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Tibetan Plateau Guide: A Journey into the World’s Highest Plateau

Last Update: September 26, 2023

The Tibetan Plateau is the roof of the world. It is a vast and unique high-elevation region filled with breathtaking landscapes. It is a rewarding destination to travel to, but also a place with some challenges. Here is a guide to the Tibetan Plateau to help familiarize you with this incredible location.

Where is the Tibetan Plateau?

The Tibetan Plateau spans across multiple countries including China, India, Nepal, and Bhutan. It is surrounded by the Himalayas to the south, the Kunlun Mountains to the north, and various mountain ranges to the east and west. The majority of the plateau falls within the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, making its provincial capital, Lhasa, the perfect starting point for exploring the region.

Why is the Tibetan Plateau Special?

Its unique geographical features are a large part of what makes the Tibetan Plateau so special a place. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Third Pole’ because it contains the largest concentration of ice and snow outside the polar regions, making it a vital water source for several major rivers in Asia.

Its unique landscape has also shaped the people, plants, and animals living there. The local flora and fauna have adapted to the high-altitude environment, making it a region of high biodiversity and ecological significance.

Tibetan culture and religion have also been shaped by the environment. Home to Tibetan Buddhism and a range of traditional lifestyles such as the nomadic people who still live on the plateau, visitors to Tibet can witness culture and lifestyles that trace their roots back to ancient times.

Tibetan PlateauTibetan Plateau is a special place with unique landscape.

How Was the Tibetan Plateau Formed?

The Tibetan Plateau formed as the result of complex geological processes that spanned millions of years, and continue in the present day. Beginning with the collision of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates, the resulting uplift began the formation of the mountain ranges 50-55 million years ago.

As the collision continued, the crust of the tectonic plates thickened from the pressures and compression, slowly raising the elevation of the plateau. The thickening process caused the plateau to extend, shaping it into the landscape we see today. This still goes on now, causing the surrounding mountains to slowly rise while the weather erodes the rock into the rugged peaks the region is famous for.

How Big and How High is the Tibetan Plateau?

The Tibetan Plateau is vast, covering an area of approximately 2.5 million square kilometers. The average elevation is around 4,500 meters above sea level, with Mount Everest being the highest point at 8,848 meters. Dramatic valleys that dip down to 3,000 meters accentuate the soaring heights around them.

Mount EverestMount Everest is the highest point of the Tibetan Plateau.

What is the Climate on the Tibetan Plateau?

The climate of the region is shaped by its elevation and geography. Overall, the Tibetan Plateau is a cool and dry place. The high elevation leads to thinner air and lower atmospheric pressure, contributing to lower temperatures. Winters can be very harsh, with temperatures well below freezing and heavy snowfall. Summers are warmer with some rain and mild to warm temperatures.

April to June is one of the best times to visit. Outdoor exploration is generally more comfortable during these months, and many areas become more accessible due to melting snow. The autumn months of September and October are also an ideal time. Temperatures remain comfortable, and with less rainfall than in summer, clear skies can offer great mountain views.

Who Lives on the Tibetan Plateau?

The most prominent group of people on the Tibetan Plateau is the Tibetans themselves. They are the indigenous people of the region with a distinct culture and language, deeply rooted in Tibetan Buddhism, where spiritual practices play a central role in their lives.

Nomadic herding communities continue to practice their traditional way of life on the Tibetan Plateau. Moving their tents in sync with the seasons, these people maintain a high level of self-sufficiency, relying on their herds of yak, sheep, and goats for both sustenance and trade.

Nomadic tents on Tibetan PlateauNomadic tents can be found on the Tibetan Plateau.

Various other ethnic groups also inhabit the plateau, including the Hui, Sherpas, Ladakhis, and Bhutanese peoples. These groups have their own distinct cultures, adding to the diversity of the region.

How Can I Travel to the Tibetan Plateau?

There are several options for getting to the Tibetan Plateau, each with its advantages and considerations. Here is a summary to help you decide the best way to get there.

