This is a complete guide to how to visit Tibet in 2021.
In this definitive guide, you will learn how to:
- Have an amazing, authentic experience in the Land of Snows
- Get home safe
- Avoid Tibet travel mistakes that cost you time and money
- Support the Tibetan people
Let’s dive right in.
TOP TEN TIBET TRAVEL QUESTIONS
Quick answers to jump start your Tibet trip
Most people who want to travel to Tibet don’t know how to get there or who to trust for help.
You have a ton of questions and you’re getting overwhelmed searching online for answers.
To put your mind at ease right away, we’re going to start this guide with quick answers to the top ten questions travelers have when they plan to visit Tibet.
(For step-by-step Tibet travel planning help, you can sign up now for instant access to our free online Tibet Travel Planner.)
#1 Is Tibet open to tourists?
Tibet is generally open to foreign travelers except in February and March each year. To enter you need both a Chinese visa and a special Tibet permit. See more on both the visa and permit below…
#2 Can you travel independently in Tibet?
The short answer is no, you can’t travel to Tibet on your own.
You must be part of an organized tour to visit the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), which is the official name of the region that Lhasa and Mt. Everest are in.
And you must take this tour with a certified Tibet travel agency.
But here’s the good news…
Your “organized tour” can be a private tour, with just you, or you and any number of friends or family.
If you’d like us to provide you with a Tibet travel agency recommendation 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.
#3 Is it safe to travel to Tibet?
In terms of personal security, we feel safer in Tibet than we do at our home in California.
And Yolanda (one of your Tibet travel advisors here) feels entirely comfortable to travel to Tibet alone. Keep in mind that Tibet solo travel involves a guide and driver, though you can wander around parts of Lhasa on your own.
See the next question for the primary safety issue in Tibet…
#4 How to avoid altitude sickness?
With the average Tibet elevation being 4,500 meters/ 14,750 ft., altitude sickness is a risk for any Tibet traveler.
The good news is that there are basic steps you can take to prevent altitude sickness ruining your trip.
In a nutshell, we recommend:
- Staying at an intermediate elevation like Xining for a couple of nights on your way to Lhasa or other high altitude cities.
- Taking the train to Lhasa (from Xining).
- Consider asking your doctor or travel doctor if you are a good candidate for diamox, the only proven altitude sickness prevention medication.
- Resting for at least several days when you arrive at Lhasa’s high elevation.
- Following basic acclimatization rules for ascending to higher elevations.
For more details see:
- Avoiding Altitude Sickness: Complete Beginner’s Guide 2020
- Altitude Sickness Prevention: How to Stay Healthy at High Altitude in Lhasa and Everywhere in Tibet
#5 When is the best time to visit Tibet?
Every season has it’s advantages and disadvantages.
Summer: Tibet is beautifully green and warm. It’s also crowded with tourists. Festivals tend to be held in the summer. And it is the rainiest time, especially July and August, though rain mostly falls at night. Rain clouds can kill your Everest or Kailash views.
We like Fall and Spring, which are colder, but tend to have less rain and fewer crowds.
Winter is also wonderful in many ways, though it is definitely quite cold. Tibet tourism is way down, with far fewer other travelers, greater availability on trains and hotels, and cheaper prices. Tibetan pilgrims flood into Lhasa for excellent local atmosphere. Mountain views are generally good, though Mother Nature is Mother Nature, so you never have guarantees!
On the other hand, you want to avoid:
- February and March, which traditionally have been closed
- Chinese national holidays, like the first weeks of May and October, when Chinese tourists swarm Tibet.
For more on this see the Best Time to Visit Tibet chapter below…
#6 Can I go to Tibet with a Chinese visa?
Well, yes and no. That is, you must have a Chinese visa to visit Tibet, but a Chinese visa alone is not enough. You also need a Tibet travel permit, issued by the Chinese government through a certified Tibet travel agency.
To request that we connect you to a reliable Tibet travel agent, fill out this short form here.
#7 How much does it cost to travel to Tibet?
Honestly, visiting Tibet is not cheap.
This is due to the various policies and restrictions placed on travel by the Chinese government.
Here are some sample Tibet tour packages for small group travel (not including air or train costs to get to Lhasa), depending on the season:
- Lhasa Highlights 4-day: $450 – $560
- Everest Base Camp (EBC) 8-day: $850-$1050
- Safer Acclimatizing Everest Base Camp (EBC) 10-day: $950-$1450 (depends also on number of people in group)
- Mount Kailash Trekking 15-day: $1950
Private tours cost, per person (they tend to get a bit cheaper per person if you are more than one person):
- Lhasa Highlights 4-day: $450
- EBC 8-day: $1110
- Mount Kailash 15-day: $2700
Note that these are just sample prices and can change.
You can save money by:
- Traveling in winter
- Going with a group (Request an introduction to a reliable travel agency that offers small group tours here.)
- Sharing a room with another traveler to avoid single supplement fees
Remember that tours pre-booked by the end of June 2020 will have 5% discount for private tours and 10% discount for group tours, as well as flexibility on the dates of travel through April 2022. (Get details from one of our preferred Tibetan-owned agencies by signing up here.)
#8 Is Lhasa worth visiting?
Lhasa Tibet is one of the most fascinating cities in the world, even after the Chinese have brought so many changes since the 1950s.
