In this complete list of the best tips for Tibet travel in 2021 you’re going to learn…
- How to avoid the most common Tibet travel mistakes
- How to stay healthy at high altitude
- About the Tibet “sky” train…
And much more to help you plan a safe, healthy, ethical and amazing visit to Tibet.
2021 Travel Advisory: Due to the current health crisis, Tibet is temporarily closed to all foreign travelers. There has been no announcement regarding a re-open date. However, travelers can pre-book travel for a later date. At the same time, you will support local Tibetan-owned businesses at a time when they are struggling to survive. To learn more, ask us for an introduction to a reliable Tibetan travel agency here.
Let’s get started…
HOW TO AVOID THE MOST COMMON TIBET TRAVEL MISTAKES
1. Mistake: Being fooled by Chinese travel agencies that pretend to be Tibetan
Pretty much every travel agency that offers trips to Tibet advertises itself as “local” or “based in Lhasa.”
They all claim to have “Tibetan guides.”
What’s the real story?
The majority of the agencies you will find searching online are Chinese companies pretending to be Tibetan. It’s true that sometimes they hire Tibetan staff and have a branch office in Lhasa. But they are Chinese owned and operated.
They falsely pretend to be locally-owned Tibetan companies because they know that travelers want to support the Tibetan economy and hire real Tibetan guides. Some of them have even used fake Tibetan names for their owners. One of the worst ones says “Visit Tibet with Tibetan Local Agency” in the title that appears in Google searches about Tibet. The same agency falsely says they are a “Tibetan owned company in Lhasa” on their About Us page. One of their Chinese managers regularly uses fake Tibetan names!
With such agencies straight up lying, it’s honestly very tough to avoid getting fooled by the misleading advertising.
Personally, we have slowly identified the real Tibetan agencies only through five years of working in the Tibet travel industry.
If you need help to find an authentically Tibetan-owned agency, ask us here for an introduction.
2. Mistake: I need a “Tibet visa”
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a Tibet visa.
You must get a Chinese visa to enter China. You need to obtain this on your own, at a Chinese embassy or consulate in your home country.
In addition to the Chinese visa, you will need a Tibet travel permit to travel in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). You cannot obtain this on your own. Only a registered Tibet travel agent can do this for you. (More on how visas and permits work later in this list.)
3. Mistake: If I take the “sky” train, I will be ready for high altitude when I reach Lhasa
The train is somewhat helpful but it is not the main action you need to take to be safe at high altitude.
If you want to avoid altitude sickness on arrival in Lhasa, consider sleeping at an intermediate elevation like Xining for a couple of nights, then taking the train from Xining to Lhasa.
Also, ask your doctor about taking the preventative medication called Diamox.
Keep reading for much more on the “sky” train and on altitude sickness prevention…
4. Mistake: I have to be on a group tour for Tibet travel
It’s true that you must be part of an organized tour to visit the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).
But you may not know that your organized tour can be a private tour with one individual or a private tour of any number you wish to travel with.
If you want help connecting to a reliable Tibetan agent to organize either a group or private tour, contact us here.
Outside the TAR, such as in large parts of the Eastern Tibetan regions of Kham and Amdo, you can travel independently if you wish.
5. Mistake: It’s morally wrong to travel to Tibet
Many good-hearted people who support Tibet believe that it is wrong to travel to Tibet while it is under Chinese rule. But we strongly disagree, because:
1) The great majority of travelers to Tibet are Chinese tourists, who typically book their travel with Chinese agencies. Tibetan-owned businesses need support from foreigners.
2) If you use Tibetan-owned businesses when you travel to Tibet — including your travel agency, hotels, and restaurants —you provide much-needed support to the local Tibetan economy. It is true that your permit, flight and/or train contribute more to the government than to local Tibetans, but the biggest chunk of your tourism money can support Tibetans.
3) His Holiness the Dalai Lama has always encouraged foreign travel to Tibet, to see and judge the situation for yourself.
THE BEST WAY TO GET TO TIBET
6. Should I enter from China or Nepal?
You can enter Tibet from either China or Nepal, but you should note that entering from Nepal is special in a few ways.
To enter from Nepal, you must acquire a “Tibet Group Visa” from an authorized Nepali agency. (Most Tibet travel agencies have partner agencies in Kathmandu who do this.)
Since no one is allowed to hold two valid visas at the same time, note that if you get the visa from Nepal, any other Chinese visa you have in your passport will be canceled. This and other rules may impact you if you plan to travel in mainland China after you leave Tibet.
If you enter from China, you will need a Chinese visa (which you obtain yourself in your country) plus a Tibet travel permit (arranged by your Tibet travel agency).
Get more details in the visa section below.
7. Fly or take the train?
We recommend taking the train rather than a flight into Lhasa.
The reason for this is that the flight puts you at a high risk of getting Acute Mountain Sickness. More seriously it puts you at a small risk of getting High Altitude Pulmonary Edema.
Please note that taking the “sky” train does put you at risk of altitude sickness, just less risk of severe illness than the flight. This is why we recommend taking additional steps to acclimatize.
