How to Travel Tibet: The Complete Guide for First-Timers
For centuries travellers and explorers have sought to enter Tibet to discover its mystical charms, hidden secrets and wild Himalayan scenery. Long before the wheel, these hardy Tibetan travellers had to endure bitter winds, high altitude and a frosty reception from the long-isolated, wild, nomadic Tibetan people. Many explorers perished just trying to reach the forbidden city of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
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Thankfully today travel to Tibet is much more comfortable, if not always easy. Most visitors fly into Lhasa airport and are escorted around the country in modern vehicles. A trip to Tibet is one of those journeys of a lifetime; Tibetan travellers are indeed an adventure-seeking clan.
Getting into Tibet was never easy and generally impossible except for a few spies (like the Indian pandits Sarat Chandra Das, who mapped the region clandestinely) or the military party of Francis Younghusband in 1903–4 during the Great Game. Only later came the official British trade agents, and then in 1985 the first independent travellers, including us, were allowed in.
So, how to visit this mysterious corner of China? Currently all visitors must use a Nepalese agency to arrange the complex paperwork – permits, transport and accommodation for starters.
Tibet Travel Permit and Chinese Visa
Everyone needs to get a travel permit in Kathmandu before entry, and this is done by a Nepalese travel companies. A few days are required to obtain the travel permits; this can be done initially with the Nepalese agent by email. However, it is wise to be in Kathmandu well before any trip; in any case there is plenty to see and do in Nepal, be it sightseeing around the Kathmandu Valley or trekking into the mountains. Sometimes the Chinese visa is cancelled on arrival in Nepal, so don’t pay to get it in advance if you are visiting Tibet first. Visitors should always check these details well in advance, as they change frequently.
Top sights in Tibet: What to see
The Tibetan region of China is vast – a wild and amazing destination for sightseeing, trekking, culture and meeting the variety of people, Tibetan and Chinese. Long considered exotic and mystical by wishful travellers of the past, Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, is no longer the sleepy backwater it was, even in the 1980s. Today Lhasa has grown in population, yet in some areas it still retains the same air of mysticism.
The Potala Palace
The Potala Palace is a magical place. It dominates the skyline from across the city, a fantastic soaring structure painted in red, white and yellow, set against a vivid deep blue sky. There are countless dark, eerie rooms, many with scary, gruesome-looking Buddhist protector idols. These are the guardians of the faith linked to Tantric Buddhism.
In the old Tibetan area of Lhasa, be sure to see the holy shrine of the Jokhang, where Tibetan pilgrims come to offer prayers and devotions. The Barkhor bazaar nearby is a whirl of colour and a hive of activity. This is the heart of the original city, where picturesque houses and shops are set in a circle. Once it was a hotbed of anticipation and even intrigue as successive Dalai Lamas were chosen.
The Monasteries of Lhasa
Further out of Lhasa are the three famous Gelukpa (Yellow Hat sect) monasteries of Drepung, Sera and Ganden (further east of Lhasa), which followed the sect of the Dalai Lama before he left Tibet. These great schools of learning once again echo to the chants of the monks, although today it is in a more limited way.
Just as Kathmandu is not Nepal, so Lhasa is not typical of Tibet. The vast hinterland stretches from the Kunlun Mountains on the edge of the great Silk Road deserts in the north, to the Himalaya in the south. Its western edge is already close to the gates of Central Asia, while to the east are the steamy jungles of Sichuan province.
Mount Everest and Xixapangma
Viewed from the historic Rongbuk Monastery, with its affiliations to Tengboche monastery in the Khumbu region on the Nepalese side, the north face of Mount Everest is a stunning sight from the plains of Tibet. These days a basic road runs to Rongbuk monastery which is as close as is needed to get this incredible view of Everest.
Mount Xixapangma (written as Shishapangma in Nepal) is close to the Langtang area of Nepal and is another trekking option away from the crowds. This lumbering giant is the highest peak in Tibet; it was once so isolated that the early mountaineers could hardly find a suitable base camp. Today it sits between the two access roads from Nepal to the Tibetan capital. Currently the border at Rasuwa/Kyirong near the Langtang Valley is open, taking the place of the first entry point near Kodari, the Friendship Bridge, which led to Zhangmu before the earthquakes of 2015 destroyed the infrastructure.
Running along the northern edge of the Himalaya are the sights of Tibet that recall the spirituality of the high plateau. The so-called centre of the universe, Mount Kailash, sits where the four great rivers of Asia rise; these waters keep the billions of South Asia irrigated and fertile. Kailash is a spiritual place for four religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and the ancient pre-Buddhist faith of the Bonpo. Pilgrims and the faithful from each religion journey just as arduously today to the great pyramid of Kailash as a penance to seek forgiveness of sins.
