LivingTravelUnderstand the historical geography and regions of Tibet

Understand the historical geography and regions of Tibet

Tibet on the itinerary

Many visitors to China want to see Tibet. Imagine towering monasteries and burgundy-clad monks, colorful prayer flags waving in high-altitude beauty, yaks, and nomads. And they think they need to go to Lhasa to see everything. So, they start researching how to get there and then they realize that adding Tibet in a 10-day trip to China is quite difficult. China is a huge place. You cannot fly to Lhasa from Beijing. You have to add another day of travel, more special travel permits, and depending on the agency, time of year, and arbitrary travel restrictions, you may or may not travel there.

I myself have always wanted to visit Tibet. It’s on the list. But the list is long, and I have heard many travelers report that Lhasa has lost some of its original charm, that there is now so much tourism that you end up feeling like you are in a Disneyed version of Tibet. Lhasa now has so many luxury hotels and huge groups of tourists touring that my idea of seeing a border has faded along with the desire to go.

And then I accidentally went to Tibet.

Where is Tibet?

How can you accidentally go to Tibet? I’ll tell you: when you don’t realize that Tibet is more than just TAR. Tibet is more than just Lhasa or a border outlined by the Chinese government. Tibet, historically, is a huge region that has had a relationship with China for much longer than since the turbulent 1950s.

We took a trip to Xining, Qinghai province, in October 2012 and in my research it was the first time I came across the reference to Amdo, the northeast Tibetan region. We were going to the west of China, but we entered historical Tibetan territory and it was certainly obvious once we got there.

Brief history

During the heyday of the Tibetan Empire, under the Yarlung kings, Tibetan territory extended from the Indian border to the Chinese territory of the Tang Dynasty. Historically, modern Qinghai province and parts of Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces were part of Tibet. Influence came and went as the Tibetan Empire waned and grew, but today that territory is still home to a large population of Tibetans.

Tibetan regions

To help the visitor better understand the territory, here is a description of the area, the names of the regions in Tibetan and Chinese, as well as the main attractions there.

Traditionally, when Tibet is considered, there are four main regions:

  • Ngari in the far west where Mt. Kailash is found. This region today is within the Tibetan Autonomous Region or TAR.
  • The Ustang region is located in central Tibet and is home to Lhasa, Shigatse, and other famous places. This region is also within the TAR.
  • The northeast Tibetan region of Amdo lies mainly within the borders of the Qinghai and Gansu provinces.
  • And finally, Kham is the southeastern region that is now within the borders of the Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.

For two great maps showing the areas, see here.

Within Chinese provinces, Tibetan autonomous prefectures and counties are also delineated and visitors will sometimes see these geographical names in use.

Qinghai Province (known in Tibetan as the Amdo Region) , home to Qinghai Lake and Kumbum Monastery

  • Tibetan and Mongolian Autonomous Prefecture of Haixi (TAP), home to the city of Golmud, where the Qinghai-Tibet railway begins and ends (Golmud to Lhasa, although an extension to Xining and Beijing is currently under construction)
  • Yushu TAP, site of a major earthquake in 2010
  • Haibei TAP, Kokonor Lake (Qinghai Lake) Border Region
  • Hainan TAP, Kokonor Lake (Qinghai Lake) Border Region
  • Huangnan TAP, home of Repkong
  • Golog TAP

Gansu Province (known in Tibetan as the Amdo region)

  • Gannan TAP, home to the Labrang monastery, Langmusi and the Ganjia grasslands

Sichuan Province (home to regions known in Tibetan as Amdo and Kham)

  • Aba / Ngawa Tibetan & Qiang AP (note: some sources locate this area in Kham, others in Amdo), home to the famous Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong national parks.
  • Garze TAP, home of Kangding and many other Tibetan monasteries
  • Muli TAC

Yunnan Province (known in Tibetan as the Kham region)

  • Deqen TAP, hogar de Zhongdian (Shangri La)

Visiting Tibetan Regions

Visitors do not have to go to the TAR to see Tibet. While there is a lot of debate and discussion about the state of Tibetan culture under Chinese rule, what I can say with certainty is that Tibetan life, religion, food and culture can still be experienced by visiting Tibetan areas outside of the TAR. . Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries
  • Amdo (Qinghai province)
  • Historical articles in much more detail:
    • About Tibet Posted by Friends of Tibet, New Zealand
  • A survey of Tibetan history published by the Benzin archives.

Geographical sources:

  • Tibet Handbook p. 886
  • Snowlion Tours

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