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How to travel Tibet and experience its ancient culture. Everything you need to know about how to enter, getting around, and the truth in visiting.
To be able to travel to Tibet is both a privilege and a different kind of experience that requires some degree of more profound observation. What was once closed off to outsiders and one of the most isolated cultures globally is now an Autonomous Region of China. Therefore, it is more tricky to traverse since you can’t travel there independently.
While China heavily manages Tibet tourism, visiting means helping to keep Tibetan culture alive and experiencing those pockets of Tibetan Buddhism so profoundly entrenched in the form of spiritualism you won’t witness anywhere else.
Your visit is about using your freedom to return home to tell the world about it.
You won’t forget your time in Tibet easily, but it is a place where some pre-romanticised ideas shatter, and you leave with more questions and emotions than when you first arrived. It’s a mix of fascinating otherworldly spiritualism in mountainside monasteries and palaces and nunneries and temples. It’s the sadness at seeing a long history eroded that conflicts with such remarkable beauty.
- Tibet Today
- Is it Ethical to Travel Tibet?
- How to Visit Tibet
- How to Get to Tibet – Arrival and Getting Around
- The Best Time to Visit Tibet
- How Much Does it Cost to Travel to Tibet?
- Is Tibet Safe to Travel?
- Responsible Travel in Tibet
- Where to Visit in Tibet?
- What to Pack for Tibet
- Avoiding Altitude Sickness in Tibet
- Travel Tibet and Come Back Changed
What remains of old and sacred Tibet – left untouched after China’s occupation in 1950 that turned Tibet into what is now known as the Tibet Autonomous Region – is a testament to its mysterious and spiritual history and the retelling of it.
Today, seeing Tibet is about getting lost in an ancient culture that dates back to nearly 1,500 years, set within lake-filled valleys and rocky plateaus. To set foot inside some of the world’s oldest monasteries and temples, flanked by the endless peaks and ridges of the Himalayas that naturally hug Tibet in protection, with mighty Everest watching over.
It’s about understanding that while there are plenty of things to see in Tibet, swaths of its original wonder no longer exist. Patches of a far-reaching space we should not take for granted as visitors here when so much has already been lost.
Tibet is best experienced via an overland tour and one covering a lot of ground. On the two-week High Road to Tibet trip with G Adventures, I flew from Kathmandu to Lhasa, spent four days in the Tibetan capital before moving on to Gyantse, Shigatse, Rombuk and Everest Base Camp Tibet for the final highlight. An overnight stay in the border town of Kyirong was the last stop before the long and scenic drive back to Kathmandu.
Choosing exactly how to travel in Tibet and embarking on this particular trip goes hand in hand with travelling responsibly and supporting Tibetans in keeping their culture and traditions alive.
Here’s how to make the most out of your Tibet visit, alongside logistics and how best to experience and support the ancient Tibetan culture and its people.
Is it Ethical to Travel Tibet?
The question of whether it is ethical to visit Tibet is a justified one, but without an easy answer and one that you should make from a personal but informed choice.
Why You Should Travel to Tibet
On the one hand, the Dalai Lama encourages travel there to see the country first-hand and bring those stories home. That’s what I wanted to do. Your presence is a chance for Tibetans to know of the outside world and know that people can witness their beliefs and then return home and tell people about their incredible culture.
On the other hand, your visa money doesn’t go to any form of Tibetan organisation. I struggled with that. Since Tibet is now under Chinese rule, the rights to travel in Tibet and who can enter the country is determined by China. Tibetan religious sites that have been left intact are for tourism dollars, and therefore it’s hard (although possible) to keep all your expenditure in the hands of Tibetan enterprise.
The Reality of Tibet Travel
You’ve made your decision to go and experience this destination steeped in intrigue, but what is it really like to go to Tibet?
You will hear from your guides as you make your way through the region that thousands of Tibetan sites were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution after the Tibet Autonomous Region of China was formed 60 years ago. It is patchy information since the history of the country or mention of the Dalai Lama cannot be spoken of in detail or publicly, even if it is evident to you as a visitor. It would be best if you did your background research at home before visiting.
What remains are the Tibet sites considered most important and sacred, which you enjoy throughout your journey across the country.
