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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.