Easy-breezy Tibet travel guide for First-timers to let you know everything that it is needed to know about how to travel Tibet!
One could find many says about Tibet travel on the internet. For first-timers to Tibet it is especially confusing, because some of these information were false and some of them were outdated, difficult for first-timers to know which is which. As a local Lhasa-based travel agency who has been specialized in arranging Tibet tours for foreign travelers since 1999, Tibet Travel Expert Team here provide you the up-to-date 100% accurate Tibet Travel Guide for First-timers to Tibet.
Can I travel Tibet?
Yes, you can! At the moment, mostly only Norway and Bhutan-passport holders are still banned from Tibet travel in general. Of Ngari (western Tibet, including Mt Kailash, Lake Manasarovar, and Guge Kingdom, etc), Indian passport-holder must travel through a different channel reserved especially for Indian pilgrims. There is no age nor group size restrictions for foreign travelers to travel Tibet, meaning even there is only one of you, you can still travel Tibet.
How to travel Tibet?
To travel Tibet, besides Chinese Visa, foreign travelers also need additional documents called Tibet permit to enter and travel Tibet. These Tibet permit can only be applied by a travel agency in Tibet if a tour is booked, and private application from individual is not accepted. Independent travel is not allowed especially outside Lhasa city. In order for a Lhasa-based local travel agency, such as Tibet Travel Expert Team to apply Tibet permit for you, you must confirm your tour itinerary and exact duration in Tibet.
There are three different kinds of Tibet permit which must sound very confusing for first-timers to Tibet but actually how many of them you need is decided by your itinerary and this should be taking care of by your travel agent. Roughly it works like this:
Tibet Travel Permit (TTB): every foreign traveler need this to enter Tibet, and if your tour in Tibet remains in Lhasa and around, including Gyantse, Shigatse, Namtso. etc, this is the only one you need.
Alien’s Travel Permit (PSB): for more in-depth tour in Tibet to travel to areas like Mt Everest, Tsetang, etc. this second permit is needed, and usually it is applied after you are already here with your original passport and Tibet Travel Permit (TTB), which takes about 30 minutes or so.
Military Permit: this 3rd permit is needed only if you were to travel more in-depth of Tibet to restricted areas as Ngari (western Tibet, including Mt Kailash, Lake Manasarovar, Guge Kingdom, etc), Rawok in eastern Tibet, etc.
If you are to fly to Tibet, the original Tibet permit are needed for you to board the direct flight to Lhasa. Usually travel agents will mail it to your hotel in your entry city (the city before Tibet). If you are to take train to Lhasa, most cities don’t need the original Tibet permit, photocopies of it shall do. You are suggest to print out 3 sets of the Tibet permit as sometimes railways at both side may want to collect a photocopy set from you. Railways don’t recognize the electrical version of Tibet permit in your mobile phone, iPad or laptop. Please print it out in papers. There are exceptions, for cities of Xian and Lanzhou, sometimes you will also need the original Tibet permit even if you are taking a train to Tibet.
Can I Travel Tibet as an Independent Backpacker
No, sorry! Foreign travellers cannot travel Tibet as an independent backpacker. To travel Tibet is highly regulated and it is actually illegal for foreign travellers to use public transportation outside of Lhasa city. The road outside Lhasa is highly regulated with military guard stations every few hours away. You will stop at every single one to have your Tibet permit examined.
How much to Travel Tibet
Traveling Tibet is expensive. A private tour of you and yours alone with guide & vehicle at your service exclusively is suggested when there are four or more travellers. The tour price will be decided mainly of your travel route, also by travel month, hotel rate, etc. If there are only 1-3 of you, you are suggested to join a group tour instead. While a group tour certainly has its flaws, eg. Not flexible with itinerary, cannot choose your own hotels, etc. it does save you considerably. Tibet group tours’ prices are also affected by season. An 8 days Tibet group tour including Everest Base Camp is generally about USD 1000 or so.
Getting to Tibet & Away
For most international travelers, getting to Tibet will involve at least two legs: the first to get to the gateways of Kathmandu (Nepal) and a city of China. There are nonstop flights from Kathmandu to Lhasa, or you can travel overland via Gyirong Port since Aug 2017. There are trains and flights to/from mainland China to Tibet.
Most people believed that trains are the best solution to travel to Tibet because you will be acclimating altitude during the process of the train ride, but actually this is not true. Inside the train to Tibet is pumped with artificial air to avoid altitude sickness instead of allowing you to get used to the higher and higher altitude gradually. Or some were under the impression that train is cheaper than flight. While this applies to most trains and flights of China, but not necessarily with Tibet. The sleeper train tickets to Lhasa are not too many and always in high demand. Sometimes even us, a Lhasa-based travel agency has to purchase train tickets from black market and their service charge is always high. In the end, especially during high season months of July and August, a sleeper train tickets to Lhasa may be as much as or more expensive than a flight to Lhasa.
There are many cities has train to Lhasa, eg. Xining, Chengdu, Chongqing, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou. etc, If you really want to experience the train to/from Tibet, we suggest you to choose Xining, of which has more trains to/from Lhasa daily, thus easier and cheaper to purchase. If it’s altitude you are worried about, the better solution is to have an extra rest day in Lhasa before start any sightseeing.
