Practical tips for travelling to Tibet for your first time

Travelling to Tibet is one of the world’s greatest adventures. It is a land of ancient Buddhist monasteries and stunning Himalayan mountains similar to the ones we climbed during our Annapurna trek in Nepal.

Tibet was an isolated place for hundreds of years, completely cut off to foreign visitors until 1985 when China and Nepal reached agreement to allow foreigners to travel to Tibet.

Today, the Tibet Autonomous Region has one of the strictest tourist controls in the world, second only to that of its neighbour, Bhutan. These are our 4 practical tips for tourists travelling to Tibet for their first time.

Choosing a reputable tour operator

The first thing you need to do is get in touch with a reputable tour operator because this is the most efficient and safest way to travel to Tibet. Without using a tour operator, your trip is not possible – independent travel in the region is only allowed for Chinese passport holders.

There are literally hundreds of tour operators that run Tibet tours, from both China and Nepal. Most of these are generic travel agents who then pass you off to a local third party to run the actual tour. While travel agents are a useful intermediary in trips around most of the world, for Tibet, they are more often than not more trouble then they are worth. For example, bad travel agents will base your tour on a strict itinerary that has been handed to them by the tour operators they use, and are less flexible than local operators.

We recommend researching the Lonely Planet Tibet section and also checking the forums on TripAdvisor for the best operators. One of the best reputable operators we found is the Lhasa based “Explore Tibet”. This is the only Tibetan owned and Lhasa based company, which is not only recommended by Lonely Planet, it has also received multiple awards for excellence.

Travelling to tibet Mount Kailash highlight
The stunning Mount Kailash in Tibet

Choose a local tour operator

One of the criticisms we receive online when promoting travel to Tibet is that we are supporting the unethical actions of the Chinese government. We strongly advise against boycotting the area, and instead going over there and supporting local Tibetan businesses. This is the most productive way to support the local Tibetans.

The best way we advise to travel to Tibet in an ethical manner is to use a local operator. They are not only more attentive to their clients' needs during the tour, you will know that your money will not be going to the local Tibetan economy.

Most of the tour operators claim to be “Tibetan” but are in fact Chinese owned. One of the few reputable genuine local tour operators we found is “Explore Tibet”, based in Lhasa.

Potala Palace tourist highlight travelling to Tibet
The gorgeous Potala Palace in Lhasa

Getting a Tibet travel permit

Along with many other permits for travel in Tibet, the Tibet Travel Permit is the main one required by all foreign visitors. These can only be obtained by a tour operator registered with the Tibetan Tourism Bureau in Lhasa who will also provide you with a private guide, vehicle and driver for the duration of your tour in Tibet.

The first thing you need to do is obtain your Chinese visa, which is a bureaucratic nightmare if you're an independent traveller like us because you have to account for every day, confirm to the embassy where you're staying in China, and show your flights in and out of China. We did this ourselves for our Trans Siberian adventure, however for visitors with a fixed time period, using a tour operator is your best bet to minimise time spent doing this.

Once you have obtained your Chinese Visa, you can then apply for your Tibet Travel Permit, along with your flight/train to Tibet.

Samye Monastery tourist highlight travelling to Tibet
The Samye Monastery in Tibet

How to get to Tibet

Most opt for flying, but train travel into Tibet is becoming increasingly popular. There are 7 cities in China you can take a direct train to Tibet from: Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Xining, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Lanzhou

The train journey is long, taking anything from 22 to 55 hours. However it's totally worth it for the views during the final leg of the trip crossing the Tibetan plateau at the Tanggula Pass. It's located at 5,072m (16,640 ft) making it the highest railway pass in the world.

If of course time is your concern, then flying is your best bet. Flights to Lhasa leave from most Chinese cities, as well as the big Asian transport hubs around China.

This article is a guest post collaboration with www.exploretibet.com. To find out more check out this awesome China budget travel guide to help plan your trip.

Sera Monastery tourist highlight in Lhasa
The Sera Monastery of Lhasa

OUR FAVOURITE TRAVEL TIPS

⭐️ TRAVEL INSURANCE — We recommend you always take out travel insurance before your next vacation. What happens if you suffer from illness, injury, theft or a cancellation? With travel insurance, you can have peace of mind and not worry. We love World Nomads travel insurance and have been using it for years. Their comprehensive coverage is second to none and their online claims process is very user friendly.

⭐️ SAFETY & SECURITY — All travelers can sometimes encounter danger when traveling. CloseCircle is your “virtual body guard” mobile app which provides security alerts and support wherever you are in the world. They have a 24/7 emergency response team monitoring their users who will contact you immediately if the SOS swipe button is activated. Support can include anything from practical advice, to free evacuation from areas with extreme weather or security risks. You can read more about CloseCircle in our article about how to stay safe whilst traveling.

⭐️ ONLINE ANONYMITY — A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a must in many countries: it allows you to surf anonymously and maintain your privacy whilst traveling. You'll particularly need it in countries where dating apps are blocked by the government. We recommend ExpressVPN, a reliable and cost effective service which we used and loved during our travels.

⭐️ HOTELS or APARTMENTS — When we plan a trip, we always look for the best hotel deals. We love Booking.com because not only do they have a comprehensive listing of accommodation options, they also offer the best prices. Added bonus: they provide 24/7 support and free cancellation for most listings.

⭐️ SIGHTSEEING and ADVENTURES — When we travel somewhere, we like to seek out the best experiences, whether it is cooking with locals in Bangkok, hiking on a glacier in Patagonia, or going on a wildlife safari in Sri Lanka. Our favorite place to look is GetYourGuide because they have over 30,000 highly rated activities, a user-friendly booking process with free cancellation and a 24 hour customer support.

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2 thoughts on “Practical tips for travelling to Tibet for your first time”

  1. Nice breakdown guys. Tibet fascinates me and is on the list. Going with a top shelf operator is a must too. If you plan to see the place and need a guide to get around just pay up for a reputable guide to enjoy this authentic journey. Well done!

    Ryan

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