There is nothing quite like seeing the golden-roofed Potala Palace rising above the city center like a great winged bird.
Or, the feeling of excited, humming devotion of the Tibetan pilgrims hustling with you by butter-lamp-lit Buddhas in the chapels of the Jokhang Temple.
Or sharing a laugh and a cup of Tibetan butter tea with a new Tibetan friend.
Yes, Lhasa is worth visiting!
#9 Can you travel to Tibet from Nepal?
Yes, you can, but if you do so, you should fly, and not travel overland. (Traveling overland puts you at very high risk of getting altitude sickness if you travel from Kathmandu to Lhasa. See more in the How to Go to Tibet section below.)
Also there are some differences in the kind of visa you get if you travel to Tibet from Kathmandu rather than from cities in mainland China.
- You must have a “Tibet Group Visa” from an authorized Nepali travel agency.
- Since you can only hold one valid Chinese visa at a time, if you get a visa from Nepal, any other Chinese in your passport will be canceled.
- There are some rules about traveling on to mainland China after leaving Tibet that may impact you.
Learn more in the visa section below…
#10 Where is Tibet?
A lot of people confuse Tibet with Nepal, maybe because they are both Himalayan countries that share a border which includes the summit of Mount Everest.
On a map, Tibet itself sits in the heart of Asia, between mainland China and India.
The vast, high-altitude Tibetan Plateau borders Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, mainland China and Xinjiang (East Turkistan).
You can learn more about the geography on our Where is Tibet? post.
To travel to what China now calls the Tibet Autonomous Region one needs a Chinese visa as well as a special Tibet permit to enter.
TIBET MUST SEE
The Best Places to Visit in Tibet
In this chapter, we will show you the best of Tibet.
Tibet is a huge region packed with stunning things to see and experience.
But we’ll try to narrow it down to a few of the greatest Tibet highlights.
What is Tibet Famous For?
People who have traveled all over the world often name Tibet as the most amazing place they have ever been.
What is it about Tibet that makes it unique and unforgettable? Why visit Tibet?
The mightiest and holiest mountains in the world can be found in Tibet, where the Himalayas are only one of the great ranges that border the vast Tibetan Plateau.
Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries and Temples
For more than a thousand years, Tibetans have practiced and refined the study of the nature of the mind. And constructed visually spectacular temples and monasteries dedicated to the study and practice of wisdom and compassion.
You will find some of the highest, holiest and most gorgeous lakes in the world in Tibet.
Earthy and spiritual, practical, quick-witted, fierce, resilient and quick to laugh — Tibetans are some of the kindest, most likeable people you will ever meet.
Important Places in Tibet
The top three most significant and popular tourist attractions in Tibet include:
The ancient, high-altitude capital of Tibet is like nowhere else on earth. Home to the magnificent Jokhang Temple and Potala Palace, Lhasa will take your breath away.
Tibet offers the greatest views of the highest mountain on earth when you journey to Everest Base Camp on the Tibet side.
Though Mount Everest is more famous, Mt. Kailash is the most holy mountain in Tibet. It is sacred to four of the world’s religions. Trekkers who travel to Mount Kailash join pilgrims on the life-changing spiritual circuit around it’s base.
Things to Do in Tibet
Because you need to join an official tour when you visit Tibet, we will list here the top Tibet tours. (You can take these Tibet travel tours with a group or as a private tour.)
Sky Train to Lhasa (7 days)
Combining the one-of-a-kind Tibet train with a tour of the Lhasa highlights is an excellent, compact way to see some spectacular Tibetan landscape and some of the finest spiritual and cultural treasures of the Tibetan world.
Lhasa Highlights Tour (4 days)
For travelers without much time, you can fly into Lhasa (check our altitude sickness prevention tips) and experience many of the most famous Tibetan cultural and spiritual treasures.
Everest Base Camp Tibet
One of our favorite tours, this journey from Lhasa to Mt Everest offers you many of the most dazzling highlights in Tibet in just 10 days to 2 weeks. (Depending if you fly or train to Lhasa.)
Mount Kailash Tour
For someone who is making a once-in-a-lifetime journey to Tibet, and wants to include a trek, this is the way to go. This is the grand tour of Tibet, including the holy city of Lhasa, Shigatse, Gyantse, Everest Base Camp and a trek around the holiest mountain in Tibet.
Overland from Lhasa to Kathmandu
One of the great Asian journeys is to travel overland from Lhasa to Kathmandu. Between two of the world’s most fascinating cities, you experience:
- the highlights of the holy city of Lhasa
- The crazy turquoise of Yumdrok Tso Lake
- Mount Everest Base Camp and stunning views of the mighty Himalayas
- Tibetan cultural treasures in Gyantse and Shigatse
HOW TO GO TO TIBET?
The best way to travel to Tibet may not be what you think!
“How do I get to Tibet?” is one of the top questions that we get, for good reason.
In fact, it’s easier than it may seem.
But before we give you the low-down on how to physically get there, we need to revisit the answer to one critical question:
Can you Visit Tibet Independently?
Because it is related to how you get to Tibet, we’ll repeat here that you cannot visit Tibet on your own.
Due to Chinese government restrictions, you have to be part of an organized tour, with a Tibet travel agency.
(If you need help with a Tibet travel agency recommendation, contact us here.)
So you’ll book a tour with a Tibetan travel agency, who will arrange all your travel inside Tibet.
