Tibet Autonomous Region vs. the Tibetan Area
Travel to Tibet is on many travelers' dream list, not only because of its mysterious religions, unique culture, but also the exotic scenery on the roof of the world. But where is Tibet? When people talk about Tibet, they usually refer to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (T.A.R.), a province of the People’s Republic of China. However, to the local Tibetan people, Tibet is a much larger area, which includes all the areas of the Tibetan Plateau, where Tibetan people are native.
1. Tibetan Provinces/Administration Districts distribution
The Tibetans are one of the 56 ethnic groups in China and the indigenous people of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. In China, they are mainly distributed in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai Province, western/northern Sichuan Province, northern corner of Diqing, Yunnan Province, and southern of Gannan, Gansu Province. In addition, there are also Tibetans in India and Bhutan, etc. At present, there are about 7.5 million Tibetans in the world and about 7 million in China (2016).
Where is Tibet Autonomous Region (T.A.R)?
Tibet Autonomous Region is located in the southwest of China, bordering Nepal and India. Lhasa is the capital city of T.A.R and an international tourist city with plateaus and ethnic characteristics. It is the political, economic, cultural, scientific, and educational center of Tibet and a holy place for Tibetan Buddhism. In addition to the famous Potala Palace is the landmark of Lhasa, the Jokhang Temple is the spiritual center of Tibet, the most sacred Buddhist temple in Tibet. Other top things to see in T.A.R. include the cradle of Tibetan civilization - Tsedang & Samye at Yarlung Tsangpo River Valley, the world's highest mountain - Mount Everest, the most sacred mountain - Mount Kailash and the Tibetan 'Swiss-Alps' Nyingchi on the eastern of T.A.R.
Top attractions: Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Monks debating in Sera Monastery, Yamdrok Lake, Namtso Lake, Manasarovar Lake, Tashilhunpo Monastery, Mount Everest Base Camp, Mount Kailash, Guge Kingdom Ruins.
Where is the Tibetan area?
Tibetan area covers all the Tibetan plateau where Tibetan people are native. It generally spread across five provinces of China including all T.A.R, most of Qinghai province, the southwest part of Gansu, the northern and western portion of Sichuan Province, and the northwest corner of Yunnan.
1) Tibetan area of Sichuan
The Sichuan Tibetan area mainly refers to the Garzê (Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in the western of Sichuan and the Aba Tibetan & Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in the northern part of Sichuan.
Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture is a major part of the historical Tibetan region of Kham. 78% of the population is Kham Tibetans who live up to their reputation for bravery and horsemanship. Garzê is a very geographically diverse region where you can enjoy the breath-taking natural landscapes, like the famous Yading Nature Reserve. It is also a great place to experience Khampa culture by visiting the hidden monasteries in the mountains or take part in one of their festivals, like the Litang Horse Racing Festival in early August.
Aba Tibetan & Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in the northern part of Sichuan is very famous for its rolling grasslands, a great place to enjoy the nomad life. Other world-class tourist attractions include the Jiuzhaigou National Park, Huanglong National Park, and Wolong Giant Panda Breeding and Research center.
Top attractions: Danba Tibetan villages, Mount Siguniang, Tagong Grassland, Yala Snow Mountain, Xinduqiao, Daocheng / Yading Nature Reserve, Yarchen Gar (Archen Monastery), Hailuogou Glacier Park and Dagu Glacier Park, Jiuzhaigou National Park.
2) Tibetan area of Yunnan
The Tibetan area of Yunnan mainly refers to the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture which is located in the northwest of Yunnan Province, at the junction of northern Yunnan, eastern T.R.A., and southwest of Sichuan. It is one part of the historical Tibetan region of Kham'It is one of the eight autonomous prefectures in Yunnan Province. The prefecture’s capital Shangri-La, a place regarded as an earthly paradise, where you can appreciate the snow-capped mountains, mighty rivers, remarkable gorges, and authentic Tibetan villages. You should try and go to the mountain of Karwa Karpo, one of the holiest mountains in Tibetan. It is a well-known forest kingdom, with a forest coverage rate of 73.95% and a forest greening rate of 78.91%. Locals believe that everything has spirits and worships natural deities. They have a rule that follows generations, not cutting trees that are bearing fruit.
