9 things to know before visiting Tibet

Monks, monasteries and mountains. Tibet is one of the most unique places you will visit. Known as the “roof of the world”, the “third pole” or the “land of snows”, Tibet is one of the most intriguing and mysterious places in the world. This massive land is home to Buddhist monasteries, historic sites, vast snow-capped Himalayan mountains, furry yaks, beautiful scenery, and wonderful people.

Planning a trip to Tibet can be a bit daunting, given its remoteness and political situation, not to mention the permits you need and the government’s strict travel requirements. But with a few tips and tricks for planning and traveling in Tibet, you can make the trip to the top of the world one of the most amazing trips of your life.

Tibet Road in Nepal (Photo credit: Laurie Wiseberg)

1. Where is Tibet?

Many people seem to confuse Tibet with Nepal, perhaps because both are Himalayan countries, they share a border and share the summit of Mount Everest. On a map, Tibet is at the heart of Asia between mainland China and India. The vast high altitude Tibetan plateau borders Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, mainland China and Xinjiang (East Turkestan).

2. Is Tibet open to tourists and can I enter with a Chinese visa?

Tibet is generally open to foreign travelers except in February and March each year. To enter what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region, you will need both a Chinese visa and a special Tibet permit. Tibet travel permits are issued by the Chinese government, but only through a certified travel agency in Tibet.

3. Can I travel independently to Tibet?

Like it or not, the short answer is no, you cannot travel alone in Tibet (unless you are a Chinese or Hong Kong national). You must be part of a pre-organized tour and you must travel with a certified representative from a travel agency in Tibet. You will need to book a tour with a Tibetan travel agency, who will then organize all of your travel within Tibet, including permits, accommodation, entrance to attractions, in fact just about everything, that which will greatly facilitate the planning of your trip. The good news is that your “organized tour” can actually be a private tour – just you, or you and your choice of travel companions.

Local transport to Lhasa.
Local transport in Lhasa, Tibet (Photo credit: Laurie Wiseberg)

4. Is it safe to travel to Tibet?

Tibetans are a friendly people and major crimes are not common. Tibet is a safe place, possibly safer than many other countries in the world. A few minor incidents do occur, such as pickpockets and minor thefts, and you can find a few scams, which are generally easy to avoid. But keeping in mind that you will always be accompanied by your guide, there is not much that can go wrong, even women traveling alone can feel safe in Tibet.

5. Will I get altitude sickness?

With an average elevation of 14,750 feet, altitude sickness is a common complaint while traveling in Tibet, although it normally passes in a day or two. The main symptoms of altitude sickness are headache, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, lack of appetite, and insomnia. The good news is that there are some basic steps you can take to prevent altitude sickness from ruining your trip. I recommend that you rest for a few days when you arrive in Lhasa, allow your body to adjust, and also ask your doctor if you are a candidate for Diamox (the most effective medicine for altitude sickness).

Buddhist prayer flags in Tibet.
Buddhist prayer flags in Tibet (Photo credit: Sarah Kingdom)

6. When is the best time to visit Tibet?

The main season for traveling in Tibet is from April to October, when the weather is optimal for hiking, sightseeing and, in general, travel. Given its location on a high plateau, Tibet experiences low temperatures and frost most of the year. Summer is the only time when temperatures reach around 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. As a bonus, the oxygen content is higher in summer, which facilitates acclimatization. Spring and fall are also good times, if you’re looking to beat the summer crowds, but expect cool nighttime temperatures. Winter is characterized by freezing temperatures.

It is important to take into account that entry permits are not issued to foreigners from February to March (this is the period of some sensitive birthdays, especially the 2008 rebellion that caused all of these travel restrictions first. place). I would also suggest avoiding Chinese public holidays during the first weeks of May and October when Chinese tourists invade Tibet.

7. How can I get to Tibet?

The most common way to get to Lhasa, Tibet is by train or plane. Flights depart daily from several cities in mainland China, as well as from Kathmandu in Nepal. Trains depart regularly from several major cities in China. The best way to get to Tibet and adjust to the altitude is to take the train from Xining to Lhasa. It’s a 21 hour trip, but it’s a scenic journey on the world’s tallest railroad.

For those new to Nepal, you can fly or travel overland with your guide and driver. Traveling by land can put you at a higher risk of contracting altitude sickness, so flying tends to be the best option. Keep in mind that if you are coming from Nepal, you will have a different and more stringent type of visa, a “Tibet group visa”, which does not allow travel to mainland China.

Exterior of the Potala Palace in Lhasa with many tourists walking and observing its grand scale.
Potala Palace (Photo credit: Sarah Kingdom)

8. What are the best places to visit in Tibet?

Tibet has so much to see, from its beautiful natural landscapes to its mysterious religious culture. You won’t be able to see everything on your first trip, so let me point out some of the must-see spots you should have on your itinerary.

