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Top Three Winter Tour Destinations in Tibet

With an average altitude of 4,500 meters, Tibet is always mistakenly considered unbearably cold and off the list of winter destinations. However, travelers who have actually been there believe it to be the best winter destination in Asia. First, Tibet is not as cold as many people imagine. In the daytime, it is actually quite warm. Temperature rises quickly with the sun. Second, Tibet is at its most authentic in winter when Tibetans take advantage of this slack farming season to make their pilgrimage. Monasteries, temples and streets are teeming with traditionally dressed Tibetan Buddhists. Third, it is the best time to avoid crowds and enjoy lower costs on a tour to Tibet. Travelers can usually get a good discount on hotels, air tickets, tourist sites, and other services in winter.

 Winter Tour Tibetans take advantage of this slack farming season to make their pilgrimage

However, travelers should take note that the roads to some of the mountainous areas of Tibet might be blocked by heavy snow. We highly recommend the following three destinations, which are usually reachable and are the most attractive in Tibet winter tour.

Lhasa, the City of Sunshine

Sitting on the north bank of the Lhasa River, Lhasa is the political, economic, cultural, and religious center of Tibet. With more than 3,000 hours of sunshine annually, it has been dubbed "the City of Sunshine". Its average temperature is about ten degrees centigrade in winter. In the daytime, it gets warmer as the sunlight intensifies. Although it is very cold at night, travelers can still sleep well in a large number of hotels equipped with perfect heating facilities.

Never Miss the Iconic Potala Palace

There are many historic sites and famous relics in and around the city, such as the well-known Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and the three greatest monasteries of Tibet. In winter, many pilgrims visit the monasteries and take part in religious activities in Lhasa, a great opportunity to experience local culture and customs. In addition, snow-capped mountains, blue lakes, hot springs and millions of migratory birds make Lhasa more charming in winter.

Inside the city, there are several great places to visit in winter. The Potala Palace, one of Tibet’s most iconic buildings, has played a central role in the Tibetan administration. Comprising of the White and Red Palaces and their ancillary buildings, the complex sits on the top of Red Hill in the center of the Lhasa Valley. 3,700 meters above sea level, the palace was molded on the shape of a small mountain in the far west of Tibet.

 Potala Palace Potala Palace

The palace is built on the site of a 7th century meditation retreat that was erected by the Tibetan Emperor, Songtsen Gampo. In 1645, the fifth Dalai Lama built the current palace as the seat of Tibetan government, which it remained until Norbulingka was constructed in 1755. After that, the White Palace became the winter palace for the Dalai Lamas.

Also founded in the seventh century is the ancient and sacred Jokhang Temple. The temple is an excellent example of a Buddhist complex, is one of the top sights to see when visiting Lhasa. Historical records date the temple back over 1,400 years to around AD 647, when it is reputed to have been suggested by Princess Wencheng, daughter of the Chinese Emperor, Taizong, in the Tang Dynasty.

The temple has undergone immense renovation over the last 600 years to become what it is now, with many added halls, statues and dormitories. The temple is also the home of the 1.5-meter-tall statue of Sakyamuni as a child, which was brought to Tibet by Princess Wencheng, and moved into the temple itself, from outside, several centuries later.

Fully Explore Top Three Gelugpa Monasteries, Free from the Crowds in High Season

At the foot of Tatipu hill on the northern outskirts of Lhasa is Sera Monastery, one of the three most famous monasteries in Tibet. The name, in Tibetan, means “wild rose”, and was named for the wild roses that bloomed on the hill behind it during its construction. Sera is the home of the Gelugpa sect, and initiates are required to take part in religious and spiritual debates to further their learning. These monks can be seen every weekday in the special debating field, where they present their arguments with vigorous hand gestures, clapping, pushing and plucking of their prayer beads.

 Sera Monastery Sera Monastery

At the foot of the Gambo Utse mountain, 5km to the west of Lhasa, lies Drepung Monastery. One of the three “Great Monasteries”, which includes Sera and Ganden monasteries, and was first established in 1416. It soon became the mother temple of the Dalai Lamas, and was the residence of the Dalai Lamas until the 5th Dalai Lama moved the seat of government to Potala Palace.

On Wangbur Mountain, on the southern bank of the Lhasa River 47km from Lhasa, sits Ganden Monastery, the first or prime monastery of the “Three Great Monasteries” of the Gelugpa sect. Established in the 15th century by Tsong Khapa, the layout of the monastery is built on the principles of Dharma. It is the home of Tsong Khapa and the place where he lived and died as the first abbot of Ganden Monastery.

Normally busy and filled with tourists in the summer and shoulder seasons, they are much more accessible in the winter months, and visitors can take their time looking around without having to rush because of the limited visiting times.

Shigatse, a Hot Tourist City Accessible All Year Around

Located in the alluvial plain at the confluence of Yarlung Tsangbo and Nyanchu River, Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet. It is famous for Tashilhunpo Monastery, the traditional seat of Panchen Lama, one of the two prestigious spiritual leaders in Tibet. The city is of great importance also for its location on Friendship Highway, a hot international tour route from Lhasa to Kathmandu. It is 250 km southwest of Lhasa, 300 km away from the world's highest peak, Mt. Everest. It is 150 km away from Sakya Monastery known as “the second Dunhuang”. A week is enough to visit both Lhasa and Shigatse. No wonder, this city embraces a great number of visitors all year around.