Chinese surveillance and military presence is something you too may notice, including CCTV cameras and plain-clothed guards that often appear close to tourism groups when visiting significant sites. These monitoring systems are not something to be afraid of, and you quickly get used to them as a part of travelling here.
For example, when some excited Tibetan ladies wanted their photo with me, it was a form of interaction that created some level of paranoia. So I kindly shut down the situation more quickly than I would generally. It’s better for everyone and the reality of where you choose to travel and adhering to rules.
The organisation of tourism in Tibet also means that your itinerary is pre-approved and cannot be altered. This means that speed restrictions and police checkpoints along the journey (according to your trip schedule) are a requirement for your group. However, the simple reality is that often your Tibetan guide shows the relevant documents and all passports, which makes the process quicker and easier.
It also means adhering to specific rules and regulations at particular sites of enormous significance. The only time you will encounter inner-city police checkpoints is in Lhasa at the Jokhang temple. Given its large-scale importance, the temple has been the leading site of protest, and it’s standard procedure for the square outside of the temple to be guarded and for the army and plain-clothed officers to be present on the Barkhor sacred Kora path.
If exploring alone in your free time, you simply show your passport and state where you are staying and your Nationality (the standard questions). We never encountered any issues going through, and we visited more than once to enjoy the incredible atmosphere of the Kora.
You can also only enter Potala Palace in your group and with your local guide, and you need to bring your passport for the restricted 50-minute viewing slot. Why such tight measures? Potala Palace is a pillar of Tibetan culture and remained the Dalai Lama’s primary residence until the 14th (current) Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959. The Dalai Lama is a strong point of contention, which you will realise on many levels throughout your trip.
There’s a lot to soak in, where you’ll be spiritually moved and emotionally stirred in equal measures.
How to Visit Tibet
You cannot travel independently in Tibet and can only do so with a private guide as part of a small group. Therefore a third-party organiser must obtain a group visa for Tibet before entry.
Three days before our scheduled flight to Tibet, our group met in Kathmandu to submit details for the group visa processing.
Getting a Group Visa for Tibet
Each of us had a four-page form to fill out, which is very much like any visa form. It asks for passport details, where else you have travelled on your particular passport in the last few months, points of contact and for a detailed breakdown of your day to day itinerary. Our G Adventures CEO (Chief Experience Officer) helped us with this process, ensuring we all had the exact itinerary and dates listed in a clear format.
Images for Tibet Visa
The images needed for the Tibet visa was tricky since nearly every person in our group had to get their passport photos redone that same evening. We were all briefed via trip notes beforehand regarding not having ears covered, needing a white background, no obvious make-up or any piercings. Even if there was a little hair covering a part of an ear, the photo had to be retaken. So much so that the women in the group were clipping every strand of their hair back.
Again, we did this as a group, ensuring we had a photographer at the passport store in Kathmandu who was briefed about our specific image request.
Application of Visa
Our Nepali CEO took our forms, photos and passports to the relevant agency and embassy for processing. It was an agonising wait to know if we could get into Tibet or not (with an itinerary in Nepal for two days to fill the time). It was a horrible feeling not having our passports.
It was a gut-wrenching wait at the airport with just over one hour until our flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa, waiting for the group visa to turn up via a China embassy worker who delivers the paper via motorcycle. Our cheers were the signal that the adventure was just beginning.
How to Get to Tibet – Arrival and Getting Around
There are three ways to travel Tibet – via a flight to and from Lhasa or by overland via train or private vehicle.
Travel Tibet from China
Those who join groups in China fly mainly from Beijing or other cities on the Lhasa flight circuit. Taking a train to Tibet is doable only from China via one of the following cities – Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Chongqing, Lanzhou and Xining- and is subject to your particular itinerary and booking.
Travel Tibet from Nepal
I chose to travel to Tibet from Nepal, soaring over the Himalayas via a flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa. This flight route also allowed for the grand adventure of being able to overland in Tibet and travel back to Kathmandu in a loop that took around ten days.
I picked this particular tour because of its Nepal start and endpoint, as I did not want to travel from China for my ethical reasons about where I spend my money. Nepal is also a country close to my heart, where I encourage people to visit and contribute to the local economy.
Getting Around Tibet
As per the group visa and organisation rules, you can only travel around Tibet with an organised guide and private vehicle and driver.