Getting Around Tibet
Foreign travelers are not allowed to travel by public transport outside Lhasa city in Tibet. A proper travel-licensed vehicle is necessary to travel outside Lhasa city. There are many check points outside Lhasa city, where your Tibet Permits and your driver’s travel vehicle license will be checked again and again.
Travel vehicles in Tibet are controlled by government, the rate is high making it the most expensive factor of your Tibet tour. If there is only 1 or 2 of you travelling on a budget, we suggest you first to consider our Tibet group tours to share the expense with other travelers.
However, foreign travellers can explore Lhasa city by yourself as long as you don’t enter any attractions (to enter attractions in Tibet foreigners are required to be accompanied by local guide) and remain inside Lhasa city (eg. You cannot go for an excursion outside Lhasa city with a taxi which is not a travel-licensed vehicle).
When to Travel Tibet
Tibet is available to travel all year round except during late February to early April for usually during this one month or so, Tibet is closed to foreign travellers. The best time to travel Tibet is from April to October, the warmer parts of the year in spring and summer when most areas of Tibet are accessible.
Since November, most places of Tibet will start to snow, and the temperatures can get quite extreme at high altitude places, such as Lake Namtso, Mt Everest, etc. making them inaccessible. For travellers don’t mind the cold, winter of central Tibet has its charm too – less tourists & lower price!
Accommodation in Tibet
Accommodation in Tibet is in general not so high standarded except few 5 star international hotels in Lhasa city. At times we as travel agent also worried a named 3 star or 4 star here will give you the wrong impressions. Just keep in mind hotels in Tibet is not to be compared with the same rate hotels in big cities of what you are used to, especially outside Lhasa city. Sometimes some hotels may not even be rated with star signs out front.
Except major cities in Tibet such as Lhasa, Shigatse, Tsetang, and Nyingtri, other places may only have 3 star, guesthouse, and dorm beds as best available. For example, in Gyantse the best available is local 3 star hotel; in Mt Everest area, there is only dorm bed available either at the monastery guesthouse of Rongbuk Monastery or at the nomad tent of Everest Base Camp; at the shore of Lake Namtso, there is only guesthouse with dorm bed or twin rooms available.
Public Restrooms in Tibet
We are shame to admit but it is true that in some remote parts of Tibet, the public restrooms are awful. You are suggest to bring sanitary wipes and hand sanitizer, and prepare you own rolls of toilet papers. At places such as Mt Everest, public bathrooms are literally just a hole in the ground. Bring something that can cover your nose and mouth is suggested.
What to Eat in Tibet
There are many different kinds of restaurants available in Lhasa city, such as Tibetan cuisine, Chinese cuisine, Western cuisine, Muslim cuisine, Indian cuisine and Japanese cuisine, etc. However, the choices thinner to Tibetan and Chinese cuisines mainly once you leave Lhasa city travel into minor cities and towns and villages of Tibet.
Outside Lhasa city, most restaurants offer simple meals of Tibetan noodles in broth, yak momo (steamed dumplings with yak meat), stir-fried vegetable and meat with rice or noodle. They are ideal simple meals for travellers although some foreigners may find them a bit oily or spicy. Make sure you ask your guide for recommendation.
During trekking days, the more comfortable way would be to hire a professional cook to come along and prepare meals for you during the trek, but often it is expensive to do so. Or you can prepare some simple instant noodles and dry jerky. etc. to make do.
What to Wear in Tibet
Tibetan Plateau has an average elevation of above 3000 meters, the weather here is very different from what you are used to in low-altitude areas. General speaking, Tibet is colder and the daily temperature changes quite dramatically.
General speaking the weather can be divided in two periods in Tibet: from April to October is the warmer part of the year averagely from 12 ℃-23 ℃; from November to next March is the colder part of the year averagely from -12℃to -10℃.
We used to play a game here of how to spot a tourist – Tibetans are used to the dramatic temperature changes within a day, and they wear the same outfit for the whole day; but tourists are busy with taking off and putting on clothes in different times of a day, and always feel you have choose the wrong outfit for the day. Even you are to travel Tibet during the summer of August, if your itinerary includes places like Mt Everest, Lake Namtso, etc, down jacket is a must! At high altitude places, it is still cold in summer especially during the night.
Internet Access in Tibet
Most hotels, cafes and restaurants have free wifi in Tibet. Some hotels only offer free wifi in its lobby, and some even in your rooms. However, as with everywhere in China, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. are blocked. You can download and install a few VPNs before you enter China and see which works here later.
Money in Tibet
As in the rest of China, the legal currency in Tibet is Renminbi (RMB), also called as China Yuan (CNY). To change enough RMB prior you enter Tibet is highly suggested as the exchange rate in Tibet is often bad, plus you don’t want to waste your travel time in Tibet to go to banks.
Bank of China is the only place in Tibet to change foreign currency and travellers cheques. Top-end hotels in Lhasa have exchange services but only for guests. Visa card charges very high service fee of about 4%. Travellers are suggested to bring cash to avoid these extra service fees.
What to Pack for Tibet
*A good pair of sunglasses
*High-factor sunscreen lotion
*A water bottle for cooling boiled water
*Down jacket even in mid-summer of August if you are heading to high altitude area like Mt Everest, Lake Namtso, Western Tibet, etc.