A detailed travel guide to Tibet to show you how to travel Tibet. Be sure to check out our Tibet tours that depart regularly from April to October 2020.
How to Travel Tibet
Tibet is called the ‘Roof of the World’ for good reason: With an average elevation exceeding 4,500 metres (14,800 ft), the Tibetan Plateau is sometimes the world’s highest and largest plateau, with an area of 2,500,000 square kilometres (about five times the size of France). Challenging as it may be, here’s my go at how to travel Tibet and get the maximum from this incredible part of the world.
Geography in Tibet is on a humbling scale — dramatic snow-peaked mountains loom over vast plains, zigzagging highways weave their way through high passes draped with colourful prayer flags, while glittering turquoise lakes stand in the shadow of centuries-old glaciers. Home to several of the world’s highest peaks and the famous Everest Base Camp, Tibet has the power to impress even the most hardened traveler.
But amidst the stunning natural landscapes in Tibet, it’s the people of Tibet that truly moved me. Despite mass modernisation and dilution of their culture under China’s iron fist, Tibet remains a resilient land underpinned by a rich culture and deep faith. 50 years of oppression and religious control have failed to dull the Tibetans’ devotion to their faith.
Today, amidst the kitsch Chinese neon signs, retail stores and fast food chains in Lhasa, it’s still common to see hardcore pilgrims prostrating in koras circumambulating sacred spots around the country.
Magnificent monasteries rich with the aroma of butter tea, prayer halls of chanting monks, and streets lined with prayer wheels all remind us that nobody can take away what is truly Tibetan. The Chinese may have taken away a lot of things from Tibet, but they’ll never take away their identity and faith.
Why You Should Travel Tibet
These days, traveling Tibet can be a controversial subject. Many people in the Western world strongly feel that visiting the oppressed nation means that you’re supporting China’s political indoctrination of Tibet. Some people I know would never visit Tibet until it is fully liberalised from the clutches from China. I absolutely understand their point of view and I strongly oppose China’s hard-headed tactics, but visiting Tibet does not mean I’m supporting the regime.
In fact, I think more people should visit so Tibet gets the attention and support from the outside world it deserves. I see travel as the best form of education — only by going there, talking to locals and seeing things from ground level do you truly learn about what’s going on, and can therefore inform others about the state that Tibet is in.
How to Travel Tibet
Tourism is highly restricted in Tibet and independent travel is not allowed. Foreign travelers need to prearrange a tour in order to obtain a Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit; only Chinese and Hongkong travelers are free to enter without a visa. Every company that runs Tibet tours will help you obtain a TTB when you book a tour with them.
Without a TTB permit, you won’t even be able to board a flight or train to Tibet. Besides citizens of Singapore, Brunei and Japan, all visitors require a valid Chinese visa in addition to a Tibet permit. Make sure to get your Chinese visa at least a month before your trip, as your tour operator will need it to get the TTB permit. When applying for your Chinese visa, don’t mention Tibet and don’t list your occupation as ‘journalist’.
I’m glad I chose to run my first WildJunket Tour to Tibet. It’s safe to say everyone in the group enjoyed the trip tremendously and appreciated the great job our local guide and driver did. If you are looking to travel Tibet, we offer regular departures for Tibet tours in 2020. Check them out here!
When to Travel Tibet
Tibet can be visited all year round — but the best time to visit is in spring and summer (from April to October) when Tibet’s weather is not too harsh and most areas of Tibet are accessible. This also depends largely on your Tibet itinerary as certain parts can only be visited in summer (e.g. Mount Kailash is covered in snow throughout the year except summer.)
Most Tibetan festivals take place in spring and summer too, including the month-long Saga Dawa Festival (mainly to celebrate the birth of Buddha, enlightenment, and Nirvana) which coincided with my trip, the week-long Shoton festival (Tibetan opera performance and Buddha Thangka unfolding ceremony) and Nagqu horse racing festival. Tibet travel is definitely at its best in spring and summer.
Winter is low season for travel in Tibet, as temperatures can get quite extreme at such high altitudes. I wouldn’t recommend visiting Everest Base Camp then as temperatures can drop to way below 0 degrees Celsius.
How to Get to Tibet
Flights to Tibet are quite expensive, and a lot of people suffer from altitude sickness when flying straight into Lhasa. You will have to fly via other cities in China or Kathmandu (the only international transit point) to get to Lhasa regardless of where you’re coming from.