Must-visit Attractions from Lhasa to Shigatse

On the way to Shigatse, there are also several famous tourist sites, including Lake Yamdrok, Karola Glacier, Gyantse Dzong and Kumbum of Palcho Monastery. In addition, there are many traditional villages, where travelers can visit Tibetan families to experience local life and enjoy authentic Tibetan food.

100 kilometers southwest of Lhasa lies a large body of water known locally as Yamdroktso, or Yamdrok Lake. This widespread lake is one of the three large sacred lakes of Tibetan Buddhism, and is a popular place for tourists visiting Tibet Autonomous Region. Sitting on the high-altitude plateau of Tibet, Yamdrok Lake is nestled between the flanks of the mountains of the Himalayas, on the road from Lhasa to Gyantse, it is the largest inland lake in the northern Himalayas, and is supplied with melting ice from the spring thaws, which give it a very low saline level. In winter, the lake is often frozen, giving it an even more beautiful appearance with its white gown, and the snows and ice do not thaw until April.

 Yamdrok Lake Yamdrok Lake

About two hours drive from Lake Yamdrok, on the road to Shigatse, is the astounding sight of the Karola Glacier. At an elevation of 5,560 meters, it is a fantastic sight to see. Although it is not a big glacier, as glaciers go, the pristine whiteness of its surface is a spectacular view from the highway, and close up, it is even more amazing. The glacier is only around 300 meters from the highway, and shines a brilliant white in the rays of the winter sun. Inside the ice stack, you can see the various layers that make up this moving river of ice, and you can climb up close to it to get a better view.

Third largest city in Tibet, Gyantse is the home of the Gyantse Dzong, one of the best preserved ancient fortresses in Tibet. Built in 1390, it guarded the southern approach to the Tsangpo Valley, and Lhasa itself. Gyantse also contains the Pelkor Chode Monastery, an ancient monastery that was built in the ninth century by Pelkhor-tsen, the son of the anti-Buddhist king, Langdarma. Pelkor also contains the Kumbum, a huge chorten that is believed to be the largest of its kind in the world. 32 meters high, it consists of nine floors and 108 chapels, each with its own door.

While it is believed to be impossible to get to Shigatse in winter, this myth has since been dispelled by the huge number of reports that have been taken back to western tourists by people who have visited Tibet in the cold months. Snow is sometimes found in the depths of winter, but rarely causes problems, especially with the improved highways and snow ploughs that keep them clear. And the landscape on the route is made all the better for being dusted with a little snow, making it a delightful wintry scene reminiscent of old picture postcards.

Mt. Everest, the Best Destination in Winter

With a peak at 8,844 meters above sea level, Mt. Everest is renowned as the highest mountain on earth and “the Third Pole of the World”. Although it is very cold there in winter, the scenery is extremely beautiful. As the sun gets lower and the sky becomes clear, it casts beautiful shadows and illuminates almost everything in sight. Therefore, travelers can take amazing photos of the peak and its surrounding mountains of over 8,000 meters above sea level, even if they are not professional photographers. Most importantly, the road to Rongbuk Monastery is usually accessible in winter, which makes a tour to Everest Base Camp possible.

From Old Tingri to Everest Base Camp

Everest Base Camp (EBC) is the pinnacle of any trip into the west of Tibet, and is a must-do for all visitors, and in winter it is spectacularly beautiful. Coated in a layer of snow at 5,200 meters, the base camp is a beautiful sight, and the white landscape enhances the photographs of the mighty king of all mountains. While the tent guest houses may not be open in the depths of winter, you can stay overnight in the town of Tingri, and travel to the base camp in the morning.

 Mt. Everest Mt. Everest

Old Tingri is a small town on the route to EBC, and comprises of a small, kilometer-long strip of restaurants, guesthouses, and Tibetan homes lining the famous Friendship Highway. Overlooking the broad, sweeping plain bordered by towering peaks, it is a common place for overnight stops to EBC, and on clear days you get some stunning views of Mt. Cho Oyu.

Usually the last stop before Everest, Rongbuk Monastery is the highest monastery in the world, with an altitude of 4,980 meters, and has been a stepping-off point for mountaineers since the early days of scaling Mt. Everest. Even Hillary and Sherpa Tensing stayed at the monastery on their way to the mountain. Belonging to the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, it is the only monastery that houses both monks and nuns, and affords some of the most spectacular views of Everest, especially on clear winter days. The monastery is simple and has a sense of untouched beauty that sets it apart from other temples in Tibet.

Others to Take Care

To visit Everest, warm clothes must be prepared. A down sleeping bag is also recommended if travelers are going to stay there overnight. Near the base camp, Rongbuk is the only place with accommodation available in winter. Of course, travelers can get back to Tingri for more and better choices. At Tingri, travelers can also see the beautiful sunrise or sunset over Mt. Everest, even the whole Himalayas.

Master Catherine Jigme

About the Author - Master Catherine Jigme

With exceptional passion and outstanding leadership, Mrs. Catherine has dedicated herself to Tibet inbound tourism and China tour for 15 years. As one of the handful females who see great potential of Chinese inbound tourism, Catherine has made great contribution to promoting Tibet tourism and enhancing the employment of Tibetans and prosperity of local Tibetan community.

Over the years, she travelled overseas with Tibet Tourism Bureau many times to promote Tibet tourism. Currently, Catherine works as the marketing director of Tibet Vista, an opinion leader behind the whole team of Tibet Vista.

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