How to Get There
Non-Chinese nationals are required to obtain a special permit and must have a tour guide to visit Tibet.
By plane – The Lhasa Gonggar Airport is 61km southwest of Lhasa. There are flights from Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Kunming, Qamdo, Shanghai, Xi’an, Xining, and Zhongdian (Shangri-La). International flights are available to Kathmandu, Nepal.
Non-Chinese nationals are required to be met at the airport by their tour guide. Taxis are available outside the airport. There is also an official shuttle bus (¥25). Non-Chinese tourist must take their private car provided by travel agency.
By bus – Non-Chinese nationals are not allowed to ride the intercity buses in Tibet. For Chinese nationals, there is frequent and cheap bus service between Lhasa and nearly all parts of Tibet.
By train – The Qinghai-Tibet (Qingzang) railway connects Lhasa and Golmud, with services continuing onto Xining, Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing.
Non-Chinese tourists cannot buy help of Travel Agency. It is difficult to get a ticket during Chinese New Year (January and February) and summer holidays (July and August).
Transportation from the train station – A taxi ride between the urban area and the train station should cost a flat ¥30 and no drivers use the meter. Be sure to fix the price in advance as many drivers will try to charge ¥100. As an alternative, take a bus (¥1) to anywhere across the river, and then get a taxi that uses the meter.
Tourism to Tibet is strictly controlled by the Chinese government, and restrictions were further ratcheted up after the riots and before the 2008 Olympics. As of 2009, the previous “backpacker” tours, which included the permit and a couple of nights stay in Lhasa is no longer an option and all organised trip the entire time they are in Tibet. That means you will not be allowed to travel on an independent basis. Tibetans are usually quite happy to tell foreigners what they thought of the government, provided they are in a safe and private area.
All paperwork (except for the application of the Chinese visa) must be organized through a tour agency. Checkpoints along major roads outside Lhasa are everywhere and foreign tourists are requested to show and register their passports from time to time. Tibet is also the only region of China where traveller’s whereabouts or plans in the rest of the country.
All foreign visitors to Tibet need one or more permits. The basic one is the Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit, which can be issued to you by travel agencies that is registered at behaviour of the tourists during their visit. For every “mistake” the tourist does, the tour agency may be asked to pay a penalty.
From the middle of 2013, the Tibet Tourism Bureau had implemented a new timely without any prior notice, so it is very important to check the latest Tibet travel permit situation to choose a right time to make your Tibetan journeys.
The Tibet travel permit situation changes all the time based on the political situation in Tibet, so rumours online about the permit situation, but you can find the latest Tibet travel permit situation from some local official websites.
Some parts of Tibet also require an Aliens’ Travel Permit (ATP), which is issued by the Public Security Bureau (PSB) in major Tibetan cities like Lhasa, Xigatse and Ali. The list of regions that require ATPs changes constantly, so enquire locally. Lhasa’s PSB has a poor reputation, while Xigatse and Ali are said to issue permits without any unnecessary difficulties. If your papers are in order, the permit can be issued in several hours for Â¥100.
Finally, some remote areas also require a military permit. These are only available in Lhasa, where processing takes several days, and are only granted for an appropriate reason.
If you enter Tibet without your tour guide, a photocopy of the permit is required, air ticket by yourself, but you will need to show the permit once you board the train or flight. This regulation is strictly enforced and the permit is frequently checked in Lhasa or outside Lhasa.
Every year during March is impossible to apply or obtain permit, TAR is definitely on April during late March.
(If you are caught by the authorities you will either be sent back (at your expense), have your visa cancelled or sent home or in extreme cases banned from ever re-entering China. There are even reports of foreigners being jailed on a temporary basis for breaking travel bans). Keep this in mind!
Bus – Central Tibet has a good public bus network, although foreigners are not allowed to use an intercity bus currently.
Jeep – Jeep tours are a popular way of getting around Tibet, while not cheap, the tour operator will sort out all the necessary paperwork, and they offer you a reasonable chance of sticking to a schedule.
Your driver will likely be an indigenous Tibetan who can speak Chinese. He’ll get to eat and sleep for free wherever you go (he’ll often be treated like a king), and he’ll often need to stop for a smoke or a pee by certain vendors on the road. Â¥4500 will get a jeep that can seat 4 people and luggage comfortably for 4 or 5 days.
Be very precise with your itinerary and very careful with payment. Every stop, monastery and lake you wish to visit, Some such stranded tourists, already identified as easy targets, will then be approached by a second Tibetan driver in the ring, and the same scam happens one more time.
