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Highlights of Tibet: the great outdoors and beyond

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Way up on the ‘Roof of the World’, the high plateau of Tibet holds a clear- (and thin-) aired magic. Visitors may well feel lightheaded from the altitude (which averages out at about 4,380m above sea level), but there is plenty more in Tibet to take your breath away. The pristine mountainscapes of the Himalayas are as pure and serene as the snow dusting their tops. Colourful prayer flags flutter and dance, lonely yaks pick their way across the steppe, and all-around immense peaks reach into ice-blue skies. 

Amidst this awesome landscape perch exquisite Buddhist monasteries, their golden roofs and ornate flourishes sheltering a deeply spiritual people. Tibetans are famously warm and easygoing – but they are tough with it. Living in the harsh conditions of their lofty homeland demands hardiness and resilience. Meeting the local people and learning about their history and culture is both a fundamental and fascinating part of any trip to Tibet. Here, we recommend the best sights and outdoor experiences to enjoy in this magical destination.

Labrang Monastery in Tibet

When to visit Tibet 

The best time to visit Tibet is during spring or autumn, from April to May and from September to early November. The summer monsoons bring heavy rains that can frustratingly obscure views and make travelling trickier. In the deep winter months, many tourism businesses shut up shop, and some mountain passes may be closed. The spring heralds a good mix of weather and a landscape decorated with the blooms of multi-hued rhododendrons. In autumn, fiery colours light up the land, often under bright blue skies.

Settle in in Lhasa

For most that travel to Tibet, their point of arrival will be in the capital city of Lhasa. Spread across a shallow basin and surrounded by Himalayan peaks, this is among the highest inhabited places in the world at an elevation of 3,600m. 

Lhasa is the spiritual home of Tibetan Buddhism, and the fabric of city life is infused with the rituals and devotion of this most peaceful of religions. Wander through sublime palaces and temples side-by-side with pilgrims from all over the world. In these holy places, incense wafts, prayer wheels spin, and the murmur of mantra is all around. Many people who visit leave changed by their encounters with the philosophies of Buddhism and the people who practice it. 

Not all religious buildings are hushed, though. Within the inner courtyard of the Sera Monastery, monks engage in rowdy philosophical debate, complete with loud hand-clapping and gesticulating. This verbal and physical practice is quite something to witness. 

For more earthly fulfilment, namely shopping and food, head to the Barkhor Market area. Close to the Jokhang Temple, this is one of Lhasa’s oldest districts. Small shops line the streets along with a jumble of stalls selling anything from knock-off trainers to traditional jewellery, tapestries and snacks such as momos, fried potatoes and butter tea. 

palace within the mountains

Explore the glorious Ganden Monastery

Just a short trip from the capital, Ganden Monastery sits on the slopes of Wangbori Mountain. Its buildings, strung across the hillside in ribbons of white, deep red and gold, are a magnificent sight. The views back out across the Lhasa Valley are also splendid. 

large monastery sitting on a hill

Soak in the Yampachen Hot Springs

Take a dip in the high-altitude Yampachen Hot Springs and warm your bones. With indoor and outdoor pools naturally heated to a balmy temperature, this is a lovely way to relax the body and help it to acclimatise. 

Witness the remote beauty of Namtso Lake 

The vast saltwater Lake Namtso is set at an altitude of 4,718m, so it’s up there among the highest lakes in the world. Its name means ‘Heavenly Lake’, and it is a holy place in Tibet with an otherworldly atmosphere.

Around the lake’s sapphire expanse stretch grassy plains sparsely dotted with nomad tents and grazing yaks. The plains give way to the gentle folds and pleats of foothills, and soaring jagged peaks extend skyward beyond.

white ox by Namtso Lake

See the marvellous symmetry of Samye Monastery

Founded in the 8th century by King Trisong Detsen, Samye is the oldest monastery in Tibet. As at most of Tibet’s monasteries, it is more of a complex or a small village, complete with residential spaces, gardens, schools and temples. Tibet’s monasteries were built to house thousands of novice monks, but today, occupants usually run into the hundreds at most. 

Samye is unique because of its symbolic architectural construction built around the form of a mandala. The central hall represents the holy mountain at the centre of the universe, while smaller temples radiate out around it, symbolising the oceans and continents of Buddhist cosmology.  

inside of Samye Monastery

Make the climb to Everest Base Camp

This is the big-hitter, the highest mountain in the world and the most formidable challenge for any ambitious mountain climber. The majority of climbers and hikers approach Everest from the Nepalese side, but the great thing about Everest Base Camp in Tibet is that it is accessible by road. This enables many more people to stand in awe of the planet’s highest peak – a dizzying 8,849m above sea level. 

Seeing Everest’s notorious tip for the first time sends a shiver of excitement down the spine. To fully revel in its beauty, prise yourself out of bed before sunrise on a clear day and gaze on as the stars fade and the sheer eastern face turns pink and gold with the rising sun. 

flags at Everest Base Camp

Take the road to Everest and Rongbuk Monastery

The journey to and from Everest Base Camp is one to savour, leading you through some of the most dramatic mountain scenery anywhere in the world. Traverse part of the Friendship Highway that links China with Nepal, before climbing to the Gawu La Pass at 5,250m. From up here, you can soak up views of many of the Himalayan massifs. Within the range are four mountains that reach over 8,000m and 14 over 7,000m.

Just 5km from Everest Base Camp is the rugged Rongbuk Monastery with a café and guesthouse. Its viewing platform faces directly towards Everest, and it also offers the opportunity to meet the monks and nuns who live there. 

view of Mount Everest from the Rongbuk Monastery

Combine a trip to Tibet and Nepal

For an incredible road trip, making the journey from Lhasa to Kathmandu makes for a true Himalayan odyssey. Traverse high passes and gaze at glorious landscapes as you ride the Friendship Highway towards the Nepalese border. A few detours along the way to visit some of Tibet’s remote mountain villages are well worth the extra time spent and switchbacks negotiated. Combining both countries means you only need to acclimatise once – so it’s a win-win. 

evening light over mountains in Kathmandu

Make it happen

If hearing about the wild Himalayan mountains of Tibet has ignited your appetite for adventure, then maybe it’s time to start planning your next big trip. Discuss ideas with one of our local experts and start feeling the thrill of having a holiday in the diary.  

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