What to Know
- Plan the trip beforehand.Decide where you will be going and how long. If you aim to see only Lhasa and/or areas around it, a four-day visit is sufficient. If you aim to see Mt. Everest, you should be free for at least a week.
- Know the language.The principal language of Tibet is Tibetan, which is not an easy language to learn. There are several dialects of Tibetan, too, and almost all Tibetans can speak Mandarin, with the exception of the nomadic groups living in Far East Tibet. It is highly recommended to know at least basic Tibetan, but definitely Mandarin Chinese in order to communicate with the Tibetan people.
- Keep in mind that there is political opposition to using Chinese in Tibet. If you talk to Tibetans in Chinese, you are linking yourself with the Chinese, who the Tibetans have some bitterness against because of the way the Chinese treat them. However, there are many Tibetans who see Chinese as a fundamentallingua francaand only knowing several pleasantries in Tibetan can help you to make friends with Tibetans.
- Be aware of the Tibetan people's customs.Tibetan culture may shock you, as their customs are different from those in many other countries and places. Thus, it is important to reduce this shock by knowing what is proper and improper manners in Tibet to avoid trouble with people there.
- Refrain from taking pictures of Buddha statues when visiting the Tibetan monasteries. This is allowed in some of them including the Tashilhunpo Monastery, though you will be charged.
- Never smoke during your visit to a monastery. Wear professional clothing; avoid wearing shorts and sunglasses.
- Avoid sensitive topics of conversation, such as the political situation in Tibet. Discussing these can lead to arguments, or you may offend people this way.
- Always ask permission before going into a monastery.
- At a Tibetan dinner, avoid eating with an overfull mouth, and always try to chew quietly. If the host/hostess gives you an item such as a cup of tea, use both hands to take it. This shows gratitude and respect.
- Be aware of the hotel conditions.Those differ contingently on whether you are staying in Lhasa or outside of it. For hotels in Lhasa, you can be fairly comfortable as there are heaters and in winter the water is hot. If you are not feeling well at any point, there are doctors that can care for you. Hotels in small towns and cities located outside of Lhasa have basic facilities, and there may not be a heater or hot water during winter. Thus, it is best to stay in Lhasa during the winter if you plan to go to Tibet around then.
- Know the best time to visit.Anytime from May to October is the best time to go, since the weather allows for comfort and people can breathe in more oxygen. Do keep in mind that Tibet is closed to foreigners during the majority of February, and in March due to this being around Tibetan new year.
- Know what to pack for your trip.There are specific requirements for packing because of the conditions in Tibet, including weather and altitude.
- Take along warm clothing, such as a fleece or a sweater. This is also necessary during summer, since the temperature drops heavily at night. In addition, take along mountain winter clothing if you are traveling in winter.
- You will need sunblock and sunglasses because the sunlight can become strong.
- It is very dry in Tibet, so lip cream is necessary to keep your lips moist.
- Bring extra snacks in case you are not fond of the Tibetan food, or you don't think you can eat much of it.
- Bring altitude sickness medicine and take it at least one day before arriving in Tibet. This will protect against altitude sickness.
Applying for a Travel Permit
The Chinese government very harshly controls tourism to Tibet, so you will need to apply for a permit before you go there. You cannot get into Tibet without a permit.
- Know the permits necessary to go to Tibet.The principal documents that you'll need are the TTB permit, or Tibet Entry Permit (the Tibet Tourism Bureau gives these documents) and the PSB Permit or Aliens' Travel Permit (given by the Public Security Bureau or local police). Note that you cannot travel by yourself; you must have an organized trip booked in advance by a tour group. A licensed tour guide is required to be with you.
- Apply for a Tibet Entry Permit.It is obligatory for all foreigners traveling to Tibet, and allows you to see the capital Lhasa, Namtso Lake, Shigatse, and the Potala Palace. Apply at least 20 days in advance.
- Apply for an Aliens' Travel Permit if necessary.This is needed for tourism to most areas out of Lhasa, but you can only obtain it after arrival in Tibet.
- Apply for a Military Permit.You will need this if heading to sensitive or military areas.
Deciding How to Get There
- Travel to Nepal or Mainland China.Depending on where you live, you may need to take a flight there. Note that getting to Tibet from Mainland China is more recommended as a Group Chinese Visa is necessary if you are entering from Nepal, but not from Mainland China.
- By the way, despite the word "group" being in the name "Group Chinese Visa", you can still obtain one of those if you are a solo traveler on an organized tour.
- Travel to Tibet from Nepal.You can do this by either transportation or plane. If you'd rather fly, there is an option to fly from Kathmandu to Lhasa, which only takes an hour and 15 minutes. Alternatively, you could ask a travel agency in Nepal to cover for a private vehicle for you or travel by public bus to the Tibetan border. Note that regular tourist vehicles coming from Nepal do not go into Tibet, so a change of vehicles is necessary at the border.
- Travel to Tibet from Mainland China.You can either go by plane or train. If you'd prefer a plane, try one of the direct flights to Lhasa from certain cities in China: Xining, Chengdu, Lanzhou, Beijing, X'ian, Kunming, etc. The most popular choices for flying to Lhasa are from Xining and Chengdu. You will need the permit that you applied for in order to fly to Lhasa; it will be mailed to you before you travel.
- If you are taking the train, note the cities that you can travel from in China: Beijing, Shanghai, Chongding, Lanzhou, Xining and Chengdu. Xining is the best choice as it is the primary entrance to the Tibetan railway and the closest principal city to Lhasa.
What to Do in Tibet
You can ask your organized tour guide to customize your itinerary. Even though an organized tour is legally required, you do get to go see the places of your choice - so that's a plus!
- See the Tashilhunpo Monastery.The Panchen Lama resides there and there is a magnificent view of the monastery architecture. At the top of the red building complex, you will find gold roofs with a great shine. This trip will give you a new feeling of appreciation for Tibetan culture and architecture.
- Climb Mount Everest!You will need to take a journey from Shigatse to get there. There are many risks to climbing it, but it is an incredible mountain and the climb is very rewarding. Do not go if you are not feeling well, as it is easy to suffer from altitude sickness.
- See Samye Monastery if you are interested in history and Buddhism.It is an ancient monastery; the first one to ever be constructed in Tibet. It is also the place in which Tibetan Buddhism was founded. In addition, the views there are spectacular; the monastery is in a valley with sand dunes and infertile mountains aro ind it. Note that it takes 1 hour and 30 minutes to get there from Tsetang, and the location is in Shannan Prefecture.
- See the Potala Palace.It is a palace that very well represents Tibet, with the complex building being magnificently "red and white".
- If you cannot go to Tibet because a permit is too expensive or you are afraid of the altitude, there are several alternatives that allow you to experience Tibetan culture.