Here for you are the six things that we wish we knew before we first traveled to Tibet back in 2002. (For Lobsang this was a trip back to Tibet after many years away.) They are six essential steps for achieving the trip of your dreams while avoiding some of the most common mistakes that cause major headaches for Tibet Travelers. The tips will help you plan an ethical trip that gives you a real feel for Tibet and Tibetans while making sure that the money you spend goes to the local Tibetan economy. To help keep it simple for you, we give our personal recommendations for each step.
1. Above all, choose a reliable, Tibetan-owned travel 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 travel permit and virtually everything else. (This can include train tickets or flights from Chinese cities to Tibet.) By using a Tibetan-owned company, with Tibetan guides and drivers, you insure that a significant amount of your travel money supports the local Tibetan economy. Picking a trustworthy and service-oriented agent can also 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 inquiry form (there is no cost for the service) and we will forward your request to our favorite Tibetan-owned and run agents in Tibet, who will contact you and help you with your trip. (Don’t worry if you’re in the early planning stages – just fill out as much as you can. The agents are great about helping you figure out the rest.)
2. Choose where to go early in your planning
Tibet is huge, and basically you need to decide if you want to see the most popular sites – 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.
If you have a week or less and this is your first visit to Tibet, try a Lhasa Highlights trip, because of the Jokhang Temple and the major monasteries.
If you have 2 weeks 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. Alternatively, consider a private tour in the stunning Kham region of Eastern Tibet, where you can experience vital Tibetan culture, and where no special Tibet travel permit is required.
If you have three weeks or more, 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, or consider a combination Kham and Amdo trip.
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.
If you are keen to trek, check out the Ganden to Samye trek in Central Tibet, or the Mt. Minya Gonggar trek in Kham.
If you need help deciding where to go, just ask us here (and put your questions in the comments section.)
3. Learn how to avoid getting altitude sickness
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your travel agent will handle this for you. To be honest this is one of the big weaknesses of the Tibet travel system. Even the very best travel agents – yes, even our recommended agents – may not yet be fully up to speed on altitude sickness issues. Everyone is trying their best, but due to a complex set of reasons, there are many common trips in Tibet which put you at unnecessary risk for getting altitude sickness.
Above all, take the responsibility to inform yourself about what you need to do to reduce your risk of getting altitude sickness in Tibet. There is a wealth of information online but it can be a slog to wade through. If you need help, check out our How to Know and Avoid Altitude Sickness Guide.
Read this post: Itineraries for Preventing Altitude Sickness in Tibet
Talk to your travel agent and find out the exact altitudes of the places on your itinerary, to see your risk of getting altitude sickness on the trip.
Don’t be satisfied with the common refrain from travel agents about staying in Lhasa a few days to acclimatize. There is considerably more to it than that!! See this 7-Day Sky Train and Lhasa Highlights Tour as an example of what you need to acclimate better.
4.Know that when you go makes a difference
Times to avoid due to political restrictions: all of March and most of February. (The exact dates of restrictions change from year to year, but 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).
- For more info, check out this post on Tibet Weather at a Glance.
5. Know that YOU have to apply for your 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, which the agents will obtain for you. 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.
6. Consider 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.) If traveling independently is really important to you, plan to travel in the non-TAR regions of Kham and Amdo. But be mindful that there is virtually no system set up for solo backpack travel in Eastern Tibet, unlike travel in Nepal or India, for example. Distances are vast and a local guide, if not a car, can be invaluable, in every way. (If you need help finding a guide, ask here.)
- 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.
Are you ready to get started?
If you’d like us to help you connect with a reliable Tibetan-owned agency that can give you the Tibet trip of your dreamsclick here, and fill out the short form.