Plan Your Tibet Vacation
Hidden high on the roof of the world, Tibet is a land of golden monasteries, spectacular mountain scenery and a deep spiritual heritage that lives as much in our imagination as it does in the remote Himalaya.
Many travellers will be drawn to Tibet by the spectacular Buddhist temples, stunning high-altitude scenery or huge blue salt lakes. Epic journeys beckon everywhere, from the world’s highest railway trip to the classic overland drive across the Himalayas to Kathmandu in Nepal. A recurring highlight wherever you go is the Tibetan people, always quick with a smile, from visiting bands of pilgrims to nomads in their yak-hair tents.
Once the very definition of remote, arduous and forbidden travel, Tibet is now surprisingly well connected by road, plane and even rail links. Massive change is reshaping the politically troubled plateau and complicated travel restrictions make independent travel tricky, so check current regulations and the political situation before planning a trip.
According to legend, the earliest Tibetans came from the union of the ogress, Sinmo, and a monkey, reincarnation of the god Chenresi, on the mountain of Gangpo Ri near Tsetang. Ethnographers, however, think it more likely that Tibetans are descended from the nomadic Qiang, who roamed eastern Central Asia several thousand years ago. The first Tibetan king, Nyatri Tsenpo, who legend has it came to earth via a magical “sky-cord”, was the first of 27 kings who ruled in the pre-Buddhist era when the indigenous, shamanistic Bon religion held sway. Each of the early kings held power over a small area, the geographical isolation of Tibet making outside contact difficult. While pens, ink, silk, jewels and probably tea reached Tibet from China in the seventh century, for many centuries Tibet looked to India for religious teaching.
The high Himalayan settlements of Tibetan speaking people are found perched precariously on mountain ledges and slopes. Life here is delicate balance of hard work and social merrymaking, tempered by a culture deeply steeped in ancient religious traditions. The best known of the high mountain peoples are the Sherpas who inhabit the central and eastern regions of Nepal. The Sherpas have easy access to Bhot (Tibet) for trade and social intercourse and therefore Tibetan influence on their culture and civilization remains distinct. The midlands are inhabited by various Tibeto-Burman and Indo-Aryan speaking hill and valley people, for example the Brahmins, Chettris, and Newars. While the Brahmins and Chettris are widely distribute through out the country, the Newars are mainly concentrated in the Katmandu Valley and other towns.
Today Tibet’s economy is booming and tourism is big business with over two million visitors a year, most of them Chinese. The Communist leadership points to huge investment in infrastructure, airports and the controversial railway line as proof of its commitment to improving the lives of Tibet’s people. Frustrated Tibetans on the other hand point to mass Chinese immigration, limited employment opportunities and state interference in religious affairs. With China refusing to engage the Dalai Lama in any meaningful way, Tibet’s future remains at best uncertain.
Almost all Tibetans are Tibetan Buddhists, a form of Tantric Mahayana Buddhism called Vajrayana. Popular Tibetan folk religion is heavily influenced by the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, a shamanic belief system in spirits, spells and exorcism.
Tibetans are generally very easy to get along with. Always walk clockwise around a stupa, religious statue or a mani wall (wall made from stones engraved with religious mantras) and spin prayer wheels clockwise. Don’t smoke or talk loudly in a monastery. Don’t attend sky burials if uninvited and even then never take photographs. Tibetans will often present an honoured guest or visitor with a white silk scarf known as a kathak.
Avoid discussing politics with your guide or monks as you can never be sure who is listening or watching. Don’t take photographs of bridges, military installations or the army and avoid getting caught up in political disturbances.
The official language of China is Mandarin Chinese, though most Tibetans speak Tibetan as a first language. Most Chinese immigrants (and taxi drivers) don’t speak English or Tibetan. English is not widely spoken.
