Tibet

A Quick Guide To Himalayan Buddhist Sites

So you’re planning a trip to the Himalaya and you keep reading about the stupa, chorten, mani, lhakhang, gompa, and dzong that you will see along the way. Wait … the what?

These terms can be confusing to travellers who aren’t so familiar with Buddhism, so we’ve put together a quick guide to help you understand what they all mean. Use this guide so you can spend more time enjoying - and understanding - what you’re seeing, and less time getting lost in language.  

1.     Gompa = Monastery

Ubiquitous in the Himalaya, gompa means monastery. Gompa can range in size from small structures to village-like campuses, but all serve the same purpose of educating monks or nuns and taking care of their surrounding lay community’s religious needs.

Gompa usually contain a courtyard, assembly hall used for prayer services, apartments for the monks, various temples, scripture halls, and a communal kitchen. Their primary function is as a university – engaging students in programmes of study to take them from novice to graduate geshe (the Buddhist equivalent of a PhD) over time. You may see children as young as seven years old who have been sent to begin their monastic education, as new entrants are welcome at any age.

A secondary function, which enables the gompa to partially provide for itself, is as a company providing religious services to the surrounding community. These services include the performance of rituals, reciting of prayers for ill or deceased loved ones, and selling blessed objects for protection or spiritual development.

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2.     Lhakhang = Temple

Lhakhang comes from the Tibetan language, and means “House of the Gods”, which we translate into English as temple or chapel. Lhakhang can exist both inside monasteries and separately, and some big monasteries will have multiple different lhakhang that you will visit.

Each lhakhang is dedicated to a specific god or saint, who you will see images of on the main altar inside. Many Himalayan monasteries will also have a gonkhang, which is a different type of temple dedicated to the wrathful protector deities. Gonkhang are dark and disquieting places, and women are traditionally forbidden from entering them.

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3.     Stupa/Chorten

Whether you hear it called a stupa or a chorten, this word means the same thing (stupa is from the Sanskrit language, chorten is from the Tibetan). This is one of the most recognisable Buddhist sites you’ll see across the Himalaya, and serves several different functions.

One function is as a reliquary – housing the remnants of the Buddha, his disciples, or saints. As well as ashes or bodily relics, these remnants can also be important scriptures, which are regarded as the speech of the Buddha, or a saint’s begging bowl.

Stupa can also serve a symbolic function, representing events in the life of the Buddha, or aspects of Buddhist theology. These ones are subtly differentiated by their shape and form, see if you can spot the differences!  

4.     Dzong = Fortress

This term is primarily found in Bhutan, as the fortresses of old in Nepal and Tibet are mostly in ruin nowadays. Dzong means fortified place, and can be used to refer either to a fortified watchtower or fortified palace.

In Bhutan, dzong are usually part-administrative and part-monastic, reflecting the duality and close connection of religion and government in the country. Their strong structure was necessary during past conflict and invasions, but these days serve only peaceful purposes.

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5.     Mani = Prayer

You’ll see and hear the word mani used plenty in the Himalaya, usually referring to either mani wheels (prayer wheels) or mani walls, which are long walls made of piles of stones that have been carved with auspicious prayers.

You may also think that prayer flags would be called “mani flags”, but in fact they’re not! Prayer flags are referred to as “lung-ta” which means “windhorse”, in reference to the idea that as the wind blows, it will carry the prayers on its back like a galloping horse.

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 6.     Lha-tse = Mountain God’s Shrine

Although you may not hear these words said much, you’ll definitely see the site they refer to on your Himalayan journey. Lha-tse refers to the small shrines planted at the top of hills or mountains, dedicated to the local mountain gods. Usually decorated with prayer flags, and sometimes armed with wooden spears or swords, these are maintained by local villagers for the purpose of appeasing the mountain gods, in a tradition that pre-dates Himalayan Buddhism.

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Now you know your lhakang from your lha-tse, we hope you enjoy exploring the Himalayas in confidence.

Haven’t booked yet? Contact us to have a chat about where you’d like to go in the Himalayas, get inspired by our Bhutan, Ladakh, Nepal and Tibet itineraries, and share this post with a friend who’s going there too.