Specifically, we recommend that you sleep at an intermediate altitude in Xining a couple of nights before starting your train journey to Tibet. And that you see your doctor about taking Diamox as an altitude sickness preventative.
It is not a good option to drive from Kathmandu to Lhasa. You end up sleeping at an elevation considerably higher than Lhasa after you cross into Tibet, and this is quite dangerous.
See our post on Altitude Sickness Prevention in a Nutshell for more info.
HOW TO PLAN TIBET TRAVEL EASILY AND ETHICALLY
8. Choose a Tibetan-owned Agency
The one most important thing to do when planning your trip to Tibet is to choose a good Tibetan-owned agent.
For travel to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) you must use a Tibet travel agency, who will arrange your travel permit and virtually everything else (except international flights).
By using a Tibetan-owned agency, you insure that most of your travel money supports the local Tibetan economy.
9. Watch for closures and changes
Shifting rules and regulations can affect your travel to Tibet.
And so can Mother Nature.
Stay on top of changes that may impact your trip with these Tibet travel updates.
GETTING THE TIBET TRAVEL PERMISSIONS YOU NEED
10. Can I travel independently in Tibet?
For travel in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), you must be on an organized tour with a travel agency. (This tour can be a private tour for one or more individuals.)
On your tour, you must have a guide and a driver unless you will only be in Lhasa, where just a guide is okay. You can walk around a lot of Lhasa without your guide, but you must officially be on a tour and have a guide for every day you are in Tibet.
If you want to travel independently in Tibet, you can travel in the amazing Eastern Tibetan regions of Kham and Amdo that are outside of the TAR.
There is virtually no system set up for solo backpack travel in Eastern Tibet, unlike travel in Nepal or India, for example. Distances are huge and a local guide, if not a car, can be invaluable. (For help finding a guide for travel in Kham or Amdo, ask here.)
11. The easiest way to get a visa
You will need to obtain a Chinese visa to travel to Tibet in your home country. In addition to this, you must have a Tibet entry permit that your travel agent will arrange for you.
The agent will not be able to help you with the Chinese visa, but there are good visa services that can help, like Travel Visa Pro (for US citizens, plus some UK and Canadian travelers).
Important to note: do not list Tibet or any Tibetan cities or areas on your Chinese visa application.
Here’s a full post about getting the visa you need for Tibet.
12. Getting the Tibet Travel Permit is easy
Non-Chinese travelers wishing to enter the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) need a Tibet travel permit, with no exceptions. This permit is in addition to the Chinese visa that is also required for Tibet travel.
It’s easy to get the permit, because your Tibet travel agency must get it for you. All you do is sign up with an agency.
Get more info at our post on the Tibet travel permit.
THE BEST AND WORST TIMES TO VISIT TIBET
13. When is the best time to go to Tibet?
Generally speaking the warmest, greenest and most crowded time is in the summer, a time when festivals tend to be held. It’s also rainy season in Tibet, especially July and August, when rain falls mostly at night but when clouds can obscure mountain views.
Fall and spring are colder but have clearer views and fewer crowds.
Winter is definitely cold but offers cheaper prices and excellent local atmosphere in and near Lhasa.
One big lesson we’ve learned in the mountains in Tibet is that Mother Nature is unpredictable and always wins.
Two out of three attempts to see Mt. Everest failed due to weather, once in late September due to late summer rains and once in winter due to a rare snow. Normally, those are good times for clearer skies. It’s just the mountains and Mother Nature, so there are no guarantees.
Another lesson learned is that you shouldn’t assume that your driver and guides are checking the weather in the days ahead.
You may ask them to check the weather in the areas you are heading for, especially the passes.
Get Tibet Weather at a Glance here. Be sure to read the next tip!
14. When should I avoid traveling to Tibet?
Tibet is closed to foreign travelers each year by the Chinese government roughly from Tibetan New Year through the end of March, due to concerns of political protests. See when Tibet has been closed here.
Also, Chinese national holidays around May 1 and the first week of October are heavy Tibet travel seasons for Chinese people, who also pour into Tibet every summer.
There tend to be additional short closures each year, but they are not predictable. A good travel agency will keep you apprised though sometimes the closures are quite sudden. (Get an introduction to a good agency here.)
15. How much time in advance to prepare?
Know that tickets go on sale and book out 30 days ahead for taking the train into Tibet (but not so much on the way out), especially for high season. Also, to process the special permit all foreigners need to enter the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), your agent will need 20 days to a month.
They will need you to send them a copy of your Chinese visa before they start the process.
To get more in-depth tools and strategies get our free travel planning guide, which walks you through preparing a great Tibet trip.
THE BEST TIBET TOURS FOR YOUR TIMELINE
In addition to the tips in this section, you can find our recommended “Must-See” places below…
16. Choose either the Tibet Autonomous Region or Eastern Tibet
Tibet is huge, and unless you have a lot of time, you need to decide if you want to see the most popular sites located in the more restricted Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of Central Tibet – like Lhasa, Mt Kailash or Everest Base Camp, or if you want to visit the culturally preserved, less-traveled and less restricted Kham and Amdo regions of Eastern Tibet.
If you need help deciding where to go, just make an inquiry here with your questions in the comments section.