The agent will provide you with a special Tibet travel permit, which you will use to board a flight or train to enter Tibet.
Below we will look at the two ways you can enter Tibet: from China and from Nepal.
But as a shortcut, first we’ll give you the way that we recommend as best:
Fly to China, then fly to Xining, then train to Lhasa
Because altitude sickness is such a major consideration for Tibet travelers, and based on our own experiences, we recommend a flight-train combination.
- Fly from your country to China
- Or if you are an expat living in China, start in your Chinese city.
- Fly to Xining/Siling
- Or take the train if you really like spending days on Chinese trains 🙂
- Sleep in Xining for at least 1and preferably 2-3 nights for basic acclimatization
- If you can afford it, splurge at the excellent Sofitel Hotel
- Consider asking your doctor for a prescription for Diamox altitude sickness medication.
- Take day trips to the excellent Tibetan monasteries in the Xining area. (Ask us for a local agent to help you.)
- Take the “Sky Train” to Lhasa
- It will take a bit less than 24 hours
Heads up that this route takes longer than flying directly into Lhasa, but we still recommend it because:
- You put yourself at much less risk of altitude sickness
- You experience the one-of-a-kind Tibet railway
- You are much more likely to feel good on every day of your journey
An Example: How to Travel to Tibet from the U.S.
We live in the San Francisco Bay Area and in December 2019 we have done this:
- Booked a non-stop on United Airlines from San Francisco to Chengdu
- Overnight in Chengdu
- Mid-morning flight from Chengdu to Xining on Air China
- 4 nights in Xining with day trips to X, Y, and Z (4 nights is not necessary. 2 or even 1 can be very helpful to help you acclimatize)
- Tibet train from Xining to Lhasa ( ~ 22 hours on soft sleeper)
Return from Tibet
- Flew Lhasa to Chengdu
- Overnight in Chengdu
- Chengdu to San Francisco non-stop
Now that we’ve given you our recommendation, let’s look at all the options:
How to Get to Tibet from China
There are no direct international flights into Tibet, so you need to first fly to a city in mainland China.
You have a lot of choices, since there are flights and trains from a lot of Chinese cities to Tibet, including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and many more.
Once you are in mainland China, you have two choices to enter Tibet:
By Tibet Train
Trains all over China funnel into the Qinghai Tibet Railway at the city of Xining on the far western edge of the Tibetan Plateau.
So you can take a train from pretty much anywhere in China to Lhasa.
We don’t recommend starting your Tibet train journey from Beijing or Shanghai or Chengdu.
It will take days and the route only becomes genuinely interesting after Xining. Also, it will not help you much with acclimatizing to Lhasa’s high altitude.
See what we DO recommend in our YoWangdu’s Recommendation section just below…
A heads up that China is building a new train route and you will be able to take a Chengdu to Lhasa train, starting around 2030!
Over a dozen cities in China offer flights to Tibet.
It’s your choice to fly directly into one of the major cities that offer direct flights onward to Tibet, like Chengdu, Beijing or Shanghai.
Or, you can buy a ticket into China, and then buy a separate ticket on a Chinese domestic airline into Lhasa.
But here’s the thing:
You CAN fly into Tibet from mainland China, but we don’t recommend it, because it puts you at high risk of getting altitude sickness.
See our recommendation above.
New Option: Overland from Mainland China: via G318 National Highway Sichuan Tibet Highway
In 2019, the Sichuan Tibet highway ostensibly opened to foreigners. (It had long been used by Chinese tourists.) We have not taken this route, but Tibet agent friends tell us it is awesome and popular. More adventurous travelers may want to give this a try. (Contact us here to be connected with a Tibet travel agent who can arrange this for you.)
Can you Travel to Tibet from Nepal?
The short answer is yes, but there are some issues you’ll want to consider no matter whether you go by flight or overland.
Kathmandu to Lhasa Flight
Travelers can fly to Lhasa from Kathmandu, but note that when you enter Tibet from Nepal, you get a special group visa that may impact further travel in China (see more in our Permit and Visa section below).
Also, you need AT LEAST three full business days in Kathmandu for your Tibet and Nepal travel agencies to arrange the group visa.
Finally, flying to Lhasa’s elevation of 11,975 ft/ 3658 m. from Kathmandu’s 4593 ft / 1400 m puts most travelers at high risk of altitude sickness.
Overland: via Friendship Highway. NOT RECOMMENDED
You can travel overland from Kathmandu to Lhasa via the Kyirong border and the Everest region but we do not recommend this.
The journey does not allow sufficient time for even the most rudimentary acclimatization and many travelers fall ill on this route.
It’s a fascinating route to take, and the solution is simply to reverse your direction and plan to go overland FROM Lhasa TO Kathmandu on your way out of Tibet.
BEST TIME TO VISIT TIBET
Get the low-down on the best time of year to travel to Tibet
Honestly, it’s truly impossible to define a best time to travel to Tibet.
The land area of Tibet is huge and has various weather microclimates.
Also, your best time to visit Tibet is likely different from another traveler’s.
- If you hate cold but don’t mind crowds, then summer travel is great for you.
- If you hate crowds and don’t mind cold, then winter is the way to go.
- If the most important thing for you is to see Mt. Everest, you will want to avoid the summer months, especially July and August, when the summer “monsoon” clouds can kill the views.