Solo travel and the use of public transport are not permitted for foreign travellers. We rode the local bus in Lhasa for a few stops, but we were with our guide.
This private guide and vehicle also apply since you must arrive at designated police checkpoints in your route by certain dates and specific times. At times you will be asked to get out and present your passport one by one in your group before continuing with the next leg of the journey.
The Best Time to Visit Tibet
The season typically starts in mid-April and runs until October, covering the spring, summer and autumn months in Tibet. The height of summer can be stifling, which is why it’s best to try and get on one of the first tours in April or the last remaining in October.
Tibet isn’t closed for tourism because of the weather, more so for the New Year’s Losar Festival in late February or early March and is closed during political dates such as the anniversary of Chinese occupation at the end of March.
One thing that can’t be changed is Tibet’s incredible scenery. The dominant background of the Himalayan strip of peaks is one of the best things about this trip.
How Much Does it Cost to Travel to Tibet?
With all these elements in mind, regarding group travel and a group visa, a private guide and vehicle, alongside organised activity, visiting Tibet isn’t a budget experience.
However, with prices ranging from €2,200 – €2,800 (dependent on what time of the year you go), Tibet is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The cost also encompasses all elements of facilitation from visa organisation, the flight and point-to-point travel.
The extra costs aside from the tour cost itself were:
- Cost of the Nepal visa ($30 for 15 days, $40 for multiple entries if staying for more days before or after your trip)
- Cost of the Tibet Visa (Various according to Nationality)
- American and Brazilian: 195 USD per person
- Canadian and Romanian: 150 USD per person
- Israeli: 104 USD per person
- All other nationalities: 114 USD per person
- Food and drink costs (Approximately €400 for two weeks)
- Money for extras such as souvenirs and some entry prices for extra excursions or activities
Is Tibet Safe to Travel?
Safety in Tibet is a common question and a precursor to the decision to travel here. While you may hear about acts of political demonstration in the media, this is not something you are ever likely to see since the country is closed during critical political dates and anniversaries.
However, it pays to be aware of where you are and what could get you and Tibetans into trouble. This means:
Not taking or carrying any form of Tibet guidebook, related literature or any political materials into the country. The scanners at Lhasa airport scan laboriously for books.
Not carrying or having in your possession any images of the Dalai Lama while in Tibet. Possession of Dalai Lama pictures is illegal here, with severe consequences for Tibetans.
Respecting that your Tibetan guides cannot engage in any kind of political discussion, whether about the Chinese occupation of Tibet or the Dalai Lama’s current situation. They will tell you who people are in the pictures, cultural references and historical references about Tibetan Buddhism, but do not further push them.
Do not engage in any kind of political discussion with any Tibetans you meet. All tourism movement is monitored, even if you think at any given moment that it is not, and such debate has far worse consequences for Tibetans.
Do not take any photos of police, army or other military personnel or set-up. If you see anything while taking pictures of sites, buildings, and street views, lower your camera, wait, or move on.
Keep to your itinerary and times. The guide has to ensure the group (and vehicle) reports at designated police checkpoints on the set days of your city departure and new city arrival and by a specified time.
Responsible Travel in Tibet
One of the main things I liked about this particular Tibet tour is that (where possible) we stayed in Tibetan owned accommodations, ate at Tibetan owned restaurants and were informed of where to shop at Tibetan owned stores and souvenir stalls.
It’s hard to distinguish what is in between the labyrinth of superficial Chinese town structures, so having someone point you in the right direction was a welcome gesture.
In a destination where Chinese control affects all aspects and layers of daily life, where your tourism money goes, and what and whom it supports, is especially important.
The nature of an overland trip in Tibet means many roadside stops for viewpoints and toilet stops. Therefore, forms of tourism enterprise have sprung up in key spots, and while buying food and souvenirs is fine, don’t engage in the practice of photography with the Tibetan Mastiff dogs. Chained and poorly treated, this tourism gimmick is far removed from any level of positive animal welfare and participating in it encourages its continuation.
Where to Visit in Tibet?
Due to strict control by the Chinese government, your trip is organised and scheduled, especially since the driver, guide and the group need to be at police checkpoints along the journey by a specific time. However, with approximately ten days on the ground, you get to cover a lot of Tibet and see the country’s major highlights and differences across cities and landscapes. You also have plenty of free time for extra exploration in each city.
