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Tibet has very strict, difficult, and complex permits and rules. Basically most people visit as part of an organized tour group, which is not cheap and visiting as an independent backpacker is pretty much not possible, unless you have Chinese citizenship.

There are also Tibetan cultural areas that are not in the official border or zone of Tibet itself as set out by China and to which the above relates. Such areas can be freely visited like most of the rest of China, by anybody with a Chinese visa.

I believe most such areas are in Sichuan province, but I'm not really sure. Maybe also in Yunnan?

But one thing I have recently learned is that in many such areas, even when people speak their traditional language, it will be a distant relative not mutually comprehensible with Standard/Lhasa Tibetan. Probably further apart than French and Romanian in Europe.

Basically I am a language enthusiast and I want some exposure to Tibetan language. I don't care if it's a dialect, mutually comprehensible. This would still make written Tibetan usable. I want to at least learn the alphabet in a place I will see it every day.

I know a better option would be to visit Nepal or India where the Dalai Lama and many Tibetan Buddhists live in exile, but I'm probably not going to be in Nepal or India on this trip and I should be in China for at least four months.

If there is no such place, that is an acceptable answer. But please show in your answer how you know this is the case.

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    Qinghai is looking like a possibility. There's seems to be a second widely spoken variant of Tibetan there. Many people might speak both varieties. This variety is closer to the written language, which would make learning the alphabet easier. Seems sparsely populated but has hostels ... – hippietrail Sep 5 '16 at 14:51
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    As per Wikipedia on Tibetic Languages are you asking only for Places where Central Tibetan is spoken or also including Amdo & Kham? – mts Sep 5 '16 at 15:32
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    @mts: It's hard to know really. I expect there might not be Central Tibetan in the freely visitable areas. But maybe there are places with large numbers of internal Tibetan migrants or something? I was mainly thinking whether a variety would be "useful", be that mutually comprehensible, or used as a local lingua franca, or used by literate people who read and write Tibetan. So it's looking like Amdo could be a good alternative to Central. I didn't read up much on Kham yet. But maybe this gives you more idea what I have in mind. I can't afford a formal course so I'll just observe and practice. – hippietrail Sep 5 '16 at 16:07
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+50

There are three main subdivisions within the Tibetic languages spoken within China (there are two others, which are however not spoken in China): Ü-Tsang, spoken only in Tibet itself and the basis of Standard Tibetan; Amdo, spoken in most of the Qinghai province; and Kham, spoken in eastern Tibet and the westernmost parts of the Sichuan province.

So Qinghai and the westernmost parts of Sichuan would be your best bets. Be warned, however, that the various subdivisions are mutually unintelligible.

Standard Tibetan (an Ü-Tsang language) is semi-tonal (one high and one low tone), whereas Amdo is non-tonal and Kham is "fully" tonal

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    Since asking this question I have learned that Amdo is very close to written Tibetan as Standard Tibetan is not, and also that many Amdo are literate and bilingual in Standard Tibetan, both properties that could be useful to the language enthusiast. – hippietrail Oct 17 '16 at 5:43

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