In this article, you can read my guide to help you organize your next trip to Tibet.
Tibet is one of the most “mysterious” places to visit. The main reason is the difficulty of getting a travel permit especially now during the Covid pandemic. It’s possible to visit other Tibetan areas such as Nepal without too many problems but it’s actually impossible to travel to Tibet unless you currently live in China. Fortunately, I do live in China and I recently traveled to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).
So I decided to write about my experience and give some tips in case one day China decides to open up to the rest of the world again, or in case you do live in China already and want to explore this amazing province.
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, during the Tibetan New Year, travel permits are temporarily not issued. Remember that the exact dates of the Tibetan New Year change every year.
The best time, weather-wise are the months from April to October. Even though Lhasa is actually 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 keep this in mind 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 doesn’t allow 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’ll need to get a Chinese Visa first (you can find some info about this in my China Travel Guide).
- After you get your Chinese Visa you can apply for a travel permit to Tibet. To do this you have to find a reliable tour agency, which I understand can be difficult. 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 the driver costs.
- The agency will ask you to provide the required documents (in my case proof that I actually live in China, a covid test, and the green codes used in China to prove that you live in a low-risk area), then the agency will apply for the travel permit, which has to specify all the places you are going to visit. These documents change all the time and so do specific restrictions applied to specific countries. For example, people from some countries can only visit Tibet IF there are at least 5 people in total on the same tour and all must come from the same country. Also, when I applied for the permit, only people without a * in their Chinese green code could travel to Tibet.
- Once the permit it’s 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 then book the flights, which are on average more expensive than the flights to other parts of China.
- I also needed the Tibetan health code (which has to be manually approved so it takes at least one day to get it). Without that code, people are not allowed to board the flight to Tibet.
- Remember that Tibet is on average more expensive than other areas of China and this applies to meals too.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the city where you first enter Tibet has to 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 of the tours are pretty standard and include a few days in Lhasa and Shigatze (also called Shigatse) then they’ll drive you to other places in between such as Yamdrok Lake, Karola Glacier, Yampachen Grassland, Namtso Lake and Everest Base Camp.
There are some 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 actually be alone. I spent basically 2 days wandering around the back alleys of Lhasa without a guide. But you are not allowed to enter the Potala Palace and other major museums/attractions without your guide. If you have any problem just play dumb. It always works in China. Foreigners are too much trouble and few people speak English. So we can usually get away easily when doing stuff we are not supposed to (if they are not too serious).
How can I cope with the 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 always in the Tibetan Plateau, so I pretty much knew already what to expect. There is no quick remedy to 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 it’s difficult to get good sleep. I was told several times to avoid taking a shower during the first 2 days. It probably has to do with the level of oxygen in your blood especially if you take a hot shower. Not sure if it actually 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 quite strong 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 when it’s finished it might be a good alternative to flying. Meanwhile, you can take the slower regular train which connects Tibet all the way to Beijing.
Some photography tips for Tibet
Tibet is famous for its amazing landscapes and its millenary culture which can be enjoyed by anyone. But when traveling to Tibet with the main 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 that 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 between 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 really 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 actually tell you to stop. If you do ask them they’ll most likely say no, 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, actually speak better English than Chinese.
- I’ve never seen another place with so many checkpoints in my life, even more than there are in Xinjiang. You have to pass checkpoints to enter the historic center of Lhasa (Barkhor Street) and any other touristic spot in Tibet. I know it may sound stupid but resist the temptation of photographing them. The same applies to the several “secret” military base camps you’ll inevitably spot when landing in Lhasa or while driving around the province. They are pretty much everywhere.
- If you visit Tibet in winter remember that the batteries of your camera drain much faster with the cold.
Some final remarks
As you might have noticed I didn’t really talk much about the political situation in Tibet. As I’ve learned after living in China for many years, the truth is quite different from what we have been told when it comes to issues in China, or in 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 actually is living here.
The same applies to Tibet as well. I have a friend, yes a foreigner, who lives there and I had the chance to talk a lot about the situation and he confirmed that 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 bitching 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 very sensitive places such as the Potala Palace, and that no matter what you heard 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 actually makes sense. Well, of course, the answer is subjective. Personally, I’d say yes: it very much is 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 the name of a geographical area that includes part of other Chinese provinces such as Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu, and even other whole countries such as Nepal, Buthan, and a small part of India. If you want to have more freedom to explore independently probably Nepal is a good option for you. Or even Sichuan where you can travel more freely and without a guide (well 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 and if you do 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.