Fly to Lhasa

It is possible to fly to Lhasa from several cities in mainland China. Direct flights are available from Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and other cities. The only direct international flight to Lhasa is from Kathmandu, Nepal. Flying to Lhasa gets you there quickly, so you’ll have more time to experience to sights.

Fly to LhasaOne can fly to Lhasa to reach the Tibetan Plateau.

Train to Lhasa

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway, also known as the Tibet Train, connects several Chinese cities to Lhasa. Spanning approximately 1,956 kilometers and crossing high mountain passes, vast grasslands, and breathtaking landscapes, it offers a relaxed and scenic way to travel to the Tibetan Plateau. Depending on your departure point, the shortest journey typically takes around 22 hours, with stops in various towns and cities along the way, including Golmud and Nagqu.

Overland from Kathmandu to Lhasa

The overland route from Kathmandu to Lhasa involves crossing the Nepal-China border and driving through scenic landscapes. Passing through the Himalayan foothills, you see towns such as Gyirong before continuing your journey to Lhasa. The whole journey takes several days, but the gradual climb to the high elevations helps to avoid altitude sickness.

Overland from Mainland China to Lhasa

Popular starting points for the overland route to Lhasa from within mainland China include Chengdu, Xining, Kashgar, and Kunming. These routes involve driving through picturesque landscapes and experiencing gradual elevation changes. Among these routes, the Sichuan overland route from Chengdu to Lhasa is likely the most preferred choice for tourists.

Chengdu to Lhasa by G318Getting to Lhasa from Chengdu by overland is a popular way.

What Are the Top Sights to See on the Tibetan Plateau?

With centuries of cultural traditions and millennia of geological history, the Tibet Plateau has a lifetime's worth of sights to see. Among its natural wonders, Mt. Everest is the first that comes to mind when thinking about the Tibetan Plateau. The world’s tallest peak is best viewed from the Tibetan side where Everest Base Camp offers spectacular views of the mountain and surrounding landscape. Among the other mountains, Mount Kailash is an important pilgrimage site considered sacred by multiple religions.

Beautiful alpine lakes are another must-see attraction. Namtso Lake is one of the highest saltwater lakes in the world, known for its clear blue waters and stunning surroundings, and Yamdrok Lake attracts visitors for its spiritual significance and turquoise waters.

Namtso LakeNamtso Lake is one of the must-sees on the Tibetan Plateau.

The first cultural attraction for many visitors is the Potala Palace located in Lhasa. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and symbol of both Tibetan Buddhism and Tibet itself, the building is a cultural wonder not to be missed. Also in Lhasa, Jokhang temple draws pilgrims from all over Tibet. It is the most sacred temple in Tibetan Buddhism and is conveniently located in the heart of the city.

A little further away is Tashilhunpo Monastery in the city of Shigatse. The seat of the Panchen Lama, it is one of the largest and most important monasteries in Tibet. Visitors travel here to marvel at the architecture and religious artifacts.

Join Us for a Smooth Trip to the Tibetan Plateau

Make your travel easier by booking one of our small group tours or customized private tours. We offer options to suit everyone, ranging from budget tours that cover the main highlights, such as the 4-day Lhasa tour, to longer and more extensive tours, like the 15-day Mount Kailash tour, which provides a deeper immersion into the local culture and environment.

Mount Kailash tourA group of tourists do trekking around Mount Kailash.

You can expect quality service from all of our tours. We start by helping you find the best choice for the experience you are looking for. We will handle arranging the Tibet Travel Permit and providing a knowledgeable local Tibetan guide. When you arrive in Tibet, all arrangements will be taken care of, including your hotel stay and a detailed itinerary.


Traveling to Tibet is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Tibetan Plateau is unlike anywhere else in the world, offering a range of natural and cultural wonders to awe visitors. With so much to choose from during your visit, this guide will provide a helpful overview of what to look for in your tour. Contact us for more details on specific packages and to begin turning your dream journey into reality.

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