In this article, you can read my guide to help you organize your next trip to Tibet.
Tibet is one of the world’s most “mysterious” places due to its location and political situation. However, the difficulty in organizing the trip and obtaining the permits will be rewarded with incredible landscapes and culture unparalleled in the world.
In this guide to Tibet, I write about my experience and give some general advice on organizing the trip. In the following article,you can find a more detailed guide about the places I visited.
When is the best time to visit Tibet?
Tibet is one of the few Chinese provinces that are interesting to visit all year round. The only limitation is between February and March, when travel permits are temporarily not issued during the Tibetan New Year. Remember that the exact dates of the Tibetan New Year change every year.
The best times, weather-wise, are the months from April to October. Even though Lhasa is never too cold, other places, such as the road to Namtso Lake, might be temporarily closed in winter if it snows too much, and you might not be able to see them. So please remember this if you are planning your trip in winter.
These are the low and high season dates according to most travel agencies:
January, February, April, May, June 1st to June 24th, October (excluding the first 8 days of the month), November, December
June 25 to Jun 30, July, August, and September (from the 1st to the 24th). From September 25th to October 8th is considered Very High Season.
How can I organize my trip to Tibet?
Since the protests of 2008, China hasn’t allowed foreigners to travel to Tibet independently anymore (unless you are one of the few lucky ones to hold a Chinese “Greencard”). So if you are a backpacker or a solo traveler, I have bad news: you have to join a tour or, if your budget allows it, book a tour for one person (paying a premium of course).
These are generally the steps needed to travel to Tibet:
- You can’t travel to Tibet alone: you’ll need a special permit that can be obtained only via specialized travel agencies (if you need a Chinese Visa, you can find some info about this in my China Travel Guide). In my case, I booked my trip with the agency Wonders of Yunnan. I’ve traveled and worked with them several times so I can say that they are a very reliable agency. Definitely recommended. The tour agency will take care of your hotels, tickets for tourist attractions, and driver costs.
- The agency will ask you to provide the required documents and then apply for the travel permit, which has to specify all the places you will visit. These documents change constantly, as do specific restrictions applied to specific countries. For example, people from some countries can only visit Tibet if at least 5 people are on the same tour, and all must come from the same country.
- Once the permit is issued, it will be shipped to you, and you’ll have to bring the original copy with you while traveling in Tibet. It will be constantly checked.
- After you get the permit, you can book the flights, which are more expensive on average than the flights to other parts of China.
- Remember that Tibet is, on average, more expensive than other areas of China, which also applies to meals.
Another thing to remember is that the city where you first enter Tibet must be the same one written in the permit. You cannot enter Tibet from, let’s say, Shigatze if your permit says that you will enter from Lhasa.
What can I see in Tibet?
Most tours are standard and include a few days in Lhasa and Shigatze (also called Shigatse). They’ll take you to other places in between, such as Yamdrok Lake, Karola Glacier, Yampachen Grassland, Namtso Lake, and Everest Base Camp.
There are other more specific tours you can book, focused on hiking, for example, but since this was my first time in Tibet, I wanted to do the classic tour.
A common question people ask is: can I be alone, or do I have to be with a guide all the time? The answer is it depends. When you are in a city, you can be alone. I spent 2 days wandering around the back alleys of Lhasa without a guide. But you cannot enter the Potala Palace and other major museums/attractions without your guide. If you have any problem, play dumb. It always works in China. Dealing with foreigners is too much trouble, and few people speak English. So we can usually get away quickly when doing stuff we are not supposed to (if they are not too serious).
How can I cope with altitude sickness?
Altitude sickness is caused by ascending too rapidly, which doesn’t allow the body enough time to adjust to reduced oxygen and changes in air pressure. Symptoms include headache, vomiting, insomnia, and reduced performance and coordination. You will face some of these symptoms. Usually, these go away in a few days, but for some people, they get worse and have to be brought back to lower elevations.
Lhasa lies at an elevation of about 3600 meters and other places in the standard tour go all the way up to 5200 meters.
This was my second time at higher elevations. The first time was in Qinghai while on a mission to photograph the Snow Leopards in the Tibetan Plateau, so I knew already what to expect. There is no quick remedy for these symptoms. The best way to cope with them is by drinking a lot of water and trying to get a good rest.
