Sunday, July 1, 2012

Top 12 Places to See Tibet Outside of Tibet

Tibet has always been one of the few places in Asia that truly fascinate me. It still does as I have yet to set foot on the Tibetan plateau. It fascinates because the Tibetans are a peaceful people with a stunningly rich and colorful culture hardened by one of the most inhospitable environments in the world. Unfortunately, Tibetans are some of the most oppressed people in the world. The oppression continues with recent news about Tibet being closed to foreign travelers in light of recent self-immolations and protests happening in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Authorities are still seeking to control information and news about Tibet that could leak out to the rest of the world through foreign visitors.

While this is unfortunate, I don't believe this should stop anyone from learning more about the Tibetan cause or at the very least, understand Tibet, Tibetan culture, and other related Himalayan cultures. Here are some suggestions for places to see Tibet outside of Tibet. (Do note that I have only been to some, not all, of the places listed here. These are mere suggestions. I would love to learn your thoughts on the matter in the comments section!)

1. Dharamsala

McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

Where better to learn about the Tibetan cause but the nerve center of the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India. This is where the Dalai Lama fled in the dead of night from Lhasa and where he can be found when he is not globetrotting the world keeping a candle burning for his homeland. Thousands of other Tibetans have fled here, too, and through the years, they have formed a settlement in the mountain town of McLeod Ganj in this little corner of the Himalayan province of India.

2. Majnu Ka Tilla

By nmteaco | CC BY

Majnu Ka Tilla is a small Tibetan refugee enclave in the heart of the Indian capital city of Delhi. This is where I first experienced the kindness of Indian strangers. On a sad note, however, Majnu Ka Tilla has seen another self-immolation quite recently as more and more Tibetans exiled in India are becoming more desperate about the situation back in the Tibetan homeland.

3. Sarnath

Sarnath, Varanasi, India

While not exactly predominantly Tibetan, Sarnath is still a very Buddhist town. Sarnath is where Buddha gave his first teachings, making the place a pilgrimage site to Buddhists around the world, including of course, Tibetan Buddhists. There is a big Tibetan temple and a smattering of Tibetan establishments serving pilgrims to this holy site. Sarnath is 40 minutes by autorickshaw from the chaos of Varanasi in India.

4. Spiti Valley

By 4ocima | CC BY

Situated at an average elevation of 3,979 meters above sea level, a dizzying 13,054 feet, the Spiti Valley in the Himalayan province of India has the look and feel of Tibet. The name means "Middle Land" referring to its location as between India and Tibet. The monasteries here, one of which is Ki Gompa (pictured above), are centers of Buddhist learning and are said to be favorites of His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself.

5. Ladakh

ladakh landscape
By irumge | CC BY

Going further up in the barren highland deserts of the Indian Himalayas, you will find yourself in Ladakh. This "land of high passes" may have always been a land separate in identity from Tibet, but its history and culture is intrinsically linked to their neighbors in the east. The region, though geographically difficult, has been a very important trading post for the ancient civilizations of Central Asia, China, and India.

6. Kathmandu

Kathmandu, Nepal

The Nepali capital city of Kathmandu, which has been a center of trade between India and Tibet, is a hodge-podge of various Himalayan ethnic groups. The Tibetans naturally form a huge contingent here. The ancient stupa at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Boudhanath is a huge draw to Tibetan pilgrims from around the world. Whatever religious site you visit in Kathmandu, however, be it Boudhanath, Swayambhunath, or even Kathmandu's Durbar Square, it is fairly certain that you will find the life and chaos there a breath of fresh Himalayan air.

7. Sherpa Region

Solukhumbu Trail 2010 Pheriche - Tengboche - Phortse - Namche (31)
By akunamatata | CC BY-ND

The land of the Sherpas in Eastern Nepal goes by many names: Khumbu, Solukhumbu, or more popularly, Everest Region. Sherpas are known as elite mountaineers, highly adapted to the cold and low-oxygen environments at the roof of the world. There are many versions as to where the Sherpa people came from. It is evident, however, through their religion and culture, that their history and ancestry can be traced back to Tibet.

8. Dolpo

Dolpo is a remote corner of the Nepal Himalaya, enclosed by the Dhaulagiri and Churen mountains. Transportation in this region remains to be the yak caravans that have plied the valleys and passes here since time immemorial. Being highly inaccessible to the rest of the world, Tibetan culture and religion in the Dolpo region has remained pure and preserved.

9. Upper Mustang

By Nir Nussbaum | CC BY-ND

Upper Mustang is a highly restricted region in central Nepal. In fact, before being annexed to Nepal, Mustang was its own Himalayan kingdom, with its very own monarch. Much of the history, language, and culture of this area can be traced back to Tibet. It was only in 1992 that foreigners were allowed access into this ancient kingdom. Even then and until today, visitors need to bear a permit costing a hefty fee of 50 US dollars per day to be able to travel in this ancient kingdom.

10. Nar Phu

De Ngawal (3600m) à Manang (3540m)
By girolame | CC BY

The valleys of Nar and Phu can be reached by trekking further up from the popular Annapurna region in Nepal. These two areas, forming part of Nepal's Manang district, is very much a region apart. It is also a restricted area opened to tourists only in 2002. Here you can find medieval Tibetan villages, chortens, and herders, all of which time seemed to have forgotten.

11.Shangri-la County

Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, Shangri-la (Zhongdian) in Yunnan, China

The region of southwest China has always been Tibetan in culture, geography, and ethnic make-up. Part of the Yunnan province tourist circuit is the Shangri-la County. Past Lijiang and the Tiger Leaping Gorge, you will begin to see tall Tibetan houses and wide grazing fields. Only a few hours further up into the mountains, in fact, you may just find yourself in the far reaches of Tibet's eastern regions.

12. Western Sichuan

Chonggu Temple
By utpala | CC BY-ND

Finally, rounding up our list is Western Sichuan in China. The western part of Sichuan province is one of Tibet's traditional provinces: Kham province. While politically and geographically outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, western Sichuan is culturally and historically Tibetan, what Lonely Planet calls "Tibet in all but name."

Have you been to any of these places? Did you experience Tibetan culture in these places? Have you been to other places which you think should be on this list?

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