Trekking to Mount Kailash
Trekkers also come to circle the great peak, for it has some magnificent buttresses and snowy features to inspire. It’s a tough hike, crossing the Dolma La pass at over 5600m. The views are breathtaking; the great sheer north face of the peak is home to some dark demons that must be appeased. Trekkers can approach Mount Kailash by flying into Simikot in West Nepal and trekking, ideally along the historic Limi Valley, which itself hosts the three fantastic and historic monasteries of Til, Halji and Jang.
Close to the great peak are the hot springs of Tirthapuri, where pilgrims bathe in the steamy health-giving waters. Lake Manasarovar is another pilgrimage place, where devotees seek to circle the lake over three or four days, again in penance and for a new lease of life. For some this is a seriously hard feat, but their faith keeps them going, despite the privations of the high altitude over 4500m.
The northern slopes of the Tibetan Himalaya are not just for pilgrims; almost the entire story of the renaissance of Buddhism in Tibet in the 11th century AD is told here. In a remote valley west of Mount Kailash, close to the Indian border, is an amazing treasure trove of Kashmiri-style Buddhist art.
Tsaparang and Toling
The citadel of Tsaparang has some of the finest art in Tibet, despite the ravages of time and human interference. Exquisite paintings and murals hide in mud-built chapels and eerie caves. The almost impregnable citadel of Tsaparang is amazing; access is via steep stairways and an internal tunnel that almost shuts it off from intrusion.
The views from the rooftop are stunning; the Sutlej river meanders across the valley floor and the stark red and brown peaks to the north are forbidding, yet enticing. To the south, the great peak of Kamet in the Indian Himalaya of Uttarakhand is an eye-catching spire. It once held the keys to Tibet for the explorers of the colonial era, who sought to unlock the secret geography beyond the northern borders of India.
In nearby Toling the great monastery of Yeshe O is a testament to the resistance of the faith. This is where the great Buddhist master Atisha resurrected the Buddhism that had been lost to the march of Hinduism in its birthplace Nepal and northern India. The great Buddhist translator Rinchen Zangpo, student of Atisha, recorded the wisdom of Buddhism.
The last vestiges of Tantric Buddhism from Tibet now remain active today mainly in Nepal and Ladakh in northern India. The religion once covered a region from Afghanistan to China, Japan and Korea.
Preparations for Tibet
How to Travel Tibet
With so much on offer, it’s best to consult a Nepalese agent or company for more in-depth information about the options that are possible today. As mentioned, it is only possible to visit Tibet through a Nepalese agent in Kathmandu. There are sometimes organized basic budget-style trips from Lhasa to Kathmandu or from Nepal to Lhasa, but most visitors go on fully inclusive trips. Lhasa airport is served by Chinese airlines from Kathmandu and cities across China. Tibet is a very safe destination.
When is the best time to go?
Many visitors go to Tibet in summer, when the Tibetan weather is much warmer, but it’s crowded with Chinese tourists and the monsoon rains and clouds do drift across the Himalaya.
Autumn is best for those who want crystal-clear views of the fabulous snow-covered Himalayan panoramas. Everest, Xixapangma, Cho Oyu, Gauri Shankar and, further west, the Himalaya of Upper Mustang are all at their brightest and clearest in the early autumn of mid-September to mid-November, although the later season is cold and snow can be encountered.
The spring is also a good time, but not too early as winter snows can linger. After mid-April and throughout May the mountains are on their best behaviour for views. Wind can be an issue, but festivals like Saga Dawa are in full swing in May. Nobody goes in winter, except a pilgrim seeking penance for a great sin!
How much does it cost?
Going with a Nepalese trekking agent means that trekkers do not need to be concerned with a lot of sometimes complicated detail. The paperwork to enter Tibet is surprisingly difficult. Visiting Tibet is not a cheap option, as high fees are imposed by the Chinese. Then again, how often does one set out for the ‘Roof of the World’, where many in the past have striven, died and suffered in order to reach the forbidden lands and the capital Lhasa before the middle of the twentieth century?
Do many adventurers come back to Tibet?
Tibet is not a cheap destination, so those that do come back are generally interested in specifically tailored trips or treks. Trekking in Tibet is no easy walk in the park; the trails are easier than Nepal but the altitude is telling, needing careful preparation and a slow pace. Others return to Tibet to see more of the culture and meet friendly people. Not so many come for the cuisine, unless Chinese food is their preference.
See the maps produced by Himalayan Map House in Thamel for the latest routes and places of interest to visit.
These days most younger trekkers are finding all their information on the web and through blogs like this one. That said, some trekkers still prefer to carry ‘old-fashioned’ guidebooks, because they are easy to read, have a lot of detailed background information, don’t need electric power and can be read in a sleeping bag to fill in those cold evenings. Himalayan Map House has some of the few recent guidebooks covering Tibet.
Today Tibet is still a tricky place to get into; a good experienced Nepalese agent is vital. That said, the lure of mystical and magical Tibet will never be dulled.