17. Recommended tour for one week of Tibet travel
If you have a week or less and this is your first visit to Tibet, try a Sky Train and Lhasa Highlights trip, because of the Jokhang Temple and the major monasteries.
18. Recommended tour for two weeks
If you have 2 weeks or so, and are willing to go to very 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. (For travel in Kham, inquire here.)
19. Recommended tour for three weeks
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 actually gives you all the 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.
20. If you want to trek
If you are keen to trek, check out the Ganden to Samye trek in Central Tibet, the famous Mt Kailash trek, or the Mt. Minya Gonggar trek in Kham.
21. Pick an itinerary that helps protect against altitude sickness
One of your major considerations about choosing where to go should be picking a route that best allows you to acclimatize to the Tibetan Plateau’s very high altitude.
If you need help, you can choose one of these Itineraries for Preventing Altitude Sickness in Tibet.
HOW TO CHOOSE THE BEST PLACES TO STAY
22. Recommended Tibetan-owned Hotels in Lhasa
Support the local economy by staying in Tibetan-owned hotels. Ask your agent to put you in Tibetan-owned accommodation whenever possible.
Here are some Tibet-owned hotels in Lhasa:
- House of Shambala
- Tashi Choeta
- Yabshi Phunkhang Heritage Hotel.
23. Be prepared for basic lodging
Be prepared for more basic options the farther you get from major towns. The selection decreases, and sometimes there is no great option, but, the good news is that you’re in a remote region of Tibet!
24. Everest Base Camp not so amenable for humans
The extreme altitude of the “tent city” at the Everest Base Camp on the Tibet side make for a really hard night for travelers. You are unlikely to sleep well and definitely put yourself at risk of some of the worse forms of altitude sickness. Consider going to EBC just for a day visit and descending to stay at Shegar (also known as Shelkar or New Tingri) or another location lower than EBC, like Basum Town.
STAYING HEALTHY AND SAFE WHEN YOU TRAVEL TO TIBET
25. Avoiding altitude sickness
We are obsessed with helping travelers avoid altitude sickness in Tibet and everywhere!
We’ve written a whole guide for you on this subject: Altitude Sickness Prevention: How to Stay Healthy at High Altitude in Lhasa and Everywhere in Tibet.
26. Keeping your stomach happy
As the old traveler’s motto says: Cook it, boil it, peel it or forget about it!
For street food, eat what has been cooked in your presence and is still hot when served. One exception might be that the breads that are cooked everywhere at little stalls each morning in Tibet seemed okay even if not cooked that minute.
27. Wearing a hat to protect your skin
The sun in Tibet is fierce!
The “thinner” atmosphere on the Tibetan Plateau filters less UV radiation than the air at lower elevation. The WHO says that “UV levels increase by 10% to 12%” for every 1000 meters increase in altitude.”
Join the Tibetans, who are big on wearing broad-brimmed hats!
28. Knowing what to drink
Drink and brush your teeth only with boiled, treated or bottled water.
Any drinks that are served hot are generally fine and dandy: tea, coffee, hot water.
29. Avoiding dog bites
There are a lot of stray dogs in the smaller towns and villages of Tibet, and travelers in more remote areas are at risk of being bitten, especially by dogs guarding yak herds or nomad homes. (We’ve never had a problem in Lhasa or other cities or larger towns.)
Consult a travel doctor about getting rabies shots if you are traveling to remote areas, where there is likely not access to the Rabies Immune Globulin, part of the rabies series a person takes after a bite.
Most of the dogs in towns and around the monasteries are pretty laid back but it’s good practice to pay attention to them, especially in the more remote areas.
We carried an ultrasonic dog repellant device that transmits a sound that only dogs can hear and don’t like. Some dogs didn’t seem to care about it while others definitely left the scene.
30. More help for a happy stomach
Besides following basic travelers’ rules for sanitary eating and drinking, you may experience either diarrhea or constipation in Tibet.
See a travel doctor for prescriptions for hard core stomach problems on the road. We also brought some over the counter antidiarrheal tablets (Immodium).
You may be surprised to find that constipation is as likely and can be as debilitating as diarrhea in Tibet. We suppose it is caused by ongoing dehydration. We drink a lot of water, and bring fiber powder in packets and Miralax to help keep things moving.
You might also bring some motion-sickness meds if you get sick while driving.
31. Staying safe while driving
We had a near-accident in Kham once, and it could have been avoided.
The incident happened just at dark, after our driver had been driving way too many hours. Just before the incident, we were thinking that the driver was going too fast down a curvy, hilly, unlit road. We didn’t say anything, because it felt uncomfortable to speak up.
Minutes later, we almost missed a sharp turn by a bridge and terrifyingly skidded on gravel to the very tottering edge of an overdrop by a river.
Here are our lessons learned:
1) Work out in advance with your agency or guide a reasonable number of hours your driver will drive each day, and build in breaks.
2) Speak up if you are uncomfortable about the driving. You are a client and a passenger, and you have the right to feel safe.
In winter, and any time of year on the high passes, it is critical to have either a four-wheel drive or chains for the vehicle. Since it is really expensive these days in the T.A.R. to rent a four-wheel drive, make sure your driver has chains.
