The Chinese government strictly controls travel to Tibet and current limitations were further restricted after the recent riots. As of 2009, the previous “backpacker” tours, which included the permit and a couple of nights stay in Lhasa is no longer an option. All travelers must be on an official organized tour for the duration of their stay in Tibet, but the tours do allow you free time to explore on your own.
From our experience there is no negotiating on the tour policy as there is a huge military presence throughout Tibet. If you decide to visit Everest Base Camp or travel to Nepal from Tibet, you will pass several checkpoints that require correct permits and a guide present. Permits and guides aside, Tibet was a highlight of our 14 weeks in China, if you are having trouble deciding on whether to go, read our perspectives here.
Note: I would recommend having your tour agency deal with permit details, simply choose your itinerary and they will attain the correct permits. All you need is 10 days to process your permits. If you plan to arrange permits on your own, which I would not recommend, read on.
To enter Tibet you need to have one or more permits. Every person entering Tibet needs to have the basic Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit, which can be issued to you by the organization that you book your tour through. The cost of this permit varies depending on the cost of the tour you book, the more expensive your tour the less your permit costs. You will likely not even know the exact cost of your permit as it is included in your tour fee.
You need to allow 10 days for your permit processing. In order to travel to Tibet you will need to have the permit in hand, either by having it mailed to you or picking it up from your tour company. For land crossings (including the train) you will need the original, physical permit that will be checked; for plane travel, you may only need a copy of your permit depending on the circumstances.
Some parts of Tibet also require an Aliens’ Travel Permit (ATP), which is issued by the Public Security Bureau once you are in Tibet. Typically if your travels require this permit your guide will take care of it and the fees will be included in your tour package. The list of regions that require ATPs is changing all the time, so it is best to arrange this through your tour company or inquire once on the ground in Tibet.
The best way to get into Tibet is via the Qinghai-Tibet railway as this allows a couple days of acclimatization and beautiful scenery along the way. However, rail tickets into Tibet can be difficult to obtain and you may have to pay a high commission. From our experience it was much easier to get a train ticket out of Tibet than into it. The trip from Chengdu is 44 hours and costs roughly $138 USD for a soft sleeper, which is preferable for such a long trip.
As mentioned above flying in is not ideal, especially if you are coming from a lower altitude as it gives you little time to acclimatize. However, flying in can be easier to arrange. The cost to fly from Chengdu or Beijing is about $120 to 200 USD, with Chengdu being cheaper.
Tibet is part of China and therefore they use Chinese Yuan just like the rest of the country. Lhasa is a large city and you should have no trouble getting cash in the capital. When going further afield you will want to make sure you have enough cash with you as you will not likely encounter many ATMs outside Lhasa. Credit cards are not widely accepted, plan on paying in cash for all food and accommodation as well as tips for your guide and driver.
You are required to have a guide to visit any of the major monasteries and temples within Tibet, including Jokhang Temple and Potala Palace. Your guide will arrange times to see these places as well as purchase your tickets. While in Lhasa we visited two places of interest each day at designated times. We had the remainder of the day to explore on our own as we chose. For the road trip to Everest Base Camp we were with our guide the entire time.
FINDING A GUIDE
There are several organizations that will help you organize a Tibet tour, this can be done from within China or before you arrive. Typically arranging your tour on the ground will bring down your costs and allow you more leverage for bargaining. Tours from Chengdu are the best priced, the further from there, the more expensive they become.
When we booked a tour we did much research and had many frustrating exchanges with a myriad of tour agencies. It seemed there were two routes, an all-inclusive tour that would arrange all permits, transport, lodging, meals, guides, drivers and entrance fees or book with an agency that would arrange your entry permit…leaving the rest up to you. Having the entry permit only allows you to wander Lhasa. It does not allow you to visit major temples in Lhasa or explore more of Tibet. To see the primary sights of Tibet, inside and out of Lhasa, you will need to hire a guide in Lhasa.
After crunching the numbers the difference in price was marginal between paying upfront or trying to arrange everything in Lhasa. Therefore we opted for the all inclusive package, which made our two week trip stress-free. We did a package with China Yak and were very pleased, if you are looking for something more along the lines of option two check out the mix hostel package in Chengdu.
WHAT TO BRING
Lhasa is located at over 12,000 feet, which means it is pretty chilly and considerably higher than just about any city you will be traveling from. That being said you may want to consider bringing altitude medication such as Diomox with you, especially if you are flying into Lhasa or visiting Everest base camp. You will also want to make sure you bring plenty of warm clothes: a down jacket, long underwear, hat, gloves and a windproof shell are all good ideas. In addition you’ll want warm footwear and socks.
PLEASE NOTE: This post is in regards to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). It does not pertain to the Tibetan autonomous prefectures and or counties located in the provinces of Qinghai, southwest Gansu, western Sichuan and northwest Yunnan that do not have the same restrictions and requirements.
To see more pictures of what you have to look forward to in Tibet click here. To read more about the amazing experiences that await you in Tibet click here.