Hidden Caves of Tibet's Wild West

Last year our Beyond The Clouds team member Becky travelled to Tibet to visit the two most important monasteries in Amdo – Labrang and Langmusi. Part one followed her experiences in Labrang Monastery. Part two here carries on that journey, now with the company of a friend, in Langmusi.

Our shared car travelled south from Labrang, chasing the border of Gansu and Sichuan Provinces. It was evening by the time we arrived, and threatening to snow again. Being April, it was still too early in the season for many places to warrant being open, knowing that tourists wouldn’t brave the cold to venture out here. Langmusi was a ghost town.

We found our way to one of the few open guesthouses, up on a hill facing the dramatic red cliffs, where we settled in for the night (thank goodness for electric blankets to keep us cozy), and looked forward to exploring the monasteries the next day that we could only peek at in the dimming light today. 

Known in Tibetan as Taktsang Lhamo, Langmusi was not at all what I was expecting. It was like we’d arrived in a Wild West village – Tibetan cowboys rode their horses down the main street of town, a cool wind blew off the snowy peaks forcing monks to shroud themselves in heavy robes, stray dogs roamed in search of a meal. Maybe it was the dark morning weather or maybe it was the fact there were no other tourists around, but I felt like I’d stumbled into some moody, disquieting film set.

All these illusions were shattered as soon as people started to notice us – two white faces with fair hair sticking out like sore thumbs – and we received an onslaught of morning well wishes, smiles, and offers of service. I’m sure the real Wild West wouldn’t be this welcoming to strangers.

The red cliffs at sunset.

The red cliffs at sunset.

Monks walking through town.

Monks walking through town.

Tibetan cowboy riding down the main street of Langmusi town.

Tibetan cowboy riding down the main street of Langmusi town.

Langmusi is a curious town, straddling the border of two provinces, and with a sizeable monastery on each side – Kirti Monastery on the Sichuan side, and Sertri Monastery on the Gansu side. The sun was hiding so out came the compass to figure out which direction was which, and off we set for the Gansu Sertri Monastery.

Although it’s the smaller monastery, with only 350 monks versus the 750 on the Sichuan side, Sertri Monastery has the advantage of being built up into the hillside, allowing it views over the town and the other monastery. Unluckily, when we visited it was all locked up, so there was no chance of seeing the assembly hall or any of the chapels – or even finding anyone with the key. (Note to self: next time get a tour guide! )

Becky walking around the closed Kirtri Monastery.

Becky walking around the closed Kirtri Monastery.

The only people in sight were other pilgrims performing kora, so we followed their lead. After skirting past the front of several elaborately decorated temples we came to a dusty, worn trail that snaked up into stunted forest behind the monastery. A scrambling steep climb brought us to the lip of a cliff, from where we could look back down at the two monasteries, and further afield to the dramatic cliffs at one end of town and the winding road that led into the middle of nowhere in the other direction.

Although I was breathing heavily – still getting used to exerting myself at high altitude – the views were worth the effort. As we took the opportunity to sit and breathe in the views around us, the sun came out and the golden rooftops gleamed brightly below. From up here, the village below looked almost European, with its steep-roofed houses and quaint alpine feel. It really was beautiful when the sun came out – transformed from the Wild West to a miniature Switzerland.

Heading back down, following the trail, we found ourselves back in town and starving for some good warm comfort food – Tibetan noodle soup is what we needed. Two giant bowls of steaming, flavourful, freshly made noodles arrived at our table in the teahouse and were quickly drained. After a little stilted conversation with the teahouse owner, he offered to show us around for the afternoon, as he was insistent that we’d miss the highlight of Langmusi if we didn’t know our way around. I soon found out why.

The highlight of Langmusi is well hidden and unsignposted, and I’m sure there are many visitors who’ve missed it over the years. Behind the Kirti Monastery on the Sichuan side of town, across a field at the back of the final outlying temple, there’s a narrow gorge through the cliffs that is really the highlight of Langmusi.

This is the Namo Gorge, which hides several caves and is so narrow at parts that you can touch both sides with outstretched arms. A shallow stream runs through the middle of it, which soon becomes the path to follow as the bank on either side narrows and disappears.