TOP REASONS TO GO
Lhasa has always remained the cultural, political and economic centre of Tibet. It is the heart and soul of Tibet, the abode of the Dalai Lamas and an object of devout pilgrimage. The places of interest in Lhasa include the Potala palace, Norbulinka palace, Jokhang temple, Sera and Drepung monasteries etc. The JOkhang temple and Bharkhhor circumambulation circuit , full of pilgrims from all over Tibet ,innumerable shops and wayside peddlers selling everything from prayer flags to yak skulls is the most amazing of the experience of being in Tibet.
Potala dominates the Lhasa skyline from every corner. Originally there were buildings from 640 AD but the present Potala palace was built in 17th century by the fifth Dalai Lama. It has served as the residence of the Dalai Lamas .It is 117 m high, 13 storied and has 1000 rooms. Different sections of the palace houses a great wealth of cultural and art objects of Tibet. Many parts of the palace , now turned to a museum is open for the visitors .
JOKHANG TEMPLE & BHARKHOR BAZAAR
About 2 km east of Potala and built in 647 AD , Jokhang is the holiest and the most active of the Buddhist temples in Tibet.Jokhang was built by the greatest of the Tibetan King Shrong Tsong Gompo to house the Buddha image brought from Nepal by his Nepalese wife Bhrikuti .Equally interesting is the Bharkhor bazzar that cirles Jokhang.The medieval atmosphere of push and shove of crowd, innumerable shops selling ritual objects, and the never ending pilgrims will take you to its spell . It is here that the heart of the Tibet throbs most.
Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lama, lies in a quiet and beautiful garden in the west part of Lhasa . The well preserved murals, superb mandalas and frescoes are fascinating sights not to miss.
One particular mural inside depicts the history of Tibet and all the Dalai Lamas. The Dalai Lama was living here during his last days in Tibet The rooms have remained as they were when the Dalai Lama left in 1959. Here you can also see the cars which the Great 13th Dalai Lama imported to Tibet.
About 8 km to the west of central Lhasa , Drepung was once Tibet’s largest monastery , with a population of around 10,000 monks. Built in 1416 this is one of the important Gelukpa monasteries .It houses different colleges for the study of buddhist philosophy and the interesting sight is to see is the debating monks. The Ganden Palace also located in the Drepung complex , is where the Dalai Lamas used to live before the Potala was built. The Nearby Nechung monastery at a five minutes distance from here is also worth a visit.
Though not as big as Drepung it is another big and important Gelukpa monastery in Lhasa which has served as ” university monastery ” . It is about five km north of central Lhasa. Built in 1419 it was the home for 5000 monks in the days of its highest glory, though the number now is reduced to few hundreds. Like Drepung it houses different colleges to teach buddhist Philosophy. In the debating courtyard you can see the monks debating from 3 to 4 pm.
Situated around 250 km south west of Lhasa via the new highway , Shigatse is the second largest city in Lhasa.It has long been an important trading town and administrative centre and the traditional capital of Tsang province .Mostly interesting here for tourists is the famous Tashilhunpo monastery and the traditional market.
Tashilhunpo Monastery is one of the largest functioning Buddhist monasteries in Tibet and there is much to explore within its high surrounding walls. It contains the world’s largest brass statue of Maitreya Buddha, which is over 80 feet tall and has extremely delicate features. Tashilhunpo is also the traditional residence of the Panchen Lama, second only in religious importance to the Dalai Lama himself.
Situated 254 km south-west of Lhasa, Gyantse is the least Chinese influenced towns in Tibet. Here, we’ll visit the Gyantse Dzong and Gyantse Kumbum. The Dzong is a fort dating back to the 14th century and the views of both Gyantse itself and the surrounding Nyang Chu Valley. It was here that the Tibetans bravely fought the British invasion by Colonel Younghusband in 1904, at the height of British colonial aspirations in Asia. The Mandala-shaped Kumbum is a large gold-domed stupa and its many small chapels house an impressive array of Tibetan Buddhist murals.