Top attractions: Tiger Leaping Gorge, Deqin Feilai Temple, Mount Meili, Baima Snow Mountain
3) Tibetan area of Gansu
Tibetan area of Gansu refers more to the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. It is located in the southwestern part of Gansu Province, China. It is connected to Aba & Qiang Prefecture of Sichuan Province on the northeast edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and borders Huangnan Prefecture and Golok Prefecture of Qinghai in the southwest. There are 121 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries including Xiahe Labrang Monastery and Langmusi Sertri Monastery, which are national cultural relics protection units. The locals believe that the human body is formed of four substances: soil, water, fire, and air. After death, the body still needs to be transformed into four substances. Therefore, their funerals are divided into four types: burial, water funeral, cremation, and sky burial.
Top attractions: Labrang Temple, Langmu Temple, Zhagana, Sangke grassland
4) Tibetan area of Qinghai
China's ten Tibetan autonomous prefectures, Qinghai occupies six. Xining is the capital city of Qinghai, a great place for travelers to stop for 1-2 days acclimatization of the high-altitude. If you plan to take the Qinghai Tibet train to Lhasa, Xining would be your best choice, not only because the beautiful train journey landscape (Kekexili Nature Reserve) starts from Xining, but also it has more trains than any other city.
Yushu (Gyêgu) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture is located at the source of the Three Rivers in the hinterland of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in the southwest of Qinghai Province. It is known as "the source of rivers, the ancestors of famous mountains, the land of yak, the land of singing and dancing". The famous Yushu Horse Racing Festival will be held from July 25 to August 1 every year. Everyone will be dressed in bright national costumes and will dangle their tents on the Jiegu Prairie to participate in horse racing, yak racing, Tibetan wrestling, equestrian, archery, shooting, ethnic song and dance, and Tibetan costume display Activities with national characteristics.
Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture is located in the southeast of Qinghai, at the first bend of the Yangtze River. It is renowned as “the hometown of Tibetan painting”, and the exquisite skills of Rebgong art play an important role in Tibetan Buddhism art. The Golog (Guoluo) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture is also located in the southeast of Qinghai, bordering Gansu Province in the east and Sichuan Province in the south. It contains many beautiful lakes and the holy Buddhist mountain - Mount Amne Machin. Haibei Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture is located in the northeast of Qinghai Province, adjacent to Gansu Province in the north. Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture is located south of the famous Qinghai Lake, Haixi Mongolia Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture is located west of Qinghai Lake.
2. Traditional and historical Tibet
In a traditional and historical way, the greater Tibet cultural area includes three main regions: Ü-Tsang (Central Tibet), Amdo, and Kham. It is divided according to the scope of the three major dialects. There’s a saying in the Tibetan area: the best horses are in Amdo, the most beautiful people are in Kham, and the most prosperous Buddhism are in Ü-Tsang. Another way to distinguish those three ethnic groups is from their costume: The overall style of Ü-Tsang Tibetan clothing is elegant and luxurious. Influenced by the Mongolian nomads, the Amdo Tibetans are used to dressing in simple and dark clothing with fewer accessories. However, Kham Tibetan people are extremely rich in dressing up, they always like bright colors and accessories in clothing and outfit.
Ü-Tsang is known as Central Tibet, it is the area of the current central and western part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. It shows an important role in Tibet's history, it's the cultural heartland of Tibet and the starting point of the Tibetan civilization. The first Buddhist temple - Samye monastery and the first palace - Yumbu Lakang Place are all located here. Their dialects are relatively consistent, and they are more unified in politics, military, culture, and economy. It is the traditional core area of Tibet and was formerly known as the headquarters of Tibet.
