Travel Advice Guide
Whereas Western popular beliefs about Tibet are quite correct about Tibetan Buddhism and monasteries (they are indeed very important in Tibetan society), they are dead wrong about the Tibetan mountains.The clichés carried by the Western media focus on the fierce mountains of the Himalaya range. This is quite opposed to the image presented to the Chinese in the news, documentaries and folk song video clips where the accent is put on the high plains. Of course there are high inaccessible mountains in Tibet, but the huge majority of the Tibetan territory is made of high plains and softly sloped hills and mountains.
This widens considerably the potential target client population. The abrupt mountains of the Himalaya range require specialized skills and a lot of preparatory training if you want to get anything out of them. The kind of landscape which you will find in most of the Tibetan areas, on the contrary, is accessible to most people who have got a moderately good physical condition.
However, exploiting this potential requires some software and hardware infrastructure. We are not talking about multi-billion investments like what is necessary to equip a modern Western ski resort. In most parts of the Tibetan areas, the winters are extremely dry and there is never enough snow for skiing. Anyway, ski tourism is an extremely competitive field with small profit margins: many Eastern European countries have invested heavily in the infrastructure and they have got the necessary natural climate. The Sochi Olympic Winter Games 2014 are a good example of such projects.
What is needed in Tibet would be hiking trails or at least some markers or signs and maps which tourists can use to find their way. Reading a topographic map on paper is not easy; modern applications on smart phones combining topographic information with GPS data can be a solution. Of course, hiking trails bust be tested, documented and the relevant information entered in the relevant application.
Right now, even in touristic spots in the Tibetan areas, it is not easy to go on a tour in the mountains without having to hire a guide. Existing hiking trails are generally short and lead to special "scenic spots"; they can be pretty overcrowded in summer. They are adapted to Han tourism but not to Western tourists, who are used to have a large choice of short and long hiking trails where they can enjoy the wide nature without meeting other tourists every ten minutes and without a local guide. As mentioned above, this kind of tourism will certainly become more and more popular among Han Chinese.
Such hiking can be a valuable income source for nomads. In the Swiss mountains, restaurants or farmhouses high up in the mountains provide food for hikers; Western tourists are also used to take sandwiches when they go on a tour. In the Tibetan areas, this is quite complicated: it is not easy to find food you can easily take with you, since meals are generally served hot.
Tibetans are very hospitable and would be happy to welcome tourists who happen to be hungry, but information on both sides is necessary to avoid misunderstandings. It does not really make sense if Western tourists get food for free, but local people might be reluctant to ask for money. Training for local nomads could include some basic English or some communication help like some kind of "menu" with standard prices. Tourists should be informed about the possibility to get some food from local nomads and about the geographic availability of this offer: at some times in the year, there might simply be no nomads in certain areas.
Other outdoor activities require more hardware. Mountain biking is a typical entry level mechanized outdoor activity. None of my friends in China have ever mentioned this sport. Mountain bikes can be easily found in China, but they are not used to go cross country. When looking for "mountain bike Tibet" on Google Images, you get almost exclusively photographs of well-trained bike fanatics who drive their bikes over thousands of kilometers crossing high mountain passes. If you perform the same search for "mountain bike" without specifying "Tibet", the picture is quite different: most photographs show downhill mountain biking, which requires less effort and is much more "fun". For mountain biking to become a popular tourism activity in the thin air of Tibet, a way of bringing the tourists up to the mountain top is certainly required. This does not require expensive cable cars; busses, vans, cars or even motorbikes driven by local nomads can do this, depending on the availability of roads. This activity can certainly be attractive to Western and Chinese tourists alike.
Downhill scooters have got the advantage over mountain bikes that they are easier to transport uphill. They are a quite recent sport in Europe, many people never heard about it. They were developed by ski resorts as an alternative to traditional winter sport when there is no snow, which is more and more often the case due to climate warming. The "novelty factor" could make this sport more attractive. On the other hand, everybody who can ride on a bike can use a downhill scooter.
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