But there are downsides too. The Chinese government require foreign travellers to Tibet visit as part of a pre-arranged tour with a guide, driver and vehicle, which can put a real dampener on spontaneity and exploration. Moreover, domestic Chinese tourism has taken off in a huge way, with hundreds of thousands of tourists crowding the most popular monastic sights during July and August, jostling to take selfies with bemused monks. Large parts of Tibet now resemble the rest of modern China, with busy traffic and more Mandarin than Tibetan spoken in many urban areas. It’s probably not what you came to Tibet for.
Don’t worry, all is not lost. There are still lots of spectacular, special places in Tibet that lie just off the tour group radar. After dozens of trips across the country, the following are some of my favourite places, where you can still walk with pilgrims, chat with monks and get a flavour of old Tibet. Best of all, you’ll likely have these magical places to yourself.
Dode Valley, Lhasa
It’s amazing how quickly you can get off the beaten track in Lhasa. Just to the north of the city is Pabonka Monastery, one of the very oldest in the country. From here you can hike up to the Dadren Ritrö Hermitage, then continue high along the ridge, past fabulous views over northern Lhasa and the Potala Palace perched on its rocky base, to the Sera Utse retreat centre. From here a new road leads to the Rakadrak and Keutsang Ritrö hermitages. It’s a strenuous but wonderful acclimatisation day hike and a great way to get off the beaten track if you only have a few days in Lhasa at your disposal.
Yarlung Tsangpo Valley
Sometimes hidden gems lie right under the nose of a busy tourist route. Thousands of tourists drive the highway between Lhasa and Tsetang via the airport at Gongkar, but only a tiny handful actually stop. The Gongkar Chöde and nearby Dratang monasteries here hold some of the most important Buddhist murals in central Tibet, while just behind Dratang lie hidden the powerful ruins of a 13-storey medieval stupa that was dynamited by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.
This little-visited monastery between Lhasa and Gyangtse has a fabulous hillside location surrounded by the coiling arms of lake Yamdok-tso. The guesthouse here has simple but cosy dorm rooms to foreign tourists, offering a great opportunity to explore monastery chapels in the early morning or late afternoon, when monks gather for prayers and the superb views towards the main Himalayan range bordering Bhutan are at their best.
There are very few Bön-school monasteries in central Tibet and Yungdrungling is easily the largest. The convenient location just off the main Lhasa-Shigatse highway makes it an easy detour and yet it receives no tour groups. Walk around the chapels and spin the prayer wheels anticlockwise in the Bön way to notice the subtle differences between Bön and Buddhist practice.
Dza Rongphu Retreat, Mt Everest
Everest Base Camp is a popular choice for both foreign and Chinese tour groups but it can get busy in high season. Almost everyone misses the Dza Rongphu retreat, just a ten-minute walk from the main tented accommodation a few kilometres before base camp, but its collection of photogenic chorten (stupas) frame Everest perfectly and it still feels like a genuinely sacred site.