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November 21, 2011

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Treasures of Tibet in winter

THE Tibet Autonomous Region shows a very different and less touristy face in winter when it's less commercial, rare wildlife migrates and some mountains can be seen clearly for the only time in the year. Yao Minji reports.

Most travelers visit the Tibet Autonomous Region in western China in summer from July through September, which is considered the best and most comfortable season on the Tibetan Plateau. The weather is nice, the air/area contains more oxygen, the mountains are greener than in other season. And some of the big Tibetan celebrations such as the Shoton Festival (Buddhism, horsemanship and yak racing) and the Horse Racing Festival are also in summer.

But the biggest festival, the Tibetan New Year, based on a luni-solar calendar, is in the winter and this year it falls on March 5.

Experienced backpackers and adventurers prefer to explore the highland in winter. It is only then that Tibet closes its show for tourists and takes off the brightly colored and decorated ethnic costumes and masks, revealing its true face - natural and authentic, without commercialization and sophistication.

It gets cold in winter, but not too cold to travel yet in many areas. In Lhasa, the average daytime temperature is 10-15 degrees Celsius, and the coldest it gets is around minus 5 degrees in early morning and late night.

Tibetans, whether nomads or farmers, don't have much to do in the freezing weather, and often return home to prepare for the Tibetan New Year or go on pilgrimage. Travelers get to see the authentic daily life and folk customs of Tibetans.

Barkhor quadrangle surrounding the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa is one of the most crowded and commercial areas, normally filled with palm readers, travelers and vendors.

It is intriguing to see this commingling of spiritual and commercial elements in the same place, but it is even more intriguing to see the original face in winter, when it is a famous pilgrimage circuit. Visitors can finally see more palm readers and fortune tellers that vendors of tourist trinkets and souvenirs.

The Tibetan New Year, or Losar, is often celebrated for 15 days with a variety of cultural and religious activities. Losar means "new year" in Tibetan and is Tibet's biggest holiday. Tibetans start preparing as early as a month in advance.

Traditionally, all men shave and women wash their hair. Shortly before Tibetan New Year's Day, men ride horses to nearby mountains to collect firewood for daily offerings and worship and women prepare traditional foods and Tibetan spirit.

Houses are cleaned and on the Tibetan New Year's Eve, all families take out rubbish and straw, often strewn on the floor. The next morning they are burned in a bonfire as everyone prays for luck in the upcoming year.

On December 29 on the Tibetan calendar there are rituals and dances to drive away the devil and evil spirits.

In winter, the air contains less oxygen but it is also drier and less humid, which makes the sunlight clearer and more direct. This makes the colors vivid - intense blue sky, white clouds and brown land.

Nyingtri Prefecture in southeastern is considerably warmer, wetter and more forested than other areas in the region, making it pleasant even in the winter. The area is beautiful in every season, but winter is the least seen by visitors.

In summer, the area is spectacularly green, but there's a lot rain that turns dirt roads to mud and makes travel difficult. In winter, there's less rain and roads freeze, making driving, walking and hiking easier. It's warmer than in Lhasa.

In Tibetan, Nyingtri means "throne of the sun," and for other people of Tibet, this is where the sun appears to rise. The elevation averages 3,000 meters, lower than the rest of Tibet, which also makes it more comfortable for visitors who don't need to worry so much about altitude sickness.

Prehistoric sites

The area is also a nature preserve and virtual nature museum; it's the third-largest forested area in China, around 46 percent of the area is forested. There are more than 3,500 kinds of trees, shrubs and various plants, grasses and flowers, some are unique to the prefecture.

The area contains the Karub and Lessor Enda prehistoric sites dating back to the Neolithic or late Stone Age around 5,000 years ago. In the late 1970s and 1980s archeologists discovered that the land was cultivated, millet was planted and that pigs were raised by the earliest known residents. They also hunted foxes, black sheep and red deer to supplement their diet.

In winter, adventurers can get a clear view of Mt Namchabawa, one of the most beautiful mountains in China; in summer it's often rainy and too misty to appreciate the mountain.

The prefecture also contains Mt Namcha Barwa, selected as one of 10 most beautiful mountains in China by Chinese National Geographic. In Tibetan, the name means "spear stabbing into the sky" and it rises 7,782 meters, making it the world's 15th-tallest mountain. The views in winter are clear, while in summer the climate is rainy and misty and visibility is poor.

It may be too cold to stay overnight at the Mt Everest base camp, but it's possible to see the "flag cloud" on the top of the mountain. It only appears after October when the sky is clear and it is most beautiful in winter.

Due to the climatic conditions and wind, the cloud extends into the shape of flag or pennant. Locals often use the cloud to forecast the weather; when the flag points north, snow is expected.

It is also only in winter that visitors can spot the spectacular migration of rare wildlife, such as the Tibetan antelope and black-necked crane, both unique to the Tibetan Plateau. It is sometimes possible to spot these animals along the Qinghai-Tibet railway that passes near the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve south of Qinghai Province.


Foreign tourists are prohibited from traveling independently in the Tibet Autonomous Region, as well as Tibetan areas in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. They must apply in advance for an Alien's Travel Permit from the Tibet Tourism Bureau.

Also, tours must be arranged in advance by a licensed Tibetan agency, such as Tibet Travel Expert, a Shanghai-based agency specializing in in-depth exploration of the plateau. Individuals and groups can arrange for personalized tours. More information can be found at


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