A focal point and centrepiece for Tibetan Buddhists and pilgrims who come here from through Tibet and further afield, Lhasa is more than just the new capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Johkang Temple (the oldest part was built in the 600s and enlarged over the centuries) and the circular Barkhor Street surrounding it is the most sacred area and the beating heart of Tibetan Buddhism of Tibet. Barkhor is one of the primary pilgrim circuits, where Tibetans come to walk in prayer clockwise around the Kora (sacred) path. It is believed that every Tibetan should visit and pray and at Johkang at least once in their lifetime.
The Sera Monastery is one of the last remaining three core monasteries in the country (together with Drepung Monastery and Ganden Monastery) and one of the two great monasteries of the Gelugpa order. It is better known as the place to see the monks debating – a mesmerising hum of fast-paced chatter and hand-clapping echoes that every visitor should experience. While the number of monks has been reduced significantly (by the hundreds), you can still encounter a grand sense of spiritualism here.
Potala Palace is Tibet’s icon – the looming, 1000 roomed structure that sits on the hillside presiding over the capital is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and museum. It’s a symbol of power, the old administrative centre and the seat of government of spiritual Tibet, built during the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama in 1645.
Norbulingka (Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama) was founded by the 7th Dalai Lama in 1755 and is where the 14th Dalai Lama made his escape in 1959. It’s known for having the most extensive human-made garden in Tibet, and so its grounds are great for visiting also.
We were also encouraged to visit Ani Tsamlchung Nunnery to support the nuns. Although the monks get paid a form of salary now, the Chinese government does not support the nuns. Therefore, the $6 ticket cost helps to maintain the nunnery, as does the funds made from supporting their handicraft store and teahouse, the latter of which is a truly local experience.
Gyantse used to be Tibet’s third-largest town. While its administrative status has diminished, it remains one of the last cities not wholly overtaken by Chinese influence and mass structure.
It takes 9 hours to get here from Lhasa, with spectacular viewpoints to make a stop, including the Kambalaat High Pass at 4794m where you can view Mt. Nojin Kangatan (7191m) and drive part of the parameter of Lake Yamdork.
Here we visited the Palcho Monastery, which you breathlessly climb for 20 minutes for a broad panoramic view of the surrounding village, fortress and mountain ranges. This moment of calm looking out over such a surreal canvas is a time to reflect on where you are.
Tibet’s second-largest city of Shigatse is a two-hour drive from Gyantse.
Better known as the Panchen Lama’s traditional seat (the second highest order of the Dalai Lama), Shigatse is on the map because its home to Tibet’s best-preserved Monastery Tashilompo Monastery where once, 4700 monks lived.
It’s considered by pilgrims to be the second Potala Palace and is visited daily by hundreds of people here to see the 26m high Buddha made from 278kgs of gold.
A short drive from Shigatse, our time in neighbouring Shegar was a sleepover point at 4,300m, ready for the nine-hour drive to Everest Base camp the following day.
Rombuk and Everest Base Camp Tibet
On the way to the Everest Base Camp area, you get to visit the Gyatso Pass at 5248m – the highest pint you will be on the trip. Another accolade to rack up here is to say you’ve used the highest toilets on earth.
The drive to the Rombuk Monastery was an endless stream of white-capped mountain scenery, with everybody in the vehicle full of excitement with every glimpse of Everest as we rounded corners and valley walls.
The Monastery stay is basic but comfortable, with a chance to walk to the Base Camp checkpoint and climb a small view for an elevated viewpoint. On the other side of Everest is where my first mountain adventure completing the Everest Base Camp Trek, began in Nepal seven years ago. Everest Base Camp on the Tibet side might have been moved back by 7km, but nothing beats the view we had of the world’s highest mountain.
READ MORE: Everest Base Camp Trek, Nepal – Reaching the Top of the World
Overnight it had snowed, so we were able to take another walk towards Everest as it stood glowing with a golden morning halo.
Kyirong Border Town to Nepal
Leaving Mount Everest behind, we took back to the road for a 9-hour drive to the Nepal-Tibet border town of Kyirong. While there is not much to see here, it is where we had our last Tibetan dinner and a good night’s rest before the 10-hour drive back to Kathmandu.
