I went to Tibet this September on a 8D7N tour. It was a very eye opening and interesting experience. To be honest, because this trip was so close to my wedding, I barely had any time to check out the itinerary before we took off. But that would not have made much of a difference anyways since once you book with a tour group (which you must), the agenda is pretty much set in stone. There is little wiggle room to negotiate, which seem to be the theme for a trip through China’s largest autonomous region.
There are many reasons to visit Tibet. It may be an Asian parent thing (specifically, asian parents between the age of 45 and 65). Travellers over 60 are usually more careful due to the high elevation. The average altitude of Tibet is 4,500m (14,763 feet). For this reason, there is a real danger of serious altitude sickness (symptoms of which include headache, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath etc), and pulmonary edema.
From what I understand, most tourists to Tibet at the moment are Chinese nationals. Independent travel is not allowed – and it is even more difficult for foreign passport holders: all foreign travellers must have a travel permit, a tour guide, and a private vehicle. I was accompanied everyday (which is normal for a tour) and I also saw the extra administrative tasks that my tour guide had to take in order to service us. We had to show our passports at every checkpoint, and to get registered every day before checking into our hotels.
I have to say, though, Tibet is a special place. It has character, has its own language, art, customs, and cultural belief. If you have interest in Buddhism, the place is rich with remnants and centuries’ worth of relics passed down from religious figures. Tibet houses some of the most popular sites for Buddhist pilgrimage – including Potala Palace, and Jokhang Temple. Making a pilgrimage to Lhasa (or known as the Kora) is the Buddhist equivalent of the Mecca Pilgrimage, and any devoted Tibetan will need to make the trip at least once during his or her lifetime. In this case, the pilgrimage requires the devotee to travel from their house door (sometimes thousands of miles away) to Lhasa, bending down and praying with every three steps they took. It typically can take months and even years.
Across the border from Nepal, other popular Tibetan tours also include Mount Everest Basecamp. Unfortunately due to physical constraints of my companion travellers, that will have to be for another time.
How much to budget
We booked our travel with Tibet China Travel International (which seem like a subsidiary of the large travel agency CTS). However, I just completed a google search and cannot find the company’s website. Weird. To be fair, though, the entire trip was booked via Wechat.
For our tour, we spent around RMB6,000 per person (~USD863) for the 8 days. This excludes our flights to and from Lhasa. It is definitely a cheap price, but the arrangements were also quite economical. We didn’t stay at 5- star hotels, and breakfast was usually congee with a white bun (which suited me fine actually). The rooms were just clean-enough, and the prices included all entrance fees, the car, driver, and guide, and all meals except for maybe dinner for one evening. It is customary to tip the driver and guide at the end of the trip, but the amount is discretionary.
Online, tours with similar routes as the one we had are going for about USD940. If you want to do one that include the extra night to Everest Base camp, it is roughly USD990 . Meals in Tibet are slightly more expensive than the rest of China due to added transport cost, but is still cheap by Western standards. A meal should not be more than RMB30 per person, unless you are opting to eat specialities.
Keep in mind that peak season is summer time, and most tours stop servicing from mid-October until early May due to weather conditions.
What to pack (September)
- plenty of layers – as if you were doing an autumn and winter hike in one day.
- down jacket, scarves, a hat!
- thermal water bottle – you’ll be recommended to drink hot water/tea only
- lots of small change (RMB2) to use for public bathrooms – be prepared to be terrorized
- altitude sickness pills – must bring just for in case
- passport and travel permit – must be kept on you at all times
- Foreign travel sim card – so that you can use most social media apps
For the most part, there wasn’t much walking, but a lot of seating. So comfortable lounge pants and sweaters are nice.
How to get there
There are a couple methods to get to Lhasa, Tibet.
1) Plane – You can catch a flight directly into Lhasa. This is the quickest method. We flew in from Chongqing to Lhasa in order to have more hotpot time in Sichuan/Szechuan. Afterwards, I realized this was really unnecessary because 90% of restaurants in Tibet are actually Szechuan.
Before you board the plane, you are required to show your Tibet travel permit – without it you would be denied entry. Note that if you fly West Air – and their cabin-baggage allowance was not standard – the baggage allowed on is much smaller, so try to pack light as they charge by weight.
2) Train – You can ride the Qinghai Tibet railroad, which runs from Xining city of Qinghai (previously known as Kokonur) Province. I’m not one for trains, and can’t be bothered to sit too long in one spot, but if you have 21 hours to kill, go for it. The scenery is suppose to be quite nice for a portion of the trip, but for the most part I think you just sleep. If you do book, make sure you book the Soft Sleepers.
Once on the ground, the only way to move about is by car. There is no alternative method to get from city to city within Tibet.
The Altitude Sickness
Most people are wary of altitude sickness in Tibet. The three main cities that we moved between, and their respective elevation, were:
Lhasa – 3,650m (12,000ft)
Nyingchi – 3,100m (10,200ft)
Shigatse – 3,800m (12,500ft)
The highest elevation during the trip was maybe about 5,000m above sea level, but travellers will not stay at that altitude for long. However, in general everyone will need time to acclimatize. If you stay in a nice five-star hotel, then you’re in luck because they will pump oxygen into the rooms. We did not, but got the next best thing, which was get a hotel near a wetland pit in the city. Oxygen tanks and bars also dot the city, but we were advised to try staving off it and let our body naturally acclimatize. However, it really crept up on me in the first night (typically symptoms will show itself during nighttime between 12am and 2am, when our bodies’ oxygen levels are lowest) in the form of a terrible migraine, shortness of breath, purple lips, hand numbness, and a general feeling of wanting to get out of there. The symptoms continued into the next day, and it was a good thing that I had prescription pills, and the symptoms usually subside after an hour or so.