Here is where the name Taktsang Lhamo, “Goddess of the Tiger’s Cave” really comes from – the first cave we encounter was the Tiger’s Cave, inside of which are several impressive stalagmites and stalactites that represent the shape of goddesses. The legends vary regarding the origins of these goddess formations – some say they arose naturally, and were recognised as sacred forms, some say there was a real goddess who tamed tigers and then transformed into a part of the cave, some say the goddess and the tiger were one and the same, living in the cave and then becoming part of it.

Entrance to Namo Gorge.

Entrance to Namo Gorge.

Following the stepping stones up the gorge.

Following the stepping stones up the gorge.

Further up the gorge, I couldn’t resist the temptation of a rope trailing down from a second cave, high above us in the cliff. Doing my best Indiana Jones impression I gripped the rope and began heaving myself up (note that our teahouse owner/new guide managed just fine climbing up next to me without anything to hold onto). At the top was the relic of another old stalagmite, although it was almost unrecognisable under the layers of white silk scarves that’d been wrapped around it as offerings.

After sliding carefully back down to the bottom of the gorge, we made the difficult decision to call it a day – the sun had disappeared again and the rain and snow was threatening to return, bringing darker skies with it.

I would love to return to Langmusi in warmer, sunnier weather – I’ll definitely plan for summer next time, and I’m sure I’ll see it as a whole new town. Langmusi is popular with intrepid travellers for its awesome hiking opportunities and multi-day horse treks in the surrounding mountains – that’s certainly on my list for next time. Still, I’m glad I got to experience it in all its deserted Wild West glory without the crowds. It just whet my appetite for more.

Becky in Langmusi.

Becky in Langmusi.

Little Tibetan Switzerland.

Little Tibetan Switzerland.

Yaks behind the monastery.

Yaks behind the monastery.

If you’d like to visit Langmusi (in hopefully better weather than I did!) contact us today to start planning your trip. We have itineraries that take you through a range of off-the-beaten-track sacred and stunning locations in eastern Tibet – see more about our Authentic Amdo journey or our Mountains, Myth and Magic epic road trip of the southeastern regions. Or you can add a deeper significance to your adventure by making it a Spiritual Journey, and visit Labrang Monastery too.

A pilgrim at Kirtri Monastery.

A pilgrim at Kirtri Monastery.

Monks at Sertri Monastery.

Monks at Sertri Monastery.

Eight Buddhist Pilgrimages in the Himalaya that Every Buddhist Should Take

Eight Buddhist Pilgrimages in the Himalaya that Every Buddhist Should Take

Looking to combine your next adventure with a spiritual journey? Explore these well and lesser-known Buddhist pilgrimages in the Himalayas. The Buddhist power-places of Bhutan, Tibet, Ladakh and Nepal have many possibilities.

The Top 5 Festivals to Visit in Tibet

Lhasa locals gather in the Norbulinka Summer Palace to watch traditional Tibetan Opera performances during Shoton Festival in summer.

Lhasa locals gather in the Norbulinka Summer Palace to watch traditional Tibetan Opera performances during Shoton Festival in summer.

For the ultimate cultural experience, nothing can beat a festival in the land of snows. 

There's something so enchanting about Tibetan festivals - the rich colours of the Buddhist robes, the warm smell of butter lamp candles, the melodious chanting of prayers punctuated with droning trumpets and thundering drumbeats, and of course the enthusiastic atmosphere created by the local pilgrims and monks in attendance. 

All across the Tibetan plateau various different festivals are celebrated, each with their unique practices and traditions. From the month-long Saga Dawa (often in May/June) during which thousands of Tibetans renounce meat, to the sunrise unveiling of a giant thangka at Drepung and Sera Monasteries in Lhasa, to the lighting of thousands of butter lamps in towns and villages across the country. Eastern Tibet's Kham and Amdo regions are well known for their horse racing festivals, while central Tibet's monasteries take center stage for a number of important days throughout the year. 

Out of all the festivals in Tibet, we've got a few favourites of our own. Which ones appeal to you? 

