High in the Himalayas inside an ancient temple, it begins. The Trumpets commence surging through mountain valley; the chanting of monks mixed in with the scent of juniper incense billows from the wrathful deity’s altar. Then, slowly, drums begin to pound from the tantric shrine only to be masked by the thick, butter lamp filled air. I lose myself in it all. This is a regular scene for those travelers who make it to Tibet. The land of snow is the kind of journey that travelers for centuries have been dreaming of.
A journey to the roof of the world is one of the most iconic journeys for a traveler to undertake. Here you will face the dangers of high altitude, confusing permits, and constant travel bans, but past all the bureaucracy is an ancient land of mystical deities, stark natural beauty and a culture that is so addictive and fascinating. All these reasons make it well worth the difficulties of getting to and traveling through Tibet.
Why You Should Travel Tibet
There are so many reasons why you should travel Tibet, but first, let’s look at a reason I have heard why you shouldn’t travel Tibet. The first and most common I have heard is the fact Tibet has lost its independence to China. Because of China’s political indoctrination of Tibet, many believe that travel here is further encouraging this. This couldn’t be more wrong.
In fact, the Dalai Lama himself has encouraged travel to Tibet. Traveling through the land of snow you will show Tibetans that they have not been forgotten. By traveling here, you can talk with and share your ideas and beliefs with the people of Tibet. This is vital to ensure that Tibetans do not lose their precious culture and beliefs.
Tibetans love to see foreigners as well! Often you will be invited in for the ubiquitous Tibetan yak butter tea. The hospitality of Tibetans is quite possibly one of the greatest reasons to visit!
Tibetan culture and history are also very prevalent compared to what many will tell you. Its true that Chinese modernization is creeping further into Tibet, but the resilient Tibetans have maintained their culture amongst these tribulations.
Vast empty valleys, soaring glacier filled mountain peaks, ancient temples that have stood the test of time, Buddhist pilgrimages that even the most jaded hiker will find tough and Tibet’s stunning culture are all reasons that you should consider a trip here. Simply put, Tibet is incredible.
Visa and Permit for Tibet
Tibet travel does require foreign nationals to acquire a Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) Permit, and countless other permits if you plan to travel outside Lhasa. Because of Tibet’s current situation, you are also required to take an organized tour here. This, however, works hand in hand as your tour company will do all the permit work for you. Simply send them your passport copy and they will contact the proper authorities for you.
The biggest downside to these permits is when you arrive in Tibet you cannot change your itinerary. Coming back from Mount Kailash we passed by an amazing temple sitting on a plateau in the mountains. Because we did not have a permit to see this specific temple, stopping was not an option. It was frustrating, to say the least.
How to Get to Tibet
Tibet is huge! Getting here can seem like a daunting experience, and unless you’re a Chinese National you only have two options, train or plane. This is because China has restricted all other forms of transport including the incredible overland bus routes through Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. The main port is Lhasa where all planes and trains end so that you can enter Tibet’s separate immigration from China.
Tibet Train – In my opinion, the train is the best option to get to Tibet from China. The route starts in Beijing and works its way past the deserts of Inner Mongolia, the Lush forests of Sichuan, and then High into the mountains of Qinghai. You can board from the few stops it makes or you can start the journey from Chengdu rather than Beijing.
The scenery is well worth the 40-hour train journey. The journey by train crosses the world’s highest pass and they pump oxygen into your cabin to help any symptoms of Acute Altitude Sickness.
Train to Lhasa Tip – Book early! This is possibly the hardest ticket to book as all the tickets will book up in seconds during high season. If you are lucky a company can get you a scalped ticket at a highly inflated price. I paid 170 USD for a cabin with four beds.
Flights To Tibet – Landing in Tibet on a cloudless day might just be the world’s greatest descent. If the weather permits you can see Mount Everest looming in the distance as you drop into Lhasa’s epic mountain-fringed valley. The upside with flying is there are now plenty of flights every day heading to Lhasa. If flights are booked up you can easily fly into Chengdu and then on to Lhasa either same day or next day.
The downside with flying to Tibet is it’s expensive! If you don’t book early enough, prices vary from 300 – 400 USD one way! Seat sales and booking early enough can get you a two-way ticket for 400 – 600 USD.
You also do not get any time to acclimatize to Lhasa’s 3,656 m altitude making the chance of getting altitude sickness symptoms much higher. If you fly in, make sure you have at least three days to acclimatize to the altitude before heading to higher places!
Costs to Traveling Tibet
There is no way around it, Tibet isn’t a cheap destination to travel. If you are looking for a private customized tour, prices will be extremely high, especially if you want to head to the remote western regions.
Prices for traveling Tibet are high because of the mandatory tour you must take. The average tour will cost upwards of 100 USD per day, plus extra for food and shopping. Joining larger tours will lower the prices, but on many of these tours, you will be crammed in a large bus, sometimes with a group of Chinese tourists.
