Many of the travelers who contact us for trips in Tibet have wanted to go to Lhasa for a long time. But most folks don’t know what to expect in a Lhasa tour, or what is possible to do in a short amount of time. The good news is that Lhasa holds many of the cultural and spiritual treasures of Tibet, and you can have an amazing adventure in one short week that includes travel to Lhasa on the Tibet “sky” train.
In this post we describe a tour that offers you the key highlights of Lhasa, a journey on the sky train, a taste of the Amdo region of Tibet, a local Tibetan guide, authentic local atmosphere with real Tibetans, and an itinerary that takes altitude sickness prevention seriously.
Since no independent travel is allowed to Tibet and you must work with a travel agency, you want to be sure to choose a Tibetan-owned agency, which hires Tibetan guides only. The simplest way to do this is ask us to connect you to a reliable Tibetan-owned travel agent to plan a great trip for you that also supports the local Tibetan economy and culture.
The Sky Train and Lhasa Highlights Tour
Here’s a brief outline of a tour that allows you to make the most of a very short time in the country.
What are the highlights in Lhasa?
The great city of Lhasa holds a concentration of magnificent Buddhist treasures, both spiritual and artistic. Here are the ones you do not want to miss:
- The Jokhang Temple, housing the Jowo Rinpoche, most sacred statue in Tibet, which portrays the Buddha at age 12.
- The bustling Barkhor devotional circuit around the Jokhang Temple which is also Lhasa’s central market area.
- Potala Palace, winter palace of the Dalai Lamas since the 7th century, an architectural and Buddhist masterpiece.
- Drepung Monastery, foremost among the great three Gelukpa monasteries of Tibet. Narrow lanes weave among the ancient chapels full of great Buddhist art and statuary.
- Sera Monastery, the great 15th century Buddhist institution, where you can see young monks debate every day except Sunday.
How can I experience the “real Tibet”?
Most travelers want to experience the “real” Tibet and not some Disneyland version of it. The single most critical thing you can do to have an authentic experience is to hire a Tibetan-owned agency to handle your trip. You have to go through an agency anyway, so it makes the best sense to hire a reliable, Tibetan-owned and staffed travel agency. In that way, you will ensure that your guide is a local Tibetan who can take you to hotels owned by Tibetans and to tea houses and restaurants where Tibetans spend time. (If you need help finding a reliable Tibetan-owned travel agency, contact us here.) You get the most authentic experience possible and you serve the local Tibetan economy at the same time. Also, check out our post on 10 Dos and Don’ts for a first visit to Lhasa and How to Make the Most of Your Time in Lhasa.
How can I stay safe in terms of altitude sickness?
This trip was specially designed to help you adjust to Lhasa’s high altitude in a reasonable way. (See this post on Itineraries for Preventing Altitude Sickness.) However, due to the logistics of getting to Lhasa, there is no straightforward way to get perfectly acclimatized before you arrive. It is extremely important to inform yourself as much as possible about altitude sickness before you go to Tibet. Even with an itinerary that is designed to prevent altitude sickness, it is a good idea to consult a travel doctor to see if you might benefit from altitude sickness medication. We have a lot of information on the site and you can start with this post on How to Avoid Altitude Sickness to learn more.
A major factor to staying healthy at altitude is taking time ascending. Flying from sea level to Lhasa is not the way to do it! The train journey is not in itself a good way to acclimatize. (See this post on The Biggest Mistake People Make about the Tibet Train.) You will need some days at intermediate altitudes, such as in Xining, and you’ll need to go easy your first days at high altitude. For this reason, we recommend that you get as much time as you can for your trip to Tibet. Traveling to Tibet is expensive, it takes a while to get there, it takes time to acclimate, and it is well worth spending the extra time. For many people, Tibet is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. The one-week Sky Train and Lhasa Highlights tour is basically the bare minimum.
How much does the Lhasa tour cost?
This is a brand-new itinerary that we designed to help travelers acclimate better on short trips to Lhasa, and we have a request in to our agents to price it for us. This will likely be ready in a few days. At the moment, it is a private trip, but if enough people request it, our agents can make more affordable group tours. Click here to request the trip and check if our agents can help you with a group.(In the comments section on the form, note that you would like to join a group for this tour if possible.) See more info on the cost of Tibet tour packages here.
What is the best time to visit Lhasa?
Lhasa has a surprisingly mild climate. April to November is the usual recommended time to travel, and many prefer August and September. Summer tends to be sunny and warm, even hot, during the day, with cool nights that can be rainy. (It can at times rain during the day in the summers, too.) The wettest month is July. The advantage of summer is the warmth and green landscapes. The downside is the hordes of tourists from mainland China and some possibility of rain.
October and most of November are clear and cold, but generally not freezing, so can be great for some. Some hardy types prefer the drier, very cold, winter months for fewer tourists and mostly clear skies, and for the crowds of nomads who come into town as pilgrims during their winter down time. You will want to avoid the Chinese national holidays in early October, when Lhasa is packed.
Late winter can bring strong cold winds, which become especially strong in February and March. Lhasa folk call this the Spring Wind — chilha. It’s important to note that the entire TAR, Tibetan Autonomous Region, is typically closed to non-Chinese travelers for the later half of February and all of March due to political reasons. April will begin to warm again and can be a good time to travel. To be on the safe side, you may want to avoid the first week of April to be sure you miss the end of the annual March travel restrictions.
Lhasa Climate Averages
Warmest month: June, 75 F/ 24 C.
Coldest month: January, 14 °F / -10 °C
Driest months: January and December, 0% average rainfall.
Wettest month: July, 4.8 inches/122 mm of rain, sleet, hail or snow falling across 13 days.
(Temperature information from climatemps.com.)
Do I really need a guide if I’m only traveling in Lhasa?
Yes, unfortunately, you do. Since 2008, foreign travelers have been required to have a guide every day even in Lhasa. As our friend Ellen Ebens (see her post A Dutch Travel Junkie Addicted to Tibet) notes: “Although foreign travelers need to have a guide for every day even in Lhasa, it’s no problem at all to wander around Lhasa on your own. But the guide needs to accompany you to sites like the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple and monasteries like Drepung and Sera. Don’t go there without your guide!” That is the case right now (as we write in February 2016) but the restrictions situation in Tibet changes constantly. Before striking out on your own, talk privately to your guide to see if it is possible for you to have a little time to yourself to wander around, but be mindful that it may not possible on any given day due to political considerations. Please don’t put your Tibetan guide at risk by doing what he or she recommends against!
How can I start planning my Lhasa Tour?
If you need help finding a reliable Tibetan-owned agency, fill out the short form here and we will forward the information to one of our highly recommended locally owned Tibetan travel agents, who will contact you directly and give you all the help you need. Truly, one of the great advantages of Tibet travel is that your travel agents handle so many things for you, including getting your Tibet travel permit and helping book trains or flights from mainland China.
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