EVEREST BASE CAMP
The northern Everest Base Camp is one of the highlights for adventure travelers in Tibet and it provides stunning views of the Everest massif, as well as Makalu and Shishapangma. The spectacular Rongbuk glacier forms part of the amazing panorama you will be able to enjoy from your tent. Rongbuk monastery, which was founded in 1902 has a series of meditation caves which had been in use for over 400 years, is the last hint of civilization in this area. The lama here traditionally blesses all expeditions aiming for the summit of Mt. Everest. The trek to “Advance Base Camp” provides even more incredible views and a real sense of the awesome grandeur of mt Everest .
MOUNT KAILASH & LAKE MANASAROVAR
These two places are the remotest and yet popular tourist destinations in Tibet .
Mount Kailash is 6,714m high and with its four sheer walls and snow capped peak it is an awe-inspiring sight. For Hindus it is the holiest of the holy place as the abode of Lord Shiva. It also has geographical significance as four great rivers flow from it: the Karnali, the Indus, the Sutlej and the Brahmaputra, which drain the vast Tibetan Plateau to contribute to the Ganges in India. Kailash is an object of devout pilgrimage also for the Buddhists.
Lake Manasarovar is situated approximately 30km from Mt. Kailash and is one of the highest freshwater lakes in the world. This beautiful and sacred lake is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists and Hindus, as it is believed that bathing in the holy waters will cleanse one’s sins. With views to Gurla Mandhata (7,728m)on the backdrop , this is a place of serene beauty. On the northwest shore of the lake is the picturesque Chiu Monastery.
Situated at an altitude of 4720m Namtso lake is a popular tourist destination in Tibet. It is a heavenly lake as one finds described in story books. The water is blue and crystal clear. In the skyline are beautiful white mountains. The surrounding plain is dotted with yak herds and nomad camps making the scenery more intoxicating. This is the biggest lake in Tibet and highest salt water lake in the world. Summer is the best time to visit Namtso lake. Never take a visit to Namtso lake lightly, take proper care for acclimatization.
Travel To Tibet
Flying To Tibet
Flights to Tibet are served by Air China (CA) (www air-china.co.uk), Sichuan Airlines, China Southern and other domestic airlines which fly into Lhasa from Chinese cities and from Kathmandu in Nepal. Tibet Airlines, based in Lhasa, is due to start operations in 2011. High season is June to October, with demand spiking during national holidays in early May and early October.
There are only a couple of domestic flights inside Tibet and very few travellers use them to get around the country. Weekly flights run from Lhasa to Chamdo in the east and to the new airport at Ngari (Ali) in the far west. In general it’s better to travel overland in order to help with acclimatisation.
From Kathmandu to Lhasa 1 Hour 30 minutes, From London to Beijing is approximately 10 hours and from Los Angeles is 12 hours 30 minutes. From Beijing to Chengdu is three hours. From Chengdu to Lhasa is a spectacular 90-minute mountain flight.
Travel By Train
The remarkable but controversial Qinghai-Tibet railway line is the world’s highest, complete with piped oxygen in the cabins to guard against altitude sickness. Trains run to Lhasa from Xining (27 hours), Lanzhou, Beijing (48 hours), Shanghai and several other Chinese cities. Track is currently being extended to Tibet’s second city, Shigatse.
Driving To Tibet
Road is the primary way to get around Tibet. Main roads are paved and in good condition and a new tarmac road now reaches as far as Mt Kailash in the far west. Roads to the east are rougher and are affected by annual monsoon landslides.
Passport and Visas
A visa valid for the People’s Republic of China is required. You will also need a Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) travel permit, which is arranged by Liberty Holidays Inc. Travel by train or plane without a permit is next to impossible—on Internet forums you may hear of the odd person who claims to have managed it, but it’s more than likely that you will be refused boarding with no refund. It used to be possible to travel by train with a photocopy of your TTB, but now many officials are demanding to see the original.
If you are entering Tibet from Kathmandu, you should get your Chinese visa from the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu (regardless of whether you already have a Chinese visa issued in your country). Please note that if you have already got a Chinese visa at your home country, it will be cancelled and fresh visa will be issued in Kathmandu. So do not apply for a Chinese visa until you reach to Kathmandu and avoid waste of money (in the case you enter Tibet from Nepal).