That said, there are some times of year that are generally popular…
YoWangdu’s General Recommendation on the Best Time of Year to Visit Tibet
- Fall and winter: Mid-October through mid-January
- The fall season in Tibet has fewer crowds and generally clear, relatively mild weather. (You need to avoid the Chinese national holidays in the first week of October.)
- Winter is cold, for sure, but not as cold as you may think, in the Lhasa area. Winter holds the excellent advantages of far fewer tourists and a more authentic experience, with Tibetan pilgrims and nomads from all over the country crowding into Lhasa on pilgrimage. This season is also cheaper in general.
- Late spring and early summer: Mid to late April through early June
- We personally have not visited Tibet in the late spring and early summer, but we plan to, since by all accounts it is similar to the fall “shoulder” season that we really like. The summer rainy season will not have started yet and the weather will be cooler than the nice warm days of summer, but with clearer skies. And there are fewer tourists.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Mother Nature is Mother Nature and she always wins. The weather can be weird any time of year and there is never a guarantee that you won’t get rain, or that Everest won’t be obscured by clouds. We have been disappointed by lack of views at Everest even during the best viewing times, and we have had excellent views in the rainy season. All you can do is take your best chance.
If you want to find your own best time of year to visit Tibet, based on what kind of weather you prefer, your budget and how much you care about crowds of other travelers, read on….
What is the Weather in Tibet?
Like most countries, Tibetan weather all depends on the season and what microclimate you are in.
Here’s a very broad overview of the seasons in terms of weather and crowds and costs:
Summer in Tibet
- Mild weather with a good amount of rain that mostly falls at night
- Green landscapes
- Lhasa can be t-shirt weather in the strong sun, cold at night
- Everest and Kailash can be obscured by rain clouds, especially in July and August
- Everest and Kailash will be very cold at night and pretty cold in the day
- Roads can be washed out in Kham and Amdo
- Very high season in terms of tourists, especially dense crowds of Chinese tourists
- Highest prices
Fall in Tibet
- Mildish weather trending toward colder
- May still be rainy through parts of September but skies tending to clear
- Warmer in the day when sun is out, quite cold at night
- Early October very crowded with Chinese national holiday tourists
- Everest and Kailash becoming more clear, and colder, day and night
- Shoulder season in terms of tourists after first week of October
- Prices begin to drop toward the later part of fall
- Good time to visit Kham or Amdo until late October. Around mid-November road conditions become bad.
Winter in Tibet
- Cold, clear weather. It can snow in the highest mountain elevations and even occasionally in Lhasa but the “land of snows” doesn’t actually get that much snow!
- Lhasa area can be surprisingly mild mid-day, but you’ll want your winter gear with you all day, and night is frigid. Note that you may not be able to travel outside the Lhasa region in due to snow/ice on passes.
- Everest tends to be clear and very cold (though we have been snowed out of Everest in December)
- Low season in terms of tourists and costs
- Tibet winter travel has the huge advantage of excellent local atmosphere in Lhasa, with crowds of Tibetan pilgrims and nomads
- Generally very cold and can be snowy/icy in Kham or Amdo, though we’ve had some excellent day trips to Tibetan monasteries out of Xining (in Amdo area) in December (with snow and ice!)
- Note: Generally avoid February and March as they often face governmental restrictions
Spring in Tibet
- March has traditionally been closed for tourism in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), but in 2019 there was for the first time in recent history news of opening. We wouldn’t advise March travel booking until this is more definite.
- Temps everywhere begin to warm, especially later in the spring and into early summer.
- Everest tends to be clear and quite cold
- Shoulder season in terms of tourists and costs
- Mid April to late May can be good for Kham or Amdo
Here’s a post called Tibet Weather at a Glance that gives you more detail.
Best Time to visit Lhasa Tibet
Except for the spring closures you can visit Lhasa year round, and we personally love fall and mid-winter. In the fall, tourists start to clear out and the skies get clearer, while the weather is still warmish. In winter, tourism is delightfully low and temps are cold but generally not too brutal during the day.
The Tibet tourism industry generally recommends April to November. Note that summer is green and warm, but also a bit rainy.
Avoid: Chinese national holidays in May and October, February and March (due to governmental restrictions).
Lhasa Climate Averages
- Warmest average temperature, in June, 75 F/ 24 C.
- Coolest average temperature, in January, 14 °F / -10 °C
- Driest months: January and December, 0% average rainfall.
- Wettest month: July with 4.8 in / 122 mm of rain, sleet, hail or snow falling across 13 days.
- (Temperature information and graphs from climatemps.com.)
Best Time to Visit Everest Base Camp Tibet
We recommend visiting Everest in April, May or in October. You can often visit in late fall and winter, with clear skies, but the temps are brutal.
Summer is warmest (which isn’t saying much) but has the downside of the summer Tibet “monsoon.” Many travelers get excellent views of Everest in the Summer but it’s a gamble.
Avoid: the Chinese national holidays in May and October.
Best Time to Visit Mount Kailash
Tours to the Mt. Kailash area usually run only from May to September. Outside those months, the Dolma Pass can be snowed in.
Summer, as elsewhere in Tibet will be more rainy.
Also very large groups of Indian pilgrims crowd the kora in the summer.
May and September generally have best chance of views, though we have trekked Mt. Kailash in mid-September and found the mountain obscured by rain clouds except briefly for one day as we approached.
