I finally made it to Tibet in October 2018 after a decade of thwarted attempts. Here are some tips for a basic Tibet visit. I have not included overland options to/from Nepal.
You cannot just buy a ticket!
Often people overthink logistics for a destination. Tibet is the opposite. If you are not a Chinese citizen you have to have a Tibet Travel Permit issued before entering. This permit is checked at the airport, on trains, all accommodations, and many times along the highway. It is like a second visa. There is no getting around this.
Only an agency can obtain a Tibet Travel Permit.
You cannot apply for this yourself, only a tour agency recognized by the permit agency can get this permit for you.
For the agency to apply you must:
Already have a Chinese visa.
A booking with the agency. You must have arranged for a guide for every day you will stay in Tibet and a guide and driver for every day you will be outside of Lhasa.
How do you want to travel?
Are you looking for a private or group tour? I knew I wanted a private tour.
Plane or Train to Lhasa?
I took the plane. Yes the view on the train is supposed to be nice, but I decided to fly.
It was fast. I have been on overnight trains in China. I was not looking for that experience.
I was going to spend many days driving through the Tibet countryside so I did not feel the need to experience it through the train window.
The acclimatization did not sound that much better. They pressurize the train similar to airplanes. You may be slightly better acclimated but it is not like ascending slowly overland.
I had heard that train was often delayed by hours.
What really decided this for me: Cost of the airline ticket. I discovered I could use United Airline miles! I flew from Chengdu to Lhasa, and then 9 days later Lhasa to Shanghai for 13,000 United points and $21 in fees. Total! Tickets to Lhasa are expensive, $400 at least. This is one of the best uses of airline miles or points I have come across.
From Chengdu to Lhasa was only 5000 United Miles. I had been to Chengdu previously and liked it (Spicy food! Pandas!). I was happy to pick up my permit and spend a few days there before my flight.
Booking airline ticket to Lhasa.
I booked my award ticket on the United Airlines website for an Air China flight. That was it. I then checked into my flight showing my permit the day of departure. Nothing else was required.
Where do you want to go?
The basic options are 1. Lhasa with some day trips to the surrounding areas and monasteries. 2.Lhasa with a trip to Everest and back, or on to Nepal. 3. Mt Kailash Pilgrimage route 4. Less typical, hikes or exploration of areas further from Lhasa. Agency websites explain these options well. There are basic routes that are followed.
Everest or not?
I knew I wanted to go to Lhasa and the nearby monasteries. It was hard to decide if I wanted to spend the extra money to travel to Everest Base camp.
Note: not long after I visited the Chinese government decided to close base camp to tourists. You can now only go as far as Rongbuk Monastery. You can see Everest and the sunset and rise on it from the Monastery. Here are some photos from the Monastery. I will not include basecamp photos.
-What time of year are you going? I have heard tales of the mountain being clouded over for weeks in the summer.
Cost: going to Everest is a huge increase to the Tibet budget. Days of driving, and extra permits are involved.
Are you okay with long car rides? The distances are long in Tibet there is a lot of driving to get to Everest. It is basically 2 full days there and 2 full days back. You stop, and there is nice scenery, but it is a lot of driving. I did find the roads to be pretty good and not too bumpy. Others do not agree.
Can you squat? Disgusting to mention, but I feel it is a consideration. The only accommodation near the mountain has pit squat toilets, literally a hole. At the monastery guest house these overflowed and were closed so you had to use the yard. This may be a bit much for some folks.
How will you handle altitude? Base camp at 5200 meters is a lot higher than 3600M in Lhasa. I was very worried about this as I had altitude issues in the past. I even added a day on the way to Everest. I was told about 1 out of 4 groups has people that have to turn back.
In the end I went to Everest Base Camp. We had great views in October. I did not have altitude issues. I found the towns along the way to be fascinating and had some nice experiences at a festival.
How to find a tour agency?
Solicit quotes: Once I had some basic ideas and knew what types of itineraries I could write up detailed requests for quotes on options I was considering. I found companies from guidebooks and online. I chose ones with good reputations and reviews that did private tours and were Tibet owned.
I found most of the prices were within a close range.
I started narrowing down selections first based on who took the time to provide what I asked. The companies that replied to my private tour with private rooms request only urging me to take their “small” (12 people! ) group tour with shared accommodation were immediately eliminated. Also I had asked for an extra day of acclimatization. It was interesting to see what was suggested. Some just added a day with no activity in Lhasa, some added a stop in a town that was not on the basic Everest tour.
I asked questions about proposed itineraries. I was looking for a company that understood what I was looking for in my trip and showed expertise in their recommendations.
One company started to stand out to me.
After I made a decision everything went smoothly. The permit arrived as expected. The company answered all followups as needed. I was met at the airport and toured Tibet as per my itinerary. I got to meet great people, take in outstanding vistas, and enjoy Tibet. I ended up choosing Tibet Songstan Travel http://www.songtsantravel.com/ and was very happy with their services.
Various extra tips:
You cannot go into the palace or the temples without a guide but you can walk to viewpoints of Potala palace day and night on your own for great views.
There are plenty of ATMs in Lhasa and other cities, they worked fine for me.
Wifi was everywhere.
Phone: My Google Fi phone service worked great. I even was able to tether a computer to the LTE connection during long drives. Yes that is right LTE data in the middle of nowhere Tibet. I never had an issue with signal.
It was cold in the mountains in October. We had -14C/6F at night. I had some of those hand warmer bags, but not enough of them.
Altitude sickness: This varies so much by person and circumstance. I have been hit in the past in Bhutan and the Andes but was great this time. I focused on not drinking or overeating before coming, getting lots of sleep. They told me not to take a shower for 24 hours, but I couldn’t do that.
Time in side Potala palace is limited to one hour. You can only move as fast as your group’s slowest member so it is best to have everyone acclimated.
Do not post political or Free Tibet type messaging on social media while there. I was asked not to by my tour company. Sure I will probably be okay but I would be risking their livelyhood. To truly support Tibet go with a locally owned and operated company.
Note that it is now usually impossible for foreigners to visit Tibet in March and much of February. They don’t announce closures very far ahead, but this has been the pattern.
The original Tibet travel permit must be presented to board a plane. A copy is okay to board the train. The agency will mail the original, if needed, to your hotel in China