People are especially wary of catching a cold in Tibet. Most are warned not to go to Tibet if they have a cold that is not fully cured. Some tips that I received for combating sicknesses include don’t eat too much, don’t walk too fast, don’t shower too often, don’t drink cold water (not even bottled water). Basically, be a frail little woman 🙂
While we are on the tip of don’ts – don’t take pictures of the faces of Tibetan. They believe it is the window to the soul, and getting their pictures taken will trip them of their soul.
Things to see
If I could have hand picked my itinerary, I would absolutely recommend the following.
- Lhasa city – Potala Palace
Lhasa tour is typically done in one day. The main attraction is the Potala Palace, which is the image on the back of the 50 yuan bill.
There is no question that the Potala palace is breathtaking. Built in the 7th century, it was extended by the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th century (We are currently on the 14th Dalai Lama, if you were wondering). It is divided in two sections – the bottom in white bricks, and the top in red. Thirteen stories high (be prepared to climb and walk about 10,000 steps), it includes living quarters, temples, tomb stupas, and monk dormitories. Although it looks like a perfect shrine set in the mountains, the Potala Palace itself is not a place for worship – it is a palace. It is the past living quarters of the 14th Dalai Lama before he fled to India. Therefore, although we saw many monks who watch over the rooms, they don’t hold prayers in the traditional sense in the palace.
Unfortunately most of the inner rooms did not allow photography. Like a large museum, it houses some of the most precious Tibetan art, murals, relics, and gold. The amount of gold has actually not been weighed, so it is not actually known how much wealth is within the walls of the Palace. A conservative estimate says that it’s enough to rebuild a Shanghai city from scratch though.
From the top of the Potala Palace, you get a full view of Lhasa city and the beautiful mountain range that surrounds it.
- Yamdrok Lake
Yamdrok Lake is one of the three sacred lake in Tibet. Its colour changes often, affected by the clouds and climate.
The drive around the lake took about 45 minutes. In each viewpoint, there are locals who are there with their yaks or tibetan mastiffs for picture taking. As a tip, travellers are not recommended to take pictures of animals if they did not pay tip to the owners. Apparently fights break out constantly between tourists and locals for this reason. They usually ask for RMB10 for one picture, and you can haggle if you have a group.
- Visiting a Tibetan family
I found this activity to be one of the most entertaining part of my trip. Unfortunately I think this event won’t be open to foreigners due to language barrier. The hostess was a Tibetan girl who was a representative of her village, and we got the chance to tour her home and sit in her living room while drinking butter tea. It was a recent initiative started by the Tourism Board to allow travellers to learn more about the Tibetan’s way of life.
Fun facts I learned about the Tibetan culture:
- They are polygamous – one wife can have multiple husbands but the husbands must be from the same family. This is to keep wealth in the family.
- The Tibetan language has many dialects and most are mutually incomprehensible.
- They do not save money – Bank of China went out of business when they opened a branch there. They either spend or donate all of it.
- They keep the silver and donate gold. They adore silver and use it for health, as well as decorative, purposes. You can commonly find them wearing silver bracelets, belts, headpieces, and their houses are full of silver bowls and other houseware.
- They do not immunize their children – they still believe in herbal remedy very much.
- Namtso Lake
Namtso lake is the largest (salt) lake of Tibet. The road to it was treacherous and in our case, the direct road was closed so we had to add an extra 80km to our trip that day. Yes, 80km. But that’s just what it was like to travel through Tibet, sometimes. However, we were blessed with beautiful weather that day, and at the elevation of 4190m, oxygen tanks were being sold everywhere (RMB300 for the portable kind that you can carry around).
Snow capped mountains dotted the background. You can ride horses or in my case, cute Yaks that stood by the side of the water.
Things to eat
It was 90% Szhechuan food, and 10% local food. Known specialities of the region was Yak meat and Butter tea. Yak jerky are quite chewy, and the butter tea tasted exactly as it sounds – tea with slightly salted butter flavour.
I did love the yogurt though. Those were next level buttery wonderfulness and can be bought in town.
Tibet is a very controlled place. It took me a while to realize, driving through the streets of Lhasa, there were no commercial advertisements – only communist propaganda. Even during the visit to the Tibetan family, our hostess added a spiel about how thankful she was that Tibet is supported by the Chinese government. Whilst in Shigatse, our hotel was beside a military hospital, and every night at 10pm and every morning at 7am, revolutionary music blared for 5 minutes. I was pretty sure I travelled back in time to the cultural revolutions, or into Malcolm Gladwell’s 1984. When our tour guide was teaching us the history of Tibet, the entire bio of the Dalai Lama was skipped over, and I’m pretty sure I was fed one version of the Penchan Lama’s identity (with the alternative version discussed on Last Week Tonight).
However, visit Tibet with not the political mindset, and you’ll be able to enjoy it. The cities are well-organized, the temples are authentic, and the landscapes are breathtakingly natural.