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Tibet Province

Name 西 ( zàng) ['west' 'treasury']
Population3.148 million (0.23 %) [32nd] comparison table
Area1,230,000 km2 [474,903 mile2] (12.82 %) [2nd]
GDP29,252 (0.37 %) [30th]
Position of Tibet in China
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Google map of Tibet
Beijing Tianjin Shanghai Hong Kong Xinjiang Tibet Qinghai Gansu Inner Mongolia Heilongjiang Jilin Liaoning Yunnan Sichuan Guangxi Hainan Taiwan Guangdong Guizhou Chongqing Ningxia Shandong Fujian Zhejiang Shaanxi Shanxi Hebei Henan Hunan Hubei Jiangxi Anhui Jiangsu


Xinjiang Qinghai Sichuan Yunnan

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Tibet has had vassal status to China for centuries. In China it is known as Xizang (meaning “Western treasure house of Buddhist scriptures”) and became an Autonomous Region within China in 1950. Tibet is the China's natural south-western border because Tibet's southern edge contains the highest Himalayan Mountains including Zhumulangma Feng (Mount Everest 29,029 feet [8,848 meters]) which stands on the border with Nepal. The Tibetan Plateau is the source of the waters that become the Yarlong Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), the Indus, and the Ganges.

Tibet, yak, stupa, view
Three yaks with Buddhist stupas in Tibet

‘Tibet’ is a modern European name for the province probably derived from the Arabic ‘Tibat’ meaning ‘The summits’. In the distant past the Chinese called it “Tufan”; the Tibetans themselves use the name “Bod བོད”.

History of Tibet

All about the religions of China

All about the religions of China


Untangling the religions of China is quite a struggle for those unfamiliar with the country. There are three main belief systems Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism that have co-existed in relative harmony for over a thousand years. Islam, Christianity and Ancestor veneration are also described in our comprehensive treatment of the subject.

Tibet formed the Thufo Empire back in the 8th century and at this time it became strong enough to attack China and sack the great Tang dynasty capital city of Chang'an. Tibetan culture persists not just in Tibet but also in neighboring Qinghai; western Sichuan; northern Yunnan; southern Xinjiang and Gansu provinces that formed the Tibetan kingdom. The main cultural influence is from the local form of Buddhism - Tibetan Buddhism. The religion merged some features of Bon , known for its prayer flags and wheels with Tantric Buddhism . In 1641 the Yellow Hat sect beat the Red Hat sect to become the leading religious group and installed the first Dalai Lama. The Tibetan culture has its own traditions and festivals including Tibetan New Year. Tibet became part of Qing Empire China in 1705 and only had a brief period of independence after the fall of the Qing (1911-1950). In 1903 Britain, concerned with potential Russian threat to its Indian Empire to the south, sent Captain Younghusband to impose control. After beating the Tibetan Army, Britain agreed that Qing China could rule Tibet (as long as it kept out the Russians) but still maintained a formal presence 1904-1944 at Lhasa, Gyangze and Gartok to monitor the country.

The Cultural Revolution (1966-75) wrought havoc to Tibet. Initiatives were imposed across China taking no account of local conditions and traditions - so wheat was planted in place of barley and more importantly the Buddhist monasteries were systematically destroyed. Of the 1,600 monasteries in 1959 only 10 survived to 1979. A rebellion in 1958 resulted in the Dalai Lama and 80,000 Tibetans fleeing over the mountains to Dharamshala in northern India (only 124 miles [200 kms] from the Tibetan border). Extensive settlement by Han Chinese began at the time of the foundation of the PRC. The politics of Tibet remain a very sensitive topic and the details of China's right to rule are disputed. At the Simla Conference 1913-14 China agreed that Outer Tibet would be given full autonomy but the Republican government then disowned the accord.

Lhasa, Tibet
Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet. October 2010.
Image by *Christopher*’s available under a Creative Commons license
Mount Everest, Tibet, Qomolangma
Mount Everest (29,035 ft) and Mount Nuptse (+25,000 ft) Image by r hyland available under a Creative Commons License

Everest, the highest mountain in the World is often thought of as being located in Nepal rather than China. The truth is that it is in both countries, the border runs directly through the peak. In China Mount Everest is known by a transcription of its Tibetan name ‘Zhūmùlǎngmǎ Fēng珠穆朗玛峰 (meaning Holy Mother).

The British surveyor Sir George Everest working in India measured it as the highest peak 29,059 feet [8,857 meters] in the Himalaya - he did not actually climb the mountain. It is said that he measured it at exactly 29,000 feet and fearing no one would believe it was exactly a number of thousands added a couple of feet to the figure. The measurement has since been revised upward, and actually the mountain continues to rise an inch a year due to the tectonic forces pushing up the whole Tibetan plateau.