32. Keeping warm and dry
There is a decent likelihood that it will either rain or snow, or both, at some point in your journey to Tibet, so bring some good rain gear, which can double as a wind-breaker on cold and windy passes and at places like EBC.
Even though being cold doesn’t cause altitude sickness, we have noticed that both times we’ve seen other travelers in significant distress from altitude sickness, they were woefully underdressed for the weather. (Once at EBC and once at Kailash.) It seems that the double stressers of high altitude and cold on your body are a bad combination.
33. Protecting your face and lungs
Many Tibetans wear cloth face masks, for various reasons, including sun protection, keeping the super dry air they are breathing more moist, and keeping dust out.
This can benefit your respiratory health – a lot of people get a dry hacking cough in Tibet and you need all the help you can get.
Personally, we feel very uncomfortable breathing through a mask, so don’t wear them, but would if we could stand it.
One thing we do while in Tibet is put a little vaseline inside both nostrils every day, to relieve dryness.
34. More ways to protect your skin
Tibet is rough on your skin.
Tibetan altitudes substantially increase your exposure to damaging UV rays.
If you’re taking Diamox altitude sickness medication, as we do, your skin is facing a double whammy. That’s because Diamox makes your skin more sensitive to sunlight.
Then, even in summer, there’s the super dry air, the wind and cold at passes and higher places like EBC and Kailash.
We are not usually fussy about skin care in the US, but in Tibet, we really step up our game, with:
- a good, broad spectrum sunscreen with a high SPF factor
- a high SPF lip sunscreen to protect your lips too
In winter, your skin can get weird rashes and bumps from the cold and wind, even your legs. To help with this, we add the following to the daily care:
- Thick moisturizing lotion every night, on face, hands, arms, and legs (in winter).
- Long johns under our pants
ENJOYING TIBETAN FOOD AND DRINK
35. Eat at Tibetan-owned places
There are plenty of Tibetan-owned places that are popular with foreign travelers. In Lhasa, we like the Tibet Family Kitchen, and the Kyichu Hotel garden for lunch.
The best places can change, so ask if you want to support the local Tibetan economy (as we very much hope you will), ask your guide to bring you to good Tibetan-owned tea-houses and restaurants.
If you need help finding a real Tibetan-owned agency, sign up here.
36. “Meat” in Tibet pretty much means yak meat
The core Tibetan meat is yak meat and it is surprisingly mild and tasty, not at all wild or gamey. If you get a “meat” dish in most places in Tibet, you can be pretty sure the meat will be yak, unless specifically called something else. Mutton and pork are also popular. Fish in general is not much eaten by Tibetans.
37. Tea is the national drink
Historically, the most popular drink in Tibet has been butter tea, called po cha. It is black tea churned with milk from the female of the yak species, salt and butter.
For drinking it the first time, it may be helpful to think of it sort of like soup rather than tea. In the cold Tibetan highlands, the super-warming butter tea can grow on you surprisingly fast.
Sweet milk tea is also beloved.
If you are a big coffee drinker, bring packets of coffee and creamer for the times when there is none available. You can get it in Lhasa and the bigger towns, but not always after that.
38. Hot water
You will find boiled water in thermoses in most every restaurant and electric kettles in most hotel rooms. We have never had a problem drinking from these.
39. Special diets
Like anywhere in the world, your food choices will diminish the farther you get from large towns.
Vegetarians can do pretty well in Tibet, though it is heavily yak-meat-centric. In Lhasa there are tons of options. Even in some pretty remote outposts, you can get a veggie noodle soup or plate of noodles with veggies.
Gluten free is more challenging and you may want to bring any must-have foods with you. Sugar free is okay because Tibetans don’t have that huge a sweet tooth, and fruit is available in most towns. Vegan is hard, just like in the western world.
If you are going trekking, or way out of Lhasa, you may want to consider bringing a few packages of food you can eat by adding hot water, just in case you’re stuck with no options. (For example, we have been grateful to have veggie ramen packages a couple of times in a month-long trip.)
40. Try some common, beloved Tibetan foods
A lot of travelers love Tibetan dumplings, called momos, which can be either meat or veg. Also popular are shapale (fried meat pies), the wide variety of Tibetan breads and Tibetan noodle soups thukpa.
Less popular but fun to try is a dough made of roasted barley flour with tea and sometimes a little cheese and/or sugar – called pa.
For a primer on making the most beloved Tibetan classic recipes, you can purchase our Tibetan Home Cooking Cookbook.
STAYING CONNECTED WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD ON YOUR TIBET TRAVEL
41. Using your phone in Tibet
China Mike has a great tutorial on how to use your phone in China. All the tips apply to Tibet.
If you plan to get a SIM card, here’s a useful guide for finding out if your iPhone model is supported by Chinese mobile phone networks.
Some agents include temporary use of a basic cell phone for clients. We can connect you to a reliable Tibetan-owned agency who does this if you like. (Fill out the short form here to be put in touch.)