Return flights to Lhasa from Singapore are around US$500 and from Beijing for US$600. I managed to score a pretty cheap flight from Lhasa to Singapore (single way) for US$180 with taxes included.
Another way of getting into Tibet is on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. This is the highest rail travel in the world, with more than 960 km (600 miles) at an elevation of more than 4,000 m (13,123 ft) and almost half of the tracks built on permafrost. The rail journey starts in Beijing, the Chinese capital, taking a total of 40 hours to get to Lhasa.
But the landscapes only begin to impress from Xining onwards, whizzing past high-altitude lakes, vast plains and mountain passes. Train tickets are not cheap, at around US$280 for a soft sleeper and $200 for a hard sleeper (prices can change depending on season) each way.
How to Get Around Tibet
Foreign visitors are not allowed to take public transport in Tibet. As mentioned, you need to arrange a tour in order to enter Tibet and move around the region. Tours always include transportation that will bring you around Tibet.
However, travelers are free to explore Lhasa’s markets, squares and old town on their own. There are plenty of things to do in Lhasa, and you can easily spend a week here exploring the temples, palaces and narrow alleys.
You only need to be accompanied by a tour guide when visiting tourist attractions (any monastery and temple). Taxis are easily available in Lhasa and a one-way journey anyway in the city costs only 10 yuan (US$1.50).
We traveled around on a comfortable small bus with enough capacity for 14 people. It wasn’t as big and conspicuous as the ugly big blue buses that Chinese tourists traveled on, and it was good enough to cover long distances and on the hundreds of switchbacks on the Friendship Highway.
Where to Stay in Tibet
Accommodation is included in most Tibet tours. On our trip, we stayed at comfortable 4-star hotels that offered surprisingly luxurious accommodation right in the heart of Lhasa and Shigatse.
Only one night was spent camping at Everest Base Camp, and even then we stayed in a clean, comfortable big tented camp (for 5 to 8 people in each tent). They provided cushy mattresses and clean quilts. It was rather cold at night, so thankfully the local tour operator provided sleeping bags (with a cleaning fee of US$10).
It is allowed to explore Lhasa on your own and you can easily book hotels in Lhasa online. Prices are pretty affordable — $50 can get you a comfortable three-star hotel in the historical centre.
Here are the Lhasa hotels I recommend:
St Regis Resort Lhasa — The best place to stay in Lhasa, with ultra luxurious and spacious rooms for those who want to splurge after roughing out in rural Tibet. It’s a walk away from town so you’ll need to get a taxi everywhere. Book here.
Lhasa Gang-Gyan Hotel — A comfortable 4-star hotel with high standards of accommodation and an excellent location, just a few minutes’ walk from Barkhor Square. The breakfast spread was impressive. Hotel staff don’t speak English though.
House of Shambala — A boutique hotel brimming with traditional Tibetan flair. We ate at its fantastic restaurant twice and loved it. Rooms are decorated in true authentic Tibetan fashion. Check for rates here.
Tashi Choeta Boutique Hotel — A simple three-star hotel that’s great for the budget traveler. It’s located in the historical quarters, with a charming lounge area in its central courtyard. The hotel’s interior is decorated in traditional Tibetan style, and the service is excellent. Book your hotel here.
Lhasa Gang Gyan Hotel
Inside the tented guesthouse at Everest Base Camp
What to Eat in Tibet
Don’t come to Tibet expecting gourmet meals; traditional Tibetan fare is quite simple and basic. Tibetans used to subsist on tsampa (barley flour) and butter tea, but now many Chinese dishes have been introduced to their culinary diet. There’s no shortage of Chinese fare around, but if you won’t find anything beyond that outside of Lhasa.
Most teahouses serve typical dishes like yak momo (steamed dumplings with yak meat), Tibetan noodles in broth, and stir-fried vegetables with rice. Chinese dishes that are usually on the menu include chili chicken, cashew chicken, double fried pork meat, and yak meat with vegetables. They’re pretty good and authentic in my opinion, but can be oily and spicy for some western tastebuds. Only in Lhasa will you find international restaurants that serve pizzas as well as Nepali and Indian thali sets.
