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Potala Palace

Tibet Tidbits






Tibet by any name is a thrill for travelers

Tibet has been known by many different names over the centuries: Thubet, Thibet, Tubba and Tebet are just a few of the renderings. One scholar suggested the name derived from what Tibetans used to call Upper Tibet — Stod Bod — pronounced Teu Beu or To Bo.

Whatever the case, Tibetans always called their homeland Bo or Bod, referring to it in their poetry as Khang Yul, the Land of Snows, or Ngram-grog-chi, the Land of Deep Canyons.

Chinese have called it Xizang, or Western Treasure, which is the name that appears on all Chinese maps. The name Tibet is an alien invention.

Amaury de Riencourt describes Tibet as “the most gigantic fortress in the world … a natural fort of a million square miles, standing in the heart of Asia and dominating the entire continent.”

It’s a place of high plateaus, lofty peaks, and a huge number of lakes, most are shallow, all alkaline, and many of great size. 

The highest lake in the world is found here: Hora Tso at 17,930 feet elevation. Compare this to Waterton, the highest lake in North America 4,200 feet, and Neuchatel, highest in Europe at 1,437 feet.

The world's highest town is here -- Wenchuan, sitting at a breathtaking 16,732 feet.

A Sino-French expedition found the earth’s crust under the plateau is double the thickness found elsewhere around the globe – 50 miles thick as opposed to 20 miles.

The plateau started to rise 60 million years ago and reached its present height 2 million years ago. This was about the time of the earliest hominid found in China

All major rivers of Asia originate on the Tibetan plateau. The Indus, Sutlej, Ganges and Brahmaputra rise near Mount Kailash and flow towards the west.

The Salween in central Tibet, the Mekong in north Tibet and the Yangtze and Yellow rivers all flow towards the east.

The Brahmaputra, literally “son of Buddha” is called Yarlung Tsangpo by Tibetans and is Tibet’s largest river, joining with the Nyang River at Xigatse. Near the border with Assam the river surges through the world’s deepest gorge (9,800 feet) — 28 miles long — serving to isolate Tibet from its southern neighbor.

Tibet has three regions: Kham, Amdo and U Tsang. The best religion is said to comes from U Tsang, best men from Kham and best horses from Amdo.

Central Asia has the most continental climate in the world. Temperature swings between day and night often exceed 80 degrees F. There is little rainfall – seven inches a year on average.

Major crops are barley, wheat, black peas; also maize, beans, buckwheat, mustard and hemp. Willows and poplar are common, as are apricot, peach, apple, pear, and walnut trees. Strawberries, rhubarb and mushrooms are abundant.

Tibet boasts a great variety of wildlife: tiger, leopard, black bear, red bear, monkey. Wolf, fox, marmot, hare, wild dog, wild pig, wild goat, deer, musk deer, antelope, wild yak, wild ass, lynx, rock snake, otter and porcupine are also found here.

Lammergeyers soar in the thin air. Crows are everywhere. They are large, the size of a chicken, like the crows in the High Arctic. Magpie, parrot, owl, eagle, vulture, wild red duck, wild cock, partridge, white goose, woodpecker, swallow, blackbird, lark, sandpiper, cuckoo, stork, pigeon, dove, waterfowl are all native to the region.

Domestic animals include yaks and dzo, as the cross between a female yak and a bull is called. The dzo are excellent for plowing.

Tibet is known for wool and cloth, rugs, furs, drugs, musk, salt and silver. It is rich in lithium, lead, antimony, and other rare metals. It also has abundant gold-bearing sands.

Every spring as many as 100,000 people head off into the hills, gold pans in hand to try their luck. For religious reasons nuggets are left untouched; only gold dust is collected.


of Tibetan words/terms

bodhisattvas – Buddhists on the threshold of nirvana but who have delayed their final attainment to assist others to achieve liberation.

chorten – cenotaph symbolizing the five elements (earth, water, fire, metal, air) and containing holy relics

chu – river

chuba – red fleece-lined toga-like garment worn by nomads

chura – dried cheese

drel-sil – mixture of rice, sweet potato and sugar, served to mark an auspicious day.

dzong – fortified castle, fort

gomchen – learned lama possessing unusual psychic powers

gompa – an isolated monastery

gyalpo – Tibetan title for king

Great Doctrine – Buddha’s teachings

jimpa – unleavened scones of wheat

khata or kata – ceremonial scarf made of white silk

kyilkhor – magic diagram

la – mountain pass

Lhakhang – House of the Gods – great temple inside a monastery.

