6 Essential Tips for Planning your Tibet Travel
Traveling to Tibet is so much easier than you may think. Here are 6 essential steps for planning an ethical trip that gives you a real feel for Tibet and Tibetans, with our personal recommendations for each step.
Finding a Trustworthy, Tibetan-Owned Agency
Picking the right agent is the single most important thing you’ll do when planning your trip to Tibet. If you are traveling to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) you have to use a Tibet travel agency, who will arrange your Tibet travel permit and virtually everything else. By using a Tibetan-owned company, with Tibetan guides and drivers, you insure that a significant amount of your travel dollars support the local Tibetan economy. Picking a trustworthy and service-oriented agent can make a huge difference in whether your trip turns out like a dream or a disaster.
If you need a referral for a dependable, Tibetan-owned agency, we can help. Fill out our Tibet Travel Service form and we will forward your request to our favorite agents in Tibet, who will contact you and help you with your trip. (Don’t worry if you don’t have answers for the questions on the form – just fill out as much as you can. The agents are great about helping you figure out the rest.)
Choosing Where to Go
Tibet is huge, and basically you need to decide if you want to see the Central Tibetan sites that you have most likely heard of – like Lhasa or Everest Base Camp – or if you want to visit the culturally preserved and less-traveled Kham and Amdo regions of Eastern Tibet.
- Forced to choose among a lot of good choices, we would recommend that first timers with less than a week take a trip that includes Lhasa, because of the Jokhang Temple and the major monasteries.
- If you have 8 days or so, and think you can handle high altitude, take an Everest Base Camp (EBC) trip, which commonly includes Lhasa, as well as Shigatse and Gyantse.
- If you have two or more weeks, and are physically able, choose the high-altitude pilgrimage tour to Mt. Kailash, which includes Lhasa, EBC and more, and is a sort of highlights of Central Tibet. Another awesome option is to hit the Kardze region of Kham for the less-traveled cultural heart of Eastern Tibet.
- If you have already traveled to Lhasa, EBC or Kailash, and you are lucky enough to return to Tibet for a second (or third or fourth or…) time, definitely plan to see Kham and/or Amdo. And vice versa.
- (These recommendations don’t apply to trekking. For trekking trips, ask our agents for advice on good routes in the comment section on the Tibet travel service form.)
Choosing When to Go
- Times to avoid due to political restrictions: all of March and most of February. (To be on the safe side, don’t plan to travel to Tibet between February 1 and April 15.)
- Times to avoid due to heavy Chinese tourism: The Golden Week national Holidays in the first week of October, plus summer, unless you most value milder weather.
- For clear mountain views, fewer crowds, and coldish but still comfortable temperatures: early fall (October after the Chinese Golden Week holidays through mid-November) and spring (mid-April to mid-May).
- For the warmest weather, beautiful green views, occasional rain: summer.
- For fewest crowds, excellent local atmosphere in Lhasa, and temps not as cold as you might think: winter (December, January).
Considering What Kind of Travel you Like and Need
Do you like to travel pretty fast or more leisurely? Do you want to trek? Do you value comfort? Do you want to travel with a group to save money or for companionship, or do you prefer a private trip? Despite the restrictions there is still a whole lot of choice in your Tibet travel, especially if you choose a private tour.
Things you should know:
- Unless you plan to travel outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), you must have a guide as well as a driver. (Unless you’re only visiting Lhasa, in which case you still need a guide. No travel agent can help you arrange independent travel in the TAR.
- Because of the great distances in Tibet, most trips involve at least a fair amount of driving, but also know that the driving itself is among the Himalaya and a journey in itself.
- Trekking takes on a new meaning when every step you take is above 10,000 feet!
Let your travel agent know very specifically what you want. Obviously, you have more choice about when and where you go if you take a private trip as compared to a group tour. Examples of what you might include in your notes to your agent:
- I don’t want to rush, and want plenty of time to relax and enjoy each place I visit.
- I want to spend as much time trekking as possible.
- I hate being in the car for hours at a time and really need to keep that to a minimum.
- I am an older traveler and need to take it easy as much as possible.
- I am especially interested in Tibetan Buddhist sites.
Applying for a Chinese Visa
Your travel agent will obtain your Tibet permit for you, but you will separately need a Chinese visa to enter China, and you need to apply for this yourself, optimally from your home country.
You will require a special kind of visa if you are entering Tibet from Nepal. See more info on that in this post on the “Tibet visa.”
Apply for your Chinese visa two months ahead of your travel to Tibet. For many nationalities you will need proof of a return flight and hotel for something like 30% of your stay in China. (We know, it’s crazy to have to book a flight before you know if you will get a visa. We’ll be writing more about this. In the meantime, it’s good to book your international flights through an agent, and ask their advice.) Note that conventional wisdom recommends that you do not mention that you are traveling to Tibet when you apply for a Chinese visa.
Getting travel insurance
We highly recommend getting travel insurance to cover your trip so that unexpected closures to Tibet don’t wipe you out. Tibet travel is relatively stable, but unexpected closures do happen. In 2015, the Nepal earthquakes have shut down the major Tibet-Nepal overland route, and there is a strong likelihood that the 50th anniversary of the TAR will close Tibet for at least parts of September. Sometimes if a partial closure happens, your agent can help you re-route your trip, but it is possible that a closure could cause you to have to cancel your trip.
We like Travel Guard insurance because among other reasons, they have great phone help, and, we think, better than average coverage.
Travel Guard Insurance: www.travelguard.com
If you are planning a trip to Tibet, check out our easy and ethical Tibet Travel Service. We match you with hand-picked, top Tibet travel agents dedicated to supporting the local Tibetan economy and culture. For travel specifically in Eastern Tibet use our Tibet Travel Service for Kham and Amdo.
The sights and sounds of Tibet will remain with me for the rest of my life and I am very grateful that your organisation enabled me to have this experience…The trip was over too quickly but it has become number 1 of the more than 120 countries and islands I have visited in my life…
Emma from England, on her trip using the YoWangdu Tibet Travel Service