The Amdo Tibetan area is located in the northeast of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. There are many celebrities here. It's the birthplace of many academic masters and monks such as Tsongkhapa, Gendün Chöphel, the 10th Panchen Lama - Choekyi Gyaltsen, the 14th Dalai Lama - Tenzin Gyatso, etc. Amdo has vast prairies and the most beautiful grassland. The grassland provides living space for Tibetan nomads and produces the nomadic culture with the best horse in the whole of Tibet.
The Kham Tibetan area is located in northwest Sichuan, north Yunnan, eastern T.A.R., and south Qinghai. They are inhabited between the mountains and rivers of the Hengduan Mountains. The harsh natural environment has not only shaped the strong and bold character of Kham people but also cultivated their traditions and customs to go out to do business. Therefore, most Tibetan businessmen are from Kham. Kham is very famous for the Khampa culture, Buddhism institutes, and Geography diversity. The Kham people have the most pious faith.
3. How to organize a trip across two or more two Tibetan areas
4. Travel Regulation Difference
When visiting Tibet Autonomous Region (T.A.R), Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) Permit is a required document for all foreign and Taiwanese travelers. WindhorseTour will help to organize all of the Tibet permits by using the scanned copies of the travelers’ valid passport data page and China visa page, about 20-30 days in advance. It is an entry permit before boarding a flight or train to Lhasa, or crossing the borders of T.A.R via an overland trip. Please read our Tibet Permit page for more details.
There’s no special travel permit needed to visit Sichuan/Yunnan/Gansu/Qinghai's Tibetan area. These areas can be visited with a regular, valid Chinese visa. Just some certain places are subject to close, such as the Sertar Larung Gar, Yarchen Gar, etc.
5. Best time to travel
- December to February: It is a great time to visit Lhasa and the surrounding area in winter as it is a great time to experience Lhasa’s devout heart — multitudes of Tibetans practicing Tibetan Buddhism. Usually, it’s not a very good time to visit the Tibetan region during the winter as it could get really cold, but Hailuogou Glacier Park in Garzê Tibetan prefecture and Dagu Glacier Park in Aba Tibetan prefecture are the exceptions.
- March to April: Spring is coming and it’s the best time to see the flowers blooming in the villages of Danba and Jinchuan valley in Garzê Tibetan prefecture. On the other side, thousands of peach trees are blooming in Nyingchi, eastern T.A.R. It looks like an oil painting with gorgeous scenery. April is considered one of the best times to see the true face of Mount Everest.
- May to June: Trekkings are recommended during these periods with their mild climate and good weather. Normally late April to early June, or September to early October is the best time to visit Mount Kailash. However, the famous Saga Dawa Festival will be held between May and June (the 15th day of the 4th month according to the Tibetan calendar), a truly unique cultural experience. Thousands of pilgrims will come here to pray and worship, honoring their respective faith. It’s also the best time to visit Shangri-La, Diqing Tibetan Prefecture. Besides, you will see the gorgeous alpine lake of Draksum-tso, the lush green of Lulang forest and the gorgeous views of Mount Namche Barwa in the Nyingchi area, Eastern T.A.R.
- July to August: July and August are generally suitable months for any part of Tibet except the highway between Bayi town to Ranwu in eastern T.A.R. because of the Monsoon season. There are big horse racing festivals held in Yushu Tibetan Prefecture, Litang of Garzê Tibetan Prefecture, and Nagchu of T.A.R. It’s also the best to visit Qinghai Lake (Rape flower blossom), Labrang Temple (prayer festival), Langmusi Sertri Monastery. The biggest Shoton Festival (the 30th day of the 6th month according to the Tibetan calendar) also happens in August or early September.
- September to November: When people ask me what’s the best time to visit Tibet, I always say “absolutely September”. It’s one the best time to visit Mount Everest Base Camp, you will enjoy the sunrise over Mount Everest and have a full view of this magnificent Mount Everest due to the good weather and visibility. We regard October as a heavy season or golden season. You will be amazed by these gorgeous sceneries with colorful autumn views in Jiuzhaigou and Yading Nature Reserve, basically the whole western Sichuan from the end of September to early November.