Pilgrim prostrating in Lhasa.
Laurie Wiseberg

The capital of Tibet, Lhasa, is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. It is a city in a time lag, wedged between the modern world and ancient traditions. The city revolves around Barkhor Square, at the center of which is the Jokhang Monastery, the holiest temple in Tibet. It is here that you will see pilgrims whispering prayers as they complete their devotional journey, bow down to the temple, or circle it clockwise.

There’s nothing like seeing the golden-roofed Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama, rise above the city center. It is the largest and most comprehensive ancient palace complex in Tibet, containing 13 floors and 1,000 rooms. Construction began in the 7th century and reconstruction was undertaken by the 5th Dalai Lama in 1645. It is a holy place for Tibetan Buddhists and attracts thousands of visitors and pilgrims every year.

Monk debating at Sera Monastery.
Monk at Sera Monastery (Photo credit: Laurie Wiseberg)

You should also visit the “Three Great Tibetan Monasteries”, Drepung, Sera and Ganden, which are on the outskirts of Lhasa. Drepung is a complex of many temples and prayer halls, while Sera is famous for its daily traditional debates (3 p.m.) between monks. Ganden at an elevation of 12,000 feet on Wangbori Mountain makes for a great hike (although you can drive). You are very likely to see vultures, the sacred birds of Tibet, when visiting here.

Yak and shepherd at Yamdrok Lake.
Yak and Shepherd at Yamdrok Lake (Photo credit: Sarah Kingdom)

Yamdrok Lake is a freshwater lake about 60 miles south of Lhasa. The lake is considered one of the three sacred lakes in Tibet. This gorgeous lake is over 44 miles long and looks a bit like a coiled scorpion. It’s a main stop along the Lhasa and Nepal route, and you can usually find local Tibetans waiting here with their yaks and mastiffs, giving tourists the chance for a particularly scenic selfie.

Tashilhunpo Monastery on Mount Nyima near Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet, is definitely worth a visit. Covering an area of ​​37 acres, the monastery has 57 rooms, 3,600 rooms and can hold 2,000 worshipers.

Mount Everest covered in snow.
Laurie Wiseberg

Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, straddles the border of Nepal and Tibet, and it is easily accessible from the Tibetan side. Private vehicles are no longer allowed at Everest Base Camp (EBC) on the Tibetan side, instead there is an eco-bus service. Likewise, camping is no longer allowed in the old base camp, but travelers can stay in a tent camp near Rongbuk Monastery, which at over 17,000 feet above sea level , is the highest monastery in the world. Hikers can choose to travel the route from Tingri to EBC, a distance of 43 miles over four days.

Landscape of Mount Kailash.
HelloRF Zcool / Shutterstock.com

Mount Kailash, in the far west of Tibet, is a sacred mountain recognized as the “center of the world” by followers of Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, Good and Jainism. The mountain attracts a continuous stream of pilgrims, both Hindus from neighboring India, and Buddhists, who come here to perform a Kora, the ritual tour of the mountain. Pilgrims believe they can wash away sins from a previous life by doing a Kora, avoid the pain of reincarnation by doing additional Koras, and can transform into Buddha by doing 100 Koras. Apart from any religious significance, Mount Kailash is worth a visit. Located at the southern foot of Mount Kailash, Lake Manasarovar, a sacred freshwater lake, is another pilgrimage destination revered in both India and Tibet.

9. What kind of food do they eat in Tibet?

Tibetan food and drink, just like the culture and religion of the country, have their own unique character. The most common dishes reflect what plants and animals are capable of surviving at an average elevation of 16,000 feet. The daily diet of most Tibetans includes tsampa, butter tea, yak meat and mutton.

The traditional staple food of Tibet is tsampa, a flour made from roasted highland barley and Tibetans eat it three times a day. Tibetans consume large amounts of tea, both salted butter tea and sweet milk tea, they also eat a lot of meat and dairy products related to yak. Yak meat is quite lean, sweet, and beef-like and not as strange as it sounds. It is a common misconception that Tibetans are vegetarians, but yak, beef, mutton, and goat are all eaten. Fish, however, are not popular or common.

Pilgrims at Jokang temple, Lhasa.
Sarah’s Kingdom

Tibet has so much to see and do, from stunning mountain scenery to fascinating religion, culture and customs. You could find yourself in a prayer hall full of singing monks, experience an unforgettable mountain trek, or perhaps take the epic Tibet-Nepal overland journey along some of the world’s wildest roads. The experiences are limitless.

Tibet is an exotic destination, and there is a myriad of things to discover:

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