China Travel Guide
Tibet is an autonomous region of China.
Entering Tibet you feel as though you've entered an entirely different world. The traditional Tibetan culture, though diluted recently by government-sponsored migrations of Han Chinese, remains strong.
There are seven prefectures in the Tibet Autonomous Region:
This article covers the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). There are also Tibetan autonomous prefectures and or counties located in Qinghai, southwest Gansu, western Sichuan and northwest Yunnan, covered in the articles on those provinces. These areas are culturally, historically and linguistically Tibetan to various degrees; there was once a Tibetan Kingdom considerably larger than the autonomous region's current borders.
See List of Chinese provinces and regions for an explanation of the terms "autonomous region" and "autonomous prefecture" if required.
- Lhasa - the capital of Tibet
- Qamdo (Chamdo)
- Xigatse (Shigatse) - the second largest city in Tibet
Tibet spans the world's largest and, with average heights of over 4,000 m, also the world's highest plateau. Consequently, Tibet is often referred to as the "Roof of the World". Parts of the region are so remote they remain uninhabited to this day.
In the mid-7th century, Songtsan Gampo established the unified Tubo Dynasty, and married two princesses, one from China and one from India. Tibet and Tang China fought repeatedly for control over the Silk Road during this time. Although the country was unified, it was seldom peaceful and between the 9th century and the mid-17th century it was often embroiled in turmoil. This period finally drew to a close when the Dalai Lama invited a tribe of Mongols to intervene. They gained military control of the region, but decided to stay, with the leader declaring himself king. However, the Dalai Lama actually administered the country.
In the early 18th century, Tibet was again in turmoil, and seeking to replicate the success of the earlier means of restoring peace, the Dalai Lama invited another tribe of Mongols to take control. However, the emperor of Qing China was unhappy with this arrangement, and ordered an invasion. The Mongols were expelled, and the Chinese and Tibetans began a special relationship which was maintained until the end of the Qing dynasty.
The British invaded Tibet in 1904, while the Qing emperor carved out states from areas under Tibetan control. With the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Tibet declared independence from China under the authority of the 13th Dalai Lama and remained an isolated nation for over thirty years.
After the retreat of the Nationalists to Taiwan in 1949, the Communists turned their attention towards Tibet. In 1950, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) invaded Tibet and in 1951 signed The Seventeen Point Agreement that annexed Tibet into China, offering Tibet — on paper — full autonomous status for governance, religion and local affairs. The newly established Communist Chinese Government even installed the current Dalai-Lama as the vice-secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in the early 1950s.
Communist reforms and the heavy-handed approach of the People's Liberation Army lead to tension with the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan followers. Following an unsuccessful CIA-sponsored revolt in 1959, the Dalai Lama and many of his followers went into exile in India, setting up a government in exile in Dharamsala. Tibet's isolated location did not protect it from the terror of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans were killed or imprisoned at the hands of the Red Guards, and its rich cultural heritage as well as much of Chinese culture lay in ruins due to the chaotic Cultural Revolution movement.
Since Deng Xiaoping took control in Beijing, the situation in Tibet has calmed considerably, though it still remains tense. Instead of pure brute force, Chinese tactics have switched to assimilation, with Han-Chinese migrants flooding into Tibet. However, slowly, monasteries are being rebuilt and a semblance to normality is returning to the region. Despite this, Tibet still suffers from Independence-related civil unrest, most notably in 1987, 1989 and most recently in 2008.
The main language of Tibet is Tibetan; which comes in many varying dialects, but many Tibetans speak or understand some Mandarin except the nomadic tribes in the Far East Tibet. Tibetan is closely related to Burmese and much more distantly to Chinese. Depending on the dialect of Tibetan spoken, it may be tonal or non-tonal. In the cities people speak Chinese fluently; in the villages it may not be understood at all. Han Chinese people, on the other hand, normally don't know any Tibetan at all. Signs in Tibet, including street signs, are at least bilingual - in Chinese and in Tibetan - plus a major local language when there is one.