HOW TO GET YOUR VISA AND TIBET TRAVEL PERMIT
It’s easier than you think…
You have already learned that you must have both a Chinese visa and a separate Tibet travel permit to enter Tibet.
But how do you get those?
In this chapter we show you how.
How to Get a Chinese Visa
You will need to apply for a Chinese visa on your own.
The best place to apply is in your home country, unless you will be traveling Tibet from Nepal. In that case you will apply from Kathmandu. (See the Nepal section on this post for more info.)
Contact the nearest Chinese embassy or consulate to apply. Or, better, apply through a visa service like Travel Visa Pro, which can be less stressful than going through a consulate.
Whether you apply through a consulate or a visa service, you should not mention Tibet or any Tibetan cities when you apply for your Chinese visa. (Applying from Nepal is the exception to this.)
See our full post on getting a Chinese visa for Tibet (often mistakenly called the “Tibet visa,” or a “Lhasa visa”).
How Do I Apply for a Tibet Travel Permit?
Getting your Tibet entry permit is a whole different process than getting your Chinese visa.
Lucky for you, it is actually much easier.
That’s because only an official Tibet travel agency can obtain it for you from the Tibet travel bureau.
When you book a tour, as you must, the agency you book with will handle getting the permits you need for entering Tibet.
Many travelers worry if their permits will go through. Generally there is no problem, though you do need to allow enough time for the permit to be processed (normally at least 20 days). Also there are a few restrictions that apply infrequently.
STAYING HEALTHY AND SAFE WHEN YOU VISIT TIBET
How to avoid altitude sickness, keep your stomach happy and get home safe
Every Tibet traveler wants to know if Tibet is a safe place to travel and how to avoid altitude sickness.
And for good reason:
You not only want to have a fantastic trip, but you also want to feel good while you’re on it, and to get home safely.
How do you stay healthy and safe?
Here are our lessons learned over the years:
Altitude Sickness Prevention
Every mountain medicine expert will tell you that the time-tested rule for avoiding altitude sickness is to ascend slowly.
Basically that means:
- Allow two days to reach 9000 ft/~2700 m
- Over 9000 ft, don’t increase the elevation that you sleep at more than 1500ft/ 500 m each day.
- Add an extra rest day every 3000 ft / ~1000m
The problem is that the current most popular ways to enter Tibet are all not good in terms of ascending slowly:
- Flying from mainland China to Lhasa
- Taking an overland trip to Lhasa from Kathmandu
- Taking a train from mainland China to Lhasa
Generally speaking, none of these routes follow the basic rule, at all.
In fact, due to the travel restrictions in Tibet and other reasons, there isn’t a route that allows you to perfectly follow the rules.
But, after years of traveling to Tibet and doing massive research into this topic, we have developed a route that works really well for us.
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.
Here is our recommendation for the best way we know of how to avoid altitude sickness when visiting Tibet:
- Fly or take the train from anywhere in China to Xining/Siling (a large city on the far eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau) in Qinghai. Xining is at a nice intermediate altitude of 7464 ft/ 2275 m.
- Sleep in Xining for at least one and preferable two or more nights. (You can take day trips to excellent Tibetan monasteries while you are there.)
- Consult a doctor while at home to see if you are a good candidate for a prescription of Diamox altitude sickness medication. If yes, begin taking Diamox 24 hours before you board the train.
- Take the “sky train” from Xining to Lhasa.
- When you arrive in Lhasa, don’t go higher for three days, and don’t physically overexert yourself.
- If you are traveling on from Lhasa to regions at higher altitudes in the TAR, like Shigatse, Everest Base Camp or Kailash, follow a slower itinerary like the 10-Day Easier Acclimatizing EBC tour. Also, consider continuing your Diamox if the route ascends too high, too fast.
To get more details on this important subject, check out these posts:
- Avoiding Altitude Sickness: Complete Beginner’s Guide
- Altitude Sickness Prevention: How to Stay Healthy at High Altitude in Lhasa and Everywhere in Tibet
- The Biggest Mistake People Make about the Tibet Train
Altitude sickness prevention is, to us, the top factor you need to pay attention to to stay healthy and safe when you visit Tibet.
There are a few others…
As we mentioned in Chapter One, Tibet travel is generally safe. In fact, as a woman, Yolanda (a co-author of this post) feels more safe in Tibet than she does at home in the San Francisco Bay Area. And that includes when she travels to Tibet alone, on a private tour. (Remember that you must be on an official tour in Tibet, but that the official tour can be a private one.)
Because you must be on an official tour, you depend a lot on your guide and (usually) driver to help keep you safe.
For this reason, it is critical to get a reliable, trustworthy Tibet travel agent with an excellent track record of caring for travelers. (If you would like us to connect you to a trustworthy agent, contact us here.)
A good guide and driver will do everything in their power to keep you safe.
That said, there are a few factors to keep an eye out for…
Driving in Tibet
The road conditions in Tibet have improved enormously over the years, and the great majority of drivers are awesomely professional and skillful. But there’s a lot of driving on Tibet tours, due to the enormous scale of the land. We’ve learned a few things to be mindful of, based on hard personal experience:
- You don’t want to drive with a very tired driver. (Our only near-accident in Tibet came with an exhausted driver.) In the TAR there are rules about how long drivers can drive, but not in Kham and Amdo. No matter where you are, it’s worth noticing and speaking up if it, for whatever reason, your driver will be driving too long. (This might happen in bad weather conditions, for example.) If you need to, work out a way to stop for rest or sleep if needed.