42. Protecting your devices at altitude
Phones, computers and cameras can have altitude limits, which you can check at the manufacturer’s website usually. Certain computer hard drives can be damaged above certain elevations. (As we understand it, the “head” of a hard drive floats on a cushion of air. At high altitude this cushion can compress, and cause the head to drop onto and scratch the disk surface.)
Our Apple laptop official limit was 10,000 ft. but we used it up to about 12,000 ft with no problem. We’ve used our iPhones over 17,000 ft with no problems.
43. Access to wireless
There is surprisingly good access to wireless signals in Tibet, especially in places where you can stay at a hotel.
The more remote you go, the less chance you have of a signal of course, and we did not have access when we stayed at monasteries or in some private homes, but at that point you are living the dream and don’t really care.
44. Using your phone for free
Generally speaking, you can use your phone for free to contact home, by using apps while connected to wifi. You need to be mindful of how to incur international charges, and Triphackr has a good post on that: How to use your iphone for free in China.
Of course, this kind of information is changing all the time. In the Triphackr post, they mention using WhatsApp. However WhatsApp is no longer available in China or Tibet without VPN. You can use WeChat instead which is totally free if you’re connected to wifi.
WeChat allows you to video chat, text, or send images and short videos. Almost every Tibetan uses it. However, you should know that WeChat is a Chinese company, so it is fully under the Chinese system of Internet monitoring and surveillance.
45. Accessing websites and email services
A LOT of email and other services are blocked in China: Gmail, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and many more.
This is constantly changing, so check these resources before you go:
We recommend setting up a couple of different email services on your devices before you go in case one that is “supposed” to work doesn’t.
For example, on one trip, we had heard that Yahoo didn’t work, but were able to use it . On the other hand, Hotmail was supposed to work but did not.
Even if you usually communicate by WeChat, there may be times when an email account is helpful.
46. Getting behind the Great Firewall with VPN
People living and traveling in China use VPN services in order to be able to access banned sites and services like Gmail and Facebook.
Here’s a post by China Mike that that offers reviews: The Best VPN for China.
But there’s a catch:
The “best” ones don’t always work. In December 2019, neither ExpressVPN nor NordVPN worked on an iPhone on a trip to Tibet. These are two of the top paid services for China and that usually work in Tibet. What did work like a charm was Super VPN, a totally free service. We also understand that Star VPN works well.
Here’s a helpful post: VPNs Still Working in China.
We recommend that you download multiple VPN services in case one or more don’t work. You can get 1 month subscription for ExpressVPN and Nord VPN and return them for a full refund.
Download and set these up BEFORE you arrive in China, as it’s really hard to download a VPN service once you are there.
Some travelers report using T Mobile’s international service to access blocked sites without a VPN in Tibet.
TAKING AND BACKING UP YOUR ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME PHOTOS
47. Tips to keep your camera working
Whether you use a professional-quality or an iPhone – there are few things to watch for:
Note that your camera may freeze or act weird in very cold temperatures. Batteries also can drain super fast in the cold.
Some advice, in very low temperatures, is to keep your camera and batteries close to your body, maybe inside your jacket or even your sleeping bag, when you’re not shooting.
In the winter in Tibet and on passes and very high altitudes, you might want some gloves that you can operate your camera with.
48. Storing and backing up your photos
Here are some strategies that different people use for saving and backing up image files:
- For iPhones: Bring an iPad for extra storage and use airdrop to transfer from phone to iPad. (No wireless service needed.)
- For cameras: Bring plenty of large capacity memory cards. If you have a laptop you can download images directly from the camera to a laptop through a cable connection. (We do not do this above 12,000 feet.)
- Check out a wireless drive to transfer photos even if no WiFi is available.
Let us know your method in the comments!
STRATEGIES FOR HANDLING MONEY, COSTS AND INSURANCE FOR TIBET TRAVEL
49. Keeping costs down
Travel in Tibet is expensive, there’s no way around it. But you can keep your costs down by signing up for group travel. Three of the most popular group tours are
Travel in winter can also be cheaper (and give you a more authentic experience).
See sample pricing for the most common Tibet tour packages here.
50. Currency conversion made easy
The currency used in Tibet is the Chinese renminbi, which is commonly referred to by its basic unit, the yuan. Symbol: CNY.
A good currency conversion tool can be found at XE, which also has free apps for smart phones.
51. Travel insurance made easy
We definitely recommend getting travel insurance for your trip to Tibet. You will want to consider a few special things specific for Tibet travel.
Here’s what to consider:
- Getting “cancel for any reason” insurance for political closures.
- Checking if your coverage includes emergency medical evacuation.
- Making sure your policy doesn’t consider trekking in Tibet as an excluded “dangerous activity.” (Only if you plan to trek, of course.)
- Getting a “pre-existing medical conditions” waiver if you have family at home with medical conditions. Folks with elderly parents can use this, for example.
We like the InsureMyTrip free service which easily compares quotes from reputable insurers.
Through InsureMyTrip, we have purchased RoamRight policies several times since they are one of the few agencies that offer all the above conditions. We have not had to use the policy so far so can’t speak to how good the policy is when needed.