Hitchhike – Since 2008 it is more and more complicated to hitchhike in TAR. Foreign organised your tour to Lhasa will pay very high fines.
However, hitchiking is still possible in other Tibetan areas as Kham and Amdo, nowadays found in provinces Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan. These parts of Tibet are worth to visit.
Hitchhiking can be a good way to get around the country for someone who is flexible and has a lot of time. It can, however, mean you end up getting stuck without a lift for days. In the west of the country this probably means hanging around truck stops, as the distances are far too long to walk, and finding water would be a major problem. Trucks often break down though and it can take a long time before the journey continues. In central and eastern Tibet, there’s more water and villages, and so walking becomes a more reasonable option. In short, hitching may or may not get you to your destination any quicker, but at least it offers a change of scenery.
Charging money for lifts is illegal for the driver and having a non-Asian face in the car may raise the suspicion of the authorities at tolls and check points. If you accidentally get a lift by minibus, be sure this is payed car and normal fee rate will be applied. Usually non-Tibetan drivers want money for a lift.
Bicycle – There are a surprising number of tourists inaccurate so be very well-prepared.
Bicycle hire is available from some hotels or cycle shops and it’s a good way to explore if you have half a day free on your tour schedule. Pollution is not as bad as in many Chinese cities but driving habits are. The best tactic is to stick close to a local cyclist or cycle rickshaw when negotiating busy junctions.
Maps – Good road maps of Tibet are common in China, but only in Chinese. These are of limited use even for people literate in Chinese as the Chinese names are very different from the ones used by the Tibetans. They are useful for reading road signs, even for people with low literacy in Chinese.
The Star publications map is probably the best. Amnye Machen Institute publishes an excellent map of similar scale and detail but with the Tibetan names, with a version written in Latin script and one in the Tibetan. It makes a useful companion. Tibetmap.com has a free downloadable set of maps covering much of Tibet with detail almost good enough to use for independent trekking.
If you understand the Cyrillic alphabet, the Soviet military produced good topographic maps in a range of scales from 1:2,500,000 down to 1:10,000. Coverage was virtually world-wide, although many areas were not mapped at the more detailed scales. The maps originally were classified, but were released to the larger world following the breakup of the USSR in 1991. These maps can be dated, particularly where infrastructure has been actively developed since 1991 or there have been major political changes, but representation of topography remains valid.
The central area with the main tourist attractions (Potala, Jokhang, Barkhor, Ramoche) is easily navigable on foot.
- Cycle rickshaws are everywhere, though be prepared to bargain.
- Taxis cost ¥10 for anywhere in Lhasa city. Hail them from the side of the street. Be prepared for taxi-sharing – the driver will often pull over if he suspects he can find other passengers heading in the same direction. Each will pay ¥10 and this is a way for the driver to make a better income despite the standard fare.
- Public buses are numerous and cost ¥1. Non-Chinese nationals are permitted to travel on the buses within the city, although you make yourself an attraction by doing so, since this rarely occurs. The number of the bus is recognizable but the destination is in Chinese, so you need to know which bus line you need.
- Minibuses operate to areas such as Norbulingka, Sera Monastery, Drepung Monastery, and other nearby sites. Most of these are also on public bus lines.
- “Pilgrim buses” are available in front of Jokhang Temple or at the parking lot near the temple, departing at 6-7AM for destinations outside Lhasa, such as Tsurphu Gompa, Ganden Gompa, Nyemo (Dazi), Phenpo Lhundrub (organising tourist tours require advance planning, so you probably won’t have this chance.
Altitude sickness – Read the article on altitude sickness and study its symptoms, precautions, and treatments before traveling to Lhasa. Altitude sickness can easily ruin a holiday and can even be fatal. Lhasa is 3,750 meters above sea level, so there is considerable risk of altitude sickness, especially if you fly in from a much lower altitude and your body does not have time to acclimatize. If you must fly to Lhasa, it would be wise to fly via an intermediate destination such as Kunming at 1,950 meters and spend several days there to acclimatize before flying to Lhasa.
Religious laws – Do not under any circumstances give or show to Dalai Lama as this can get you in trouble and cause severe trouble for the recipient. Keep in mind some monks may collaborate with the authorities, or may not be monks at all.
Petty theft – Take common sense precautions when shopping at the many small kiosks around the Barkhor and along the Jokhang Temple circumambulation route. While problems are few, leaving large backpacks at your hotel and keeping your wallet well guarded are both good ideas.
Beggars – Do not give to children begging and be cautious before giving to any beggars in this area at all; giving to one may attract a crowd
Monasteries & Temples of Tibet • Locations & Activities