The region of Tibet often called “Central” is not so much a geographical designation as a recognition of the centrality of Lhasa in Tibetan history as the home of the Dalai Lama “god-kings”, the imposing Potala Palace and the ancient Jokhang Temple, a place of pilgrimage for all Tibetans. The big three Buddhist monasteries of the Gelugpa sect, Drepung, Sera, and Ganden, are within easy reach of Lhasa itself and give the visitor insight into the unique monastic aspect of traditional Tibetan life. Central Tibet is home to the cradle of Tibetan civilization, Tsetang (south of Lhasa), where the first monastery, Samye monastery, was built in the eighth century. Shigatse is also only a day’s journey from Lhasa and is the traditional home of the Panchen Lama and the Tashi Lhunpo monastery.
Central Tibetans are traditionally farmers and nomads. Outside of Lhasa city in the valleys that follow the parallel rivers of Kyichu and Yarlung Tsampo, sit farming communities that have existed for centuries. Historically, these farmers bring there crops into Lhasa to trade for meat, salt, and other products available through the shop keepers in Lhasa and the nomads that have come to the city from the vast grasslands north of Lhasa. Central Tibetans love festivals and continue to celebrate their heritage with annual religious events such as Losar (the Tibetan New Year) and the Shodön “Yoghurt Festival” which features Tibetan Opera and a yearly unveiling of a huge Thangka or religious painting.
Famously, Central Tibet is home to the highest mountains on earth. On the border with Nepal sits Mt. Everest (Jomolongma in Tibetan) and 4 other peaks over 8000m: Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu, and Shishapangma. In far western Tibet, Mt Kailash draws pilgrims from Tibet and across South Asia representing four different religions. Central Tibet is known for two famous emerald lakes: Yamdrok sits between Lhasa and the Himalaya range, while Namtso is north of Lhasa and supports a large nomadic population.
Access to Central Tibet from within China is made convenient by domestic flights from many cities across the country, all flights being operated by one of the following airlines: Air China, China Eastern, China Southern, Sichuan, Shenzhen, Hainan, and Tibet airlines. However, purchasing flights to Lhasa direct from one of the above airlines is usually not possible. The reason for this is to prevent foreign travelers from purchasing flights without the needed Tibet Travel Permit (usually happens due to ignorance). For this reason domestic flights to Central Tibet are most often booked by the same travel company through which a traveler obtains his or her TTP. The only international flight that flies into Lhasa Gonggar Airport is from Kathmandu, Nepal.
Next to air travel, the most popular means of travel to Central Tibet is the train. Those who enjoy scenery prefer to see China from the ground. Departing from Beijing or Chengdu requires over 40 hours on the train to reach Lhasa, while boarding in Xining will cut the journey in half and allow travellers to enjoy the scenery of the Tibetan plateau for the duration of the trip. Be sure to book a soft sleeper bed as they are the most comfortable and only have four beds per cabin, as opposed to six per cabin for a hard sleeper. Travel overland to Central Tibet by private vehicle is the least popular due to both the cost and organization required. However, there are many travel companies that will happily arrange a private vehicle for travellers who desire an overland journey to Central Tibet. There are two main advantages: vehicle travel offers the best possible experience of taking in the land and the people, and the several days required for the trip allows you to naturally acclimatize along the way.
For a helpful introduction to the geography of Tibet’s three regions relative to each other and the rest of China, be sure to visit our page on Tibet Travel Essentials.