Nicknamed The Roof of the World (it shares Mount Everest with Nepal), most people know Tibet as the former home of the exiled Dalai Lama. For centuries, Tibet heavily restricted outsiders and it wasn’t until 1924 that the first European woman, Belgian–French explorer Alexandra David-Néel, snuck into the capital, Lhasa. Here are six facts you need to know about the world’s most mystical country:

Traditional Tibet Is Four Times The Size Of France

Tibet is not a tiny country like neighboring Nepal or Bhutan. Actually, Tibet is quite huge. Traditional Tibet (U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo provinces) is 965,000 square miles making it over four times larger than France and a whopping 25% of the land mass of China (and a good reason why the Communist Chinese invaded Tibet on October 6, 1950 a scant ten months after winning the Chinese Civil War). In 1965, China recognized only the much smaller Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) which only consists of U-Tsang and the western area of Kham (474,300 sq. mi).

Tibet- Ranwu Lake

Ranwu Lake. Photo by [email protected] via Flickr

However, this Tibet is autonomous in name only because it is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. China has steadily relocated Chinese into Tibet and there are now more Chinese (7.5 million) in Tibet than Tibetans (6 million). The Tibetan flag and national anthem are banned and they can be imprisoned simply for possessing an image of the Dalai Lama. Over a million Tibetans have been killed and 6,000 monasteries destroyed since the Chinese invaded their country.

Tibet Lake

Image via Pixabay

Once I Get You Up There, Where The Air Is Rarified

With an average elevation of 16,000 feet, Tibet is the highest country on Earth. Altitude sickness is as common here as catching a cold in London in December. It’s highly recommended you give yourself at least three to five days of rest for your body to complete acute acclimatization or you can become seriously ill. The most common type of altitude sickness, Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) occurs at elevations above 7,500 feet. The two fatal varieties, High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), can occur at 12,500 feet.

Rongbuk monastery in Chomolungma

Rongbuk monastery in Chomolungma. Photo by Göran Höglund (Kartläsarn) via Flickr

The elevation in Lhasa is 12,000 feet and 16,732 feet at Rongbuk Monastery. On a personal note, I grew up surfing in south Florida and thought skiing in Mammoth, California (base elevation 8,000 feet) would be a cinch. I jumped right in and was having a blast until I suddenly became dizzy and couldn’t get my bearings. Ten minutes later, I was gasping for breath as attendants sledded me down the mountain like a deer carcass strapped to the hood of an F-150.

Tibet lake

Image via Pixabay

Tibetan Cuisine: I’ll Have The Filet Of Yak Medium-Rare, Please

Even though Tibetan lakes and rivers are teeming with fish, Tibetans rarely eat seafood and prefer large mammals because of the Buddhist philosophy that it is better to kill fewer animals to feed the same amount of people. Yak (high altitude cow with long hair) is the traditional Tibetan source of meat, butter, cheese and yogurt. Yak is more nutritious than bison or elk and has a taste similar to extremely lean grass fed beef, but sweeter and juicier. Goat and mutton are also consumed. Barley is the staple grain of Tibet. Tsampa is extremely popular and made by simply mixing barley flour with salty Tibetan butter tea. The invading Chinese detested tsampa and would literally choke trying to eat it, much to the delight of the local Tibetans. Their national beer, Chang, is made from malted barley. Steamed dumplings, known as momo, are much beloved by Tibetans, but usually reserved for special occasions because they are labor intensive.


Image via Pixabay

Who Is The Dalai Lama?

The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the fourteenth Dalai Lama and the spiritual leader of the Yellow Hat Tibetan Buddhists. Tenzin Gyatso was chosen when, at the age of two in 1937, he correctly selected all items presented to him that had belonged to the recently deceased thirteenth Dalai Lama. However, the Dalai Lama believes his lineage is much older and that he is the seventy-fourth reincarnation that can be traced back to a Brahman boy who was given a crystal rosary by Buddha himself (567 BC- 484 BC).


Image via Pixabay

On March 17, 1959, disguised as a soldier, the Dalai Lama fled his palace in Lhasa for exile in India after being invited to see a performance of a Chinese dance troupe under the condition he arrived at the Chinese military headquarters without his customary bodyguards. Sensing danger, he exited the strife-torn capital well before the Chinese knew he was gone. Today, many Tibetans remain steadfastly loyal to the Dalai Lama and hold him in extremely high reverence which is a good reason why the Chinese won’t be stamping his passport anytime soon.

Tibet Lhasa Market

Lhasa Market. Image via Pixabay

Don’t You Want To Live Forever?

In 2015, Google’s Sergey Brin announced that he was investing billions of dollars into his Project Calico, Google’s attempt to “cure death.” In 1696, a monastic medical school was built upon the summit of Chakpori Hill in Lhasa. In 1959, the Chinese destroyed it with artillery during the Tibetan Uprising claiming the Tibetans had posted a couple of cannons outside the school. Some of the substances taught at Chakpori Hill reportedly had the ability to extend mortality far beyond that of the average human life span and at least two of them are in popular usage today.

Tibet local dance

Photo by Arian Zwegers via Flickr

Himalayan dried goji berries are readily available in health food stores and shopping chains such as Trader Joes and Whole Foods. Li Qing Yuen subsisted mostly upon them (he also consumed ginseng, licorice root and gotu kola) and claimed that he was 267 years old when he died in 1930. Shilajit is an ancient tar-like substance of vegetable origin that oozes from the rocks in the mountains of Tibet. It has been reported to contain at least 85 minerals in ionic form, as well as triterpenes, humic acid and fulvic acid. The ancient Vedic Hindu text, the Charaka Samhita (200 BC), claims there is no disease that cannot be cured by Shilajit.


Photo by Göran Höglund (Kartläsarn) via Flickr

The Tibetan Stairway To Heaven

Tibetans have a unique method for dealing with the deceased. The Sky Burial or Jhator was first mentioned in the 12th century Tibetan Book of the Dead. The ground in Tibet is too hard for traditional burial (solid rock or permafrost is only inches below the surface) and most of the country lies above the tree-line making traditional burial expensive and impractical. Beginning at dawn, rogyapas (body-breakers) hack the deceased into strips and then use rocks to pound the flesh and bones into a paste with tsampa before lighting incense to summon hordes of giant Griffin vultures that swoop in to feast.

The immediate family may be present, but usually during a nighttime ceremony that does not include a view of watching their beloved reduced to vulture feed. Tibetan Buddhists believe the corpse is nothing more than an empty vessel devoid of spirit and giving sustenance back to nature in this manner is an act of generosity essential to their beliefs. Sky Burials are in decline due to restrictions in urban areas and the diminishing number of Griffin vultures in Tibet.


Photo by Sarah Depper via Flickr

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