However if you are entering Tibet form mainland China or Honking, get your Chinese visa in advance. You are required to hold a valid Chinese visa (issued by a Chinese Embassy and stamped in your individual passport), as well as a valid passport to enter Tibet (at least six months valid). When applying for a Chinese visa at your home country, it is better not mentioning that you intend to visit Tibet.
In order to get Chinese visa in Kathmandu, please send us your clear passport copy and other details like your profession to us at least 15 days in advance. We will get Tibet Travel Permit (TTB permit or commonly called Invitation letter to travel to Tibet from the Tibet Travel Bureau – TTB). Once you arrive to Kathmandu, we apply for your Chinese visa along with your original passport and TTB permit. You will get a group visa (it will be not stamped in your individual passport but will be in a sheet of paper).
Very important: The visa days in the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu is Monday, Wednesday and Friday ( and visa can be collected the same day upon payment of urgent fees – USD 114 for European passports and USD 198 for US passports ) . In order not to waste your time in Kathmandu, make it such that you arrive to Kathmandu either Sunday or Tuesday or Thursday so that you can get visa the next day and fly to Tibet the day after. (Except in main season, the flights to Lhasa from Kathmandu are generally operated on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings and almost always get packed)
Tibet Travel Permit
Tibet is officially a province of China and a valid China visa is required to travel to Tibet (except if you enter Tibet from Nepal). As Tibet is different from other places in mainland China, you need some additional travel documents or permits to enter into Tibet. Please check the details below:
There are four main permits required for a foreigner to travel to Tibet.
The Tibet Travel Permits are vary based on the region/places that you travel in Tibet, so the Chinese visa/Group visa and Tibet travel permit is compulsory for all types of tour and other two are only needed if you travel to restricted areas like Everest Base Camp, Mt.Kailash, Ranwu and so on.
1) China visa or Tibet Group visa
2) Tibet Travel Permit (TTP)
3) Alien’s Travel Permit (ATP/also called PSB permit)
4) Military permit
The Tibet Travel Permit (TTP) is necessary for foreigners to get into the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Liberty Holidays can apply for the permit for you and currently according to the Tibet tourism bureua policy, all the permit application should be submitted at least 15 days before the trip starting date, but if you are traveling into restricted areas, then you need more additional permits and documents which will take longer time. Once you confirm your trip with us, we request you to send us a clear scanned copy or photo of your passport and Chinese visa at least 20 days in advance by email as it is required for applying for the the Tibet Travel Permit. When the permit is issued we will send a copy or original of the permit to your hotel in China. If you will fly into Tibet then we will send the original permit to your hotel in China as you need it to board the flight. If you will take the train into Tibet, then we will send a copy of the permit by email and you can bring a copy to board the train.
Note: Diplomats, Journalists, professional media photographer and government officials are not able to issue their Tibet permit through ordinary travel agencies. They are only able to travel Tibet under the arrangement of Foreign Affairs Department, Economic Development Committee, etc.
Both Alien’s Travel Permit (ATP) and Military Permits are required if your tour passes through a restricted area. ATP is easily obtainable at your arrival as it should be applied for with your original passport, whereas a Military Permit should be applied for along with the Tibet Travel Permit in advance and it will take about 7 working days to issue.
Where to stay in Tibet
As a remote area, Tibet dose not have very favorable accommodation conditions, but the lodging condition in Tibet has been greatly improved due to rapidly developing tourism in Tibet. Generally speaking, the overall level of accommodation in Tibet is lower than that in other cities of China.
You can find star-rated hotels in big cities of Tibet such as Lhasa, Shigatse, Tsedang, and Nyingchi, but hotels in small cities and remote areas are very basic, usually having a public bathroom with squat toilet. Specifically, in Lhasa, lodging ranges from cheap guest houses to luxury five star hotels, while in Shigatse, Gyangtse, Tsedang and Nyingchi, the highest standard is three stars; in Tingri, Zhangmu and Nagchu, the highest are two stars; and in other smaller or remote areas, guest houses might be your only choice unless you have brought tents with you.