Tibet is a plateau region in Asia, north-east of the Himalayas, in the People’s Republic of China. It is the traditional homeland of the Tibetan people as well as some other ethnic groups such as Monpas, Qiang, and Lhobas, and is now also inhabited by considerable numbers of Han and Hui people. Tibet is the highest region on earth, with an average elevation of 4,900 metres (16,000 ft).
Tibet emerged in the 7th century as a unified empire, but it soon divided into a variety of territories. The bulk of western and central Tibet (Ü-Tsang) were often at least nominally unified under a series of Tibetan governments in Lhasa, Shigatse, or nearby locations; these governments were at various times under Mongol and Chinese overlordship. The eastern regions of Kham and Amdo often maintained a more decentralized indigenous political structure, being divided among a number of small principalities and tribal groups, while also often falling more directly under Chinese rule; most of this area was eventually incorporated into the Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Qinghai. The current borders of Tibet were generally established in the 18th century. Following the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912, Qing soldiers were disarmed and escorted out of Tibet Area (Ü-Tsang). The region declared its independence in 1913. Later Lhasa took control of the western part of Xikang Province. The region maintained its autonomy until 1951 when, following the Invasion of Tibet, Tibet became unified into the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the previous Tibetan government was abolished in 1959 after a failed uprising. Today, the PRC governs western and central Tibet as the Tibet Autonomous Region while eastern areas are mostly within Sichuan and Qinghai provinces. There are tensions regarding Tibet’s political status and dissident groups which are active in exile. Tibetans in Tibet have been arrested or tortured. The economy of Tibet is dominated by subsistence agriculture, though tourism has become a growing industry in Tibet in recent decades. The dominant religion in Tibet is Tibetan Buddhism, in addition there is Bön which was the indigenous religion of Tibet before the arrival of Buddhism in the 7th century CE (Bön is now similar to Tibetan Buddhism) though there are also Muslim and Christian minorities. Tibetan Buddhism is a primary influence on the art, music, and festivals of the region. Tibetan architecture reflects Chinese and Indian influences. Staple foods in Tibet are roasted barley, yak meat, and butter tea.
Tibet is often called the “roof of the world.” It has some of the world’s tallest mountains, with several of them making the top ten list. Mount Everest, at 8,848 metres (29,029 ft), is the highest mountain on earth, located on the border with Nepal. Several major rivers have their source in the Tibetan Plateau (mostly in present-day Qinghai Province). These include Yangtze, Yellow River, Indus River, Mekong, Ganges, Salween and the Yarlung Tsangpo River (Brahmaputra River). The Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, along the Yarlung Tsangpo River, is among the deepest and longest canyons in the world.
Tibet has been called the “Water Tower” of Asia, and China is investing heavily in water projects in Tibet. The Indus and Brahmaputra rivers originate from a lake (Tib: Tso Mapham) in Western Tibet, near Mount Kailash. The mountain is a holy pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Tibetans. The Hindus consider the mountain to be the abode of Lord Shiva. The Tibetan name for Mt. Kailash is Khang Rinpoche. Tibet has numerous high-altitude lakes referred to in Tibetan as tso or co. These include Qinghai Lake, Lake Manasarovar, Namtso, Pangong Tso, Yamdrok Lake, Siling Co, Lhamo La-tso, Lumajangdong Co, Lake Puma Yumco, Lake Paiku, Lake Rakshastal, Dagze Co and Dong Co. The Qinghai Lake (Koko Nor) is the largest lake in the People’s Republic of China.
The atmosphere is severely dry nine months of the year, and average annual snowfall is only 18 inches (46 cm), due to the rain shadow effect. Western passes receive small amounts of fresh snow each year but remain traversable all year round. Low temperatures are prevalent throughout these western regions, where bleak desolation is unrelieved by any vegetation bigger than a low bush, and where wind sweeps unchecked across vast expanses of arid plain. The Indian monsoon exerts some influence on eastern Tibet. Northern Tibet is subject to high temperatures in the summer and intense cold in the winter.
Cultural Tibet consists of several regions. These include Amdo (A mdo) in the northeast, which is administratively part of the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan. Kham (Khams) in the southeast encompasses parts of western Sichuan, northern Yunnan, southern Qinghai and the eastern part of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Ü-Tsang (dBus gTsang) (Ü in the center, Tsang in the center-west, and Ngari (mNga’ ris) in the far west) covered the central and western portion of Tibet Autonomous Region.
Tibetan cultural influences extend to the neighboring states of Bhutan, Nepal, regions of India such as Sikkim, Ladakh, Lahaul, and Spiti, in addition to designated Tibetan autonomous areas in adjacent Chinese provinces.
There are over 800 settlements in Tibet. Lhasa is Tibet’s traditional capital and the capital of Tibet Autonomous Region. It contains two world heritage sites – the Potala Palace and Norbulingka, which were the residences of the Dalai Lama. Lhasa contains a number of significant temples and monasteries, including Jokhang and Ramoche Temple.
Shigatse is the second largest city in the Tibet AR, west of Lhasa. Gyantse and Qamdo are also amongst the largest.
Other cities and towns in cultural Tibet include Shiquanhe (Ali), Nagchu, Bamda, Rutog, Nyingchi, Nedong, Coqên, Barkam, Sakya, Gartse, Pelbar, Lhatse, and Tingri; in Sichuan, Kangding (Dartsedo); in Qinghai, Jyekundo (Yushu), Machen, and Golmud; in India, Tawang, Leh, and Gangtok.
The central region of Tibet is an autonomous region within China, the Tibet Autonomous Region. The Tibet Autonomous Region is a province-level entity of the People’s Republic of China. It is governed by a People’s Government, led by a Chairman. In practice, however, the Chairman is subordinate to the branch secretary of the Communist Party of China. As a matter of convention, the Chairman has almost always been an ethnic Tibetan, while the party secretary has always been ethnically non-Tibetan.
Prior to assertion of Chinese control over Tibet it was a feudal theocracy headed by the Dalai Lama or a regency and administered by the Kashag, a council of four, and 400–500 officials drawn from the traditional Tibetan aristocracy, Tibetan monasteries, and middle-class families of Lhasa.