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TRAVEL Discover Tibet

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2004/10/03; October 3, 2004.]

Business Times - 02 Oct 2004

JIMMY LAM shares tips on journeying outside the boundaries of the Tibetan Autonomous Region

IT used to be that if a person were planning a trip to Tibet, he would be faced with two choices. One option would be to fly to Chengdu in Sichuan province in China, stay there overnight, and proceed to fly to Lhasa in the Tibetan Autonomous Region the following morning. Alternatively, especially if he was a little more adventurous, he could consider flying to Kathmandu in Nepal, and take the overland route to Lhasa.

Things are very different today. He will be confronted with a lot of options especially if he has a broader view of Tibet, and seeks to discover Tibetan culture, people and places outside the boundaries of the popular Tibetan Autonomous Region. The Tibetan culture stretches beyond those borders, and also prevails in neigbouring provinces of Yunnan, Western Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu.

There are two reasons why travellers had in the past confined their Tibetan experience to only the Tibetan Autonomous Region. First, many travel guidebooks only confined themselves to the Tibetan Autonomous Region even though their titles may say 'Tibet'. Second, many Tibetan areas in these other provinces are just being opened to tourists. They were once closed and travels to such areas required special permits. Moreover, air and road infrastructure have been greatly improved in the past few years, making these areas much more accessible to tourists.

Like many travellers, I was wrong, too, in the past in assuming that the Tibetan Autonomous Region was the same as Tibet. For a truly comprehensive view of all things Tibet, the traveller must take in the other four provinces in China as well.

I did just that over three years. I made many trips to this broader area to document through photography the people, culture, traditions and landscape. I have collected many of these images and experiences in a coffeetable book entitled Greater Tibet (October 1, 2004; published by Marshall Cavendish)

Greater Tibet is a very large area, and it will not be possible for me in this article to adequately cover all the places mentioned in the book. But I am happy to share some tips that you may want to bear in mind when you plan your own journey.

There is plenty to see and experience in Greater Tibet. You might come face to face with the people of Kham in the Western Sichuan and Yunnan, and the people of Amdo in Qinghai and Gansu. There are many great monasteries in this region. The Tibetan Autonomous Region has a lot of yellow-sect (Gelukpa sect) monasteries. In Greater Tibet, you have more yellow-sect monasteries, some of which are considered extremely important (eg Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, Gansu, and Ta'er Monastery in Xining, Qinghai). You will also find many red-sect monasteries (Nyingmapa), and the original religious group in Tibet, the Bon religion.

You may want to plan your trip along certain themes. You could explore the various great monasteries in this region, or you may seek to understand their traditions by participating in their festivals. Festivals come in two types: religious (eg prayer festivals and mask dance) and secular (horseracing and opera). These century-old festivals are steeped in tradition and significance. What you would soon realise is that as these areas do not attract as many tourists compared with the big cities like Lhasa, the atmosphere at these festivals tend to be less commercialised.

Use a good guide book to plan your itinerary, and work with a good travel agent. For all my trips to Greater Tibet, I worked with the people at Country Holidays, Singapore. They have very strong local contacts. Having good contacts is important for several reasons. If you are keen on participating in a festival, it is important to establish the date in our Gregorian calendar. The Tibetan calendar is different from the Chinese calendar. Even among Tibetans, they use two different calendars: one for Lhasa, one for the other regions. And when you have mapped out your route, it is important to establish the driving distance and the driving conditions in those areas. Driving conditions change all the time depending on road construction, repairs, ice, and sometimes even landslide. Country Holidays will be able to get you a Tibetan-speaking guide as different dialects are spoken in different areas, so getting the right guide is important. Lastly, good local contacts can get you safe and reliable drivers who are experienced driving in mountainous region.

If you are nature lover, Greater Tibet has much to offer throughout the whole year. You can see beautiful spring wildflowers and be charmed by stupendous autumn and winter landscapes throughout this region. The autumn landscape is unique in that it offers both the New England-style autumn scenery of red, golden, and orange maples in one area, and the Rocky Mountain-style view of yellow cottonwoods set against majestic snow-capped mountains. What is even more remarkable is that this autumn scenery is set against a backdrop of lakes, rivers, streams and Tibetan villages, architecture and prayer flags.

The writer is a Singaporean money manager based in New York. He travels extensively throughout Asia to document its culture and people as a hobby.

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