. Its trump card is the Gyantse Kumbum, an enormous temple packed full of decorative chapels, but take some time to wander around its bustling backalleys and you’ll discover a snapshot of Tibet’s still very old-school ‘modern’ life.

4. Lhasa

A mountain-fringed valley, Lhasa translates as ‘Place of the Gods’, which it is… in the main. Though your first glimpse of the Potala Palace, the towering former winter residence of the Dalai Lama that crowns Marpo Ri, will take the breath away, China’s architectural stamp is rampant: concrete and glass now feature heavily. However, much of traditional Tibet remains to be enjoyed.
Monks & monasteries

5. Monks & monasteries

Buddhist monasticism is part of the very lifeblood of Tibet and has always been part of the mysticism that encapsulates the region. You will find some of the world’s most enchanting monasteries in Tibet; their intricate architecture and prominent geographical positions are astounding, and visiting one to see how they have developed into philosophical centres of learning and debate is unforgettable.
Mount Kailash

6. Mount Kailash

Bon followers, Buddhists, Hindus and Jains all consider this dark, ice-streaked dome to be one of the most sacred places in the world. Each year, thousands of pilgrims complete anticlockwise circuits of this four-sided mountain, which rises to an imposing 6,368m in one of Tibet’s most inhospitable regions. Trekking holidays take you along this 52km circuit in three days, accompanied by porters and yaks.
Namtso Lake

7. Namtso Lake

Drive out of Lhasa, past nomadic yak herders and snow-covered mountain ranges, to one of Tibet’s four holy lakes: the extraordinarily beautiful Lake Namtso. Far from the chaos of urban life, at an elevation of 4,718m, this salt lake offers tranquil treks around its shores, as well as trips to Tashi Dor Island, nearby hot springs and hermitage caves. No wonder Namtso is known as the Heavenly Lake.
Potala Palace

8. Potala Palace

Your first glimpse of the Potala Palace, the towering former winter residence of the Dalai Lama that sits resplendent atop Marpo Ri, will give you goosebumps. This 1,000-room palace still contains the golden tombs of former Dalai Lamas, along with Buddhist scriptures handwritten in gold and many other ancient artifacts. Take time to acclimatise; Potala is 14 stories high with plenty of steps up to it.
Rongbuk Monastery

9. Rongbuk Monastery

Rongbuk is said to be the highest monastery in the world – and at 4,980m above sea level, it’s no surprise. Long a place of pilgrimage for Nepalese Sherpas living on Everest’s southern slopes, as well as for early explorers, today the prayer flag-draped monastery sits close to Tibet’s Everest Base Camp and offers stunning views of the mountain itself. Meditation caves punctuate the surrounding Himalayan cliffs.

10. Sakya

A small village that feels worlds away from Tibet’s developing towns, Sakya is an atmospheric slice of old Tibet accessed through a patchwork of traditional farmland. Its eponymous monastery is considered one of the finest in the region and its architecture stands out too: Sakya’s silver-grey buildings are striped red and white in honour of the Rigsum Gonpo trio of deities.
Samye Monastery

11. Samye Monastery

The first Buddhist monastery to be built in Tibet was constructed some 1,200 years ago by Indian monks, although catastrophic wars, fires, earthquakes and China’s Cultural Revolution destroyed much of the original structure. After much neglect, the monastery became an important place of worship once again, and Tibetan Buddhists complete pilgrimages of thousands of miles to visit this sacred site.

12. Shigatse/Xigatse

The traditional capital of Tibet’s Tsang Province, Shigatse sits at the confluence of two rivers and is an interesting, dusty city with some impressive fortresses including Tashilhunpo Monastery, whose golden roofs glint proudly under the sun. There’s a tiny old Tibetan town based at its foot with some lovely old-world charm, though the rest of the city is becoming a very Chinese modern expanse.

13. Tsetang

The “cradle of Tibetan civilisation”, Tsetang is now a modern city and the fourth largest in Tibet. But you can still explore the old Tibetan quarter, then head up to the viewpoint at Yumbulagang Fort, a tower situated on a rocky ridge above the Yarlung Valley. The fort is said to have been constructed in the 2nd century BCE for the first Tibetan king, Nyatrei Tsenpo, who descended from the sky. It is now a shrine.
Travel Team
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Tibet itineraries

Tibet cultural holiday (14 days):
Kathmandu > fly to Lhasa > Ganden Monastery > Gyantse > Shigatse > Shegar/New Tingri > Shakya Monastery > Rongbuk Monastery > Everest Base Camp > Zhangmu > Milrepa Cave > Kathmandu

Everest Base Camp Tour (12 days):
Kathmandu > fly to Lhasa > Gyantse > Shigatse > Shegar/New Tingri > Rongbuk Monastery > Everest Base Camp > Zhangmu > Kathmandu

Tibet Pilgrimage trekking holiday (10 days):
Lhasa > Ganden Monastery > Trek to Yama Do > Trek to herder’s camp > Samye Monastery > Tsetang

Tibet travel times

The following times give you a rough idea of the driving and rail times between Tibet highlights.

Beijing – Lhasa: 48hrs by basic sleeper train Lhasa – Gyantse: 6hrs by road Gyantse – Shegar (New Tingri): 5hrs by road Rongbuk – Kathmandu, Nepal: 10hrs by road Lhasa – Samye Monastery: 1hr 30 mins (3hrs in winter when tunnel is closed) Lhasa – Shigatse: 4hrs Lhasa – Mamtso Lake: 5hrs Shigatse – Nepal border: 10hrs
Photo credits: [Page banner: Will De Freitas] [Everest Base Camp: Thomas Fuhrmann] [Ganden Monastery: Kevin Poh] [Gyantse: Gorun Hoglund (Kartlasarn)] [Lhasa: Gorun Hoglund (Kartlasarn)] [Monks & monasteries: SarahDepper] [Mount Kailash: Ondrej Zvacek] [Namtso Lake: SarahDepper] [Potala Palace: Coolmanjackey] [Rongbuk Monastery: Gorun Hoglund (Kartlasarn)] [Sakya: Wonderlane] [Samye Monastery: ckmck] [Shigatse/Xigatse: So_P] [Tsetang: So_P] [Travel times: Gorun Hoglund (Kartlasarn)]