- Speak up if you’re uncomfortable about the way the driver is driving. You have the right to feel safe. (Our near accident involved the driver going too fast on twisty gravel and dirt roads, in an effort to get to a nearby town after a long day.)
- If for any reason you think your driver could be intoxicated or badly hung over, speak up. We have never experienced this, but some drivers drink in the evenings after driving all day.
- In winter or if you are going over very high passes, any time of year, you need either a four-wheel drive or chains for the vehicle. It’s very expensive to rent a four-wheel drive, and most group tours will be in vans these days, so make sure there are chains in the vehicle before you start.
- It’s not a bad idea to keep a note of weather conditions for the days and destinations ahead and discuss with your guide and driver.
Car accidents in Tibet and China, like most places in the world, are among the biggest causes of problems for travelers. So it’s worth paying attention to your driver, the vehicle and road conditions.
Keep Your Stomach Happy
The old traveler’s rule about eating on the road will serve you well in Tibet: Cook it, boil it, peel it or forget about it!
That means that you want to eat food that has been cooked while you wait and is still hot when served. The only thing we generally break this rule for is bread, which seems to be okay to eat any time.
The sickest we have seen a fellow traveler was after he ate some cold salad sitting in a display case, on the way out of Tibet, in China. Not good.
For water, you want to drink bottled or boiled or filtered water. It’s environmentally horrible, but most agencies will provide you with a base level of bottled water every day. You will probably want to supplement it by buying more every day or bringing your own filter. Virtually every hotel room has an electric kettle that you can boil water in.
Protect your Skin
The combination of the high UV radiation at high altitude, plus abundant sunshine and sometimes strong wind in Tibet can wreak havoc on your skin. To avoid damaging your skin, we highly recommend using:
- A wide-brimmed hat
- A face mask (useful for both protecting your skin and helping keep dust and moisture in.)
- A broad-spectrum sunscreen with a high SPF factor
- Lots of thick moisturizer (at home, we use very light moisturizer sparingly, but in Tibet, our skin will soak up the thickest kind instantly)
Tibet Travel Insurance
There are very good reasons to get travel insurance when you visit Tibet.
Here is what you need to consider when getting your policy:
- Due to the possibility of a sudden closure due to further government restrictions, get “cancel for any reason” insurance. Such closures are not frequent, but do happen. (See When is Tibet Closed to Foreigners?)
- Check that your coverage includes emergency medical evacuation.
- Does your policy allow trekking in Tibet? Or is it considered as an excluded “dangerous activity.” (Only if you plan to trek, of course.)
- Get a “pre-existing medical conditions” waiver if you have family at home with medical conditions. Good if you have elderly parents back home that you may need to interrupt your trip for.
Learn more: Should I get Travel Insurance?
Here are the basics you need to know…
Tibetan food is a fantastic mix of hot, beloved comfort food and weird concepts that really confuse most non-Tibetans.
Best Tibetan Dishes
Here are some traveler favorites among Tibetan cuisine…
Tibetan dumplings – momos – inspire fervent devotion in food lovers around the world. You can eat them stuffed with meat, or veggies, and they come steamed, fried and in soup.
Thenthuk is a simple, popular, soup made with handmade “pull” noodles.
These are savory, juicy, fried meat pies. These can be veg, too, though the name literally means “meat bread.” Note that a very different version of this is sometimes served for breakfast in Tibet, more like a large thin deep fried pan bread with a just a tiny touch of meat inside. In the image here you see such a shapaley, with an omelette.
Simple steamed buns, nice if you are not keen on exotic tastes.
There are endless varieties of noodle soups in Tibet. Try Thukpa Gyathuk (Chinese noodles). You can also readily find fried noodle dishes with meat and veg. A big favorite among Tibetans and travelers alike are “Muslim noodles” that are hand-made noodles with veggies and/or meat. You can find these fried or in soup.
There are endless varieties of bread in Tibet. One of the most popular is balep korkun, basically round bread. You may find it often at little hole in the wall restaurants outside of Lhasa for a simple breakfast. In the picture, we’ve made a Tibetan egg mcmuffin with balep korkun and an omelette.
What is Tibetan Food, Anyway?
The most common dishes reflect what plants and animals are able to survive at an average altitude of 16,000 feet…
The traditional staple food of Tibet is tsampa, a flour made of roasted highland barley. In the Tibetan language “tsampa eaters” (po mi tsamsey) means Tibetans.
Tibetans drink copious amounts of tea, both salted butter tea and sweet milk tea.
Tibetans eat a lot of yak-related meat and dairy products. But, there is no such thing as “yak butter” or “yak cheese,” since a yak is technically only the male of the species. A common word for the female is dri. Yak meat is quite lean and mild and beef-like — not nearly as weird as it sounds!
Meat in General
Meat in general is popular in Tibet: yak, beef, mutton, and goat. (Even though people often mistakenly think Tibetans are vegetarians.) Fish is not popular or common in Tibet. Tibetans typically believe that it is better to kill and eat a large animal than many small ones, since less life is lost.