HOW TO PACK SMARTER
52. Stuff to bring from home
You can buy pretty much what you need in the gateway cities to Tibet, like Beijing, Chengdu, and Kathmandu.
Lhasa itself is a major city with most of what you need. But if you’re like us you don’t want to spend your precious time in Tibet shopping for random items.
This is highly individual to each person, but some things we like to bring from home:
- personal medicines and vitamins
- specialty foods or health foods that we eat a lot
- a prescription of Diamox for altitude sickness
- a Swiss army knife (but note you may have trouble getting this on the Tibet train)
- good-quality sunscreen and lip protection sticks
- already-broken-in walking shoes or hiking boots.
One thing we wished we had on our last trip was a good altimeter, to know what the elevation was every day, just for fun.
53. Things that you might use frequently
Here’s some stuff we have used every day in Tibet:
- a flashlight (or flashlight app on your phone, handy if power is out anywhere)
- a small day pack to fit the stuff we schlep around the monasteries we visited (even smaller than a normal daypack). We love a messenger bag for this, since they are weather-proof and you can access everything quick.
- pen and notebook
- meds from home
- a smallish thermos
- decaf tea brought from home
- iPad (with a separate keyboard), for photo backup and easier typing than on phone.
- Swiss army knife
- sunscreen and lipscreen
- prescription sun glasses
- One each light and a mid-weight fleece pullovers
- down jackets (even in summer, at night)
- fleece hat
- Hand sanitizer
- Little packets of tissue paper to use as toilet paper for when there is none
And a few items we used a lot when trekking or on very remote locations
- a dog repellant device
- a small lantern
- travel mug
54. Useful gifts to bring
Inexpensive and light:
- Small bottles of ibuprofen (Advil), or acetaminophen (Tylenol): especially for the elderly or for folks in remote areas.
- High-quality, warm socks or gloves
- Face lotions
- Sunscreen with moisturizer
- Magnifying reading glasses for older folks
Higher-end, if you are inclined and have the resources:
- Fleece jackets or vests
- Brand-name sunglasses
- Watches made in Europe or the US
55. What to buy or get after you arrive
If you’re going to remote areas, it’s nice to have your own bowl, spoon, fork or chopsticks, and you can easily buy these after your international flight and leave them with someone in Tibet if you wish.
We also stocked up on toilet paper and kleenex to bring on the road once at a supermarket in China and a bunch of snacks for the road.
In the big cities, get small bills to give on the shrines at the smaller monasteries and nunneries, and which help the local institutions.
DO’S AND DON’TS TO GUIDE YOUR TIBET TRIP
For more do’s and don’ts, check out our post:
17 Do’s and Don’ts for a Wonderful First Visit to Lhasa.
56. Don’t miss the koras
A great way to experience Tibet is to walk the koras around holy sites as Tibetans do.
57. Do donate to schools or small monasteries/nunneries instead of giving handouts
Giving little gifts to kids or money to beggars sets up a dynamic when people expect handouts.
If you want to make a contribution, even a small one, the best thing is ask your Tibetan guide for a school, orphanage, monastery or nunnery to donate some money.
58. Do consider giving offerings to pilgrims
One exception to the above thought is giving to pilgrims. Some people you may see along the road are making holy journeys and support their trips through money or food from strangers. Check with your guide if you want to give to these people.
59. Do consider leaving a small cash offering on altars at monasteries
It’s very common for Tibetans to leave money as offerings on shrines. Doing this, especially if you are in remote areas, will help the local monastery. You can also shop at the monastery shops to help support that monastery.
60. Do shop at Tibetan-owned shops
Ask your guide to point out which shops are owned by Tibetans. It’s really hard to tell, but your local Tibetan guide will likely have a better idea. Some of the smaller market stalls near the Bharkor are Tibetan owned while the larger shops that sell thangkas, carpets and jewelry tend not to be. Again, ask your guide for help figuring out the Tibetan-owned ones.
61. Don’t buy endangered animal products
One example is the shahtoosh shawls made from the endangered Tibetan antelope, the chiru. We’re investigating other such products. Do let us know if you know of anything.
62. Do offer payment if you stay in monastery or private home
If you find yourself being housed in a monastery or a private home, as sometimes happens along the road, especially in Eastern Tibet, it is appropriate to offer payment for the night and for any food offered. For a home, it’s a good idea actually to determine a price before you agree to stay, to keep everything clear. Your guide can tell you what a good amount will be.
63. Do tip your guide and driver well
It’s good to tip your guide and driver, separately. Their work season tends to be limited, and they depend on tips to make a decent income.
You may not know that their conditions on the road with you may be on the rough side. Most must pay for their own meals on the road. Also, they may be sleeping in hostel-type rooms, sometimes with no heat or no attached bathrooms.
We tipped the equivalent of one day of the cost of the trip to the guide and about half of that to the driver.
By the way, it is very well worth getting to know your Tibetan guide and driver. These are your very best chance to connect with the real Tibetan people . Ask them about their life outside of work. Some dream of opening businesses, or have fascinating hobbies.
64. Don’t take pictures of soldiers, police or military buildings
It is not so much that you will get trouble for this as that your guide and travel agency may be punished for your actions.