Here are our picks for the top 5 festivals to visit in Tibet: 

1. Shoton (Yoghurt) Festival, Lhasa. 
August 11 - 16, 2018 / August 30, 2019

This week-long festival in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa begins at sunrise with the grand unveiling of a giant thangka (embroidered image of the Buddha) that is only brought out for this one day, once a year. Drepung Monastery and Sera Monastery - the two largest monasteries in Lhasa - each have their own thangka, which are simultaneously unravelled, but devoted pilgrims who wish to see both usually begin at Drepung in the morning, then carry on to Sera for the afternoon. The ceremony involves dramatic traditional music with much clashing of cymbals and pounding of drums, and a ritual dance by trained monks. Thousands of local pilgrims queue for hours to see the thangka and receive a blessing from it. 

After the first day, the environment relaxes as Lhasa locals all spend a week's holiday picnicking at the Norbulinka (the summer palace of the Dalai Lama) and watching Tibetan Opera performances in the park. 

The giant thangka at Drepung Monastery in Lhasa.

The giant thangka at Drepung Monastery in Lhasa.

2. Butter Lamp Festival, All Over Tibet
Dec 2, 2018 / Dec 21, 2019 

To celebrate the achievements of the great Tibetan saint-scholar Je Tsongkhapa, people across the country lights tens of thousands of butter lamps in every monastery and ordinary house's windows and rooftops. Known in Tibetan as "Ganden Ngamchoe", it has become famous in English as the "Butter Lamp Festival". Je Tsongkhapa was responsible for creating the Gelug, or "Yellow Hat", school of Tibetan Buddhism, of which the Dalai Lama is now the head. 

In Lhasa, hundreds of locals and tourists pack into the Barkhor Square to see the lamps lit on the roof, balconies, and windows of the sacred Jokhang Temple. In Kangding and other towns across eastern Tibet families spend the day in the monasteries helping to fill empty lamps with yak butter, ready to light at night. 

The Butter Lamp Festival in Kangding, Kham.

The Butter Lamp Festival in Kangding, Kham.

3. Tsurphu Monastery Festival, Lhasa
May 24, 2018 / June 12, 2019 

The head monastery of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, and home of the Karmapa Rinpoche, is tucked away in a narrow valley west of Lhasa. Not many tourists visit Tsurphu, making it an ideal place to have an authentic festival experience, surrounded by Tibetan pilgrims from near and far, immersed in the Buddhist culture. 

For three days monks perform symbolic dances while wearing elaborate costumes and masks, representing and embodying different deities. Interspersed are comedic acts with laypeople dressed as clowns, yaks and snow lions who entertain the crowd to lighten the mood. It's a jovial experience that has everyone laughing. 

Monks in elaborate costumes and masks parade around the courtyard during the Tsurphu Monastery festival and cham dance performance.

Monks in elaborate costumes and masks parade around the courtyard during the Tsurphu Monastery festival and cham dance performance.

4. Yushu Horse Racing Festival, Kham
July 25 - Aug 1, 2018 & 2019

Khampa people are known for being the horsemen of Tibet - wild and strong, fierce on horseback, but lovers of having a good party! Horse racing festivals are a highlight of any trip to the Kham region, and are also popular in Amdo. The horse racing festival at Yushu is one of the biggest events of the year in eastern Tibet, and a unique experience for any visitor. 

For a week, watch as Tibetan men show off their talents on horseback, performing acrobatic tricks such as standing, firing a bow and arrow at targets, and sweeping up scarves from the ground while at gallop. There are also yak races and a full carnival of fun and games for families to enjoy. This is nomad Tibetan culture on display at its finest, as the empty grasslands fill with traditional yak hair tents as families pour into the area, wearing their best new clothes. Mingle with local people, and have the experience of a lifetime. 

An agile rider shows how he can lower himself to the ground, and then pull himself up again, during the horse racing festival in Tibet.

An agile rider shows how he can lower himself to the ground, and then pull himself up again, during the horse racing festival in Tibet.

5. Cho-Kor/ Ri-Kor Festival, Lhasa
July 16, 2018 / August 4, 2019

The whole of Tibet celebrates the Cho-kor festival - the anniversary of the day the Buddha first "turned the wheel of dharma" by teaching his disciples about the four noble truths. But in Lhasa the celebration is unique - hundreds of people take to the mountains to complete a day-long pilgrimage from hermitage to hermitage across the mountains that form the northern border of Lhasa city. This pilgrimage is called the "Ri-Kor", or "Mountain Circuit". 