Although this makes Chinese a more useful language for travelers in many ways, you should remember that language can be political in this charged environment. If you speak in Chinese to Tibetans you are associating yourself with the Chinese, the presence of whom is often resented among the ethnic Tibetan population, as evidenced by the widespread rioting throughout the region in the run-up to the Olympic Games. That said, many Tibetans seem to view Chinese as a useful lingua franca and a few Tibetan pleasantries is enough to befriend Tibetans. Tibetans from different regions converse in Chinese since Tibetan dialects vary so much that they are not immediately mutually understandable. If you speak Tibetan to Chinese police you'll raise suspicions that you may be in Tibet to support Tibetan Independence.
Having said that Tibetan is an extremely difficult language to learn and most foreigners who claim to know Tibetan can hardly get by. Tibetan is only taught in school until the 8th grade. Therefore, when it comes to writing, even the Tibetans themselves have difficulties and many are in fact illiterate.
Tourism to Tibet is strictly controlled by the Chinese government, and restrictions were further ratcheted up after the riots before the 2008 Olympics. As of 2009, the previous "backpacker" tours, which included the permit and a couple of nights stay in Lhasa is no longer an option and all travelers must stay with an organized trip the entire time they are in Tibet.
All foreign visitors to Tibet need one or more permits. The basic one is the Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit, which can be issued to you by Chinese travel agencies that handle trips to Tibet, or (if overseas and arriving via Nepal) by the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu on proof of purchasing a package tour (there is no way around this). If you buy an expensive package tour, the TTB permit will only cost you US$6, but if you just want train/plane tickets (which, as of 2009, no longer seems to be possible), the travel agency will inflate their cut accordingly and you'll need to fork out up to US$50-70. For land crossings (including the train), you'll get a physical permit that will be checked; for plane tickets, the permit may just be an annotation on your ticket record.
Some parts of Tibet also require an Aliens' Travel Permit (ATP), which is issued by the Public Security Bureau (PSB) in major Tibetan cities like Lhasa, Xigatse and Ali. The list of regions that require ATPs changes constantly, so enquire locally. Lhasa's PSB has a poor reputation, while Xigatse and Ali are said to issue permits without any unnecessary difficulties. If your papers are in order, the permit can be issued in several hours for Y100.
Finally, some remote areas also require a military permit. These are only available in Lhasa, where processing takes several days, and are only granted for an appropriate reason.
You can fly to Lhasa and also Nyingchi but flying in from a much lower altitude city puts you at high risk of altitude sickness because of the quick transition. If you are in Sichuan or nearby (and aren't satisfied visiting the many ethnically Tibetan areas to the east of the Tibetan Autonomous Region) flying from Chengdu is the easiest option.
A flight from Chengdu to Lhasa plus all the necessary paperwork will cost around 2000 yuan, and can be arranged through most large hostels or travel agents.
An alternate route is to follow the Yunnan tourist trail to Zhongdian and fly from there to Lhasa. If you spend a few days each in Kunming (2000 m), Dali (2400 m), Lijiang and Zhongdian (3200 m) to acclimatise, you should be able to fly to Lhasa (3650 m) with little risk
The Qinghai-Tibet (Qingzang) Railway from Golmud to Lhasa started operating in July 2006. The journey all the way from Beijing takes just under 48 hours, costing 389 yuan in the cheapest hard seat class and 1262 yuan for a soft sleeper. Direct trains to Lhasa originate in Beijing, Xining, Lanzhou, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Chengdu. For a mid-range sleeper from Chengdu with 6 bunks in each room, they are 692 yuan. Be warned that these trains are not for the faint-hearted and the less adventurous type: they do not have Western-styled toilets and bunks are relatively cramped. The main advantage for this mode of transportation is the fact that you could slowly adapt to high altitude conditions instead of a sudden shift if you were to take a plane.
If you're not up to rubbing shoulders
with the hoi polloi, Tangula runs roughly weekly luxury trains (Apr-Dec only) from Beijing to Lhasa and back. The 4-day journey costs US$5,500 (twin sharing), including all meals, drinks and excursions.
There are four roads into Tibet, roughly corresponding to the cardinal directions:
North: The road from Golmud (Ch:Ge'ermu) is the easiest legal land route at present. The landscape is beautiful but difficult to appreciate after the long rough ride.