With Tibet Tours, you really do get what you pay for. I went with Tibetan Highland Tours. They are a budget Tibet Travel Company that is Tibetan owned and run. I did a few customized private tours with them as well and they were very affordable.
Not all tours include food and drinks and the more remote you get in Tibet, the more ridiculously priced the food gets. Keep this in mind for places like Mount Kailash. Shopping is also quite pricey, especially in Lhasa. If you are heading to smaller towns try to pick up souvenirs there as not only are they cheaper, but you’re more likely supporting a Tibetan than a massive Chinese company.
My Favourite Places in Tibet
Jokhang Temple in Lhasa Tibet – Tibet’s oldest and arguably most special Temple situated in Lhasa is oozing with atmosphere. Pilgrims adorning colorful Tibetan outfits make the pilgrimage from every corner of Tibet to come here. Entering the main hall with the pilgrims you will walk by chanting monks and bright gold wrathful deity statues. The air is thick with Juniper and Butter lamps adding to this incredible place.
Mount Kailash – The holiest mountain in the world is said to hold a secret energy that you can tap into by hiking the 50km circuit around this gorgeous mountain. Kailash is tucked away in the far western corner of Tibet and requires quite the journey to get to. Apart from giving yourself a boost of karma on the Mount Kailash circuit, you will also join countless pilgrims on a trek that has been happening for centuries!
Namtso Lake – One of the world’s highest altitude lakes, Namtso also takes top for one of the most beautiful lakes in Tibet. The frigid emerald blue waters are surrounded by soaring clouded Himalayan peaks, and fields of colorfully dressed white yaks. The lake is also considered to be very sacred, coming here you will see many pilgrims, and Brokpa Nomads from the northern plains of Tibet.
Yarlung Valley – Tibet’s oldest valley, and the cultural hub of the nation. Yarlung is home to Stunning temples, caves that require nerves of steel to crawl into, and fortresses that have guarded the entrance to Tibet against invading forces. The natural beauty of Yarlung is also something to be witnessed. The stark rocky mountains give way to cultivated and green farming valleys making Yarlung easily one of the most spectacular places I saw in Tibet.
Best Things To Do in Tibet
Discovering Tibetan Buddhism – Take part in a Tibetan Buddhist Pilgrimage hike. Simply just meander through the halls of one of Tibet’s many Temples. Whichever way you choose to do it, discovering the history of this place and how Buddhism shaped Tibetan culture is an incredible experience. The Tibetan way of life is deeply rooted in a spiritual connection to Buddhism.
Hiking the Tibetan Plateau – Tibet has so many hiking opportunities it’s hard to choose! From multi-day pilgrimages around Kailash, remote Himalayan valleys home to Nomads or traversing the shores of sacred lakes. Hiking in Tibet is one of the few places on earth where you are guaranteed to be above 4000 m almost the entire duration of the hike, making this some of the most challenging, but rewarding hiking opportunities out there!
Sipping Yak Butter Tea – After a long high altitude hike through the plateau, there is nothing better than entering a warm Tibetan tea house and having Tibetan tea. It comes salty or sweet but is always guaranteed to be hot and buttery. These tea houses can be found everywhere in Tibet, and your guide will most likely expect to stop every couple hours for a top up of butter tea. Its also the meeting point for Tibetans to socialize and discuss, making for quite an authentic experience.
Hanging Prayer Flags on Mountain Passes – “Ahhh Sa Sa Saaa!” our driver yells as we cross yet another 5000 m pass. Mountain passes are not just the place to stop for an amazing photo but are considered sacred places where the colorful prayer flags are hung to gain karma and bless your journey. The harder the journey is the more Karma you attain, meaning save those prayer flags for the hardest pass you tackle! I hung my flags at the Drolma La Pass (5630m) on the north end of Mount Kailash.
Staying Healthy in Tibet
Tibet is a safe place to travel, the main issue travelers face here is Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS. Pretty much all travelers will experience some form of AMS symptoms on their journey through Tibet. Symptoms Include:
- Swelling of Hands
- Loss of Breath
Severe symptoms lead to pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) and cerebral edema (swelling of the brain). Both can lead to death and must be taken VERY seriously.
The best way to prevent AMS is to acclimatize. Starting at a lower altitude, spend a few days doing mild walks and activities, do not drink alcohol or smoke. Be sure to drink plenty of water at all times. After a few days, you can begin to do higher altitude hikes, but it’s better to return to lower altitudes to sleep for the first while.
If at any time your symptoms begin to become sever you must go to a lower altitude, take administered oxygen and consider taking medications like Diamox which can help relieve severe symptoms.
Tibetan Highland Tours
When I traveled to Tibet I went with Tibetan Highland Tours. I chose this company first because of the price and secondly because it is Tibetan owned and operated. All my Tibetan guides were incredibly knowledgeable, and Tibetan Highland Tours knew about every corner of the country. Check them out HERE to see what their next upcoming tours are.