Here are some of the restaurants in Lhasa that I absolutely love:
House of Shambala — As I mentioned above, I ate dinner once with the group and we loved it so much that we returned to have our last dinner here. The choice of momos was impressive and the platters of pakhora and other Tibetan-Nepali snacks were excellent. The atmosphere there was great and service was good. Read the Tripadvisor reviews.
Tibetan Family Kitchen — This cosy home-style diner makes you feel like you’re eating in someone’s home. Make your way there through a narrow alleyway, up the stairs through an apartment building and you’ll find yourself in a local home. You not only get to eat home-cooked Tibetan food but you can also try your hand at cooking them. Read the Tripadvisor reviews.
Po Ba Tsang Restaurant — A modern restaurant serving Tibetan and Chinese dishes that are huge in portions and great in flavor. There’s live folklore music for entertainment and also hotpot available for those who want a true culinary experience. Read the Tripadvisor reviews here.
Cost of Travel in Tibet
Traveling Tibet isn’t cheap as you need to go on a tour to travel here. It’s especially pricey if you want to spend more than a week here and explore more remote regions. For a week-long tour, expect to pay at least US$900 for all your accommodation, guide and visa.
Because of the stiff competition, tour prices you find online are usually around the same. My WildJunket Tibet Tour was reasonably priced, considering the quality of accommodation, the comfort of our transportation and the great service from our guide and driver. Daily breakfasts were included but not other meals. Our guide usually brought us to affordable places with meals costing around US$5-10 per person.
Safety in Tibet
Tibet has been plagued by civil unrest and anti-government protests since the 1960s when China invaded the nation. More than 140 people are known to have set themselves on fire inside Tibet to call for the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet, for the Panchen Lama to be freed, and for human rights and freedom in Tibet go be restored. Self-immolation protests peaked in 2012 when more than 80 took place.
Although many monks and nuns have set themselves alight, most self-immolation protesters were normal Tibetans, some were as young as 15 years old. The Chinese government responded to the protests with a surge in activity by security forces, plenty of propaganda campaigns against the protesters and punishments for protester’s families and communities.
During my visit (in May 2017), it was common to find police checkpoints all over Lhasa, with the old town and the Potala Palace in particular heavily guarded by Chinese Police. Security posts were also set up all over Tibet and military presence was everywhere. We had to cross several passport checkpoints across Tibet and plenty of permits and paperwork were involved.
Besides the heavy security, there was no hint of instability or violence.
Staying Healthy in Tibet
The capital city Lhasa itself stands at 3,550m above sea level, and Everest Base Camp looms at 5,088m. At such dizzying heights, it can be easy to suffer from AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) if you don’t take the time to acclimatise to the conditions.
Tibetan people on the other hand are genetically adapted to living at higher altitudes. They have more red blood cells than most of us and that helps them to live with the limited oxygen at high altitudes.
Most people flying into Lhasa suffer from AMS; symptoms include light-headedness, nausea, short of breathe and headaches. Just make sure to get some Diamox (Acetazolamide) before your trip and start the medication at least one day before landing in Lhasa. Give yourself plenty of time to rest and acclimatise in Lhasa before you start exploring.
Tommy suffering from altitude sickness and getting his oxygen fix
Best Places to Travel in Tibet
- The highlight of our trip was reaching Everest Base Camp, where the highest peak in the world loomed before us. It felt so close that it almost seemed within reach. Sleeping in a tented camp under the starry skies, I couldn’t believe I was literally at the top of the world.
- Our drive to Everest Base Camp on the Friendship Highway was just as spectacular as our destination. The highway climbed up more than 2,000m in altitude via a series of sharp hairpin bends. Scenery along the way featured winding valleys, vast grasslands, meadows and windswept mountain views.
- Watching monks at Sera Monastery debate was such an eye-opening experience. The debates were punctuated with vigorous gestures which made the whole ambience really lively and interesting.
- It was such an honor visiting the legendary Potala Palace, an iconic landmark of Tibet and the most well-known building in the country. This was the fortresslike home of nine Dalai Lamas, but is sadly used as a museum now.
- The scenic route from Shigatse to Lhasa brought us along lime-green barley fields, pristine turquoise lakes, time-warped villages and mountains studded with ochre stupas. It was a full day of driving, but the landscapes were diverse and spectacular. Some of my favourite stops were Gyatse Fort, Yamdrok Lake and Karo-La Glacier.
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