Planning a trip to Tibet isn’t easy. Firstly, it’s extremely remote and difficult to get to. Secondly, the Chinese authorities seem to want to make it as hard as possible for foreign tourists to visit. This is presumably because the foreign tourists might discover for themselves just how “peaceful” China’s “liberation” of Tibet has been. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that planning our trip to Tibet took far longer and gave me far more headaches than any of my previous trips. With that in mind, I’ve put together this planning guide for anyone who is thinking of going to Tibet.
Step 1: Find a reputable Tour Agency
Independent travel to Tibet is impossible. You need a permit to enter the region and a guide with you, to allow you to get into all the main tourist sites. You might be able to visit the shops in Lhasa by yourself but that’s about it. Therefore, the first step is to find a travel agency. There are Chinese run agencies and Tibetan run agencies. Decide which you would rather give your money to. We wanted a Tibetan agency and were put in touch with Snow Lion Tours, by Lobsang from the excellent Land of Snows website.
Step 2: Decide where you want to go and who with
If you are a solo traveller, the best thing to do would be to join a group. This does obviously mean that you don’t have 100% control over your dates. Due to our holiday times, Janey and I could only go in December, which is the quietest time of the year for foreign tourists. Consequently, joining a group was never likely. It would have been possible for the two of us to form our own group but it would also have been prohibitively expensive. It was after I discovered this that I started my sales pitch to my old colleague Tyrone. He was looking for somewhere adventurous to go in his December holiday period and was instantly captivated by the idea. Successfully persuading him and Virginia made the whole trip financially feasible, as well as provided us with excellent company.
Step 3: Book your flights in and out of China
After making your booking with the tour agency, you need to get a Tibet travel permit to allow you to get into the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Before getting this though, you need to have your Chinese visa. To get a Chinese visa, you first need to book your flights in and out of China. You could also choose to book your flights / train tickets in and out of Lhasa at this stage. I decided to wait until my visa had been officially approved though.
Step 4: Apply for your Chinese visa
There are many different types of visa for China. At the time of our visit, we needed a single entry L class visa. Carefully check which one you need before you start your application. On the form you’ll be asked to state your itinerary in China. DO NOT SAY THAT YOU’RE GOING TO TIBET. This is a trick that the Chinese authorities play. If you put Tibet on your itinerary, they’ll say that you need a Tibetan permit and decline your visa. Paradoxically, you need a visa to get a Tibetan permit. Therefore, you need to “invent” an itinerary. Do study a map of China and make sure your route is convincing though! For example, our itinerary was BEIJING – CHENGDU – CHONGQING – SHANGHAI – XI’AN.
We really were flying into Beijing and out of Xi’an so this was pretty realistic. You’ll also need to have your first night of accommodation booked and to provide proof of this. Hypothetically, you could just book something and cancel it at a later date. You just need it for the visa application. To get the visa, you usually need to go to the Chinese embassy and return to pick up your passport a couple of days later. If you don’t live in a city where an embassy is located, you could do what we did and get a local travel agency to sort it out. We used an agency called SAS Travel in Penang. They obviously charged a mark-up but they had the passports back with us within a week.
Step 5: Get your Tibet travel permit
Once you have your visas, send scanned copies of them to your agency, who can then start the application for the Tibet travel permit. This is usually done a month before your intended travel date and takes a couple of weeks to process. Once they have been issued, the agency will post them to your hotel in the city that you’re staying in before your flight to Lhasa. In our case this was Chengdu.
Step 6: Start your journey!
Once you’ve done all of the above, you’re ready to go! Be prepared for one or two little hiccups on the way though. When I arrived at Beijing airport my passport seemed to trigger some sort of alarm. There was a lot of calling supervisors over and making phone calls but eventually they realised that everything was legitimate (apart from the fake itinerary, which I could reasonably claim to have changed) and let me through. At Chengdu airport, we just had to show our permits and we were allowed through to begin our journey to Lhasa.
Now that I’ve gone through the process of organising a semi-independent trip to Tibet, I’m going to try to answer some FAQs about travelling in the Land of Snows
1) Should I or shouldn’t I go to Tibet?
There are obviously powerful arguments against going to Tibet. The Tibetans are an oppressed people and by going there you risk legitimising the Chinese occupation. However, Free Tibet and the Dalai Lama himself, both actively encourage people to to go to Tibet to see it for themselves and make their own minds up. Having been there, I obviously share the latter viewpoint.
2) What is the best time of year to visit?
It depends. If you want the warmest weather, then go in the summer months between May to September. Bear in mind though that this is the time when “domestic” Chinese tourists flood into Tibet in droves and many of them are not particularly respectful towards Tibetan culture. If you can handle the cold, then December is a great time to visit as the skies are crystal clear and thousands of Tibetan pilgrims descend upon Lhasa, which makes for a great spectacle.
3) What is the best way to get there?
You can fly to Lhasa from a number of cities in China, including Beijing, Chengdu, Kunming and Shanghai. Alternatively, Tibet is now even more firmly linked to China by the railway line which runs from Xining to Lhasa. You can connect to this train line from other cities all round China. Bank on at least 24 hours on the train. If you want to have both experiences, you could do as we did and fly in, then take the train out or vice-versa.
4) Which languages are spoken in Tibet?
Tibetan and Mandarin and that’s about it. You will find extremely little English spoken, even in Lhasa. This is another reason why having a tour guide is a great idea.
5) How much do things cost in Tibet?
Food is inexpensive and, presuming breakfast is included in your tour cost, you can get by on around 50-100 Yuan per day. Entrance to temples usually costs between 50-100 Yuan. The most expensive entry fee we paid was 180 Yuan to the Qomolangma (Everest) National Park. Haggling is accepted but vendors bargain hard and aggressively.
6)Will I get the chance to meet real Tibetan people?
The Chinese rule Tibet with an iron fist but this is one thing that they are more or less powerless to prevent. If you book with a Tibetan travel agency, you’ll stay in Tibetan run hotels and eat in local restaurants, meeting local people in the process. Conversation will obviously be pretty limited but it will still be rewarding.
7) What’s Tibetan food like?
Hit and miss. In Lhasa we had some great meals, particularly hearty stews and curries. Once you get out of Lhasa though, the standard drops drastically. Most meals are incredibly carb heavy with hardly any meat or vegetables on the plate. You’ll also get incredibly sick of eating noodle soup every day. And I really love noodle soup!
8) Is Yak butter milk tea as bad as it sounds?
Most definitely. If anything, it’s even worse than it sounds. However, if you’re lucky enough to get invited into a Tibetan house or monastery you won’t be able to refuse it! The trick is to smile politely and drink in tiny little sips as your cup will be constantly refilled otherwise.
For more detailed information about everything to do with Tibet, go to www.landofsnows.com