65. Don’t talk to Tibetans about political issues
Political discussions put your guide in an awkward position, with the potential for real negative consequences on his or her life. Unless you know your guide very well, or if your guide brings it up, it’s better to leave it alone, especially in any public place. It’s good to know that the government has taken over the ownership and maintenance of all tourist vehicles, so there is a very good that your vehicle is monitored.
66. Do know the customs for eating and drinking
You may be offered tea (po cha/Tibetan butter tea, or cha ngarmo/sweet tea) while you are in Tibet.
Central Tibetans normally politely refuse the offer several times, while the host insists until the guest accepts. (People in Kham and Amdo tend to be more direct about accepting if they want the offered food or drink.)
Even if you don’t really want any, it’s polite to take one cup and pretend to drink a little, then you can cover the cup with your hand to show when you really don’t want any more. But of course if you prefer you can just start with covering the cup, too.
67. Do show respect for the elderly in Tibet
Tibetans generally treat their elders with particular respect, serving them first, letting them walk ahead and giving them the best seat or food or drink. (Unless there is a high lama present.)
68. Do ask if you can take someone’s picture
Like anywhere in the world, it’s good form to ask someone before you take his or her picture. You can just hold up your camera and make a question face, and many people will agree.
Some will not, and if so it’s good to respect the subject’s wishes and just move on. Think about how you would feel if a stranger stopped you on the street or in your church at home and wanted to take your picture. It might be okay, but maybe you just really don’t feel like it.
69. Do be aware about how Tibetans feel about shoes and feet
Like many Asian people, Tibetans consider shoes and feet to be particularly low and dirty. It’s quite disgusting to them the way that some people put their feet up on chairs or train seats with shoes on, for example.
See more on this in the Buddhist etiquette section below…
70. Do dress modestly among Tibetans
Tibetans are generally modest people and it is respectful to be well-covered up, especially if you will be with monks and nuns or visiting monasteries or nunneries. Save the sexy off-the-shoulder, tight, no shirt, low cut, short dresses, short shorts, mid-riff baring stuff for another part of your trip.
71. Do accept tea or gifts with both hands
If you’d like to do as the Tibetans do, accept things that you are given, like cups of tea, food or gifts, with both hands.
72. Don’t stress about doing the right thing
Tibetans are generally easy going and even if you make all sorts of cultural mistakes Tibetans will take it all in stride. The basic idea is to act as respectfully and kindly as you can, and all will be cool.
EASY ELECTRICITY AND CHARGING
73. Access to electricity for charging
It is very rare to not have access to electricity for charging your devices. We were able to charge our devices everywhere, including when staying in monasteries and private homes in Kham. There can be outages but this has not been a problem in our experience.
74. Electrical outlets and plugs in China and Tibet
This is the type of plug that we have found almost everywhere in Tibet (and mainland China).
We have had no problem plugging our American two-pronged plugs into outlets all over Tibet. (The exception is if one of the prongs is fatter than the other on your plug. In that case, you will need an adapter.)
If you are not sure, buy an adaptor that works from your country to China.
Here’s an example of one that works for folks traveling from the UK.
75. Solar powered devices
Although electricity is available pretty much everywhere, you can use a solar-powered generator as a back up. Yolanda brought this GoalZero portable solar panel and battery recharger on a trip to Kham and loved it, though honestly she didn’t need to use it much. But the couple of times she did use it for battery charging, it was great. We just set the panel in the dashboard of the car while driving and it charged up.
AVOIDING ROOKIE BUDDHIST ETIQUETTE MISTAKES
76. Avoid extending your feet toward a teacher or an altar
As we mentioned above, shoes and feet are considered low and dirty in Tibet, so if you are seated in the presence of a spiritual teacher, monk, nun, or altar, it is considered rude to extend your feet in the direction of the teacher.
77. Sacred texts and objects are placed high out of respect
Buddha’s teachings (the Dharma) and Buddhist statues are considered sacred and are shown respect by placing them in the highest possible position. Dharma books and other sacred objects are placed on high shelves, and never placed on the floor or anywhere dirty, and are never stepped over.
78. Never climb or sit on Buddhist statues or stupas
You would think this would be a no brainer, but there are photos of mindless tourists doing just this. The “steps” of the large stupas in particular may look like an inviting place to have a rest, but are considered sacred.
79. Don’t step on prayer flags, even if they are on the ground
At mountain passes, for example, you may encounter prayer flags on or near the ground, but don’t step on them, and if you can avoid it practically, don’t step over them. This is because the flags are printed with prayers and Tibetans avoid stepping on or over the Dharma.
80. Avoid touching the head of monks or nuns
Tibetans generally avoid touching the head of any monk, nun or lama, and generally avoid hugging monks, nuns and lamas of the opposite gender.
81. To show respect to a nun or monk or spiritual teacher
If you want to be respectful to a spiritual teacher, put your hands together, with the thumbs tucked inside. and bow your head. If the teacher is very high, Tibetans will do prostrations. Just follow what the Tibetans do, if you wish.
82. Serve monks and nuns before everyone else
Tibetans serve monks and nuns first, even before elderly lay people. And, if giving or offering something to a monk or nun, do it with two hands.