It's possible to travel this way by hitch-hiking on trucks if you are well prepared (camping equipment, food and water for a day). Expect to spend a few days. There are police checkpoints on the way but the only one that is a problem is the one 30 km or so out of Golmud. If you walk around it and a few km beyond you should be able to get a ride without too much of a problem. There are plenty of places to eat on the way but be prepared to get stuck in the middle of nowhere. There are also are places to sleep ranging from truck stop brothels to comfortable hotels, however these should be avoided as you're likely to get picked up by the police.
East: There is no legal way to travel this road (except as part of an expensive organised tour; see Overland to Tibet) and the security is tighter than from the north. Travellers do get through this way, but for people who are obviously not northeast Asians it's difficult.
West: From Kashgar (Ch:Kashi) much of the way is technically off limits. However there is a steady stream of hardy travelers coming this way, usually hitching rides on trucks. The road is totally unpaved for over a thousand kilometers with villages and water few and far between. The main advantages of this way is that it passes by Mount Kailash and through a beautiful, very remote region inhabited by nomads. You should be very well prepared to travel this way and take everything you would need for independent trekking: camping equipment suitable for freezing temperatures even in summer, a good tent and at least a few days of food (there are a few truck-stop places on the way but not always when you want them). Expect the trip to take two weeks or more. From Kashgar it's much farther to go to Lhasa via Urumqi and Golmud but the better transport (trains and good paved highways) make it no more time consuming to travel this way. There are many interesting things for the tourist to see on the way and it is worth considering traveling this way instead of via Mount Kailash.
South: From Nepal the international border makes any sort of breaking of the rules impossible, so the only option is to book a tour with a travel agent in Kathmandu. In addition, as of 2007, you need a group visa for China itself to cross the border into Tibet, so don't bother applying before you get to Kathmandu. The drive from Kathmandu to Lhasa takes five days and is very rough, but pretty.
Southeast: After 44 years of closure, the Nathu La pass to Sikkim, India — a part of the historic Silk Road — opened again in July 2006. At time of writing, the border is not yet open to foreign tourists, but this is expected to change some time in the future and there are plans for a Gangtok-Lhasa bus service.
Central Tibet has an OK public bus network, although the strict need for a travel permit when taking a bus (the driver/conductor will want to see it) limits the usefulness of buses.
Jeep tours are a popular way of getting around Tibet, while not cheap, the tour operator will sort out all the necessary paperwork, and they offer you a reasonable chance of sticking to a schedule.
Your driver will likely be an indiginous Tibetan who can speak Chinese. He'll get to eat and sleep for free wherever you go (he'll often be treated like a king), and he'll often need to stop for a smoke or a pee by certain vendors on the road. 4500 RMB will get a jeep that can seat 4 people and luggage comfortably for 4 or 5 days.
Be very precise with your itinerary and very careful with payment. Every stop, monastery and lake you wish to visit, etc should be written on the itinerary. Payment should never be made in advance. Many foreigners, especially pro-Tibetan ones, are so trusting of Tibetan drivers that they hand over their money in advance but never get to see their drivers again. These drivers operate in rings and will approach their targets in hostels and speak against the Chinese government to gain support and sympathy from tourists who then lower their guard, and have their trip ruined. Some such stranded tourists, already identified as easy targets, will then be approached by a second Tibetan driver in the ring, and the same scam happens one more time.
Hitchhiking can be a good way to get around the country for someone who is flexible and has a lot of time. It can, however, mean you end up getting stuck without a lift for days. In the west of the country this probably means hanging around truck stops, as the distances are far too long to walk, and finding water would be a major problem. Trucks often break down though and it can take a long time before the journey continues. Hitchhiking in general is not free and a small fee is expected. In central and eastern Tibet, there's more water and villages, and so walking becomes a more reasonable option. In short, hitching may or may not get you to your destination any quicker, but at least it offers a change of scenery.
