Tibet Area Map
In digesting Tibet's different regions, it's important to know a few things. First, there's a distinction between Tibet and the Tibet Autonomous Region (also referred to as the TAR). Tibet is situated on the Tibet Plateau, which includes parts of neighboring Chinese provinces Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan. These areas used to be part of Tibet until Chinese rule. The TAR refers to China's current Tibetan borders and doesn't include these neighboring areas, though Tibetans still consider these areas part of Tibet. Second, under the terms of your Tibet permit, you are not allowed to travel outside of Lhasa independently. There are seven regions in Tibet, but the ones with the most attractions (and the areas included in most tours) are Lhasa, Shigatse, Ngari and Nagqu.
Lhasa is the capital of Tibet and central city of the region. If you're traveling to Tibet from China, you will probably begin your journey here. Lhasa is a major part of many Tibet tour group itineraries. A standard permit to Tibet includes travel to and within Lhasa. If you want to travel outside of Lhasa, you have to obtain additional permits. While Tibet as a whole is underdeveloped compared to other parts of China, Lhasa is probably the closest you'll come to a big, bustling city (the population is about 200,000 people). Here you'll find the most amenities, including restaurants and hotels, as well as key attractions, including the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Sera Monastery and the shopping haven, Barkhor Street.
Southwest of Lhasa lies Tibet's second largest city and tourist hub, Shigatse. Shigatse bears a striking resemblance to Lhasa. Not only does it have an urban sprawl to it, (for Tibet's standards) Shigatse is equipped with amenities (think: hotels, shopping and restaurants) and features Shigatse Dzong, a prototype of Potala Palace. Like Potala Palace, Shigatse Dzong sits high on a hill above the city and is painted white and red. Shigatse is known for being home to the prominent Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. This monastery was built by the first Dalai Lama and acts as a seat to the Panchen Lama, the most important leader in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama. Shigatse is also the closest big city to the Mount Everest Base Camp.
Ngari is much more remote compared to Shigatse and Lhasa. People travel to this region specifically to enjoy its natural points of interest, including Lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash, both of which are considered to be very holy in Tibetan Buddhism. So much so that while you're at either sites, you might run into Tibetans on pilgrimage. The region also features monasteries, ancient ruins and plenty more mountains, lakes and forests.
Nagqu is the largest region within Tibet, situated north of Lhasa. Nagqu, like Ngari, is pretty remote, featuring an abundance of natural attractions. Here, you'll find Namtso Lake, which straddles the border of Nagqu and Lhasa, as well as mountain ranges, alpine lakes, plenty of wildlife and glaciers. This is also where the popular Nagchu Horse Racing Festival takes place in August.
Tibet is pretty safe for tourists. That's because the Chinese keep a very watchful eye on Tibetans. Not only are there security cameras all over Lhasa, but guards patrol the city. Some don't even wear uniforms while on duty. There are also numerous checkpoints situated throughout the region's highways. There have been some reports of pickpocketing in Lhasa but overall, theft is not common. However, travelers may encounter political protests from Tibetans. If you do, follow the instructions of your tour group leader. While visiting, don't talk politics or bring any kind of material about the Dalai Lama or Tibet's history. Consult the U.S. State Department's website for updates on any potential threats and consider enrolling in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive security messages.
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