83. Remove your shoes and your hat when entering a shrine room or temple.
You may find that people where their shoes in some temples, particularly in the winter. If in doubt, have a look around and do as the locals do.
84. Don’t smoke or spit in the temple or near it.
Tibetans generally make prostrations when first entering a temple. You can do so if you wish, to show respect to the Buddha and the Dharma, but of course fine if you don’t.
86. Circle clockwise
Tibetan Buddhists walk clockwise around temples and other holy places while praying. This circumambulation is called making kora.
Some Tibetans practice the Bon religion, and circle counter-clockwise, but this is relatively rare.
87. Avoid pointing at people or sacred objects with your index finger
Tibetans avoid pointing at sacred objects with the index finger. Instead it is common to gesture toward the object with an open palm. (This same rule applies to monks, nuns or lamas, and even more generally to all people.)
88. Do your best and don’t worry too much
Tibetans are very tolerant so don’t worry too much about screwing it up. If you have a good heart and intention for being respectful and kind, you’ll do okay.
MUST-SEE PLACES TO VISIT IN TIBET
Tibet is the size of Western Europe, and there are a huge number of high-quality places to see.
Here are just a sampling for each of the major Tibetan regions, based on our experiences and the recommendations of Tibetan guides we partner with. (We can help you connect to those guides here.)
89. Must-see for Lhasa Area
- Jokhang Temple and the Barkhor
- Potala Palace
- Drepung and Sera monasteries
- Norbulingkha Summer Palace
- Ramoche Temple
3 hours or less drive from Lhasa
- Drak Yerpa Hermitage Caves
- Ganden Monastery
- Chimpu Nunnery and Hermitage Caves
90. Must-see for Tsetang and Yarlung Valley
- Yumbulakhang Monastery
- Samye Monastery
- Chimpuk Nunnery and Meditation Caves
- Tombs of the Tibetan kings
- Traduk Temple
91. Must-see for North of Lhasa
- Lake Namtso
- Tredom Nunnery and hot springs
- Drigung Til Monastery
- Reting Monastery
92. Must-see for Shigatse and Gyantse Areas
On or near route from Lhasa to Shigatse via Gyantse
- Kamba La Pass and view of Lake Yamdrok Tso
- Karo La Pass and view of Mt. Nyechen Kangsar Glacier
- Pelkhor Chode Monastery in Gyantse
- Gyantse Kumbum Stupa
- Tashilumpo Monastery in Shigatse
- Sakya Monastery
93. Must-see for Mount Everest Area
- Everest Base Camp (to view Mt. Everest)
- Rongbuk Monastery
- Shegar Fort
- Gyawu La Pass (view of Everest)
94. Must-see for Western Tibet
- Mount Kailash
- Lake Manasarovar
- Guge Kingdom
95. Must-see for Kham in Eastern Tibet
- Lithang Monastery
- Nangchen Gar Monastery
- Nangchen Gechuo Nunnery
- Dzogchen Monastery
- Larung Gar Buddhist Encampment (may be closed to foreign travelers)
- Yarchen Gar Buddhist Encampment (may be closed to foreign travelers)
- From Dzongsar to Yulung Lhatso
- Around Mt. Kawa Karpo
- Around Mt. Minyak Gongkhar
96. Must-see for Amdo in Eastern Tibet
- Mount Amnye Machen
- Mount Nyenpo Yurtse
- Kokonor Lake
97. Must-see for Kongpo
- Basum Tso Lake
- Lama Ling Monastery
MORE TIBET TRAVEL MISTAKES TO AVOID
98. Mistake: Everest Base Camp Tour is Great for Hikers
The standard trip to Everest Base Camp (EBC) is a great one, and includes many of the most wonderful sites of Tibet.
But it’s not for everyone, especially if what you want to do is hike.
On the normal group tour to EBC, there’s a fair amount of driving (through amazing mountain scenery), and very little hiking. Actually the most common Tibet tours involve a lot of driving.
If you get joy from actually hiking the hills, you might want to consider the Mount Kailash trek (which has a major 3-day trek, but also includes big drives), or a private trip in which you ask your agent for a journey that focuses more on significant hiking time.
99. Mistake: Learning about Tibetan history inside Tibet
Here’s the thing:
It’s not safe for Tibetans in Tibet to discuss their modern history and current political situation with a foreign traveler in any meaningful way. Many of them would love to, but it’s a big risk for them.
So it’s far better to learn a little, or a lot, before you go.
If you’d rather see a movie, try Kundun or Seven Years in Tibet or any of the many documentaries on Tibet, like Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion.
WHAT IS OUR #1 TIBET TRAVEL TIP?
100. It’s the one your whole trip depends on…
Out of all these tips, if we had to pick one as the most critical, it would be to choose a high-quality, Tibetan-owned agency for your Tibet journey.
Absolutely everything about your trip depends on how good of an agent you get.
And it’s a win-win for you and the Tibetan people if you pick a great, Tibetan-owned agent.
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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is for educational purposes only, not to provide specific advice. By reading this post you understand that there is no professional relationship between you and the authors.