Hitchhiking from Lhasa to Mount Everest
A few travelers choose to ignore the travel permit requirement and continue to travel south of Shigatse which is the limit for traveling without a permit. This is very adventurous but can be done if the traveler is willing, in a worse case scenario, to risk imprisonment. It is a good advise to check with foreigners who live in Lhasa to point out the location of road check points and get tips on safety. Take enough food (snacks) and cigarettes (for truck drivers) and only go on this trip after you have adjusted to the high altitude.
From Lhasa to Shigatse you can take a public bus. A travel permit is not required for buying a bus ticket. Have an overnight in Shigatse. It is impossible to buy a ticket at the ticket counter (in Shigatse) without a travel permit, but sometimes it works fine to show up before the bus leaves and buy the ticket in the bus. Keep a low profile while seated in the bus. Before departure the conductor checks the ticket. Hand him over the fare money plus a little tip. The bus might leave, only to stop again a few minutes later around the corner. It might happen that the official from the ticket counter who refused to sell tickets without permit shows up with your ticket in hands and wishes you a happy journey. Immediately outside Shigatse are the first check posts. Usually a very young Chinese official enters the bus. Keep a low profile or smile at him. If he asks something, just show him the tickets.
After this checkpost the journey continues on dirt roads with occasional stops at small stone huts which serve Tibetan food or noodles. You find a room with restaurant in small inns, usually there is one in every bigger village, but don't expect any luxury. Many times the only shower facility consists of a bucket of water.
Further south there are no public buses one can use, but truckdrivers can be asked to get a ride. A fee is usually negotiated before the ride. Truckdrivers won't take a traveler through checkpoints. It is wise to walk or hitch to a checkpoint, then walk around it, out of sight of the officials and try to get another ride from the other side. Sometimes a ride on a local transport, e.g. tractor up to the checkpoint can be arranged.
Around Mount Everest is a huge Everest National Park. Park tickets have to be bought before arriving at the National Park Checkpoint. Towards Everest there are hardly any local transports and no trucks, but numerous jeeps coming from Nepal all go to Mount Everest. Tourists usually pay a high price for this tour and are very reluctant to take on a free guest. The driver and tourist guide might refuse to take you in without a travel permit. Some gift money to the Tibetan driver plus a bold lie to the mostly Chinese tourguide might work. Once the jeep stops at the National Park Checkpoint, all passengers have to leave the car and pass through the checkpoint where car documents, park tickets and passport with travel permits are checked. If you have already traveled that far without a travel permit, the moment of surprise might add to your luck and the young Chinese officials might let you pass. Again keep a low profile, have a big smile and some money which changes hands might work. If not, be prepared for a long walk around of the check post.
From there it is a direct way to Mount Everest over stunning 5500 meter passes. When you arrive at the tiny monastery which serves as a very simple hotel and restaurant be prepared for a wonderful sight of Mount Everest at sunrise - if you are lucky. Everest can be shrouded in clouds for many weeks. Only continue to the base camp when you have adjusted to the high altitude. If you want to continue from Base Camp 1 to Camp 2, paying some fee is unavoidable.
Getting back from Mount Everest to Lhasa usually is less of a hassle. When stopped tell that you are heading to Lhasa. Sometimes you might be lucky and find a ride in a tourbus which returns empty to Lhasa having unloaded the tourists at the Nepalese border.
If you decide to hitchhike to Mount Kailash be prepared for an even harder journey. Villages are more remote and it is a long journey sometimes taking up to 2 or 3 weeks to Kashkar.
There are a surprising number of tourists traveling Tibet by bicycle, both foreigners and Chinese. The roads vary from rough dirt tracks to good quality paved roads. There are restaurants, truck stops and shops scattered around often enough so that you don't need to carry more than a day's worth of food (with the important exception of the west of the country). The roads are often well graded, being built for overloaded trucks. 26 inch wheels would be preferable as 700 cc are almost unknown in China. Good mountain bikes are available in large cities of China or in Lhasa. Golmud is not a good place to get a bicycle (assuming you want it to get you past the check point 30 km outside of town). Cyclists have reported that distances cited in the Lonely Planet guidebooks can be quite inaccurate so be very well-prepared.