Fruits and Veggies
Traditional food crops include highland barley, wheat, cabbage, and root vegetables. Back in the day, you could get apples and peaches in the summer.
Today you can buy a good variety of fruits and vegetables in most cities and even many smaller towns in Tibet, due to imports and greenhouses.
Where to Eat
We recommend that you favor Tibetan-owned shops and restaurants as much as possible.
In Lhasa there are a bunch of good Tibetan-owned spots. We like, for example, the Tibet Family Kitchen, and the Kyichu Hotel garden for lunch. In truth, we mainly like the Kyichu lunch for the peaceful garden but the food is decent too. 🙂 You can get a variety of Tibetan and more westernized dishes at both of those.
Trip Advisor is a decent way to check out the options. (See their Restaurants in Tibet.)
When you’re outside of Lhasa, you can rely on your guide to point you to a good Tibetan-owned local restaurant. There are always plenty of local hole-in-the-wall spots where you can get various noodle dishes with meat and/or veg.
Practice your own Traditional Tibetan Food Recipes Before You Go
If you want to explore a bunch of the classic Tibetan dishes at home before you go to Tibet, you can check out our Tibetan Home Cooking cookbook.
WHERE TO STAY WHEN YOU VISIT TIBET
Accommodations in Lhasa and Beyond
The truth is that the accomodation in Tibet in general is perfectly fine, but we haven’t found any blue-star all-around winners. What we mean by that is that we want a place that is:
- Tibetan owned
- Good value
- Great location
- Decent food options and dining room
- Great customer service
- A room with windows that give you some light
There are plenty of places with some combination of those, but not really anywhere with all of them.
That said, we don’t visit Tibet to hang out in the hotel, so it’s not a big deal.
Most travelers will end up staying in the hotels booked or recommended by their travel agency. For this reason, among others, it’s important to book a high-quality and Tibetan-owned agency. (If you need help with that, ask us for a free introduction to a reliable Tibetan-owned agency.)
Usually, Tibetan-owned agencies will book you into decent Tibetan-owned hotels, but you can and should check out any hotel that is suggested by your agency. You can check reviews on Trip Advisor, and ask your agent to confirm that it is owned by Tibetans.
If you wish, you can usually book places on your own. Just let your agency know you want to do that. If you book a group tour, there will be less flexibility and possible extra charges if you book a hotel that is different from the group.
Let’s look at the options…
Best Hotels in Lhasa Tibet
In general we only stay at Tibetan-owned hotels in Lhasa.
High End Hotels
The only Tibetan-owned luxury hotel is the Songtsam Choskyi Linka Lhasa, and it’s quite far out of town, so we’ve never stayed there. Some folks stay at the 5-star Shangri La or St. Regis, though these are not Tibetan-owned and the customer service can leave a lot to be desired.
Tibetan-owned places we’ve stayed and/or looked at:
In the summer, we love to stay at the Kyichu Hotel. Honestly, the place has a feeling of being a bit past its prime, and the customer service can be equal parts friendly and indifferent, but the location can’t be beat, and the peaceful garden is alone worth staying there. In the winter, when the garden is basically closed, we find it sort of bleak, so don’t recommend it.
Shang Bala Hotel
Good for a stay in winter, especially if you get one of the upper floors for good sun. Nice rooms and bathrooms, excellent location and well-maintained, with the big advantage of a courtyard with easy access for your driver to enter. On the negative side, there are a fair amount of Chinese travelers, especially, we understand, in the summer. Breakfast was so-so, considering it had the appearance of a little bit more fancy place. It also tended to a Chinese palate more than Western. (We are refereing to the Shang Bala that is next to the original Summit Cafe location.)
We stayed here a long time ago when it first opened, and it was beautiful inside, but pretty far from the Barkhor area. You can walk it, but it’s just a bit outside the “close” range. We tried to stay again in the winter of 2019, but it was under renovation. Worth a look.
We’ve stayed here in the summer. Good location and very friendly folks. On the down side, the room and bathroom were dark and not very well maintained and the tiny breakfast dining area was not open the rest of the day or in the evening. We moved to the Kyichu after a few days.
On the large side and felt a little corporate. The rooms looked pretty nice. No real reason that we didn’t choose to stay there. It just didn’t appeal so much.
It’s been a long time since we have stayed at this popular spot. The location is great, and the prices are decent. Some travelers swear by it, but the staff were not friendly or helpful when we stayed there in the early 2000’s and we haven’t bothered to go back.
Tashi Choeta Hotel
We looked at this. Nice design, good location and cozy looking rooms, but the Tibetan staff were decided unfriendly on the day we visited so we gave it a pass. Might try again
Tashi Nota Hotel
We looked at this. Clean, decent rooms. A tiny bit far from Barkhor area. Felt a little corporate and breakfast gets complaints of not having good western options. We just weren’t feeling it, to be honest.
Places We Plan to Try
House of Shambala
For some reason, we have never checked out the House of Shambala though it gets very good reviews and has a restaurant with an equally good reputation
Yabshi Phunkhang Heritage Hotel
We’ve looked at this beautiful hotel in an excellent location right off the Barkhor. It is the former home of the 11th Dalai Lama’s parents, and the rooms are lovely. It was a bit empty feeling in winter, but we plan to try it during travel in other seasons.
