You’ve likely heard of it, but just what is Tibet exactly and where it Tibet located? Here’s what you need to know.
What Is Tibet?
In short, Tibet is an Internationally Recognized Autonomous Region existing within the borders of China. As such, Tibet is often referred to as TAR, which stands for “Tibetan Autonomous Region.” We’ll get into a little more about exactly what this means later, but for now, suffice it to say that Tibet covers more than half of a high elevation area known as the Tibetan Plateau. The Chinese name for Tibet is “Xizang.”
While officially governed by China, Tibet has made numerous attempts to gain independence. Clashes between Chinese authorities and Tibetan protesters brought international attention to the plight of Tibet during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Most people from Tibet identify as Buddhist and reject official Chinese leadership in favor of the exiled Dalai Lama.
“The Roof of the World” – Where Is Tibet?
Tibet is located in southwest China, and comprises much of the Tibetan Plateau, the highest region on earth. As such, it is often referred to as “The Roof of the World,” and for good reason. The average elevation in Tibet is a whopping 14,763 ft above sea level. This is high enough to give some newcomers elevation sickness! Many of the cultures and traditions of this unique region are distinctly shaped by its elevation.
Because of it’s unusually high elevation, the mountainous landscape and cold temperatures mean that Tibet provides a relatively inhospitable climate for most. As such, it is one of the most secluded regions on the planet, although airplane travel has now made the region more accessible. Nonetheless, Tibet boasts many of the highest mountain peaks on earth, including Mount Everest, which is 29,029 feet above sea level at its peak. With it’s gorgeous mountain landscape and stunning scenery, it is an ideal travel destination for adventurers, hikers, and mountain climbers.
Tibetans are considered a distinct ethnic minority within the greater cultural context of China, but even within Tibet there exist many different cultural groups and ethnicities. The region tends to draw in spiritual tourists who are drawn to Tibet to learn more about the practice of Buddhism. However, up until the 1980s, China did not permit visits to the region. Since then, China has periodically blocked tourists from visiting Tibet, including during the controversies surrounding the Olympics in 2008 and for a period of time in 2012 when more protests erupted.
On that note, let’s talk a little bit more about why there is so much cultural and political tension between Tibet and China in the first place.
Why Is Tibet an Autonomous Region and What Does This Mean?
Let’s start with the history of Tibet. Tibet has been a single unified state since as long ago as the 7th century AD. Even back then, Tibet’s culture was distinctly intertwined with religion. While early Tibetans were largely Shamanistic, Buddhism was introduced by India in the 8th century AD and became increasingly popular over the centuries. The bulk of central Asia was conquered by the Mongols in the 13th century, but Tibet remained relatively autonomous, operating as a vassal state.
When civil war broke out between the different Buddhist factions in Tibet in the 17th century, the Mongols backed the 5th Dalai Lama and gave him the official title of Spiritual Leader of Tibet. When in 1705 the Mongols moved in and killed the reigning Dalai Lama, the Tibetan people rejected the leadership the Mongols instituted in place.
Succeeding Dalai Lamas would be destined to fall into a continual cycle of exile and return while Tibet fell prey to repeated invasions from the British and Chinese, until it was eventually officially annexed by China in 1951. Some time after a crushed rebellion that forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India for good, Tibet was finally granted autonomous status in 1965 when the Chinese government abolished serfdom.
However, the meaning of “autonomous region” is still widely debated. Many Tibetans continue to reject this status as unlawful occupation on the part of China. Meanwhile, the region is viewed by the Chinese government as a threat to the autonomy of the larger state.
Where Do Things Stand Today?
Keep in mind that since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, China has adopted a hostile stance toward religion. Forced secularization of Tibet during this period only served to exacerbate tensions between China and Tibet.
During the protests that erupted in 2008 in the wake of the Beijing Olympics, up to 100 otherwise peaceful Tibetans were killed, bringing worldwide attention to the plight of Tibet and the region’s continual struggle for freedom from China. It remains to be seen whether Tibet will ever be granted true autonomy from China or not.