From early in the morning friends, families, young children and grandparents walk along the old mountain trails from Pabonkha Monastery to Sera Monastery, via 3 or 4 different hermitage retreats. They carry with them new prayer flags to hang from the mountain, and bags full of juniper and dried herbs to burn in piles of incense. Many sing and tell jokes as they walk, and at lunchtime stop to play games as they picnic high on the mountainside with panoramic views of Lhasa city below. 

A Tibetan woman waits for her friends in the mountains, during the Rikor festival.

A Tibetan woman waits for her friends in the mountains, during the Rikor festival.

Bonus: Losar, All Over Tibet
February 5, 2019

The Tibetan New Year is usually a time for Tibetan people to be with their families and at home, similar to Christmas in the west. However, for tourists it can still be a beautiful time to be in Lhasa as people come to the holy city from all corners of the plateau wearing their best new clothes and showing off the fashionable dresses and jewelry of their home region. In Amdo, at Labrang and Langmusi Monasteries, the ceremonies to welcome in the new year go for days and involve displays of painted butter sculptures. People from all of the surrounding villages come to the monastery for blessing and to see the celebrations for the new year begin. 

A Tibetan woman from Kham walks the Barkhor in Lhasa during Losar.

A Tibetan woman from Kham walks the Barkhor in Lhasa during Losar.

A Mountain Of Living Mythology

Kailash

The Precious Snow Mountain Of Tibet

In the far western reaches of the Tibetan plateau stands an extraordinary mountain: shaped like a pyramid with four sides that face the four cardinal directions, from which emerge four rivers that flow in each direction, it’s no wonder that Mount Kailash has become the inspiring setting for mythology and legends for over a thousand years.

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According to Hindu mythology, the god Shiva resides at the peak of Mount Kailasa with his wife, Parvati. The mountain represents a pillar of the earth at the centre of a lotus, around which other mountain ranges form the petals.

In Jain legends, Mount Kailash represents Mount Meru, the mythical mountain at the centre of the universe around which all of the planets and the sun revolve.

Both Buddhist and Bon (the ancient shamanistic religion of Tibet before the introduction of Buddhism) mythology associates Mount Kailash with their own deities, but it was also the stage for a great legendary battle between the religions: a Buddhist saint and a Bon magician competed for days for the privilege of having their religion be the primary religion of Tibet.

Finally, their last challenge was to reach the summit of the mountain as quickly as possible. The Bon magician sat on a magic drum and began flying toward the summit, meanwhile the Buddhist saint remained relaxed on the ground, worrying his followers. At last, as the Bon magician was about to reach the summit of Mount Kailash and win for his religion, the sun came up and the Buddhist saint rode on a ray of sunlight to reach the peak first and win the battle for Tibet. Since this time, followers of the Bon religion have walked anti-clockwise when visiting the sacred mountain, against the common clockwise route that is used by Buddhists, Hindus and Jains.  

In modern times, pilgrims from Tibet and India are joined by curious or pious tourists from around the world in paying a visit to the sacred mountain.

Mount Kailash is closer to the border with India than to the Tibetan capital city of Lhasa, but that’s not to say it’s close to anywhere, in fact. To reach the legendary mountain requires days of long drives across barren desert-like terrain and high passes, whichever direction you are coming from. But they say that the harder the journey, the greater the reward, right?

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The small town at the southern foot of Mount Kailash, Darchen, is the base from which pilgrims and trekkers begin their circumambulation of the mountain. Climbing the mountain is forbidden due to its holy status, but the one- to three-day trek around it allows you to appreciate the unique geography of it and connect with the pilgrims along the way.

Tibetan Buddhists will often set off from Darchen in the early hours of the morning, around 2 or 3am, and aim to walk the entire 52km kora (Tibetan: circumambulation path) in a single day, returning to Darchen exhausted just before midnight. The rough terrain, patches of snow even in summer, and high altitude – the highest point is the Drolma La pass at 5,600 metres above sea level – mean this is no easy feat.