The problem is that lack of sleep is another problem caused by altitude sickness, so getting good sleep is difficult. I was told several times to avoid showering during the first 2 days. It probably has to do with the oxygen level in your blood, especially if you take a hot shower. I’m not sure if it works, but I followed the suggestion, just in case.
To make it easier for my body to adapt, I decided to extend the tour by one day, arriving in Lhasa one day earlier, and I’m glad I did. The headache can be pretty intense in the first two days.
An option to reduce these issues is by getting to Tibet by train. The high-speed train is still under construction (only a portion has been completed), but it might be an excellent alternative to flying when it’s finished. Meanwhile, you can take the slower regular train connecting Tibet to Beijing.
Some photography tips for Tibet
Tibet is famous for its amazing landscapes and millenary culture. But when traveling to Tibet with the primary goal of taking some incredible pictures, there are some added challenges compared to other places.
- The main issue, personally, is that foreigners are NOT allowed to fly drones in Tibet. Technically, I was told we are not even allowed to bring one. Meanwhile, Chinese people can fly without any problem in most areas of Tibet. This is especially true in cities, where there are plenty of no-drones-allowed signs and plenty of soldiers. When traveling in remote areas, unless you are close to a military base (which is a real possibility since there are about 500.000 police and military personnel in Tibet and only about 3 million people living in the province), it’s quite unlikely that you’ll be told to stop flying your drone. But since the last thing I wanted from this trip was to be accused of being a foreign spy, I didn’t even bring my drone. It’s a pity since the landscapes are some of the most amazing in the world, but it is what it is.
- There is a very scenic spot in Lhasa, on a small hill in front of the Potala Palace, but it opens AFTER sunrise and closes BEFORE sunset. I only discovered it after I arrived there.
- Generally speaking, people are not happy to be photographed. In my experience, you have to be very quick if you want to photograph a scene with people before they tell you to stop. They’ll likely say no if you ask them, especially the monks. One good thing, though, is that I’ve noticed that local people speak, on average, more English than people from other provinces in China. Some people from the older generation speak better English than Chinese.
- I’ve never seen another place with so many checkpoints, even more than Xinjiang. You must pass checkpoints to enter the historic center of Lhasa (Barkhor Street) and any other tourist spot in Tibet. I also saw a lot of “secret” military base camps. They are pretty much everywhere.
- If you visit Tibet in winter, remember that your camera batteries drain faster with the cold.
Some final remarks
As you might have noticed, I didn’t talk much about the political situation in Tibet. After living in China for many years, I’ve learned that the truth is quite different from what we have been told about issues in China or other parts of the world in general. I know because I see with my own eyes how China is depicted in the West and how different it is living here.
The same applies to Tibet as well. I have a friend who lives there, and I had the chance to talk about the situation. He confirmed that it is not as simple as many people like to think. So, I have both first-hand experience and anecdotal experience from people living here.
Before the Chinese “liberation” or “invasion” or whatever you want to call it, slavery was the norm, there were very few infrastructures, and generally speaking, the Tibetan religious-controlled society was not really a safe place. Also, life expectancy was about 40 years. Yes, Tibetans are not happy about the whole political and Dalai Lama situation, but there is no point in talking about it with your tour guide (who has to live there and face possible consequences for speaking out).
So while in Tibet, remember that you are a guest, that despite the whole situation, you are still allowed to travel and see for yourself some delicate places such as the Potala Palace, and that no matter what you hear back home, you have most likely no clue about the nuances of the situation.
Is it worth visiting Tibet?
Given the challenges of visiting this area, the question makes sense. Well, of course, the answer is subjective. I’d say yes: it is very much worth visiting Tibet. Despite what happened in the past decades, there is still a lot of culture to explore and incredible places to discover.
There is a catch, though. Remember that Tibet is a geographical area that includes part of other Chinese provinces such as Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu, and even other countries such as Nepal, Buthan, and a small part of India. If you want more freedom to explore independently, Nepal is probably a good option for you. Or even Sichuan, where you can travel more freely and without a guide (at least where it’s open to foreigners).
The Tibetan Autonomous Region is, however, a unique place that, for hundreds of years, shaped the lives and religion of tens of millions of people. Visiting the Potala Palace is the equivalent of visiting the Holy See. If you manage to get there during one of the holy festivals, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Here you can find some other pictures I took in Tibet.