Province of China's ancient heartland

Province of China's ancient heartland


The modern province of Shaanxi has many sites of historic interest. Perhaps none more so than the tomb of the First Qin Emperor with its thousands of Terracotta warriors. With the great Yellow River, mountains and arid areas there is a great deal of scenic beauty too.

Access to Everest can be made from the Friendship Highway that runs from Nepal into China. The north-east ridge route is on the Chinese side of the mountain while the slightly easier south-east ridge route to the summit is on the Nepalese side. Notable wildlife on its slope include the snow leopard and lynx.

Tenzing Norgay (Nepalese) and Edmund Hillary (New Zealand) were the first mountaineers to reach the peak on 29th May 1953. A Chinese team of Wang Fuzhou, Qu Yinhua, Xu Jin and a Tibetan, Gong Bu attempted to reach the summit in 1960, they came very close but whether they made it right to the top has been disputed as no photographs were taken.

The second highest mountain in the world is usually called K2 and is on the China - Pakistan border in neighboring Xinjiang. At 28,251 feet [8,611 meters] it is less than 3% lower than Everest.


Conditions at the high altitudes are bleak; most Tibetans live in the narrow valley of the Yarlung Zangbo Jiang where the main town Lhasa is sited, it means ‘Throne of God’. Tibetan rather than Chinese is the main language, which is closer to Burmese than Chinese in form, and Tibetan Pinyin is used on road signs. The Potala Palace in Lhasa is the center of Tibetan Buddhism and popular with tourists. The Palace was built by King Songtsan Gambo (617-650) for his Han Chinese wife Wen Cheng. Potala means ‘Buddha's mountain’ in Sanskrit, it was last re-built in the 17th century by the fifth Dalai Lama. There are a thousand rooms and many grand halls. The West Main Hall holds the remains of the previous Dalai Lamas encased in gold. The fabulous Guanyin Hall is a rare fragment of the original palace. The whole palace was designed to resist earthquakes by pouring liquid copper into the foundations. It is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Tibet, lake, mountains
Manasarovar lake and Mount Namunani, Tibet

Places to visit in Tibet

Another well known attraction is the Tashilhunpo Monastery at Xigaze (Shigatse) this is the home of the Panchen Lama (second in seniority to the Dalai Lama). The other monasteries are dotted around including Baiqoi Monastery at Gyangze; Drepung Lamasery, Sera Monastery and Gandain Monastery. Sacred places include Yamdrok Lake and Heavenly Lake Namtso . Many Buddhist monasteries have fine displays of Táng kǎ - a religious painting on cloth. These bright and complex images often portray Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as well as demons.

Tibet, deer
Golden deer and dharma wheel at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet

Currently travel within Tibet by foreigners is tightly controlled; it is not possible to travel about on your own, you have to go as part of a group. It is also essential to allow adequate time to acclimatize for the very high altitude. The Qinghai-Tibet railway was opened in 2006, and this has greatly increased the province's accessibility from the rest of China. It is the highest railway in the world, reaching 16,640 feet [5,072 meters] at the Tanggula Pass.


Tibetans form the dominant ethnic group, with a minority of Han people who live in the main towns. The forced settlement of Han people in Lhasa has given the city a Chinese feel; however tensions between the Tibetan and Han peoples continue to produce unrest at times. There are continued protests by monks, sometimes committing suicide by self-immolation .

Tibet, Shigatse, prayer wheel, Buddhism, view
Pilgrim route with prayer wheels at Shigatse in Tibet

The Cambridge Illustrated History of China

book coverCambridge University Press produce a mammoth in-depth history of China, this can be considered an abridgement of this work. It has copious illustrations and useful panels describing key parts of Chinese culture and history. It covers the whole time period from pre-history to the present day - a lot to cover in one book. It is a fascinating and engaging read and to be recommended as a key reference work.
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Tibet remains a poorly developed, desolate province compared to the rest of China. It has the feel of a different country. Yak herding is the key agricultural activity of Tibetans, but only in the southern valleys. Very little grows over much of the central and northern regions due to lack of rain and the extreme altitude and cold. Some barley is grown in the warmer valleys. It is very cold in winter and cool in summer with very limited rainfall which falls only in the southernmost area.

Tibet Climate

Temperature axisClimate ChartRainfall axis
Climate chart for Tibet
Both Temp Rainfall ° C/mms ° F/ins Key
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Major CitiesPopulation
Lhasa 118,721


Lhasa Gonggar Airport 拉萨贡嘎机场 LXA IATA / ZULS ICAO
The airport has 1 terminal and is located 38.5 miles (62.0 kms) from Lhasa. Live Flight information , rank in China 50
See map of location Lhasa Gonggar Airport

City populations for 2012, Province statistics National Bureau of Statistics 2014

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