Traveling to Tibet is an incredible experience, but you need to be prepared and know what to expect.
Few places in Asia have a stronger magnetic pull on travelers than Tibet. The Roof of the World, as Tibet is known internationally, has been on the world stage since the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959.
One famous Hollywood film, Seven Years in Tibet, has captured and broadcasted an image of old Tibet that is no more real: a barren mountain kingdom where people live in harmony with the mountains.
What you can expect to see if you are traveling to Tibet today is very different, of course. Modernity, coupled with the effects of Chinese intervention in the region, have certainly changed the face of ancient Tibet completely. But it’s exactly because of this situation that you should go and see Tibet with your own eyes.
There are many important things to know before you travel to Tibet, and this post will break down the essential information you need to travel to Tibet stress-free. Before doing that, however, let me explain why I think you should consider visiting Tibet.
Why You Should Consider Traveling To Tibet
There are many reasons to visit Tibet. Most people would suggest traveling to Tibet to admire its sheer beauty. But I have different views.
The most important reason to go to Tibet is because many Tibetans outside of Lhasa still live in very poor conditions. Tourism can be a very important source of income and livelihood for them. On the other hand, with so much misinformation and media manipulation, not counting a dearth of international coverage, it’s only by traveling to Tibet that one can really get a grasp of the current situation, and understand why traveling to Tibet today is so important.
Even the Dalai Lama himself said that the best way to understand his native land today is to travel to Tibet firsthand.
10 Useful Things To Know About Traveling To Tibet
How to get to Tibet
You can certainly fly to Lhasa from most major Chinese cities like Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai, but the best way to travel to Tibet and adjust to the altitude is to take the train from Xining to Lhasa. It’s a 21-hour-long trip, but a very scenic journey along the world’s highest railway.
Make sure to leave Xining in the evening, so that you’ll be able to see the Tanggula Pass, which is over 5000 meters above sea level, and the beautiful scenery along the way the next morning and afternoon before reaching Lhasa.
After the terrible Nepal Earthquake destroyed the border of Zhangmu in 2015, it’s now once again possible to reach Lhasa from Nepal via the new Tibet – Nepal border at Kyirong, a bumpy 9 hours ride from Kathmandu.
However, because of altitude concerns, and also the fact that you will not be able to get a regular Chinese Tourist Visa to enter Tibet in Nepal but only a Group Permit that has stricter limitations, it is recommended that you start your Tibetan journey in China.
Going to Nepal? Make sure to read “What To Expect When Walking The Poon Hill Trek, Nepal.”
Independent travel to Tibet
Like or not, independent travel to Tibet is not possible. Except for Chinese and Hong Kong nationals, everyone else must be on a compulsory organized tour, meaning it is necessary to contact a tour operator which will organize your Tibet Travel Permit and guide, driver and vehicle to explore outside of Lhasa.
This may put many adventurous travelers off, but it’s a strict rule and I don’t recommend trying to sneak inside Tibet from China without a permit. You may be able to make it, but you’ll also face fines, a ban, or at worst, imprisonment, for trying that out.
I traveled with Explore Tibet and can recommend their services. They only employ Tibetan staff and guides who speak very good English, a must if you want to get valuable explanations during your compulsory tour of Tibet.
If you’d rather go with an international company, G Adventures has some tours that also go to Tibet. This one starts in Beijing and ends in Kathmandu; whereas this one goes for the Kailash Saga Dawa Festival.
The cost of traveling to Tibet
Traveling to Tibet is not cheap: a hard sleeper (which actually is a very comfortable sleeping berth) ticket on the train from Xining to Lhasa costs around $80 USD, and tours of Lhasa start at around $300. For longer tours, including the 8-days overland tour from Lhasa to the Nepal border I was on, expect to spend between $1100 and $1300 USD.
Also consider that most tour operators offer entry tickets to the sights and accommodation as part of their packages, but note that food is not always included and has to be paid for separately. Food is more expensive in Tibet than elsewhere in China – expect to pay around 20 Renminbi (RMB) (around $3 USD) for a simple noodle meal that would cost 12 RMB outside of Tibet.
TIP: You can certainly try to slash the costs of your tour to Tibet down by booking your own accommodation in Lhasa on sites such as Booking.com. (Continue reading below for a list of recommended hotels in Lhasa).
It’s important to make sure of what is and what is not included in the cost of your Tibet tour. Talk to your tour operator and don’t be afraid to ask important questions.
TIP: don’t get the cheapest deals offered by China-based companies, as this often means terrible accommodation, bad buffet food, and guides who can barely speak Chinese – English is not contemplated.
Consider where your money goes: if you decide to spend and come to Tibet, it’s better to benefit a Lhasa-based, local tour operator that only works with Tibetans and thus helps them improve their livelihoods. Don’t save money to end up having a less than stellar experience, because you’ll probably want to splurge to come to Tibet only once in life.
Head over to the post “The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.”
Risks of Acute Mountain Sickness in Tibet
Another very important thing to consider when traveling to Tibet is the altitude you will experience and the risk it entails.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is not to be taken lightly, as it can be lethal if not treated appropriately.
The best way to go around this is to acclimatize by remaining at the same altitude for a while before ascending to higher altitudes. This is the reason why most tours of Tibet start with 2 to 3 days of acclimatization in and around Lhasa. A visit to the Potala Palace, with its steep staircases, is reserved for your last day in town.
Risk of AMS is also the reason why it’s better not to fly into Lhasa: catch the train, and consider spending at least a few days in and around 2275 meters above sea level Xining before moving on to Lhasa.
On a practical note, if you love the Himalayas, don’t think you’ll see the same scenery in Tibet. The hill stations of North India are a much better place for that. Tibet has amazing scenery, but it’s more about lakes, meadows and monasteries. You will only see the Himalayas when approaching the Nepal border and Everest Base Camp.
How to move around Tibet
As foreigners cannot move around independently, the only way you have to travel around Tibet is using the vehicle provided by your tour company.
You can’t take buses between cities, and if you manage to, roadblocks will make it very hard to continue as you’ll be sent back to Lhasa and deported. You can catch public buses within Lhasa city, but be careful as even visiting the outlying monasteries requires the presence of a licensed tour guide.
Five Unmissable Places To Visit When Traveling To Tibet
Tibet has many places to see and you won’t be able to see everything on your first trip. The following are some of the unmissable places to see in Tibet you should consider on your first visit.
Tibet capital is stuck between modernity, globalization and deep and ancient traditions.
The city revolves around the Barkhor square, at whose center is the Jokhang Monastery, Tibet’s most sacred temple. You will see pilgrims complete their journeys of devotion here, bending to the floor at every step.
The Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama, is Lhasa’s most important sight, together with other interesting monasteries such as Drepung and Sera, where you will be able to see monks practicing their traditional debates around 3:00 pm daily.
This freshwater lake set about 100km south of Lhasa on the way to Gyantse is one of the three largest sacred lakes in Tibet and over 72-km long. It’s a main stop along the route between Lhasa and Nepal, and a very beautiful place indeed. Tibetans await on the shore with their yaks and mastiffs to offer tourists a chance for a particularly scenic selfie shot. Yes, it’s a bit touristy, but consider that you are giving some money to needy locals.
This beautiful monastery on the way to Shigatse is the seat of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism and soars in the middle of the town of the same name. Surrounded by high cliffs, it’s a very scenic place to visit in Tibet.
The monastery is divided into two parts: the old one is abandoned and crumbling, set high on one side of the valley, while the current working monastery is surrounded by the new town. Beside observing monks in prayer and the monastery’s huge halls filled with ancient statues, Tibetan wooden-bound books and artifacts, you can spend some time hiking around the valley.
Everest Base Camp
The highest mountain in the world shares the border between Nepal and Tibet, and it’s easily accessible from the Tibetan side. A newly introduced eco-bus service helped keeping the area cleaner since mid–2019, and private vehicles are no longer allowed – similarly, the former base camp is now closed to camping and tourists.
Travelers stay in a tented camp near the Rongbuk monastery, at 5200 meters above sea level – the highest in the world.
TIP: Try to arrive in the morning, when views of the mountain are best.
Remember that getting a glimpse of the Everest is all up to your luck. you can’t expect to see Everest on any given day, and since you’ll be scheduled on a rigorous tour, you just have to wish for the clouds to part, and the mountain to give you a much coveted photo opportunity. It is, indeed, a majestic sight, and I feel very fortunate to have witnessed it in full.
Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar
Mount Kailash, stuck in Tibet’s far west, is the most sacred mountain and attracts many pilgrims, both Hindus from nearby India, and Buddhists, who come here to perform a kora – the ritual circumnavigation of the mountain.
You can join them and explore one of Tibet’s most remote regions, but please remember that coming here from Lhasa is a long trip, and tours including visits to Mount Kailash are expensive because they last around two weeks.
Nearby Lake Manasarovar is a sacred freshwater lake, revered both in India and Tibet, and an important stop if heading out west on the Kailashís circuit.
When to travel to Tibet
Traveling to Tibet is possible year round except for several weeks between February and March, as this is the time of some sensitive anniversaries – in particular, the 2008 Tibet rebellion that started all of these travel restrictions. During this time, Tibet shuts down and tourists are not allowed to visit.
The best time to travel to Tibet is the summer, when the weather is warmer, but not the clearest.
The best mountain views are in November and December, but snow and punishing cold make a trip to Tibet an option only for the most hardcore adventurers.
Spring and Autumn until early October are also good times to visit Tibet, as there are less tourists, prices go down a bit, and you’ll have the attractions all to yourself. Avoid Chinese holidays, when Tibet, and Lhasa in particular, fills up with domestic tourists.
Where to stay and eat in Tibet
Lhasa has of course Tibet’s best dining and accommodation options, including some of the world’s best hotel franchises like Sheraton and Holiday Inn, which returned to the region only as of late.
A stay in one of the many boutique hotels around the Barkhor is highly recommended. The more you move to the west and out of Lhasa, the less you are likely to find good accommodation options. Still, cities like Shigatse and the one-horse town of New Tingri, on the way to Everest, have some good hotels.
Below are some of the hotels I recommend you check out in Lhasa.
Mid Range Hotels in Lhasa
High End Hotels in Lhasa
Eating in Lhasa
Lhasa, and especially the Barkhor area, have plenty of dining options offering all sorts of foods.
For a blend of Tibetan food and Western styles try Makye Ame, right on the corner of the square next to the globalized Pizza Hut and McDonalds outlets.
Tibetan Family Kitchen, on a main road on the western end of the Barkhor, is a gem in Lhasa: you’ll sample a wide range of Tibetan dishes in a communal atmosphere.
Safety concerns in Tibet
As you’ll be traveling with a guide all the time, there are no big security concerns when traveling to Tibet.
Lhasa, the only place where you’ll have some freedom of movement, is extremely safe and controlled by many police officers, who stand by the many entry checkpoints around the Barkhor. You will have to scan your bags when entering, not going out – cooperate and you won’t have any issues.
One thing to pay attention to, however, are dogs in remote areas. You will encounter Tibetan mastiffs most likely only on multi-day treks, but even if you intend visiting some nomadic villages, make sure you don’t stray too far from your guide because these dogs are very territorial, and pretty big.
Final considerations on traveling to Tibet
This guide should have clarified all the aspects involved in travel to Tibet.
It is a bit expensive but safe, and definitely an experience to treasure for a lifetime.
You will be able to witness an ancient and charming culture, and see how Chinese intervention on one hand, and globalization on the other, have changed this land and its people.
For sure, one may have ethical concerns while traveling to Tibet, but the best way to get over stereotypes is to go, see, and experience it by yourself.
With tour operators taking care of you, traveling to Tibet is safe and easy, and you’ll be left with the main task of taking pictures and enjoying the trip.
Would I do it again? I am not sure: if on the one hand the lure of going back and traveling to Tibet is great, on the other, a combination of lack of freedom of movement and a constant control puts me off a little in returning. But of course, I had dreamt of going, and I would certainly say please go at least once in life to any adventurous traveler.
Other useful information
I recommend getting a good travel insurance for your trip to Tibet. Get yours here.
Check out the post “Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.”
For further readings about Tibet, check out the post “Top 10 Tips For Hiking In Tibet.”
You may also want to consider getting hold of one of these guidebooks:
This post was written by Marco Ferrarese of Monkey Rock World. Photo credit Kit Yeng Chan.