Understanding Tibet's Historic Geography and Regions

••• Prayer flags along the pass in the Ganjia Grasslands. © 2013 Sara Naumann, licensed to About.com.

Tibet on the Itinerary

Many visitors to China want to see Tibet. They picture the towering monasteries and burgundy-robed monks, colorful prayer flags flapping in high-altitude beauty, yaks and nomads. And they think that they need to go to Lhasa to see it all. So, they begin to research how to get there and then they realize that adding Tibet into a 10-day trip to China is pretty difficult. China is a huge place.

You can't fly to Lhasa from Beijing. You have to add in another day of travel, plus special travel permits and depending on the agency, the time of year and whatever arbitrary travel restrictions are in place, you may or may not be able to travel there.

I, myself, have always wanted to visit Tibet. It's on the list. But the list is long, and I've heard many travelers reports that Lhasa has lost some of its original charm, that there is now so much tourism you end up feeling like you're in a Disneyed version of Tibet. Lhasa now has so many luxury hotels and enormous tour groups traipsing through that my idea of seeing a frontier has vanished along with the desire to go.

And then I accidentally went to Tibet.

Where is Tibet?

How can you accidentally go to Tibet? I'll tell you: when you don't realize that Tibet is more than just the TAR. Tibet is more than just Lhasa or a border that the Chinese government delineated.

Tibet, historically, is an enormous region that has had a relationship with China for much longer than since the turbulent 1950s.

We took a trip to Xining, Qinghai Province, in October of 2012 and in my research it was the first time I came across the reference to Amdo, the northeastern Tibetan region.

We were going to western China but entering historic Tibetan territory and it was certainly obvious once we got there.

History in Brief

During the height of the Tibetan Empire, under the Yarlung Kings, Tibetan territory spread from the Indian border all the way to Tang Dynasty Chinese territory. Historically, modern-day Qinghai Province and parts of Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces were all part of Tibet. Influence went back and forth as the Tibetan Empire waned and waxed but today that territory is still home to a large population of Tibetan people.

Tibetan Regions

To help the visitor understand the territory better, here's a description of the area, the names of the regions in Tibetan and Chinese as well as major attractions there.

Traditionally, when considering Tibet, there are four main regions:

  • Ngari in the far west where Mt. Kailash is located. This region today is within the Tibetan Autonomous Region or TAR.
  • The Ustang region is in central Tibet and is home to Lhasa, Shigatse and other famous locales. This region is also wihin the TAR.
  • The northeast Tibetan region of Amdo is now mostly within the borders of Qinghai and Gansu Provinces.
  • And finally, Kham is the southeast region that is now within the borders of Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces.

    For two excellent maps showing the areas, see here.

    Within the Chinese provinces, Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures and Counties are also delineated and visitors will sometimes see these geographical names being used.

    Qinghai Province (known in Tibetan as the Amdo Region), home of Qinghai Lake and Kumbum Monastery

    • Haixi Mongol & Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP), home of the city of Golmud where the Qinghai-Tibet Railway begins and ends (Golmud to Lhasa, though an extension to Xining and on to Beijing is currently under construction)
    • Yushu TAP, site of a large earthquake in 2010
    • Haibei TAP, border region of Lake Kokonor (Qinghai Lake)
    • Hainan TAP, border region of Lake Kokonor (Qinghai Lake)
    • Huangnan TAP, home of Repkong
    • Golog TAP

    Gansu Province (known in Tibetan as the Amdo Region)

    • Gannan TAP, home of Labrang Monastery, Langmusi and the Ganjia Grasslands

      Sichuan Province (home to regions known in Tibetan as the Amdo and Kham)

      • Aba / Ngawa Tibetan & Qiang AP (note: some sources put this area in Kham, others in Amdo), home to famous national parks Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong.
      • Garze TAP, home of Kangding and many other Tibetan monasteries
      • Muli TAC

      Yunnan Province (known in Tibetan as the Kham Region)

      • Deqen TAP, home of Zhongdian (Shangri La)

      Visiting Tibetan Regions

      Visitors don't have to go all the way to the TAR to see Tibet. While there is great debate and discussion about the state of the Tibetan culture under Chinese rule, what I can say with certainty is that you can still experience Tibetan life, religion, food, and culture by visiting Tibetan areas outside the TAR. Here are some ideas to get you started:

      Geographical Sources: