In this post you will find an easy-to-use collection of tips for Tibet travel that will help you plan a safe, healthy and amazing visit to Tibet. We are committed to helping travelers experience the real Tibet as much as is possible under the current circumstances, while also helping you to support local Tibetan businesses.
To get more in-depth tools and strategies get our free travel planning guide, which walks you through preparing a great Tibet trip.
TIBET TRAVEL PLANNING
1. 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. By using a Tibetan-owned agency, you insure that most of your travel money supports the local Tibetan economy. Don’t be fooled by companies that call themselves “local” but that are actually mainland Chinese companies with branches in Lhasa. Contact us here if you need a referral for a reliable, Tibetan-owned agency.
2. Watch for changes
Shifting rules and regulations can affect your travel to Tibet. It’s important to keep updated.
WHEN TO TRAVEL TO TIBET
3. 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 excellent local atmosphere in and near Lhasa. Get Tibet Weather at a Glance here. Be sure to read the next tip!
4. When should I avoid traveling to Tibet?
Tibet is closed each year by the Chinese government at some point in February and through the end of March, due to concerns of political protests. 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.
5. 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 a copy of your Chinese visa before they start the process.
6. Should I go from China or Nepal?
You can enter Tibet from either China or Nepal, but note that to enter from Nepal, you must acquire a Tibet Group Visa in Kathmandu. Since no one is allowed to hold two valid visas at the same time, any other Chinese visa you have in your passport will be canceled, and you won’t be able to travel as an individual in China after you leave Tibet. Learn about some options in this post on what visa you need for Tibet. See our Tibet travel updates page for info on the status of the opening of the Nepal-Tibet border.
7. Train or flight or overland by car?
We strongly recommend taking the train rather than a flight into Lhasa, for the primary reason that the flight puts you at more risk of getting High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (see this post on the symptoms of altitude sickness) than the train. Please note that the train itself still puts you at risk of altitude sickness, just less risk of severe illness. While the overland by car route is not an option right now, with the Tibet-Nepal border closed, it is not a good option to drive from Kathmandu to Lhasa, as the elevation gain is too high, too fast. See our post on Altitude Sickness Prevention in a Nutshell for more info.
TIBET TRAVEL DOCUMENTS AND RESTRICTIONS
You will need to obtain a Chinese visa to travel to Tibet, in addition to the 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.
Non-Chinese travelers wishing to enter the Tibetan 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. To get a Tibet permit, you must be part of an organized tour arranged through a licensed agency in Tibet, but note that you can have a private tour if you wish. Get more info at our post on the Tibet travel permit.
10. Can I travel independently in Tibet?
For travel in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), you must have a guide and a driver unless you will only be in Lhasa, where just a guide is okay. If you want to travel independently in Tibet, you should 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. (If you need help finding a guide for travel in Kham or Amdo, ask here.)
AVOID THE MOST COMMON TIBET TRAVEL MISTAKES
11. Mistake: “A Chinese visa will get me into Tibet”
You must have a Tibet entry permit in addition to your Chinese visa to travel in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).
12. Mistake: “Taking the train is all I need to adjust to Lhasa’s altitude”
The train is somewhat helpful but you will need more than just taking the train if you want to avoid altitude sickness on arrival in Lhasa. See our post on the Biggest Mistake People Make about the Tibet Train.
13. Mistake: “Everest Base Camp is the ideal Tibet trip for me”
The trip to Everest Base Camp (EBC) is a great one, and includes some of the most wonderful sites of Tibet, but it’s not for everyone, especially if what you really love is getting out of the car. 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.
14. Mistake: “It is morally and ethically 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, restaurants, shops, etc. you provide much-needed support to the local Tibetan economy and actually not so much to the state coffers. It is true that your permit, flight and/or train contribute more to the government, but the rest 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. You may find 10 Dos and Don’ts for a First Time Visit to Lhasa helpful to keep you on the right side.
15. Mistake: “This Tibet travel agency website says they are “local,” so they must be Tibetan-owned”
Pretty much every Tibet travel agency advertises itself as “local,” and says they have “Tibetan staff” or “Tibetan guides.” That often means that they are a Chinese-owned company that hires some Tibetan staff and has an office in Lhasa. Contact us here if you need a referral for a reliable and authentically Tibetan-owned agency.
16. Mistake: “I have to be with a group tour in Tibet”
Though you have to be part of an organized tour to visit the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), your organized tour can be a private tour with just you, or you and your partner, or whoever you want in it. Outside the TAR, such as in large parts of the Eastern Tibetan regions of Kham and Amdo, you can travel independently, or in a private tour if you wish. Contact us here to inquiry about a private tour.
17. Mistake: “Cool, I can pick up some Tibetan medicine from this shop”
If you want to be sure the Tibetan medicine you get is real, ask your Tibetan guide to bring you to the original, authentic Mentsekhang, as there are plenty of scam places.
18. Mistake: “Planning travel to Tibet must be pretty much like planning travel anywhere”
It’s a bummer that you have to have a special permit and an organized tour for your trip to the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but the upside is that a lot of the work is done for you in terms of planning and organizing your trip. Part of the reason why it’s so important to choose a quality, Tibetan-owned agent is because your trip really depends on how authentic and service-oriented your agent is. We can help refer you to a good agent.
19. Mistake: “These Chinese airlines are cheap! Awesome, let’s get a ticket!”
When you fly to and within China, beware that some of your choices are among the “worst airlines in the world,” according to a Business Insider article: Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines. Unless price is pretty much your only consideration, you may want to look at some of the other options in the Asia market for the overseas portion of your trip. Here’s a list of the best 10 international airlines. We’ve flown Air China and China Eastern without major hassles but it sounds like we got lucky :-) Hainan had a good fare and good legroom on an international flight from San Francisco to Xi’an, but the routing made for a grueling long trip which may not have been worth the cost savings.
20. Mistake: “I will learn about the Tibet situation after I get there.”
If you want to have any idea of what you are looking at in Tibet, you need to learn the basics of modern Tibetan history from a Tibetan perspective, before you go. You can start with the Dalai Lama’s autobiography: Freedom in Exile or John Avedon’s excellent In Exile from the Land of Snows. If you’d rather see a movie, try Kundun, or any of the many documentaries on Tibet, like Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion.
WHERE TO TRAVEL IN TIBET
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.
22. 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 Tibetan 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.
23. If you have one week
If you have a week or less and this is your first visit to Tibet, try a Lhasa Highlights trip, because of the Jokhang Temple and the major monasteries.
24. If you have 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.)
25. If you have 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 a sort of highlights of Central Tibet. Another awesome option is to hit the Kardze region of Kham for the less-traveled cultural heart of Eastern Tibet, or consider a combination Kham and Amdo trip.
26. If you are returning to Tibet
If you have already traveled to Lhasa, EBC or Kailash, and you are lucky enough to return to Tibet for a second (or third or fourth or…) time, definitely plan to see Kham and/or Amdo. And vice versa, see Central Tibet if you have never been. There is nothing like seeing the roofs of the Potala rising above the holy city of Lhasa, no matter how many checkpoints you have to pass through.
27. 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. Inquire here for more info on the Ganden trak, and here for the Minya Gonggar trek.
28. Let your agent know what kind of travel you want
Despite the restrictions for Tibet travel, you have a lot of choice in how you travel, especially if you are visiting the Kham or Amdo Tibetan areas outside the TAR. Even in the TAR you can choose a private tour, with much more flexibility in what you see and do. Tell your travel agent if you prefer trekking to driving, or travel in a group to save money, or if you are more interested in monasteries than mountains, for example. To get help deciding what kind of travel you might like, contact us here.
MUST-SEE PLACES TO VISIT IN TIBET
There is a huge number of high-quality places to see in Tibet. Here are just a sampling for each of the major Tibetan regions, provided from a mix of our experiences and the recommendations of Tibetan guides we partner with.
29. Must-see for Lhasa area
The Jokhang Temple, the Bhakor, Drepung, Sera and Ganden monasteries, the Potala Palace, the Norbulingkha Summer Palace, Drak Yerpa, Ramoche Temple, Tredom nunnery hot springs, Drigung Til monastery, Reting monastery.
30. Must-see for Shigatse and Gyantse areas
Tashilumpo Monastery, local free market, Summer Palace of the Panchen Lama, Gyantse Kumbum Stupa, Shalu Monastery, Sakya Monastery, Nojin Kangsang Glacier, Yamdrok Lake
31. Must-see for Mount Everest area
Everest Base Camp (to view Mt. Everest), Rongbuk Monastery, Shegar Fort
32. Must-see for Northern Tibet
Namtso Lake, Yangpachen hot springs, Nyichen Thang la pass
33. Must-see for Western Tibet
Mount Kailash, Kailash inner kora, Guge Kingdom, Lake Manasarovar, Tholing, Trath, Serlong, Trath Puri
34. Must-see for Kham in Eastern Tibet
Derge Parkhang, Dzogchen Monastery, Larung Gar Buddhist Encampment, Yarchen Gar Buddhist Encampment, Sechen Monastery, Lhagang Monastery, Mount Minya Gonggar, Mount Zara, Muge lake, Lithang monastery, Yading Natural Reserve, Mount Kawa Karpo, Dzongsar monastery, Sershul monastery, Leba Valley, Nangchen Gar monastery, Nangchen Tana monastery, Nangchen Gechuo Nunnery (a favorite), Nangchen Sermang Namgyal Ling monastery, Nangchen Gadan monastery, Mount Gaduo Jowo, Kekexili Natural Reserve
35. Must-see for Amdo in Eastern Tibet
Kokonor Lake (Tso Ngonpo), Labrang monastery, Rebkong Rongwu Gonchen, Rebkong Shangge Shong Yago Tsang and Mago Tsang (Famous for it’s painting Thangka, known as art villages in Tibet), Drakar Dredzong monastery, Rabgya monastery, Mount Amnye Machen, Mount Nyenpo Yurtse, Mount Yuzhufeng, Takstang Lhamo, Ngawa Kirti monastery, Tso Jyarang & Ngorang lakes, Shachong monastery, Achong Namdzong Nunnery, Pangthu monastery, Gonlong monastery, Jiuzhaigou National Park, Huanglong National Park, Monigou Waterfall, Gyarong Danba (Famous for it’s stone houses and towers)
36. Must-see for Kongpo
Basum Tso Lake, Lama Ling Monastery
37. Must-see for Tsetang and Yarlung Valley
Yumbulakhang Monastery, Samye Monastery, Chimpuk Meditation Caves, Tombs of the Tibetan king, Traduk Temple
38. 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 (or co-owned hotels in Lhasa: Tashitakge, Kyichu, Dekang, Tibet Gorkha, Yak (make sure to request a better quality room).
39. 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! :-)
40. Everest Base Camp not so amenable for humans
The extreme altitude of the “tent city” at the Everest Base Camp 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. The latrines are also some of the nastiest anywhere in Tibet. Consider going to EBC just for a day visit and descending to stay elsewhere.
STAYING HEALTHY WHEN YOU TRAVEL TO TIBET
41. Altitude sickness
Above all, take the responsibility to inform yourself about what you need to do to reduce your risk of getting altitude sickness in Tibet. There is a wealth of information online but it can be a slog to wade through. If you need a guide targeted just for traveling in Tibet, check out our Tibet Toolkit: How to Know and Avoid Altitude Sickness.
42. Sun protection
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.” The sun in Tibet is fierce! Bring a good, broad spectrum sunscreen with a high SPF factor and a high SPF lip sunscreen to protect your lips too.
43. Protection from dog bites
There are a lot of stray dogs in Tibet, and travelers in more remote areas are at risk of being bitten especially by dogs guarding yak herds or nomad homes. 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 the dogs, 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.
44. Wear a mask?
Many Tibetans wear cloth face masks, for various reasons, including sun protection, but also, interestingly, to help keep the super dry air they are breathing more moist. 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.
45. The basic rules for travelers applies in Tibet: Cook it, boil it, peel it or forget about it!
46. Drink and brush your teeth only with boiled, treated or bottled water.
47. 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) and some fiber powder in packets to keep things moving when they need help the other way :-) You might also bring some motion-sickness meds if you get sick while driving.
48. 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.
49. Safety while driving
We had a near-accident on our last trip and it could have been avoided by a little awareness on our side, and better communication with our driver. The incident happened just at dark, after our driver had been driving way too many hours (over the course of a long day starting and stopping at various monasteries) as we tried to make it to our next sleeping destination. Just before the incident, one of us was thinking that it was scary, and that he was going too fast down a curvy hilly road, but didn’t say anything, because it was our first day driving and 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. The lessons? 1) Consider how long your driver is driving each day and make sure s/he won’t be driving when exhausted. 2) Speak up if you think your driver is not being careful. You are a client and a passenger, and you have the right to go at speeds that feel safe to you.
50. Keeping warm and dry
There is a good likelihood that it will rain at some point in your journey to Tibet, so bring some good rain gear, or at least get an umbrella or rain poncho somewhere along the way. It will definitely get cold in the evening, especially in spring, fall or winter, and you’ll need some cold-weather gear: very warm jacket, warm hat, gloves, long underwear or fleece-lined pants. Days can be very hot in the strong sun, so you’ll need layers.
51. Recommended Tibetan-owned places to eat in Lhasa
Support the local economy by asking your guide to bring you to the best Tibetan-owned tea-houses and restaurants. Here are some well-loved Tibet-owned restaurants: Tibet Family Kitchen and Tashi I (Tashi Tangbo Zakhang). In good weather, it is super pleasant to sit in the Kyichu Hotel garden for lunch. We can’t get to Lhasa often enough to keep this updated, so we’d love to hear your picks! If you want to be sure you get a Tibetan guide, sign up with a Tibetan-owned travel agency. If you need help finding one, sign up here.
52. Exceptions to the Tibetan-only rule?
Outside of Lhasa, the Tibetan guides sometimes like to eat at Chinese places. It’s sort of like eating at Chinese places outside of Tibet. It’s a judgement call for you if you prefer to eat 100% Tibetan but there will be times when the Chinese hole in the wall is cheap and good while the Tibetan one doesn’t look so great, or when you’re a little tired of the basic Tibetan menu. Up to you.
53. For truly local eating ask your guide
A Tibetan friend who visits Lhasa often suggested these two Tibetan restaurants: Kamjung Zakhang and Lhamo Zakhang. Let your guide know if you want something truly local and be mindful that what the Tibetans like may be outside the comfort range of many non-Tibetans. But if you’re an adventurous eater let your guide know and go for it!
TIBETAN FOOD AND DRINK
54. Try some common Tibetan foods
Some of the most popular foods among Tibetans are also very popular among non-Tibetans. A lot of travelers love Tibetan dumplings, called momos, shapale (fried meat pies), the wide variety of Tibetan breads and Tibetan noodle soups like thenthuk. You might like to try tsampa, too. For a primer on Tibetan food check out How Well Do You Know Your Tibetan Food? or our Tibetan Home Cooking Cookbook.
55. “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.
56. Butter tea is the national drink
Butter tea – po cha – is black tea churned with milk from the female yak, salt and butter, is the most popular drink among Tibetans in Tibet, though there is plenty of sweet tea available too now. It may be helpful to think of it sort of like soup rather than tea the first time :-) In the cold Tibetan highlands, the super-warming butter tea can grow on you surprisingly fast.
57. 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.
58. Special diets
Like anywhere your choices will diminish the farther you get from large towns. Vegetarians can do pretty well in Tibet, though it is heavily yak-meat-centric. You can get a veggie noodle soup, like a thenthuk, in even pretty remote outposts, and most spots have Chinese-style restaurants where you can get some sort of 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. Vegan is harder, just like in the western world.
MONEY MATTERS AND INSURANCE
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 for Lhasa Highlights, Everest Base Camp and Mount Kailash. See sample pricing for the most common Tibet tour packages here.
60. Currency Converter
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.
61. Travel insurance
For a trip to Tibet, you want to consider “cancel for any reason” insurance (for political closures) and check if your coverage includes emergency medical evacuation. If you will be trekking, make sure your policy doesn’t consider that an excluded “dangerous activity.” For some travelers who may want to be able to return home for family medical emergencies, look at getting a “pre-existing medical conditions” waiver. We like the InsureMyTrip free service which easily compares quotes from reputable insurers, and have used Travel Guard on a trip to Tibetan settlements in India (a trip that did not require cancel for any reason insurance).
DO’S AND DON’TS IN TIBET
62. Don’t miss the koras
A great way to experience Tibet is to walk the koras around holy sites as Tibetans do. See some specific ones in this post: 10 Do’s and Don’ts for a First Visit to Lhasa
63. 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. Here are some good places to donate to. (Some are Tibetan organizations outside of Tibet.)
64. 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.
65. 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.
66. Do shop at Tibetan-owned shops
Ask your guide to point out which shops are owned by Tibetans. Many 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.
67. 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.
68. 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.
69. Do tip your guide and driver
It’s nice to tip your guide and driver, separately, especially if you are on a private trip. You don’t have to but we tipped the equivalent of one day of the trip to the guide and a bit less to the driver.
70. Don’t take pictures of soldiers 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.
71. 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.
72. Do know the customs for eating and drinking
You will be offered tea (po cha/Tibetan butter tea, or cha ngarmo/sweet tea) in a Tibetan home. 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.
73. 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.
74. 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.
75. 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 the Buddhist etiquette section for more on this.)
76. 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 :-)
77. 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.
78. 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.
PACKING AND WHAT TO BRING
79. Stuff to bring from home
You can buy pretty much what you need in the large Chinese cities that most people are in before they go to Tibet, and Lhasa 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: our personal medicines and vitamins, specialty foods or health foods that we eat a lot, a prescription of Diamox for altitude sickness (if your doctor has prescribed it), a Swiss army knife, good-quality sunscreen and lip protection sticks, and 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.
notebook, meds from home, a smallish thermos, travel mug for tea, decaf tea brought from home, laptop, borrowed altimeter, Swiss army knife, sunscreen and lipscreen, prescription sun glasses, a light and a mid-weight fleece pullovers, down jackets (at night), fleece hat, a dog repellant device, a small lantern (our travel buddy had one like this that we envied :-).
81. Small gifts to bring
Vitamins and ibuprofen, high-quality, warm socks, which Tibetans really appreciate, especially the elderly. In the big cities, get small bills to give on the shrines at the smaller monasteries and nunneries, and which help the local institutions.
82. Stuff to keep warm
Even if the days are warm in the strong Tibetan sun, nights can be super cold. An old-fashioned hot water bottle is great to warm up your bed at night, and don’t forget your best cold-weather gear: hats, jackets, gloves, long underwear.
83. What to leave at home
We brought but did not use a Nalgene water bottle. Our guide brought a case of plastic water bottles and though we never do that at home, it was definitely handy on the trip. You don’t need a bunch of shoes: pretty much your walking or hiking shoes will work almost everywhere, and most hotels have disposable slippers that you can reuse a few times.
84. What to buy 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.
CONNECTING WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD
85. Free apps to call or chat with home
WhatsApp is an awesome way to stay in touch with folks at home from your phone or pad, and it’s totally free wherever you have wifi in Tibet, like at the majority of hotels, even in fairly remote areas. (If you have an international plan on your smartphone you can use that too, but mind that you may incur international calling fees unless you use the wireless.) Most Tibetans use WeChat for the same purpose. You should know that WeChat is a Chinese company, so under the Chinese system of Internet monitoring and surveillance while WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, so presumably under a different system.
86. Email services that you can and can’t use
This is constantly changing, so check this page on Websites blocked in China before you go. Some services that usually are blocked in China are Facebook, Gmail, Instagram, and Flickr. We had heard that Yahoo didn’t work, but were able to use it in October 2015. On the other hand, Hotmail was supposed to work but did not. You can communicate by WhatsApp or WeChat, but Yahoo was helpful for sending photo files that had been downloaded from our Sony Cybershot to a laptop computer.
87. Getting behind the Great Firewall
There are a number of VPN services that folks living in China use to be able to use sites and services banned in China, like Gmail and Facebook. We haven’t bothered to set this up ourselves for trips but some people might love this. Here’s a post that offers reviews: The Best VPN for China. You can get apps for your phone and iPad.
88. Be aware that your devices have altitude limits
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. Our Apple laptop official limit was 10,000 ft. but we used it up to about 12,000 ft with no problem. Our friend Losang at the Land of Snows says he has used his computer at around 12,000 ft with no problems but doesn’t take his over 14,000 ft.
89. Access to wireless
There is surprisingly decent access to wireless signals in Tibet, especially in places where you can stay at a hotel. The signal is not always strong in the room, and at times you might have to go to the hotel common room. 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 a private home, but at that point you are living the dream and don’t really care :-)
90. Consider using your guide’s phone
You can ask your agent if you can buy some time on your guide’s phone (assuming he or she has an international service), which is super convenient, saving you the hassle of setting up service ahead of time. Some agents include temporary use of a 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.)
91. 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.
92. 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.
Cameras are highly individual things. Lobsang loves his professional-quality Canon 7D Mark II Digital SLR and Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Standard Zoom Lens for travel shooting, but Yolanda prefers to go super light and easy, shooting mostly on her iPhone 6+, with a tiny little Sony Cybershot for low-light situations. Note that your cameras may not be able to handle very cold temperatures. Some advice, in very low temperatures, is to keep your camera in your bag instead of having it outside as you normally might, until the moment you’re ready for shooting.
94. Storing and backing up your photos
Here are some strategies that different people use for saving and backing up image files:
- For cameras, you can simply bring plenty of large capacity memory cards.
- As an added precaution, we downloaded images directly from the camera to a laptop through a cable connection. (Did not do this above 12,000 feet.)
- Our travel buddy used a 32gb SanDisk wireless thumb drive to transfer photos even if no WiFi is available. This wireless flash drive also looks good for transferring between phone, computer and/or ipad, though it looks like it requires wireless.
95. 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.
96. 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.
97. Never climb or sit on Buddhist statues or stupas
98. 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.
99. 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.
100. 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.
101. 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.
102. Remove your shoes and your hat when entering a shrine room or temple.
103. 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.
105. Circle clockwise
Tibetan Buddhists walk clockwise around temples and other holy places while praying. This circumambulation is called making kora.
106. Avoid pointing at people or sacred objects with your index finger
We 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.)
107. 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.
108. The Top Tip
Out of all these tips, if we had to pick one as the most critical, it would be to pick a high-quality, Tibetan-owned agency for your Tibet journey. If you need help with that, fill out the short form here to be connected to our favorite agent.
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