Good road maps of Tibet are common in China, but only in Chinese. These are of limited use even for people literate in Chinese as the Chinese names are very different from the ones used by the Tibetans. They are useful for reading road signs, even for people with low literacy in Chinese.
The Star publications map is probably the best. Amnye Machen Institute publishes an excellent map of similar scale and detail but with the Tibetan names, with a version written in Latin script and one in the Tibetan. It makes a useful companion. Tibetmap.com has a free downloadable set of maps covering much of Tibet with detail almost good enough to use for independent trekking.
Much of Lhasa has been replaced by post-1950 Chinese developments with only a small quarter dating from pre-invasion times. This part is now under renovation to attract tourists. It is still worth to take a stroll through the old part of Lhasa and buy goods from Tibetan vendors, who sometimes come from remote provinces of Tibet. Watch the impressive bargaining for Shish stones but refrain from buying turquoise or coral items as most of them are synthetic or dyed. Nevertheless Tibetan vendors have a huge range of beautiful Tibetan articles and it pays out to buy directly from them instead of spending money in shopping malls which started to appear everywhere in the centre of Lhasa.
There are some small cafes and bars run by young Chinese or Tibetan people which are very good hangouts and a fantastic meeting place for the few expats who live in Lhasa. They provide great information about Tibet.
A must are the small Tibetan restaurants who serve authentic Tibetan food. If you have never tried momos or gyantok, a definite must together with a cup of salted Tibetan butter tea.
Tibetan and Han Chinese people in general are wonderful and friendly people who always have a warm smile. Some speak a bit of English and are happy to have a chat with you.
For an authentic, fulfilling visit to Tibet, you must have a native Tibetan guide. Many of the Chinese guides are relocated from other areas of China and don't have a real understanding of the people or culture of Tibet that make the country so amazing.
The traditional Tibetan diet is largely limited to barley, meat (mutton or yak) and dairy products, with very few spices or vegetables, although brutally hot chili sauce is often served on the side. Even good Tibetan food is very monotonous with most Tibetan restaurants serving nothing other than thukpa (noodle soup) and tea. By comparison, Chinese restaurants in villages often put out some excellent food. Some travelers feel that Hui (ethnic Chinese Moslem) places are cleaner because of halal food laws; they can be recognised by the green flags and crescent moons (and because they do look cleaner).
Unfortunately there is not a single genuine Tibetan restaurant of high quality in Tibet, which can only be found in neighbouring provinces such as Sichuan. All Tibetan restaurants in Lhasa featured in guidebooks and frequented by non-Chinese tourists are westernized ones serving a few Tibetan dishes along with pizzas, spaghetti, pancakes, etc.
A selection of popular Tibetan fare:
While traveling be prepared for the bus to depart late or break down. Carry a snack on short trips and enough food for a few days or a week or more for longer journeys, such as to Mount Kailash. Instant noodles are convenient even if you don't have a camp stove. They can be eaten cold or softened with boiled water. Tsampa (roasted barley flour) is an ideal travel food because it's already cooked. Eat it mixed with tea, butter and salt, or as a high energy snack by mixing it with water, milk powder and sugar.
Tea houses are an important social venue in Tibet, and offer a chance to sit down and relax. The tea houses in the larger town and cities offer sweet tea, or salted; in the villages you may only have the option of salt tea. The line between a tea house and a restaurant is blurred and many also offer thukpa.
Tibetan butter tea (pöcha) is a must try, though it may not be a pleasant experience for all — even the Dalai Lama famously said that he's not a fan of the stuff! It is a salty mixture of black tea and Tibetan butter. Traditionally it is churned by hand with a thick rod in a long upright wooden container. However, when electricity came to the city in recent years, modernized Tibetans turn to use electric mixers to make their butter tea. The Tibetan butter is not rancid as commonly described, but has a cheesy taste and smell to it, close to blue cheese or Roquefort. Think of it as a cheese broth rather, that you will appreciate particularly after a long hike in cold weather.
An alternative to Tibetan butter tea is sweet tea which is more familiar to western palates. Sweet tea drinking was introduced only recently by merchants returning from India, first among well-off Tibetans, since sugar was a luxury on the Plateau, then when sugar became more available among the general public. Unlike Indians, Tibetan do not use spices (clove, cinnamon, cardamon) to flavor their tea.