Note on Tashi Takye Hotel
We stayed here by accident, thinking it was Tibetan owned. Excellent location right off the Barkhor, cheerful staff, tiny, decent rooms, good bathroom. Very cold in winter — the heater didn’t heat the room up at all. Apparently it used to be owned by Tibetans but now is Chinese owned.
Sorry, we don’t have any direct experience with budget hotels and would rely on Trip Advisor. If you know a place you love, let us know.
Like everywhere, hotels are changing constantly in Tibet. It’s always good to check on the most recent reviews:
Where to Stay Outside Lhasa?
We always go to the Gesar in Shigatse. The Tibetan-style rooms are beautiful and cozy and the food is pretty good.
We Plan to Try…
Another good option in Shigatse is the Tashi Choten, which is closer to Tashi Lumpo and the other tourist areas of Shigatse. We plan to give this a try on our next trip, though we do love the Gesar!
Our favorite hotel in Gyantse is the Yeti Hotel.
Outside of Lhasa, Shigatse and Gyantse, we depend on our guides to give us the best Tibetan-owned hotel in the area. Things are changing pretty fast as Tibet develops.
Before your trip we recommend that you get a list of the hotels the agency plans for you to stay outside of Lhasa, and check out the reviews online. Also, get confirmation from your agency that all the hotels they plan to book you into are Tibetan owned.
Top Tibet travel Tips from Lobsang and Yolanda for Avoiding Costly and Embarrassing Mistakes
Our top recommendations for you:
Book with a High-quality Tibetan-owned Agency
If you get fooled into signing up with one of the Chinese-owned agencies that pretend to be Tibetan, you will put money in the pockets of Chinese business people instead of supporting local Tibetans.
Worse, you will not get the care and attention and Tibetan knowledge that the best Tibetan-owned agencies give you.
How to find a good Tibetan agent?
Fill out this form, and we will put you in touch with our favorite Tibetan owned agency. (There is no cost or obligation to you.)
Book a Tour that Will Make the Most of your Time in Tibet
Our own preferred method to start any trip to Tibet, mainly to safely acclimatize to the high altitude, is to:
- Fly or train to Xining in mainland China
- Stay at least a night and preferable 2-3 there (at the excellent Sofitel Hotel for a splurge). Take day trips to the wonderful Tibetan monasteries. (Ask us for a recommendation for a great local guide to help you with that.)
- Take the Tibet train to Lhasa.
- Spend at least 4 nights in Lhasa before moving on to one of the options below…
If you have a week or less:
(This tour already includes the Xining recommendation above.)
If you have about two weeks:
If you have about three weeks:
Each of the trips above build on each other. The Everest Base Camp trip basically also includes the Lhasa Highlights and the Mount Kailash Journey includes the Lhasa trip plus the Everest trip.
So if you have time and are keen to trek at high altitude, the Mount Kailash trip is the Grand Dame of Tibet Tours, where you get a sort of greatest hits of the Tibet Autonomous Region. It’s really quite extraordinary.
Again, you’ll need a Tibet travel agency to book any of these for you. If you want help with that, ask us for an introduction to a reliable agency here.
Use a Packing List for Tibet Travel
Traveling to Tibet is not quite like anywhere else. Your basic Europe or Asia packing list won’t really cut it.
Here’s the list we have developed over the years and use ourselves to get ready for a big Tibet trip:
Avoid Being an Ugly Tourist When you Visit Tibet
Tibetan culture is essentially equivalent to Buddhist culture, and you’ll be visiting a lot of Tibetan Buddhist sites. Here’s a quick guide to avoiding making bonehead mistakes…
Get Travel Insurance
We recommend getting travel insurance for just about any international trip, anywhere. Tibet is no exception and we believe investing in some travel insurance will go a long way to giving you peace of mind about your trip.
Read and Learn Before You Go
Tibet is one place you really need to get a basic understanding of before you go…
- Dalai Lama’s autobiography: Freedom in Exile
- John Avedon’s excellent In Exile from the Land of Snows.
- Trekking in Tibet by Gary McCue
- Lonely Planet Tibet (Kindle version is better. See below.)
- Cookbook: Tibetan Home Cooking by YoWangdu
- Tsering Shakya’s The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet since 1947
- The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama by Thomas Laird
- Magic and Mystery in Tibet Alexandra David-Neel
We are Amazon affiliates and earn a small commission if you purchase the books above, or movies below, through the links here, at no additional cost to you.
Watch and Learn Before You Visit Tibet
If you’re not a big reader, or you just love movies, you can get some Tibetan history this way…
- Unmistaken Child
- Seven Years in Tibet
- The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom
- The Cup
Don’t Leave it to the Last Minute
There are more than a few reasons to start planning your visit to Tibet far in advance of when you plan to go:
- Permits take at least 20 days
- You need your visa before you can get a permit
- Early birds get can get discounts
- It’s good to see a travel doctor for immunizations and treatments that can take weeks
- Good Tibet travel agents are happy to answer your questions and help you plan a trip. They don’t care if your trip won’t be for a year or more.
Now it’s Your Turn…
So that’s it for our guide to visiting Tibet safely, easily and ethically.
Now we’d love to hear what you have to say:
Which strategy from this guide are you going to try first?
Do you plan on reaching out to start a conversation going with a Tibet travel agency for your trip in the future?
Or maybe you still have a question…
Either way, let us know by leaving a comment below right now.
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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.