mandala – map of Buddhist cosmos

peling – foreigner, usually a westerner

sadhu – Indian ascetic

stupa – open air religious image, usually painted and carved out of a rock; domed shaped Buddhist shrine

thanka – painted sheets of silk

thang go – small leather pouch used to carry tsampa

trangka – Tibetan paper money

trapas – monks studying to become lamas

tsam – dwelling of an anchorite;

tsam khang – secluded dwelling attached to a monastery

tsampa – roasted grains of barley; staple food of Tibetans

tsha-tsha – talisman

tso – lake

tulpa –  ghost



  • Tibetan religion forbids the eating of honey; it also forbids smoking
  • Wheeled traffic was completely unknown until modern times. The first vehicle, a Baby Austin, was carried in pieces over the Himalayas in 1921.
  • The arch was never used in construction. All doorways are supported by a single beam resting on two pillars.
  • Respect to a person or thing is shown by keeping it on one’s right-hand side, so too turning prayer wheel should be clockwise.
  • Conch shells are revered because they form in a clockwise spiral. Conch horns summon monks to prayer.
  • Tibetan wind instruments are always played in pairs: two musicians play simultaneously so continuous sound is produced. No dead air allowed.
  • Prayer wheels are stuffed with mantras on pieces of paper. With each turn of the wheel the texts within are understood as being read or chanted once. The act of turning earns great merit.
  • Tibetans are one of few people who manage to exist without any form of sweets.
  • Tibetans never washed, insisting the dirt kept the cold out and the luck in.
  • It is considered very impolite in Tibet to call a man by his name when he possesses a title of any sort.
  • Tibetan clothes have no pockets.
  • Polite parting phrase in Tibetan is Please Go Slowly ... Kale Pe A  
  • Tibetan has a regular alphabet comprising 30 letters and four vowel sounds, adopted from Sanskrit. There is no “F” sound, which is difficult for Tibetans to pronounce. Spelling was standardized in the 8th century.
  • In Tibet, winking, the glad eye and kissing are unknown.¨  Tibetan beer, called chang, is made from barley and often drunk hot. It’s mild, only 4%.
  • Birthdays are unimportant; they are generally not known and never celebrated.
  • Tibetans believe they descended from a monkey that crossed Himalayas and married a she-devil.
  • There have been 14 Dalai Lamas; each has been revered as the reincarnation of the  divinity Chenresi, the patron god of Tibet. TOP

The most religious place on earth

Pilgrim, dogs milling at his heels,prepares to prostrate before Potala

A few years ago the Standing Committee of the Tibetan People’s Congress estimated 1,700 temples and 40,000 monks in Tibet, a far cry from when de Riencourt visited Tibet in 1947 and there were 400,000 monks and 5,000 monasteries. Back then one man in three was a monk, and 90% belonged to the gelugpa or Yellow Hat Sect, as the lama order headed by the Dalai Lama is called. Lhasa was truly “the land of the Gods” as its name means in Tibetan. Discipline was severe in the monasteries where life was austere, flowers not permitted and anything that would cause inmates to deviate from their religious studies banned.

   Two of the three largest monasteries in Tibet are located in Lhasa: Drepung (Rice Heap Monastery) and Sera (Rose Fence Monastery). Nearby Ganden has the third. The Tashilumpo monastery at Xigatse, Tibet’s second largest city, ranks high in importance since it is the seat of the Panchen Lama, Number 2 in the lama hierarchy. All four monasteries were founded in the early 15th century — around the time the Forbidden City was being built in Beijing. The most hallowed temple is the Jokhang in Lhasa. It dates from the 7th century.

   The defining symbol of Lhasa is the stupendous Potala, a colossal structure more than 400 feet high and 1200 feet long. The central area — the Red Palace — contains enormous tombs of the most important Dalai Lamas. On the top floors are quarters for monks and on the uppermost floor is the apartment used by the Dalai Lamas as their winter residence. Their summer residence is just across town at the Norbulinka, which today functions as a park/zoo and museum.

   A 6-mile road encircles the city and Potala. Pilgrims, run, walk, crawl, prostrate themselves as the complete the circuit uttering holy mantras and whirling prayer wheels.

   Around the Jokhang is another sacred circuit. Called the Barkhor, it is lined with shops and stalls that sell everything under the sun. Like the pilgrims, shoppers proceed along the street in a clockwise direction.

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