Chang, or Tibetan beer made of barley, has a lighter flavor than a western-type, bottled beer, since they do not use bitter hops. Often home-brewed and with as many taste and strength variants as industrial beers. Beware of chang: the yeast is still alive in it, and will carry on fermenting and producing alcohol in the warm temperatures of your stomach! Usually no germ risk since yeast prevents bacteria proliferation.
Plan your route to manage altitude sickness; the main thing is to give your body enough time to acclimatize before going higher. Be prepared to adjust your plans, descend or spend a few extra days acclimatizing if it proves necessary.
When traveling in the countryside be prepared for the vehicle to break down and for bad weather. Carry a snack and some warm clothes.
Beware of the dogs. In the cities there are numerous stray dogs about and in the country side the villagers and nomads keep large guard dogs (usually chained up). A modest level of caution is enough to prevent you from being bitten, as the strays are normally more afraid of you than you of them. If guard dogs are unchained, keep them at bay by staying away from the house or tent they are protecting and pick up (or pretend to pick up) some stones. Much is made of the viciousness of the Tibetan dogs, but few travelers have problems with them. See also aggressive dogs.
Steer clear of political protests. They're rare, but suppressed brutally by the authorities, who do not look kindly on Western witnesses (especially those with cameras).
- Travelers to Tibet usual find Tibetans along with other inhabitants to be friendly. It is appreciated when you try and use the local Tibetan dialect when communicating with Tibetans. The further from Lhasa you travel, the more often Tibetan is used.
- Avoid placing anyone at risk by discussing political matters or associating with other pro-Tibetan anti-Chinese foreigners / guides / agencies - this includes anything about the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. These topics are quite sensitive especially following the recent pro-independence demonstrations in Tibet, which cost more than two-hundred lives.
- Religion is extremely important to the majority of Tibetans, and travelers should endeavor to respect their customs and beliefs. Always walk around Tibetan Buddhist religious sites or monastery in a clockwise direction, and when in a monastery do not wear a hat, smoke or touch frescoes. In addition, refrain from climbing onto statues, mani stones or other sacred objects.
- Don't photograph people without permission, and be aware that some locations prohibit photography without a fee. Sky burial sites are obviously off-limits.
- Tibetan Buddhism and its impact of Tibetan culture is a major draw for tourists. Be aware that funds used to pay entry fees at major religious sites will probably go into the coffers of the local Communist Party and its Chinese members. Funds donated directly to individual monks and nuns and left on altars will remain and be used to maintain and support the local religious infrastructure. Appreciate the work of the monasteries and those within and help support these great institutions with non-monetary donations and by attending the festivals and just spending a little time getting to know the monastic community.
- Supporting the economy by purchasing from vendors is a great way to show your support for all inhabitants of Tibet and China. Pay a fair price while bargaining. Beware that some vendors may try to swindle tourists by selling at very high prices.
- Try to eat more genuine Tibetan dishes. On the edge of the Plateau this becomes more difficult.
- Antiques, family or religious items should not be purchased as this destroys the culture.
- Help protect the Tibet for future generations of all Chinese citizens regardless of ethnicity by not purchasing products made from wild animals. Many items are made from endangered species. Remember to leave only footprints and take lots of photographs while visiting Tibet. Take the initiative and pack out trash and recyclables you see around while traveling outside of urban Tibet. The ecosystem in the Himalayas is very fragile due to the weather being so cold, so be careful of where you hike and try to keep erosion down.
- Help to keep Tibetan culture alive. It is very important to use Tibetan resources such as hotels, restaurants, guides and souvenir stalls, as Tibetan culture is gradually being erroded. It is also important to benefit financially the Tibetans, who are rapidly becoming a disadvantaged minority in their own country. When visiting temples, monasteries or shrines you may wish to leave a donation, which will help their upkeep. It is best to leave it on the altar or give it directly to a monk or nun. This will ensure it stays in the temple. You may also wish to give a small donation to pilgrims from rural Tibet.