Some particularly devout Tibetan pilgrims will even prostrate for the entire route. Prostration is a form of offering of the body, in which the devotee lowers their body to the ground and lies out flat on their front, marks the point where their fingers reach to with a small object, then stands and walks to their small object to repeat the process all over again – essentially, they travel the entire trail one body length at a time.

Between these two extremes is the more common method for experiencing the sacred mountain’s kora: a three day trek, staying in monastery guesthouses along the way and picnicking with nomads. It’s a once in a lifetime journey that allows you to truly experience the Himalayan spirituality and way of life, unlike anywhere else.

It may be the centre of the universe, home to Shiva and Parvati, or site of a legendary battle to rule Tibet’s religious hearts, but the Precious Snow Mountain is also undeniably a place you have to see once, and perhaps you too will start to believe it.

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Interested in visiting Mount Kailash? See our itinerary for a tour here, or contact us to start discussing a tailor-made trip to suit you.  

Discovering The Real Tibet

A couple of years ago if someone had told me that I’d find more authentic Tibetan experiences outside of “Tibet” than inside it, I’d have laughed at them. But after travelling in the Kham region – an area that is in China’s modern day Sichuan and Yunnan provinces – my eyes have been opened to the untouched world of Tibetan culture and traditions that have been preserved in this remote corner of the Tibetan plateau.

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Historically, Tibet was made up of three main provinces: U-Tsang (central Tibet), Amdo (northern Tibet), and Kham (eastern Tibet). These days, what we see marked as “Tibet” on our maps is in fact only central Tibet and is now called the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Provincial borders were drawn through Amdo and Kham to assimilate these regions into the Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu provinces of modern China.

In Kham these lines on the map haven’t disturbed the strong Tibetan traditions that have been deeply rooted here for centuries. In fact, due to the remoteness and inaccessibility of many of the Tibetan villages in Kham, they’ve been left relatively untouched by the modern developments going on in Lhasa and central Tibet.

Khampas, as the people are known, are famous for being horsemen and proud warriors. You can see them strutting through small towns such as Tagong or Litang, patriotically adorned in their traditional clothes and jewellery. In the grasslands their horses graze alongside herds of yaks, beneath snow-capped mountains and perfect blue skies.

Nomads’ black yak-hair tents dot the mountains. The warmth of their tents is only surpassed by their kindness, as you are welcomed into their home for a brew of tea or a taste of some local food – fresh yoghurt, dried meat jerky, and their staple tsampa. The food takes a little getting used to, as it’s simple and often lacking in flavour except for some chilli paste, but it’s hearty and what you need in the high altitude weather.

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Appearing in brilliant contrast against the blue sky and green rolling hills is the golden glittering roof of a monastery. The grandeur of monasteries in Kham can be overwhelming at first as they are richly decorated with paintings and statues dripping in colour and gold. Is this really a place of renunciation? But then you see the modesty of the local pilgrims offering their prayers and money to the temple as they have done for centuries, and the monks humbly accepting it on behalf of all sentient beings for the purpose of bringing enlightenment to all. This is a place of real compassion.

Tibetan Buddhism has been able to flourish in Kham and Amdo in a way that it couldn’t possibly do in central Tibet. Because Kham and Amdo now belong to Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu province the regulations are far fewer – including a notable lack of permits required for foreigners to travel there. Visitors to central Tibet must acquire Tibet Travel Permits through a registered tour agency, and must be part of a guided tour for the duration of their time in the TAR, whereas in eastern Tibet these rules are relaxed and visitors can travel far more freely and easily.

The freedom of eastern Tibet allowed me to meet many more monks, nuns, nomads and ordinary Tibetan people than I ever did in central Tibet, and form good relationships with many of them. I was welcomed into their homes and hosted at their monasteries, taken with their families on pilgrimage and shown around their mountains and valleys that they call home.

Now, when people ask me about going to Tibet I tell them to head east – go to Kham and Amdo if you want to experience the real Tibetan culture, see the towering peaks of snow mountains, and explore the untouched land as it has been kept for hundreds of years. Even Tibetans have a saying: “You go to Lhasa for the monasteries, you go to Kham for the scenery”.

Copyright Rebecca Carruthers