What to Pack for Tibet
- Layers including merino wool thermals, t-shirts, fleece, windproof or tri-climate jacket and a waterproof jacket. I layered as swapped and changed. One minute it’s sunny, and you work up a sweat walking around. The next, you will be jumping out of the car to snap away at the valley ridges and mountain scenes where it’s cold, windy, raining or even snowing. Every day is a surprise.
- You will need modest clothing covering shoulders and knees for when you enter monasteries, temples and other religious areas. Casual long-sleeve travel tops are acceptable, or best tops with cardigans or light-sport jackets.
- Jeans and hiking trousers (Mammut are my go-to brand for fit and comfort). Wear your most comfy pants for long journeys, my favourite being my roomy, yellow climbing pants.
- Gloves and a hat for those cold, windy and sometimes snowy conditions at high heights
- Trekking shoes (better when walking outside in more adverse weather conditions and walking at Everest Base camp) and sneakers / comfortable walking shoes for general city wandering. I love my Asolo hikers and have Vivobarefoot for everyday walking.
Essentials and Extras
- Sunglasses and sunscreen. Particularly in the morning to mid-afternoon in Lhasa, the sun was extreme. A sun hat is recommended for those more sensitive to the heat.
- Silk sleeping liner for an extra layer at Everest Base Camp and monastery stay and a head torch since the toilet is in a separate building outside of your room. If you have the time to shop around, you can also find these items in Kathmandu before the trip start.
- Toilet paper for roadside ‘nature toilets’ and squats.
- Hand sanitiser (diarrhoea is one of the main health issues for Tibet)
- A Microfibre travel towel is a good, lightweight extra (where you might need a fresh, clean towel or for use at EBC).
- Snacks for sustenance on the road. I usually take a week’s worth of protein and healthy snack bars.
- Painkillers (also to help with early-onset symptoms of altitude). I was able to get stronger 600mg Ibuprofen, only on prescription from my doctor. However, they were vital in curbing the early onset of migraines which would have caused further sickness.
Take crisp, new dollars with you for exchange in Tibet to Chinese Yuan. The ATM didn’t work for everyone. It was also impossible to get a large number of Rupees changed to dollars while in Nepal.
Avoiding Altitude Sickness in Tibet
Altitude sickness can occur in some people around the 2,500 m, but everyone is different. For example, I start to feel sick at 4,000m, and it has taken a few trips and treks to work that out.
But the high altitude in Tibet isn’t something to be worried about. The trip is designed to allow enough time in Lhasa to acclimatise and includes many ‘high to low’ drives to cover various altitudes, so your body adjusts. There’s a precise science to the trip itinerary, the route and the designated stops that has you covered without you having to overthink it, but here are some extra tips for avoiding altitude sickness when in Tibet.
Avoid intense activity when you get to Lhasa. Our trip specifically had four days on the ground to ensure enough time to acclimatise and take things slowly. Stroll, and rest when you feel your body is getting tired. It’s always about listening to your body.
Say hydrated. Drink plenty of water and get plenty of sleep. Dehydration and fatigue are not what you need on this trip when some days involve a lot of sightseeing and long walks around sites. You can pick up dehydration sachets in Kathmandu, which you’ll find in all supermarkets stocked up for those about to go trekking. Or take electrolyte drinks, tablets or salts with you.
Be aware of your body as you slowly climb to a higher altitude. Our G CEO carried a finger pulse monitor, and each day we wrote down our heart rate and oxygen levels. This daily test allowed him to monitor anyone in the groups who could be sick or face any potential issues ahead of time.
You can purchase Diamox tablets in Kathmandu before the trip. However, we managed to find a herbal tablet version in Lhasa that we could begin taking as we were leaving Lhasa to prepare for higher altitudes.
Travel Tibet and Come Back Changed
Tibet is an emotional dive into an ancient Buddhist culture and a journey through the Himalayan plateau’s highlands. A sensorial spectacle on multi-levels that you won’t ever forget.
For further information on the Tibet tour, including the departure dates during the seven-month travel window, see the High Road to Tibet trip overview. I travelled with G Adventures as an ambassador to promote destinations responsibly and where tourism money and practice is used for social good.
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